For a boisterous and manly ego, there’s nothing like being a dissident in a free country. The risks are few and the rewards can be magnificent. Rush Limbaugh has made himself a millionaire many times over by saying, many times over, what he thinks is unsayable. Noam Chomsky has been playing a similar role for many years, though to a much smaller crowd. He hasn’t gotten rich, but he has achieved a kind of political sainthood, which may be the equivalent at his end of the spectrum. Our greatest dissident, however, and our first truly modern one, would have to be Henry Louis Mencken. As showman he was funnier than Limbaugh, a mere virtuoso of the cheap shot, and as crackpot he was saner than Chomsky, about whom there hangs the distinctive smell of the church basement from which he arose. (I refer to the eminent linguist as radical avenger, of course, and not as a man of science.) Yet the Sage of Baltimore, as he was known, had more than just a clever wit and a clear head. Mencken, simply put, had style.

He was lusty, inelegant, bare-knuckled, precise–as American, in brief, as a brass spittoon. He cared little for sonority in prose, but gave everything to its rhythm. He never aimed to caress his readers, but preferred to badger them, offend them, instruct them, and above all amuse them. His vocabulary was immense. His learning, like his taste, was often called into question, but his ear was impeccable–once you’ve heard that clapper hit the bell you don’t forget the clang. Here is Mencken on birth control: “I believe that the ignorant should be permitted to spawn ad libitum, that there may be a steady supply of slaves, and that those of us who are more prudent and sanitary may be relieved of unpleasant work.” On comparative anatomy: “A man, save he be fat, i.e., of womanish contours, usually looks better in uniform than in mufti; the tight lines set off his figure. But a woman is at once given away: she looks like a dumbbell run over by an express train.” On domestic politics: “A man’s women folk, whatever their outward show of respect for his merit and authority, always regard him secretly as an ass, and with something akin to pity.” On connubial raptures: “A man, when his marriage enters upon the stage of regularity and safety, gets used to his wife as he might get used to a tannery next door.” Ditto, from the other side: “To be the wife of an ordinary man…is an experience that must be very hard to bear. The hollowness and vanity of the fellow, his petty meanness and stupidity, his puling sentimentality and credulity, his bombastic air of a cock on a dunghill, his anaesthesia to all whispers and summonings of the spirit, above all, his loathsome clumsiness in amour–all these things must revolt any woman above the lowest.” And on masculine virtues: “The caveman [i.e., the typical man] is all muscles and mush. Without a woman to rule him and think for him, he is a truly lamentable spectacle: a baby with whiskers, a rabbit with the frame of an aurochs, a feeble and preposterous caricature of God.”

Mencken made his style into a weapon, and as dissident he waged long campaigns against Prohibition, Christianity (especially its Calvinist branches), proper and polite literature, the wars fought with Britain against Germany, moral crusading of all kinds, censorship, and the south. He thought politicians were asses by nature, though several won praise from him as entertainers of the first rank. They made easy targets, then as now, but that was just the kind Mencken loved best. Socialists and college professors, still separate castes in those days, took their share of thwacks for the same reason.

Mencken was such a master of derision that Menckenians are often tempted to wish the Sage were still on hand to jeer at so-and-so or such-a-one. The sentiment is appealing, but perhaps one Mencken was enough. It’s true that most of the soul savers, right thinkers, and boob bumpers he escorted through his personal shooting gallery are long forgotten, but his chief concern was never with that particular parade of half-wits anyway. First and last, his real target was America itself. And it must be proof of his aim that nearly half a century after he fell silent he’s still so esteemed as a native guide–and so reviled. There isn’t much he could add today, since America seems so little changed in the ways that mattered to him. Is it any more puerile, for example, to slander Mark Twain as a racist because the characters in Huckleberry Finn call Jim a “nigger” than it was to denounce Theodore Dreiser as an agent of the kaiser because he wrote a novel, Sister Carrie, about a fallen woman and failed to kill her off in the first ten pages? Is Bill Clinton a greater knave than Warren G. Harding? Is carrying a picket to free Larry the dolphin any sillier than sitting down to dinner in the nude? Is the puritanism of today–whether it puts a flag on its lapel, a ring in its nose, or a bow tie around its neck and then works up a sweat hollering about humanism in public schools, or the image of lesbians in movies, or the conspiracy to kill off an entire race through the importation and sale of narcotic drugs–any more buffoonish and repellent than the one that put on a boiled shirt and wailed about the rum demon?

