Monday, February 13, 2006

Dull Boy of Baltimore

A Book Review
Title: Mencken — The American Iconclast
Subtitle: The Life and Times of the Bad Boy of Baltimore
Author: Elizabeth Roger

Mencken was a wag and influential newspaperman who admired Nietzsche, imbibed Huxley, and despised Bible-believing xtians, especially evangelicals and "holy rollers" (such as myself, though I really don't do that much rolling). Though despising them, yet for some strange reason, he was also fascinated by them. Also, he smoked cigars and was something of a roué who wasn't above callously jilting someone.

Just those two things tell me a lot. In many ways, Mencken was a thoroughly modern man. I recall many years ago a high school teacher telling me that she thought my writing style, at the time, reminded her of Mencken's. She gave me a book having some of his selected essays, which I read. I remember finding him humorous and witty, scornfully so, but only mildly interesting. His writing also seemed insubstantial and not really going anywhere — like someone obsessively talking about an itch he has and doing so with a perpetual sneer on his face. I never read much of him after that.

But he was a notable character back in early 20th Century America, and so I'd thought I might read up on him a little bit. He was a contemporary of Aimee Semple McPherson, although the book doesn't say very much about what Mencken might have said or thought about her specifically, although I heard that he came to her defense when she was being prosecuted by the district attorney regarding the famous "kidnapping" episode.

Anyhow, I have Marion Elizabeth Roger's recent biography of his life. On the front cover is a flash photo of him quaffing a beer. I guess he was celebrating something. The End of Prohibition perhaps? Roger's biography was pretty well written, though in places I suspect she "imaginatively" supplies some interpolative details to grease the gears of her narration.

After getting one-third the way through the 553 pages of Roger's book, I decided to call it quits. It wasn't because her biography was anything less than comprehensive and well written. If someone is a Mencken fan, then I would definitely recommend her biography of his life. But honestly speaking, I just didn't find H.L. Mencken all that interesting a person to read about. Yes, indeed, in his day he was a influential journalist with a smart-aleck attitude, sometimes witty and humorous. But also combined with it was an ineradicable arrogance and an inelastic conviction of his own intellectual superiority to the mass of his fellow men. I guess he got that from imbibing too much Nietzsche and Social Darwinism. Occasionally, he was given over to visceral antipathies. It seemed to me his hatred of William Jennings Bryan was pretty close to being downright pathological. I guess it would be comparable to the "Bush Derangement Syndrome" often found among the loonier portions of today's Left.

But his antipathies weren't just limited to Bryan. After reading instance after instance where he is calling someone or another a "mountebank", or denouncing this and that, even if in differing and clever ways, still, it all gets to be rather threadbare after awhile. Invective, even if combined with a clever turn of phrase or bon mot, can get very tiresome. More than anything else, I found him a boring subject and what he had to say so much wind. Plowing through all 553 pages of Roger's biography just didn't seem worth the effort.