Terry Teachout. The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken. New York, Harper-Collins, 2002.
H. L. Mencken (1880-1956) is not a name familiar to most Americans today. If they know of him at all, most know him only as model for character of cynical reporter in play and movie Inherit Wind. Nevertheless, there was a time when Mencken was one of Americas most influential news reporters, editorialists, and cultural critics -- "the leading journalist of Jazz Age." He began his professional career as "boy wonder" journalist for Baltimore’s leading newspapers.
During nine years, from 1914 to 1923, that he and drama critic George J. Nathan co-edited The Smart Set magazine, he reviewed roughly two thousand novels, most of which he considered work of "100 percent dunderheads." He was justly famous for his harsh reviews -- a selection of which has been reprinted in book Smart Set Criticism. He was also, however, largely responsible for bringing works of Sherwood Anderson, Willa Cather, Theodore Dreiser, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Sinclair Lewis to attention of reading public. He was one of first critics to recognze The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as being a great novel and played a major role in establishing its status as being perhaps The great American novel. It was also during this period that he wrote his classic, The American Language (1919).
Subsequuently he and Nathan cofounded The American Mercury, which under his editorship from 1923 thru 1933, became one of most widely read and influential publications in America. As a journalist, his coverage of Scopes "monkey trial" helped make it true "trial of Century" long before O.J.. In thirties he was a leading critic of New Deal and an important voice for isolationism and an apologist for Hitler.
All this is covered in Terry Teachout's The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken, but in Teachouts own words, "this is a life of Mencken, not life." Rather than trying to present a fully objective and detailed account of a life, this biography is more author's personal take on his subject. Teachout explores reasons for Mencken's successes, his failures, and his ultimate standing in American literary and social history, as well as for controversy that he continues to be able to provoke to present day. He quotes Mencken amply, but not excessively, showing him at both his best as a writer and at his worst as a person.
Mencken was born in Nineteenth Century and his mindset never quite made it into Twentieth Century. He spent much of second half of his life defending ideas that history was busy sweeping aside. He railed against growing power of federal government in early years of Roosevelt administration, insisted on an elitist brand of politics that favored "superior man," and generally agitated against progressive domestic causes. He urged, perhaps with ironic intent, that capital punishment should be turned into a public entertainment.