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The Skeptic

A Life of H. L. Mencken


Terry Teachout (View Bio)
Hardcover: HarperCollins, 2002; Paperback: HarperPerennial, 2003.

The Skeptic
A New York Times Notable Book

"Who now reads Mencken? Not nearly as many people as Mencken's still-astonishing writings deserve. But many more people will discover the delights of Mencken's work thanks to Terry Teachout's judicious but lively assessment of the more-often-lively than judicious journalist and critic." — George F. Will

"What a feast of a book! Terry Teachout has brought H. L. Mencken vibrantly to life, in all his rich comic irascibility. He also takes us back to a time when American culture was led out of the wilderness by a handful of fearless literary men, none greater than the self-created Baltimore genius who poured forth millions of sentences, every one of them crackling with intelligence, on a wealth of subjects. THE SKEPTIC is irresistable — just like Mencken himself." — Sam Tanenhaus

"The writing is fluent and the judgments fair-minded.... A lucid attempt to look both into and beyond Mencken's personal failings." — Los Angeles Times

"The first full-scale biography in a generation of the great journalist, editor, and social critic, extending and in some ways supplanting the ones that have come before it.... A balanced portrait of the muckraking newsman, and an excursion into American intellectual history and journalism." — Kirkus Reviews

"The case has to be made and the story told in all truth, however dark. Teachout does both immaculately. He does what a literary biographer ought to do." — Buffalo News

"Terry Teachout's life of Mencken is an important book. Mencken was the nearest approach to an American Dr. Samuel Johnson, both for the passion he brought to the study of the language and the virtuosity with which he used it. His life is worth recounting and is here expertly and fairly summarized." — Paul Johnson

"Terry Teachout explores [Mencken's] contradiction[s]...deftly and engagingly in his new biography... writing with verve and keeping the story moving in these brief 349 pages.... Teachout is commendably unsparing." — Providence Journal-Bulletin

"Teachout's Mencken is so vigorous, arrogant, insightful, and wrongheaded all at once.... [THE SKEPTIC] is told in blazing detail, with the kind of color and content that compels you to learn. This book is SEABISCUIT with two legs, unlidding no less than five decades of American life through the lens of one figure. In one sense, Teachout's Mencken is an overly powerful, notably anti-Semitic, egotistical crab, a know-it-all who views common sense as the terrible swift sword of American life. In another, he's an angry disappointed American calling out eloquently for change in a world where that's never enough. THE SKEPTIC shows us the value and arrogance of Mencken's mission: to speak up loudly in, and for, America." — Esquire

"Teachout [writes with] intelligence and sensitivity...[and a] clear and genial voice.... Teachout's greatest strength is his angle. He has shared many experiences — covering politics and art, working on a newspaper — but shares only some of his opinions. He understands and admires him without worshipping him. He lets us feel what it would be like to be colleagues of a great professional." — National Review

"So raucous a figure rarely meets with biographical subtlety, but in...Teachout's superb and genial work, Mencken becomes more nuanced and self-contradictory, and because of it, more comprehensible.... Mencken is so colorful that any competent biographer could have produced a readable book merely by aping the vigor of his style. But Teachout, while brilliantly evoking Mencken, maintains his own sensibility and judgment. The result — generous but exact — is a work that deserves to be widely read." — Book magazine

"Mr. Mencken has finally met a worthy biographer. TerryTeachout is the kind of tour guide a first-rate biography requires — vivid storytelling by a guide who is both appreciative and independent, who takes us up the mountains Mencken climbed and then down the valleys, who instructs us but doesn't lecture. I was sorry when the trip ended." — Ken Auletta

"Mencken has had the luck...to engage the attention of a gifted biographer who is himself a journalist and a critic, and the good news is that Terry Teachout's THE SKEPTIC: A Life of H. L. Mencken is one of the best of many biographies that have been devoted to the subject since the 1920s. It is certainly the best introduction to the subject that is now available, and unlike some of the others I have read it neither hesitates to give us the lowdown on Mencken's many deficiencies as a writer nor goes overboard in exonerating him from the many charges that continue to be brought up against him." — Hilton Kramer, The New Criterion

