Two Skeptics

H.L. Mencken has been given a fairly free ride by his various biographers.  That ride is now officially over.  It might have ended even sooner, had Terry Teachout been able to make up his mind about his subject.  For years, Teachout has advertised himself as being “at work” on a biography of Mencken.  Now, the reason for the extended birthing process has become painfully clear: Mr. Teachout apparently had trouble deciding what to do with, or to, Mr. Mencken.  Alternately attracted to and repelled by his subject, Teachout opted in the end for an exercise in skepticism as a means of reducing his quarry to the ambiguous status of skeptic.

The proof, for starters, seems apparent from the pictures.  Having sifted through the visual evidence, Teachout tells us that Mencken’s photographers often captured a man with a puzzled look on his face.  For Teachout, that expression was less a pose than an inadvertent self-revelation.  Editorial writers are said to be often wrong but never in doubt.  Not so the editor of the American Mercury, concludes Teachout, who is certain that the editorial certainty of the Sage of Baltimore was also much more pose than reality.  “I doubt even my doubts,” Mencken remarked on occasion.  Surely, however, to doubt one’s doubts is to take refuge in a kind of certitude.

Mencken, of course, was a skeptic,...

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