Mencken: The American Iconoclast by Marion Rodgers - review by Jonathan Mirsky

Jonathan Mirsky

Blue Elephant Unleashed

Mencken: The American Iconoclast


Oxford University Press 600pp £19.99

There was never a journalist like H L Mencken (1880–1956), before him or since. In the years when there was no television and American print journalists were stars, Mencken was a supernova. A fabulously entertaining writer, an authority on the American language, very funny, a libertarian – and an implacable hater of Roosevelt, censors, lynchers, Communists, labour unions, and most politicians. He was contemptuous of Jews – but also of all other religious groups – and of blacks, and the poor. But he could be generous and affectionate to individual Jews and blacks. He loved Germany and hesitated to condemn Hitler. He edited two magazines, The Smart Set and The American Mercury, for which unknown and famous writers alike clamoured to write. For decades he wrote much of the best reporting, notably of the presidential nominating conventions where, even in his old age, he dazzled young reporters by his energy, long hours, meticulous research, flagrant biases (often obsessions) and enthusiastic drinking. If a newspaper wanted to increase its circulation, it had only to announce an upcoming column by H L Mencken. He was also a consumer of fascinating women, whom he regularly betrayed, and a faithful husband to an invalid wife from whose death he never recovered. 

His epigrams were uniquely sparky: ‘Puritanism: the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.’ ‘Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.’ ‘It is a sin to believe evil in others, but it is seldom a mistake.’ ‘Early essays by Henry James – some in the

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