A friend writes:
Difficult, is it not, to know the effect of one’s literary efforts. My sense is that H. L. Mencken’s literary reputation is much lowered after the printed discussion of your Mencken biography–and yet I believe that you have great admiration for Mencken and showed it in your book. Does Mencken’s reputation deserve to be lowered? I rather doubt that it does. My sense is that you were trying to straighten some things out–Mencken’s anti-Semitism, among others–and a coarse public (intellectuals among that public) coarsely took the information you provided to disqualify Mencken. Not sure I have any interesting explanation for all this, but I wonder if some of the problem doesn’t inhere in biography itself.
I’ve been thinking about the same thing, and coming to roughly the same conclusion. I don’t think it’s a biographer’s job to be an excuse-maker, much less a hagiographer. I thought Mencken was big enough to be written about honestly, flaws and all, and I certainly didn’t write The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken, my most recent book, in order to take him down a peg or two. I admired him when I started writing it, and I still do, with strong reservations but nonetheless wholeheartedly. Many reviewers agreed with me, and nearly all of those who didn’t thought I treated him fairly and left room for the reader to make up his own mind–which was exactly what I had tried to do. So far as I know, the only people who slammed The Skeptic in a snarky way were a handful of extreme Mencken buffs certain their idol could do no wrong (several of whom made a point of posting their opinions on amazon.com, for which I was somewhat less than grateful).
All this notwithstanding, I fear my friend is right. At least in the short run, Mencken’s literary standing does seem to have been diminished by the publication of a balanced biography that pays proportionate attention to his dark side. Meaning…what? The easiest answer, of course, is that Mencken did deserve to be taken down a peg or two, and I accomplished the feat in spite of myself (which doesn’t reflect very well on me, does it?). Or perhaps, as my friend suggests, there is indeed something in the nature of biography that necessarily diminishes its subjects (not exactly a comforting thought, since I’m about to start writing another one).
More likely, the problem is that most people simply find it hard to take men as they are–to live with the uncomfortable but undeniable fact that we are all indissoluble mixtures of good and bad, wise and foolish, generous and selfish. “I do not believe,” Somerset Maugham wrote in Don Fernando, “that there is any man, who if the whole truth were known of him, would not seem a monster of depravity; and also I believe that there are very few who have not at the same time virtue, goodness and beauty.” (That might make a good warning sticker for the cover of the paperback of The Skeptic.) You’d think we’d have figured that out by now, but when it comes to the people we admire most, I’m not sure anybody really knows it, not in his secret heart.