Blue State Mencken

In 1989, a volume of H.L. Mencken’s journals was published.  The contents revealed, among many other things, impolite utterances by the Sage of Baltimore about blacks and Jews.  (Mencken also sailed into the ways of “lintheads” and “mountaineers,” but that bothered no one.)  The denunciations came fast and furious.  As I recall, one journalist refused to accept an award in Mencken’s name.  Almost overnight, the once-iconic H.L. Mencken had become the latest victim of political correctness.  That was 17 years ago.  For some, the statute of limitations has run out.

This thick biography is not for Chronicles readers.  Instead, its goal, at least as I see it, is to reclaim Mencken for the left.  “H.L. Mencken, the legendary scourge of the booboisie, infuriated red-state Americans while enchanting urban freethinkers, boozers, and long-haired eggheads,” enthuses Russell Baker in a back-cover blurb.  That says it all.  Yesterday’s booboisie is today’s red stater.  And so, meet the H.L. Mencken for the 21st century: a blue-state prophet.

The story of any writer who starts out with ambition and manages to succeed can never grow old, and this biography is no exception.  Growing up in pre-television America, the teenage Mencken “read like a machine.”  His lifelong writing habits weren’t...

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