cover image Mencken: A Life

Mencken: A Life

Fred Hobson. Random House (NY), $35 (650pp) ISBN 978-0-394-56329-9

This skillful and painstakingly detailed life of Henry Louis Mencken will serve as an important source for Mencken readers and scholars. Hobson had access to an enormous archive of material--including the recently released My Life As Author and Editor --all provided conscientiously by the subject himself. Mencken (1880-1956) lived almost his entire life in the city he called ``the most livable of any on earth'': Baltimore. Hobson ( Serpent in Eden: H. L. Mencken and the South ) does a balanced and convincing job of letting his subject speak for himself and yet also of pointing out the gaps in the self-portrait. Mencken's German background, he notes, only partially accounts for his admiration of Hitler and his outspoken dislike of all things British. Hobson readily admits Mencken's anti-Semitism yet discusses it alongside his frequent aid to fellow writers of every religion and race. His turbulent friendship with Theodore Dreiser threads its way through the biography as does his long and mutually profitable relationship with his publisher Alfred A. Knopf. No matter how much one may admire Mencken's witty prose and his excoriation of society's foibles, it is hard to feel affection for this hypocondriacal curmudgeon as he turns against old friends and entangles women in his web of words: Marion Bloom, his greatest epistolary love, saved hundreds of his letters despite Mencken's prohibition, while he destroyed hers; his brief marriage to Sara Haardt was overshadowed by her fatal illnesses. Mencken chronicled his own life so fully in Prejudices and in his autobiographical trilogy that this enormous biography seems almost gratuitous, but it places Mencken firmly in his times and among his circle in a broader context than do his own caustic reflections. Photos not seen by PW. (Apr.)