H. L. Mencken
September 12, 1880,
marks the birth of Henry Louis Mencken, who would grow to become one of the most
influential writers of the 20th century. A journalist, editor, critic,
and philologist, he was born in Baltimore, the eldest of four children
of Anna Margaret and August Mencken. August was a partner with his
brother in The
Mencken Cigar Company, and their success paid off
handsomely for the entire Mencken clan. Both parents were proud of
their children and worked hard at helping them develop their natural
talents, of which young H. L. had many.
When Mencken turned eight, he exhibited a strong
interest in reading and writing. Educated in Baltimore's private
school system, he turned out to be an excellent student and was graduated
from the Polytechnic Institute at the age of sixteen.
joined the staff of the Baltimore Morning Herald as a cub reporter
and quickly rose through the paper's editorial ranks. Before long, he
was made city editor and then editor of the Baltimore Evening Herald.
He would remain on the staff of the Baltimore Sun or the Baltimore
Evening Sun--during a time when most American newspapers published both
morning and evening editions--for the rest of his life. Beyond his
newspaper work, he was
instrumental in founding two highly regarded national magazines.
From 1914 to 1923, he served as co-editor with George Jean Nathan of Smart Set.
In 1924, he joined Nathan in founding the literary magazine,
American Mercury, which Mencken edited from 1925 to 1933.
One of the first American literary critics to pen his work in
conversational American English, Mencken proved to be a hard-hitting,
iconoclastic writer who relied on scathing invectives aimed mostly at the
ignorant, the self-righteous, and the credulous American middle class. He
dubbed his favored target Boobus americanus. He felt that his
place in the world was to awaken the boobs of America to all of the cons and
shell games being scammed on the world. He heaped equal venom on
chiropractors and the KKK, on Prohibition and Roosevelt's New Deal, on
politicians and lawyers. He labeled Puritanism "the haunting fear that someone,
somewhere, may be happy."
Mencken's grandfather, like his father, had been a successful tobacconist, and H.
L. continued the family tradition, working briefly at the cigar factory.
But after his father's death in 1899, he felt free to
choose his own trade.
At the height of his
career, he edited and wrote for American Mercury, The Nation (1931 - 1932), and the New York American
(1934 - 1935); and he wrote a nationally syndicated newspaper column for the Chicago Tribune
(1924 - 1928) while publishing two or three books a year. He once
said, "There is always a sheet of paper. There is always a pen.
There is always a way out."
In 1903, Mencken published a collection of poems,
although he still thought of himself as a newspaperman rather than an
author. It wasn't until his first "real" book was produced in 1905--George
Bernard Shaw: His Plays--that he began thinking of himself as the
genuine article. His study of the philosophical works of Friedrich Nietzsche (1908) was partly inspired by
his own family's Germanic background. Along with Nietzsche and Karl
Marx, Mencken shared a similar view on the role of religion in society,
believing it to be the opiate of the masses.
Mencken lived with his mother
in the Baltimore house where he had grown up until she died at the age of
45. She used to bring him sandwiches while he wrote in his study.
In his lifetime, he published dozens of books, most of them about things
he hated. He called his essays "prejudices." Mostly,
though, he is recalled for a treatise he wrote in a book about a subject he
actually loved: The
American Language (1919). The book is about the evolution of American vernacular, and it includes long lists of slang terms for
things like strong drink: "panther-sweat, nose-paint, red-eye, corn-juice,
forty-rod, mountain-dew, coffin-varnish, bust-head, stagger-soup,
essays were eventually collected in a series of six volumes, entitled Prejudices
(1919–27). His monumental study of philology, The American
Language, came out in 1919 with subsequent editions and supplements in
1936, 1946, and 1948. He also wrote In Defense of Women (1917),
Treatise of the Gods (1930), and the autobiographical trilogy
Happy Days, 1880–1892 (1940), Newspaper Days, 1899–1906 (1941),
and Heathen Days, 1890–1936 (1943), collected in one volume in 1947.
For most of his life, Mencken fought against the strain of Puritanism in
American literature. He supported literary upstarts such as Theodore
Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, and Eugene O'Neill. He
published manuscripts by young
writers, including Eugene O'Neill and Dorothy Parker. He reviewed the
major works of Upton Sinclair, Henry James, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose
first published story appeared in Mencken's own Smart Set.
In all, over a
career spanning half a century, Mencken edited dozens of publications, wrote
more than 10 million
published words, and was widely regarded as the most influential private
citizen in America throughout the Twenties. His clear-eyed appraisal
of American literature was collected and published posthumously in H. L.
Mencken on American Literature (2002), and his A New Dictionary of
Quotations (1942) is a masterpiece of organization and still available
When Mencken, who once wrote, "He marries best who puts it
off until it is too late," was asked what words he would like for his
epitaph, he wrote, "If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and
have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at
some homely girl."
H. L. Mencken died in 1956.
Discover H. L. Mencken
Yourself - Check Out Today's Best-Selling