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The Soul of Mencken

by Lauren Weiner

Damning Words: The Life and Religious Times of H. L. Mencken, by D. G. Hart (Eerdmans, 272 pp., $26)

To appreciate this book, one has to try to project oneself back to an America where people of faith, instead of being on the defensive, dominated public life and culture. Henry Louis Mencken (1880–1956) considered himself the defender of all who felt oppressed by moralistic Christians. He railed against the reformers of his time: “a despotism of inspired prophets and policemen” who adopted a federal income tax, got the United States into armed conflicts, quashed unconventional opinions, prosecuted novels for obscenity, and wouldn’t allow Mencken or his friends to legally buy or drink beer.

D. G. Hart, a history professor at Hillsdale College, has a feel for the sheer range of Mencken’s work. Legendary for his productivity, Mencken was equally at ease reporting on crime, floods, and fires in his native Baltimore and assessing the work of such emerging fiction writers as Theodore Dreiser, Willa Cather, and Joseph Conrad. Not just his ebullient and well-crafted prose, but also his refusal to limit his subject matter, made him a pioneer of punditry. The young Mencken edited one Baltimore newspaper, then moved to another, becoming a columnist — he more or less invented the form — for the Baltimore Evening Sun while simultaneously co-editing a New York literary journal and writing freelance pieces for The Nation and other magazines. He then collected his columns, essays, and reviews, and published these collections as books — which no writer had done before, according to Hart.

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