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

August 02, 1992|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

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

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