In Mencken’s eyes America was being ruined by democracy, which lifted the values and aspirations of the masses to the level of national culture, and by a moral code, largely Christian, that helped keep those masses in check but was also a perpetual affront to men of principle and honor. This philosophy was hard enough to swallow back then; it’s even harder now. But if our costumes today are showier and more diverse, the burlesque is in essence the same.

Fred Hobson’s biography of Mencken would have been a better book, or at least a less boring one, if he’d put more energy into portraying his subject in front of that gaudy American stage and less into sniffing around Henry’s bedroom. But dozens of books on Mencken have already been written, including several biographies, and Hobson had to justify his enterprise. He did so by focusing on material that, under the terms of Mencken’s will, was released only recently: letters, autobiographical writings, and of course the infamous diary. To a professor (Hobson teaches literature) an untapped vein like this is irresistible, for he knows that if he doesn’t mine it some other scholar will. In general Hobson does a credible job with what he’s dug up; the problem is that the ore is pretty low-grade.

Whether the sex lives of the famous belong between the covers of their biographies is obviously a matter of personal taste, but unless the performance in question wins points for either energy (Wilt Chamberlain stands out here) or style (J. Edgar Hoover) it’s bound to make slow reading. Do we learn more about Thomas Jefferson the man from his supposed liaison with Sally Hemings or from his undeniable passion for Chateau d’Yquem? (He made sure he got 10 cases of the stuff for himself before the French Revolution broke out and, patriot that he was, ordered another 30 for his president, George Washington. There was more than the blood of tyrants refreshing Thom’s personal Tree of Liberty.) Mencken’s own amorous career was fairly standard: a few affairs, sometimes overlapping, a faithful marriage, and a long spell of relative isolation from intimacy following the early death of his wife. And although what used to be called the battle of the sexes was a major theme of Mencken’s writing, he was perfectly capable of forming thoughts centered on something other than his gonads. He was, in a word now discredited, normal. The likewise normal reader soon gets bored with Hobson’s chronicle of Mencken and his girlfriends, and if he reads on he may even find himself abashed by the intuition that he might as well be turning the tepid pages of his own biography.

But the soap opera is just one part of Hobson’s general aim, which is to describe a “darker” Mencken. For his jacket photograph he’s chosen a brooding, tousled image, and inside we find a son cowed by the usual authoritarian father, a man troubled in his relations with women, a doubter driven to prove himself, and a public figure obsessed with his standing in posterity. There is some truth here, but for once the biographer may be stretching it more than his subject, who was remarkably judicious when it came to reviewing his own life: “Like any other man I have had my disasters and my miseries, and like any other author I have suffered from recurrent depressions and despairs, but taking one year with another I have had a fine time of it in this vale of sorrow, and no call to envy any man.” Hobson seems to have been led astray by his belief that if he just unwraps the bundle marked “contradictions,” the real H.L. Mencken will pop out, scowling: “this…opponent of nativism, of insularity in American culture, was in certain respects a nativist, a Know-Nothing himself”; “this most rational of men was, in many ways, among the most superstitious”; “this most famous twentieth-century opponent of ‘puritanism’ was, in many respects, a puritan himself.” All this, in every single respect, is bunk. To call Mencken a “puritan” because the man worked hard and enjoyed it, or to say that he “willed himself to manhood” in the roughhouse of turn-of-the-century metropolitan journalism and so found the (otherwise sissy) profession of letters somehow “permissible,” is to cast a very dim beam on a truly striking fact: Mencken was a born writer.

