Tuesday, August 16, 2016

H.L. Mencken

Damning Words: The Life and Religious Times of H. L. MenckenDamning Words: The Life and Religious Times of H. L. Mencken by D.G. Hart
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

D.G. Hart writes tremendous biographies and H.L. Mencken is a man worth knowing. I am tempted to end my review there, but I won't. However, if you decide that that statement is all you need to grab a copy of the book and enjoy, then have at it. For the rest of you, I'll try to offer some support of those initial points.

H.L. Mencken is not a man that you would expect to see in a series of religious biographies. Mencken did not consider himself "religious" and did much to counter the pernicious (as he saw it) influence of religion on American society. In writing on this purposefully secular man, Hart does not counter by seeking to spiritualize every aspect of the man's life. But he does expend much time and energy to dig beneath the surface of Mencken's claims into the heart and reasoning that lies below. In doing so, Hart presents a robust portrait of a man who would be far too easy and quite tempting to caricature.

Hart makes the bold assertion that the Christian culture and ideology "framed" Mencken and the time in which he lived and proceeds to support this assertion throughout his work. Simply said, there is no understanding Mencken the man without understanding the faith and culture by which he was surrounded and to which he directed such furious guile and vitriol. And, again, this man is a man of influence and import who should be known and studied by many more than he is. His writing was prolific and his influence on journalism, writing, and culture in general underrated.

What makes Hart's religious biography of Mencken stand out is that he does not turn Mencken into an object lesson. Hart presents the life of Mencken, good and bad, with an objectivity that has to be difficult to muster as a Christian reporting on a man who openly and derisively despised the Christian faith. But, in doing so, Hart is able to remind the reader that Mencken was a man, a brilliant man, and an image bearer of the one true God, whether Mencken chose to acknowledge this final fact or not.

D.G. Hart's biography of H.L. Mencken is insightful, entertaining, and heartbreaking...pretty much just like H.L. Mencken the man.

I received an ARC from the publisher.

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