One man, three biographers: H. L. Mencken is slated again for the literary afterlife MENCKEN BY THE VOLUME


Terry Teachout knows that as a biographer of H. L. Mencken, he is supposed to know everything possible about his subject. But after getting ahold of Mencken's medical records recently and discovering what surgical procedures had been performed on the Sage of Baltimore, he suspected he might have crossed the threshold.

"I was in that stage in which everything about him was interesting," Mr. Teachout says with a laugh. "But that should be passing now."

For almost a year now, Terry Teachout has been immersing himself in the life of H. L. Mencken, the noted Baltimore-born essayist, journalist and critic. An editorial writer for the New York Daily News, Mr. Teachout, 36, is on part-time leave from the paper and has taken an apartment in Baltimore so that he can conduct research for his biography.

Monday through Wednesday, he can be found in the Mencken Room of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, a vast repository of books, newspaper clippings and magazine articles by and about Mencken (the library is his literary executor). And when he walks into the Mencken Room, there's a good chance he'll see Fred Hobson or Marion Elizabeth Rodgers there as well, working on their own biographies of Baltimore's favorite son.

One man, three biographies. Mencken would have loved it.

For in the end, the notoriously unsentimental (publicly, at least) Mencken was like most of us: He wanted to be remembered.

He didn't particularly want to be liked; if anything, Mencken courted the displeasure of those who displeased him. With all the invective and hyperbole he could muster -- classic Mencken terms included "fraud" and "shaman" -- he took savage and often gleeful aim at Prohibitionists, bluenoses, the narrow-minded and impressive roster of politicians that included William Jennings Bryan and Franklin Roosevelt.

But Mencken was obsessed with the prospect of being forgotten, his prodigious output of books, magazine pieces and newspaper articles sliding into the nether reaches of our collective memories. A confirmed atheist, he did not believe in an afterlife. But he was determined to have a literary afterlife of sorts.

"If there is ever any raid on American libraries by radicals my papers will be among the first destroyed," Mencken wrote in his diary about two batches of memoirs that he ordered unsealed after his death. "I have sought to get 'round this possibility by sending duplicates to different libraries, but it may not work."

This was typical Mencken overreaction: His stature may slip now and then from the glory days of the 1920s, but most people would agree that his reputation is secure. And with three biographies coming out in the next few years, the American public will be hearing much, much more about him.

Dr. Hobson, a professor of English at the University of North Carolina who has written extensively on Mencken, expects to finish his biography by the end of September. His publisher, Random House, will release the book sometime next year.

In 1994, Poseidon Press will publish Mr. Teachout's biography. In 1995 or 1996, Oxford University Press will release a third biography, by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, who edited two earlier books on Mencken.

That's a lot of writing on any subject, but then Mencken (1880-1956) is not just any subject. If anything, he is a biographer's delight: intriguing both professionally and in his private life.

"It's always in my mind that this is an unusually good person to write about," Mr. Teachout concedes.

That's been the opinion of a number of biographers. Most have been favorable -- "People appreciate the great quality of honesty, and Mencken called it as he saw it," Dr. Hobson says by way of explanation. A notable exception was the 1956 biography "H. L. Mencken: A Portrait From Memory." Written by Charles Angoff, a former colleague of Mencken's at the American Mercury magazine, it was a generally sour book, though it did raise questions about Mencken's anti-Semitism that were resurrected 30 years later.

So why another biography of Mencken -- or three?

"Oh, I think there's a lot of room for more biographies," says Douglas C. Stenerson, a retired professor of English and American Studies at Roosevelt University and early Mencken scholar. "He was such a controversial figure, and had so many controversial interests, that it's very difficult to comprehend all his activities. So there is plenty of room for new interpretations. I don't think there's a definitive biography yet by any means, and there's also a lot of new material."

A prolific writer

Certainly, the material is there. Mencken was the most influential journalist of his day, as well as one of the most distinctive writers of his time. He was astonishingly prolific, writing more than two-score books, thousands of newspaper articles (mostly for The Sun and The Evening Sun) and hundreds of magazine pieces -- as well as an estimated 100,000 letters. In addition, he wrote two multivolume memoirs that he instructed were to be released after his death; their length alone would be a respectable output for a writer.

But he was more -- "He was, without question, since Poe, our greatest practicing literary journalist," wrote the great literary critic Edmund Wilson. Early on, as an editor of the American Mercury and Smart Set magazines, Mencken championed such writers as Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis, and helped get published several black writers in the "Harlem Renaissance" of the 1920s.

He was also a forerunner to the celebrity journalists of the 1990s. When he went to Dayton, Tenn., in 1925 to cover the Scopes trial, his presence was only slightly less noteworthy than the famous lawyers handling the case -- Bryan and Clarence Darrow. His prose, filled with bombast and hyperbole, won both great admiration and bitter denunciation -- and was widely imitated. A collection of his newspaper writings that was edited by Ms. Rodgers and published last year carried the apt title, "The Impossible H. L. Mencken."

