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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.

Mencken 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, tonsil-paint, squirrel-whiskey."

Mencken's essays were eventually collected in a series of six volumes, entitled Prejudices (191927).  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, 18801892 (1940), Newspaper Days, 18991906 (1941), and Heathen Days, 18901936 (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 today. 

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.

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