"Mencken deserves to be discussed, for he was the most influential journalist that America ever produced. So it is good to have a new biography, THE SKEPTIC: A Life of H. L. Mencken, and good, too, that the job was done by Terry Teachout...who, apart from having a nice style, is conservative enough not to be shocked by Mencken, and therefore does not waste our time, in the manner of recent literary biographers, with his moral superiority to his subject." — The New Yorker

"Lively.... Teachout makes just enough of Mencken's being an autodidact to receommend the book to a whole rising generation who have never encountered such a being.... This book fills another need for at least two living generations, the teachers who haven't made significant demands on their students in the mastery of language, not even by showing them the best examples of it, and the students themselves, who in their deprivation move from scanning printed matter rapidly on their way to the keyboard and screen, and may never know what they have missed. I think every speaker of English deserves a period of immersion in Samuel Johnson, Mark Twain, and H. L. Mencken, just for starters. The biography in hand is also of value for showing the humanity of a journalist whose views few feel free to defend." — Philadelphia Inquirer

"Lively and readable.... [Teachout] is systematically critical — in both the disapproving and diagnostic senses of the word — of him as a man and thinker.... Teachout, by drawing into sharper focus other aspects of his life, makes us see them differently from before." — Denver Post

"It would be difficult to imagine a more judicious biography than Terry Teachout's well written and absorbing life of H. L. Mencken." — Edmonton Journal

"It was a good year for biography.... The best of the lot, to my way of thinking, is Terry Teachout's THE SKEPTIC: A Life of H. L. Mencken, in which the Sage of Baltimore at last gets his due: a sympathetic but clinically objective account of a complicated life, and a penetrating analysis of the work of the man who was at once this country's greatest journalist and perhaps its greatest prose stylist." — Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post Book World

"Informative, insightful, and well-crafted.... [An] interesting new biography." — Raleigh News & Observer

"Beautifully written and admirably concise." — The Wall Street Journal

"Answers to questions about Mencken's true identity and the nature of his appeal are to be found in Terry Teachout's biography of him, THE SKEPTIC, which is as brisk and smart, as smooth-as-silk an account as we're likely to find. Mr. Teachout...has swallowed Mencken whole in this book.... [A] discerning portrait." — The New York Times

"An engrossing, sympathetic biography." — Booklist

"A wise book, calm and sympathetic, but fully cognizant of the problems inherent in distilling a 40-year career into something less than 350 pages.... Teachout is one of those polymathic generalists that we see little of these days.... As Mencken was perfectly prepared to understand everything, so Teachout seems prepared to understand — to empathize — with Mencken. And the resultant book is no disappointment. It is neither hagiography or indictment, but a succinct and authoritative theory of Mencken, a convincing argument that leaves us with a portrait of Mencken as 'something more than a memorable stylist, if something less than a¬†great man." — Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

"A tidy, fascinating biography that has much of the neat phrasing and sly wit that the rancorous writer displayed himself..... The author brings deeper understanding to Mencken's passionate diatribes, and shows that the journalist was not just a product of his times, but a shaper of its attitudes." — Publishers Weekly

"A splendidly judicious and discriminating biography." — Boston Globe

"A sparkling biography, the first serious look at Mencken since 1969, and with it the pungent, welcoming whiff of reputational resurrection. Terry Teachout, a journalist with strong academic credentials, solid analytical sense and a cub reporter's enthusiasm, brings Mencken to full, noisy life — and does more: He makes sense of the national environment that produced Mencken. This is a joy and a jewel that, finally, gives Mencken his due — and his comeuppance." — Daily News