There is, in fact, so much available on Mencken that the sheer volume of material can be intimidating. Considering his printed works, the several earlier biographies, and the posthumously released diaries (in 1981) and two volumes of memoirs ("My Life as Author and Editor" and "Thirty-Five Years of Newspaper Work," both in 1991), a biographer has much to choose from.

"One of the things about Mencken is that he lived so long," says Ms. Rodgers, who lives in Bethesda and has also taken an apartment in Baltimore while doing research on the biography. "He was born in 1880, when Geronimo was at his height, and he died after we had television and radio. He saw the conventions that nominated Teddy Roosevelt, and also Harry Truman. His life encompasses a huge chunk of American history."

"It's very hard to find the quintessential Mencken," agrees Dr. Hobson. "He's so varied and so omnivorous in his interests."

Different routes

His latest biographers came to Mencken in different ways, from different directions. But in the end, they remain fascinated by the person Dr. Hobson calls "the finest prose stylist of this century."

For Dr. Hobson, the attraction began in the late 1960s, when he was an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina. "That was partly because I'm a Southerner," says Dr. Hobson, 49. "I fancied myself a Southern iconoclast, and Mencken was the great critic of the South. He was the great truth teller, in certain ways."

Dr. Hobson did some graduate work on Mencken at Duke University and did his doctoral dissertation at UNC on Mencken and the South. That dissertation was turned into a book, "Serpent in Eden," which was published by the University of North Carolina Press in 1972. (He since has edited or written three more books about writers and the South.)

He began research on the Mencken biography in 1986 and now, after long years of research and writing, says with a hint of relief, "I'm on the 1930s and closing in rapidly."

An arts critic for several magazines as well as an editorial writer, Mr. Teachout was attracted to Mencken's vivid writing style. "I make my living using words," he says. "And Mencken used words as well as anyone."

Ms. Rodgers stumbled onto Mencken -- literally -- as an undergraduate at Goucher College in the early 1980s. She was writing a feature story for the student newspaper on Sara Haardt, the Goucher graduate who married Mencken in 1930. "I went into the vault of the rare-book room at the library," says Ms. Rodgers, 33. "The door was open, and I went to get one of Sara's books when I literally tripped over a box."

That box contained hundreds of letters that Mencken and his wife had written to each other. Ms. Rodgers recognized their value, and they became the source material for "Mencken & Sara: A Life in Letters," which was edited by Ms. Rodgers and was published in 1987.

That book indicated that underneath all the bombast and bluster, Mencken was a man of deep feelings. "There was a very tender side to him we hadn't really seen before," says Ms. Rodgers. Indeed, as his diary entries indicate, Mencken was devastated when his wife died of meningitis in 1935.

The interest in the private side of Mencken grew even more in 1989 with the publication of his diary, which contained several anti-Semitic and anti-black passages, as well as shockingly mean-spirited assessments of some colleagues and friends. Today, Dr. Hobson says, a biographer of Mencken cannot write about his public side without paying attention to the private side as well.

"My book will be rather personal in the sense that I think Mencken's personal views are of great interest," he says. " 'Prejudices,' of course is the title of many of his volumes, so it was important to see how he arrived at those prejudices. That means looking at his family background, the Baltimore of his youth -- the first 20 to 30 years of his life. I try to examine closely the paradoxes and contradictions of the man."

Dr. Hobson finds Mencken "very much a product of the Victorian tradition and eminently a Victorian person. The courtship of Sara Haardt was very courtly, and those Victorian strains followed him into his adult life.

"At the same time, I'd like to have a subtitle like 'An American Life,' because I see him very much in the American grain, with European in


Mr. Teachout, conversely, is intrigued by the last years of Mencken's life. It's a relatively untouched area, as Mencken suffered a stroke in 1948 and did not write again.

"In a sense, the whole 1940s was a time when he was getting his house in order, writing his memoirs," Mr. Teachout says. "I find that fascinating that he would devote so much of his time and energy to preparing his place in history."

Still doing research

For her part, Ms. Rodgers says she is still doing research and hasn't settled on a theme for her biography. "I just finished reading the last set of memoirs, so everything is beginning to jell and a dim shadow of the man has begun to emerge," she says. "But I'm a way off before beginning to write."

All three biographers found the two memoirs that were unsealed last year to be particularly valuable. Dr. Hobson had held up work on his book until he was able to go through those papers. "It makes me all the more happy I had waited," he said. "I can't imagine having written the biography without them. They really fill in certain gaps."

"Having read them a second time, I realize that they now become the primary source," Mr. Teachout says. "They're enormously detailed. They're invaluable -- far more important than I imagined."

Although in a sense the three are competing with each other, they say the experience has been a pleasant one.

"I don't feel any sense of competition at all," Ms. Rodgers says. "We don't talk among ourselves about the books or our plans. As I see it, we're all there in the same vineyard, and it's certainly a fertile one. And we're all three going to approach our books in very different ways."

Indeed, she says, their shared appreciation for Mencken has brought on a "very friendly" environment.

"I remember one time I was working on something at one end of the table in the Mencken Room, and Terry was at the other," she says. "He was working on something and I was immersed in something else. It was very quiet. All of a sudden, I heard him snickering at something Mencken had written. I've done the same thing -- I understood perfectly his response."

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