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Friday, Nov. 28, 2014

Highly regarded biography has ties to Sikeston

Sunday, December 8, 2002

SIKESTON - The best reviewed American biography of the season, "The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken," got its start right here in Sikeston, according to its author, Terry Teachout.

Cape Girardeau may be easier to find on a map and has a legitimate claim as Teachout's birthplace, but when he comes home, he comes here.

"I was in Sikeston by the time I was one or two - I grew up in Sikeston," said Teachout. "Sikeston is without a doubt my hometown."

Teachout was introduced to the book's subject by Robert Nelson, his eighth grade social studies teacher, who gave him a paperback with some of Mencken's essays. "His writing was so powerful and vivid that even when I was that young I was struck by him," said Teachout.

Hailed by Teachout and widely accepted as "America's greatest journalist," the self-made Mencken left his stamp on journalism and American culture. "He invented the modern op-ed column," said Teachout. Mencken was hugely prolific, according to Teachout, having published an estimated 5 million words in his lifetime.

He was also an acclaimed social critic full of complexities and contradictions: The greatest writer of the jazz age, Mencken hated jazz.

His targets ranged from big government and politicians to religion. A self-professed agnostic, Mencken coined the phrase "Bible Belt."

"He would say exactly what he was thinking," Teachout explained. If around today, "he would be so politically incorrect, he couldn't get a newspaper job."

While Mencken is well-known to scholars of American Literature, those who haven't heard of Mencken shouldn't be scared off, Teachout said. "That's why I wrote this book - there are lots of people to whom he is just a name, if even that...I'm trying to get him back on the map of American letters."

The book, he explained, wasn't written for the experts and scholars.

"I tried to write it so someone who doesn't know that much about America in the 18th and 19th centuries would get an idea of where he fits into our history, our culture," Teachout said. "I write for readers...with something of the narrative pull of a novel."

Although he is an avowed admirer of Mencken, Teachout said his opinions differ with Mencken's on many other topics in addition to jazz.

"He was wrong about a great many things," said Teachout. "He was as narrow minded as some of the people he said were narrow minded."

Teachout said Mencken often held strong opinions on things he actually knew very little about. "Religion is one of the things he got wrong - he didn't appreciate it, he had an inadequate understanding of it," said Teachout.

While Mencken was a brilliant thinker, Teachout said he tended to have "blind spots, like all men with strong opinions."

And if Mencken were alive today to read the biography, what would he think?

"I would hope he would think it was fair, and I very much hope he would think it was well written," said Teachout.

He has no doubts there would be parts Mencken would not like, as he has "sharp things to say about him in this book...This is a portrait with warts."

In addition to being introduced to Mencken, Teachout also took his first steps toward his career in journalism during his years in Sikeston schools editing for the Bulldog Barker. "But I also spent as much time playing music as writing," Teachout said.

After graduating from Sikeston High School in 1974, Teachout went off to college at William Jewell College in Liberty, a Kansas City suburb.

While attending school, he continued with both interests, majoring in music and journalism, working as a music critic for the Kansas City Star, and playing jazz bass in clubs.

In 1985 he moved to New York City. "From that time on I have been a writer, not a musician," said Teachout, "although I continue to play for fun."

Teachout said he is happy living on the Upper West Side in New York, but returns home often to visit family. "It's wonderful to come back to Sikeston and gear down."

After working on the biography for ten years of nights and weekends, the biography has turned out to be "a completely unexpected success," Teachout said, and is receiving positive reviews all over the nation. "We're completely taken by surprise."

Teachout continues his tour supporting his book on the east coast on into January, and will be making guest appearances on NPR's Morning Edition next Friday and C-Span sometime in the next month or so.

"A Terry Teachout Reader," a book of his essays on different aspects of American art and culture collected from over the last 15 years, is also due to be released next fall by the Yale University Press.

Teachout is looking at writing a biography on jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong for his next project. "I'm in serious discussion on it now," said Teachout. "It's not a sure thing, but it looks very likely it will be my next book."