He was done with school before he turned 16, at work as a reporter on a Baltimore daily by 18, an editor at 21. At the same time he sold short stories, began a novel, and issued his first book, a collection of youthful doggerel. He published a study of George Bernard Shaw when he was 25, and another on Friedrich Nietzsche, the first in English, three years later. Still in his 20s, he was swiftly perfecting his style in signed columns for local papers and in book reviews for a New York monthly. In those days the editorial page of a newspaper was perhaps even more of a slum than it is now, and the magazine, the Smart Set, was hardly a serious venue. But none of that mattered to Mencken. He wrote as if he were already the lion he would later become, charging his prey in a fury.

The reviews gave Mencken his chance to translate that fury into a national literary force. He had his enemies clearly in sight: the authors of genteel American literature, writers who merely imitated effete European forms and bitched them in the process. And he knew what he wanted instead: books that would capture “the whole, gross, glittering, excessively dynamic, infinitely grotesque, incredibly stupendous drama of American life.” To fight this battle Mencken needed a “tank,” as he said, “to mass my artillery behind.” He found one in Theodore Dreiser and his novels Sister Carrie and Jennie Gerhardt. Not many think of these as great books today, but Mencken praised them to the skies at the very time he was dismissing Henry James as a “deserter” who needed “a few whiffs from the Chicago stockyards.” (Unknown to Mencken, James had already inhaled those whiffs, with no discernible effect.) Likewise when he first read Babbitt he thought it was second only to Huckleberry Finn among American novels, though he didn’t bother with Moby-Dick until he was 55 years old, when it made no impression. Mencken’s bad judgment, like everything else about him, was wide-ranging and impressive: John Singer Sargent, another turncoat like James, “should have been a designer of candy-box tops”; to the true lover of music, opera “must inevitably appear tawdry and obnoxious, if only because it presents aural beauty in a frame of purely visual gaudiness, with overtones of the grossest sexual provocation”; and the poet of the Divine Comedy was simply “the wop boob, Dante.”

Too often Mencken the critic took his orders from Mencken the professional patriot, but it was a discipline designed for battle–and he won. When he retired from leadership in the literary fray soon after the end of World War I American letters were beginning to look truly American for the first time. If Mencken didn’t like many of the new writers he indirectly abetted–Hemingway was “vain and petty” and Faulkner wrote “gibberish”–what did it matter? He had beaten the academic critics at their own game. And having installed himself as a kind of secular grand inquisitor whose job was not to punish heretics but to promote them, Mencken moved on to the wider war against puritanism in general.

He fought this war for the rest of his life and with special vigor through the commotion of the 1920s, when he was at the peak of his powers as a writer and a public man. It was a war, obviously, he could never win. Nobody knew better than H.L. Mencken that puritanism is identical with the tissue of America itself. And I don’t mean the puritanism of his well-known epitome “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy,” which merely flatters those who want to be told they’re not puritans. (Nowadays do-gooding descendants of Mencken-era reformers appear to be gripped by the opposite fear: that someone, somewhere, may not be happy.) “The American,” he wrote in the first paragraph of his most celebrated essay on puritanism, “casts up all ponderable values, including even the values of beauty, in terms of right and wrong. He is beyond all things else, a judge and a policeman.” This is what Mencken truly abominated, and he knew full well that “the democratic doctrine that heresy is not only a mistake, but also a crime,” was here to stay. It would hardly surprise him to learn, for example, that although professors no longer prosecute fornication in our literature, they’ve now put Twain in the dock for racism, convicted Conrad of imperialism, jailed Hemingway for sexism, and placed Melville under investigation for refusing to face his own homosexuality and, presumably, for violations of animal rights.

