The Skeptic, by Terry Teachout

Most adult Americans know something about H. L. Mencken even without having read anything he wrote. They know Mencken as a prose stylist, an iconoclast, a nemesis of rubes, an irascible foe of unbridled political power or a major eyewitness and scribe of the "Scopes monkey trial." Even a half-century after his death a folksy mystique surrounds the "Sage of Baltimore." Whatever his faults and sharp edges, he garners populist esteem as someone who could be relied on to speak forcefully, fearlessly and plainly. Terry Teachout's book makes clear the energy of Mencken's writing and editing, his breathtaking industry in writing so much and so variously over so many years, and the steadfastness with which he held to his beliefs.

Yet Mencken's reputation has been under review in the decade following the unsealing of some of his private diaries. Those materials seem to dispel all doubt that he was, among other things, an anti-Semite. (Some of his writings on Germany during the 1930s had already given plenty of evidence in this regard.) Since this fine new biography is one of the first to take Mencken's measure in the light of this previously unavailable material, Teachout's most remarkable achievement might be his restraint.

It is difficult, though not impossible, for a critic like Mencken to voice his disdain and unhappiness at "the way things are in the world" without becoming a misanthrope. People whose literary lives and times overlapped in some way with Mencken's--George Bernard Shaw, E. B. White,G. K. Chesterton--each voiced an incisive critique while remaining an ally, rather than an accuser, of his fellow mortals. But Mencken did not achieve such balance.