Revisited: Author, Editor, Newspaperman

By Altschull, J. Herbert | Journalism History, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview
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Revisited: Author, Editor, Newspaperman

Altschull, J. Herbert, Journalism History

Anderson, S.L. Mencken Revisited: Author, Editor, Newspaperman. New York: University Press of America, 1999.118 pp. $26.50.

S.L. Anderson's little book is a welcome reminder of the manyfaceted life and work of H.L. Mencken, who, the author argues, "produced the best newspaper writing in America over a span of eighteen years" and ranks with Jonathan Swift "in his relentless satiric savaging of the body politic."

That Mencken blasted and attacked with ferocity everything in sight over his fifty-year career goes without saying. Anderson tracks the reader through all of it in a tightly written series of essays that covers scarcely more than a hundred pages. He is, he tells the reader candidly, attempting to rescue Mencken from oblivion now that another generation or two of journalists and historians has moved on to other pursuits.

Mencken remains a name frequently mentioned when great journalists are discussed, although few of today's newspapermen know much about him or have read his works. HLM detested the word "journalist," and in his day (18801956), there were few newspaperwomen to consider.

He is best known perhaps for his reporting of the Scopes "Monkey Trial" in Tennessee, dramatized in the 1960 Stanley Kramer film where Gene Kelly played Mencken as, critic Pauline Kael wrote, "a brash, hollow, lip-curling villain." That image, incidentally, may have been overstated, but even the admiring Anderson acknowledges that HLM was, among other things, biased, a bigot, an anti-Semite, a moneygrubber, a womanizer, blatantly elitist, and even anti-American. His name was ordered removed from the National Press Club for his antiSemitism.

Yet, Mencken was a man of his times, reared in blue-collar Baltimore, where German could be heard on street corners near his house. He despised the English and for a time lost his job at the Baltimore Evening Sun for supporting Germany in World War I.

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