Mencken couldn’t win that war, but he had a grand time anyway. The 20s belonged to him. He was the country’s most vocal opponent of its most preposterous delusion, Prohibition; he was impresario of the Scopes evolution trial, the first and arguably still the greatest trial of the century; he was editor of the American Mercury, the leading journal for highbrows. Already famous, he put himself at the center of a storm by arranging to be arrested in front of a crowd in Boston for publishing an allegedly pornographic story; he won the case. When he traveled across the country to visit Hollywood, newspapers covered his every move. He called the Ozarks “one of the great moron reservoirs of the United States,” and the folks in Arkansas responded with a “Show Mencken” dinner of strawberries, sweet potatoes, and country hams. He called O. Henry a jailbird, and the San Quentin Bulletin came back with a list of great men who’d been in stir, starting with John the Baptist. He even had the pleasure of seeing three of his bitterest foes die one after the other: Stuart Sherman, an English professor (Illinois) who attacked him and Dreiser for being of German descent, drowned accidentally; J. Frank Chase, who had banned him in Boston, was exhausted by Mencken’s tenacity and contracted a fatal case of pneumonia; and William Jennings Bryan, who prosecuted Scopes, expired just five days after the trial. It was already hot down in Dayton, Tennessee, and when Bryan decided to testify as an expert on the Bible he was boiled alive by Clarence Darrow, who lured him into a heated declaration that man is not a mammal. (Try to imagine Marcia Clark cross-examining Johnnie Cochran Jr. on the subject of racism in America and you’ll see why the monkey trial still takes the prize.) Mencken’s sympathy can be gauged by his obituary of Bryan–“the simian gabble of the cross-roads was not gabble to him, but wisdom of an occult and superior sort”–and by his summary of events years after the fact: “Well, we killed the son-of-a-bitch.”

Hobson does an adequate job with the story of Mencken’s heyday, though in his telling it doesn’t sparkle much; there’s more fun to be had in earlier biographies, especially William Manchester’s Disturber of the Peace. But Hobson redeems himself with his handling of Mencken’s fall from celebrity during the Great Depression, when his antidemocratic philosophy looked more like heartless cruelty than the clever joke it had once seemed. In fact it wasn’t cruel, nor was it a joke. But with the advent of the New Deal it didn’t matter anymore: Mencken’s obstinacy made him politically irrelevant. He predicted in 1936 that “a Chinaman, or even a Republican” could beat Roosevelt, and by 1948 he was backing the Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond for the White House. Hobson treats all this fairly, reminding us that while in many minds Mencken had gone from national gadfly to national has-been or even to national pain in the ass, he remained indefatigable in his labors on The American Language, probably his most lasting creation, and that at his popular nadir in the late 1930s he went to work on his memoirs, the three Days books, probably his most polished of all. There isn’t a trace of bitterness in them either.

Ever since Mencken’s letters began to see the light of day, and in particular since the publication of his diary in 1989, anyone who writes about him has been forced to deal with the question, Did Mencken hate Jews? Hobson is especially good on this matter, which he addresses in part through Mencken’s German affinities. The two are closely related, since the most serious charges of anti-Semitism against Mencken have sprung from his complete silence on the Holocaust in his writing.

During the 1930s, according to Hobson, Mencken was becoming both more sentimental about his ancestral homeland and more disconnected from the realities of German politics, with the result that he refused to see Hitler for the monster he was. As someone who understood national cultures as expressive wholes, Mencken couldn’t bring himself to look the Nazis in the face; that would have meant looking past the glories of German civilization he adored–the learning, the music, and the beer–and beholding a hard kernel of evil. Of course Mencken was alarmed by what was happening to the Jews in Europe; to suggest otherwise is nothing more than a baseless slander, as Hobson shows. Yet the fact remains that Mencken failed to speak out strongly against German atrocities and was irritated by those who did. This behavior can be explained only in part by his lifelong animus against Hitler’s enemy, the English. (“England gave us Puritanism,” he’d written at the start of World War I; “Germany gave us Pilsner.”) Mencken stood silent before the storm in Europe for the simple reason that he couldn’t bear to give his own enemies the satisfaction of seeing him humbled. Finding himself on the wrong side of history and unable to admit it, Mencken’s reaction–human, but unlovely–was to surrender to spite. And as the catastrophe of World War II drew near he escaped even further into schadenfreude, one of the German refinements of spite. “I only hope to live long enough to see another general war,” he wrote to a friend; and to another: “After all, war is a great Christian activity. The last one was a grand show and the next one may be even better.”