"A savvy, clear-eyed new biography of America's greatest newspaperman.... [A] knowledgeable, synoptic approach.... [Teachout] knows a great deal about Mencken's enduring tomes...but he's just as interested in Mencken's times, and THE SKEPTIC is all the richer for it.... [An] exemplary book.... Teachout applies Mencken's signature skepticism to Mencken himself, and the result is a curious book in the best possible sense." — San Francisco Chronicle

"A reliable and enjoyable introduction to one of America's greatest writers, a book that will help post-boomer generations meet, enjoy, be enraged, and ultimately be baffled by the Bad Boy of Baltimore.... A wise guide to what is enduring in Mencken and what seems likely to endure for a very long time." — The Weekly Standard

"A balanced, judicious assessment, flecked with sharply critical insights." — Washington Post Book World

"[Teachout] has produced a thoughtful work of literary criticism and biography.... [The] first significant biography of Mencken in three decades.... [Teachout] gives us the pleasure of vivid description." — American Statesman (Austin, TX)

"[Teachout] clearly demonstrates the injustic of the calamitous decline in Mencken's reputation from the peak it reached in the 1920s, when Walter Lipmann called him 'the most powerful personal influence on this whole generation of educated Americans', to the depths it touched on the publication of his time-sealed private papers more than 30 years after his death..... A lucid and intelligent biography.... [Teachout's] achievement is to discern a coherent strain in Mencken's elitist-libertarian thought." — The Economist

"[Teachout] accomplishes in this splendidly informed, oddly internecine biography what Mencken seldom did: he digs up evidence and faces it." — The Nation

"[An] excellent new biography.... Blessedly brisk...and remarkably judicious. Mr. Teachout writes that 'unlike Mencken's previous biographers, I write, very broadly speaking, from his point of view' — which is to say, he doesn't dismiss out of hand Mencken's strong libertarian and anti-egalitarian views. And his sympathetic exposition of those views makes his censure of Mencken's shortcomings, as a man and a writer, all the more credible." — New York Observer

"[An] admirable new biography.... [Teachout's] book gives you, to a striking degree, the feel of Mencken.... As he builds up his portrait, Teachout displays a sharp eye for the revealing anecdote and the telling quotation.... While it would be hard to forget Mencken's offenses even if we wanted to, we should be big enough to set them aside most of the time — long enough, at least, to give ourselves a chance to appreciate his lasting virtues. He remains a difficult case, but in addition to telling a very good story engagingly, Terry Teachout's book makes it much easier for us to achieve a balanced judgment." — Commentary

"[A] fine new biography.... Terry Teachout's invaluable labor of love in this biography...will do a major service in keeping alive the memory of the sage of Baltimore." — The Washington Times

"Finally, a biography that balances the immense complexity of 'The Sage of Baltimore'.... Terry Teachout's book, THE SKEPTIC, more than a decade in the making, is a tour-de-force — easily the most incisive and provocative biography of the man.... Teachout's life of Mencken distinguishes itself from the two existing biographies held in the highest regard.... It is less a chronicle of Mencken's life than an exploration of his mind and his character. And Teachout, himself a distinguished journalist, offers more searching analysis to Mencken's work as a newspaperman, author, literary critic and magazine editor. To top it off, Teachout...is a vastly more engaging writer than his predecessors. This combination produces a lively and unvarnished portrayal of a complex and fascinating figure. It will, no doubt, leave many Mencken fans rethinking the man and his work.... In a slimmer and vastly more interesting book, Teachout is able to devote his attention to providing more penetrating insight into Mencken — as a writer, editor, thinker, and man — than either of his predecessors.... Teachout understands Mencken better than any other biographer.... Equally important, the Mencken of Teachout's biography is a real man — warts and all — not an icon.... Teachout manages the difficult trick of admiring the traits that made Mencken great...while being unfailingly honest about his shortcomings.... With his penetrating insight into the man and his work, Terry Teachout may have already had the final word on Mencken." — Baltimore Sun

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