I got a call yesterday from a fact checker at The New Yorker who wanted to know whether H.L. Mencken actually sent the following form letter to angry correspondents: Dear Sir or Madam: You may or may not be right. Would that he had–it’s a great story–but in the decade I spent researching and writing The Skeptic, I found not the slightest bit of evidence that he ever sent such a letter to anyone.
What tickled me about this call was that it made me feel like a Grand Old Man. The nice young fellow from The New Yorker asked, “Is this Terry Teachout, author of The Skeptic?” in tones that made me wonder whether I’d just heard a preview of my obituary. I hope my Louis Armstrong book is better than The Skeptic (with which I was pretty damn pleased, to be sure), but for the moment I guess that label is firmly fixed to the bottom of the screen: World’s Greatest Authority on H.L. Mencken. Three years after my biography was published, I continue to get a call or two every month from fact checkers and other earnest souls seeking to establish whether or not Mencken really did make some snappy crack or other.
Here’s the interesting part: the Mencken quotes about which I get called are always spurious. No exceptions.