Like many before him, Hobson also runs through the long list of Jews who were among Mencken’s best friends and closest colleagues. When an intelligent and disinterested biographer resorts to a hackneyed defense like that it’s probably just a measure of how far the issue has come to be governed by the touchiness of the anti-anti-Semites. Consider Garry Wills, the Sage of Evanston, whose review of Mencken’s diary five years ago in the New Republic demonstrates how that kind of correctness–a Mencken word, by the way–can send the most able historian off the rails. Wills was indignant, so he granted himself a license for the most unseemly speculation on the frequency of Mencken’s intimate contact with his wife (“There seems to have been little if any sex”) and even on the depth of his love for her: “his warmest tribute in later years said, ‘Marriage is nine tenths talk.'” Is it possible that Wills failed to notice the section of photographs in the middle of the book he was reviewing? There, in the original typescript, is an entry written by Mencken five years after the death of his wife that says in part, “It is amazing what a deep mark she left upon my life–and yet, after all, it is not amazing at all, for a happy marriage throws out numerous and powerful tentacles. They may loosen with years and habit, but when a marriage ends at the height of its success they endure. It is a literal fact that I still think of Sara every day of my life, and almost every hour of the day.” Even more damaging, and more dishonest, is the way Wills imputed to Mencken a flagrantly Nazi ethos. Citing an article Mencken wrote on Nietzsche at the start of World War I, Wills offered this paraphrase: “Efficiency is bought at a price. Inferior beings cannot be allowed to infect their superiors.” Mencken wrote nothing like that; but placed before a passage he did write about a German campaign to wipe out typhoid fever (“penning up the population of whole villages and condemning whole watersheds”) Wills’ gloss leaves the most sinister impression: if Mencken said nothing about the Holocaust 30 years later it must have been because he approved of it.

What Wills and others have failed to notice is that if Mencken had really hated Jews he could have been counted on to say so. He generalized about them freely enough–“they have vanity without pride, voluptuousness without taste, and learning without wisdom”–but he also generalized about every other group you can name, and they usually came off worse: “Italians weed-grown on exhausted soil, Scandinavians run to all bone and no brain,” etc. Mencken’s problem today is that cultural generalizations have become taboo. Yet no one digging through the millions of words he published or the millions more he wrote in private has turned up a statement of his antipathy toward Jews as simple and declarative as, “I have always had a loathing for homos.” If Mencken still offends as easily as he entertains it’s because he was always ready to oblige his customers, whatever they might be looking for.

So choose your Mencken. You can have the one who thought whites were smarter than blacks, that women were smarter than men, that Henry Louis Mencken was smarter than anybody, the one who relished words like wop, Jap, yap, boob, hind, and blackamoor and who must have had it coming when Yahweh got fed up at last with his blasphemous taunts and hurled down a stroke in Mencken’s 69th year. The seizure scrambled his brains so he could neither read nor write, but not so much that he wasn’t acutely aware of his predicament. In that way he spent the last seven years, two months, and six days of his life. Or you can have the Mencken recalled by a reporter who spied on him late one night at a political convention, alone in his hotel room, pounding out the day’s dispatches: “He would type a few sentences, read them, slap his thigh, toss his head back, and roar with laughter.” Pick the one you want, or any other Mencken you can find. He really wouldn’t care.

Mencken: A Life by Fred Hobson, Random House, $35.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Andrew Epstein.