“I never wash my hands after taking a leak. That’s the cleanest part of me.” – H.L. Mencken.
H.L. Mencken was Hunter S. Thompson before Hunter S. Thompson was Hunter S. Thompson.
In fact, I decided to look into this H.L. character upon coming across a passing comment referring to him in Gonzo. HST was a fan. Well, perhaps not a fan, but certainly aware of him, aware of Mencken’s contribution to American letters and therefore an influence and forefather of Thompson’s own potent prose and inimitable personality.
H. L. Mencken paved the road that Hunter S. Thompson came screaming down with his peyote-fueled typewriter of rage and style.
These two men, forefathers of modern journalism, have a lot in common and their similarities illuminate the world they were a part of and criticized so effectively. They were both journalists, columnists, and editors, fierce critics of culture and politics.
As Teachout shares in The Skeptic, “Mencken responded to Prohibition by selling his car and using the proceeds to purchase a large stock of “the best wines and liquors I could find,” stored in a homemade basement vault whose door bore a custom-painted sign emblazoned with a skull and crossbones: “This vault is protected by a device releasing Chlorine Gas under 200 pounds pressure. Enter it at your own Risk.” HST would have been proud.
H.L. Mencken gained widespread popularity and exposure with the infamous Scopes trial and HST gained notoriety while covering the ’72 Presidential Campaign. Both men’s success was intimately tied with magazines.
“I note what you say about your aspiration to edit a magazine,” Mencken wrote to William Saroyan in 1936. “I am sending you by this mail a six-chambered revolver. Load it and fire every one into your head. You will thank me after you get to Hell and learn from other editors how dreadful their job was on earth.”
And as all great men seem to be, both H.L. Mencken and Hunter S. Thompson were flawed. Mencken was an anti-Semite and Thompson a homophobe.
However useful an introduction to H.L. Mencken Teachout’s biography was, I did find it significantly lacking in two particular arenas.
First of all, it failed to share an adequate amount of Mencken’s own prose. Once the myth and drug-fascination with Hunter S. Thompson has waned, his legacy will be his words. And no matter how intriguing of a character Mencken was in his own right, his heritage seems to be the same. So I wanted more of Mencken’s writing.
Second, Mencken was an important American writer who had a significant influence on modern journalism and I wish Teachout had provided more of an analysis and study of Mencken’s lasting presence in our contemporary era. The closest Teachout got was a mere parenthetical aside: “Had they [conservatives] known of the extent to which his [Mencken] work in the twenties helped lay the intellectual groundwork for the America-hating adversary culture of the sixties, they might have repudiated him altogether.” But this second objection is probably more a manifestation of my own bias and interest in the similarities between Mencken and Thompson.
Though each man harbored intense and undeniable prejudices of the first order, they pursued sham and hypocrisy in all arenas of public life with unflagging diligence. But Mencken, faithfully secular, touched on religion too, which I haven’t come across much by HST on the topic. Did he weigh in on religion ever?
At the end of The Skeptic, Teachout sees in Mencken “a skepticism so extreme as to issue in philosophical incoherence.” But Teachout ultimately concludes that Mencken’s relevance and success is not a function of his particular convictions but rather of “the firmly balanced prose rhythms and vigorous diction in which they are couched. It is, in short, a triumph of style.”
The same can be said of HST. Despite HST’s failure to write that great novel, or to extend his initial success any further than the 70s, he lined up words in an order like no one else did. And for that, The Skeptic must be considered a success in that it makes me want to stop reading criticism and biographies of Mencken and instead turn to his books much in the same way that I was wearied by Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise and instead wanted to listen to the music.
As always, it’s best to shut up and listen.