Henry Louis “H. L.” Mencken (September 12, 1880 – January 29, 1956) was a German-American journalist, satirist, cultural critic and scholar of American English.own as the “Sage of Baltimore”, he is regarded as one of the most influential American writers and prose stylists of the first half of the twentieth century. As a scholar Mencken is known forThe American Language, a multi-volume study of how the English language is spoken in the United States. His satirical reporting on the Scopes trial, which he dubbed the “Monkey Trial”, also earned him notoriety. He commented widely on the social scene, literature, music, prominent politicians and contemporary movements.
As an admirer of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, he was a detractor of religion, populism and representative democracy, which he believed was a system in which inferior men dominated their superiors.encken was a supporter of scientific progress, skeptical of economic theories and critical of osteopathic and chiropractic medicine.
Mencken opposed American entry into World War I and World War II. His diary indicates that he harbored strong racist and anti-semitic attitudes, and was sympathetic to the Social Darwinism practiced by the Nazis.
Mencken’s longtime home in the Union Square neighborhood of West Baltimore has been turned into a city museum, the H. L. Mencken House. His papers were distributed among various city and university libraries, with the largest collection held in the Mencken Room at the central branch of Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library.
Mencken was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on September 12, 1880. He was the son of August Mencken, Sr., a cigar factory owner of German ancestry. When Henry was three, his family moved into a new home at 1524 Hollins Street facing Union Square park in the Union Square neighborhood of old West Baltimore. Apart from five years of married life, Mencken was to live in that house for the rest of his life.
In his best-selling memoir Happy Days, he described his childhood in Baltimore as “placid, secure, uneventful and happy.”
When he was nine years old, he read Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, which he later described as “the most stupendous event in my life”. He became determined to become a writer himself, and read voraciously. In one winter while in high school he read Thackeray and then “proceeded backward to Addison, Steele, Pope, Swift,Johnson and the other magnificos of the Eighteenth century”. He read the entire canon of Shakespeare, and became an ardent fan of Kipling and Thomas Huxley.As a boy, Mencken also had practical interests, photography and chemistry in particular, and eventually had a home chemistry laboratory which he used to perform experiments of his own devising, some of them inadvertently dangerous.
He began his primary education in the mid-1880s at Professor Knapp’s School located on the east side of Holliday Street between East Lexington and Fayette Streets, next to the Holliday Street Theatre and across from the newly constructed Baltimore City Hall. The site today is the War Memorial and City Hall Plaza laid out in 1926 in memory of World War I dead. At fifteen, in June 1896, he graduated as valedictorian from the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. BPI was a mathematics, technical and science-oriented public high school, founded in 1883, which was then located on old Courtland Street just north of East Saratoga Street. This location is today the east side of St. Paul Street in St. Paul Place and east of Preston Gardens.
He worked for three years in his father’s cigar factory. He disliked the work, especially the sales aspect of it, and resolved to leave, with or without his father’s blessing. In early 1898 he took a class in writing at one of the country’s first correspondence schools (the Cosmopolitan University).This was to be the entirety of Mencken’s formal education in journalism, or indeed in any other subject. On his father’s death a few days after Christmas in the same year, the business reverted to his uncle and Mencken was free to pursue his career in journalism. He had applied in February 1899 to the Morning Herald newspaper (which became the Baltimore Morning Herald in 1900), and had been hired as a part-timer there, but still kept his position at the factory for a few months. In June he was hired on as a full-time reporter.
Mencken served as a reporter for six years at the Herald. Less than two and a half years after the Great Baltimore Fire, the paper was purchased in June 1906 by Charles H. Grasty, owner/editor of The News since 1892, and competing owner/publisher Gen. Felix Agnus, of the town’s oldest (since 1773) and largest daily The Baltimore American. They proceeded to divide up the staff, assets and resources of The Herald between them. Mencken then moved to The Baltimore Sun, where he worked for Charles H. Grasty. He continued to contribute to The Sun, The Evening Sun (founded 1910) and The Sunday Sun full-time until 1948, when he ceased to write following a stroke.
Mencken began writing the editorials and opinion pieces that made his name at The Sun. On the side, he wrote short stories, a novel, and even poetry–which he later revealed. In 1908, he became a literary critic for the magazine The Smart Set, and in 1924, he and George Jean Nathan founded and edited The American Mercury, published by Alfred A. Knopf. It soon developed a national circulation and became highly influential on college campuses across America. In 1933, Mencken resigned as editor.
In 1930, Mencken married Sara Haardt, a German American professor of English at Goucher College in Baltimore and an author eighteen years his junior.
Haardt had led efforts in Alabama to ratify the 19th Amendment. The two met in 1923, after Mencken delivered a lecture at Goucher; a seven-year courtship ensued. The marriage made national headlines, and many were surprised that Mencken, who once called marriage “the end of hope” and who was well known for mocking relations between the sexes, had gone to the altar. “The Holy Spirit informed and inspired me,” Mencken said. “Like all other infidels, I am superstitious and always follow hunches: this one seemed to be a superb one.”Even more startling, he was marrying an Alabama native, despite his having written scathing essays about the American South.
Haardt was in poor health from tuberculosis throughout their marriage and died in 1935 of meningitis, leaving Mencken grief-stricken. He had always championed her writing and, after her death, had a collection of her short stories published under the title Southern Album.
Great Depression, war and after
Mencken photographed byCarl Van Vechten, 1932
During the Great Depression, Mencken did not support the New Deal. This cost him popularity, as did his strong reservations regarding US participation in World War II, and his overt contempt for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He ceased writing for the Baltimore Sun for several years, focusing on his memoirs and other projects as editor, while serving as an adviser for the paper that had been his home for nearly his entire career. In 1948, he briefly returned to the political scene, covering the presidential election in which President Harry S. Truman faced Republican Thomas Dewey and Henry A. Wallace of the Progressive Party. His later work consisted of humorous, anecdotal, and nostalgic essays, first published in The New Yorker, then collected in the books Happy Days,Newspaper Days, and Heathen Days.
On November 23, 1948, Mencken suffered a stroke that left him aware and fully conscious but nearly unable to read or write, and able to speak only with some difficulty. After his stroke, Mencken enjoyed listening to European classical music and, after some recovery of his ability to speak, talking with friends, but he sometimes referred to himself in the past tense, as if already dead. During the last year of his life, his friend and biographer William Manchester read to him daily.
Preoccupied as Mencken was with his legacy, he organized his papers, letters, newspaper clippings and columns, even grade school report cards. After his death, these materials were made available to scholars in stages in 1971, 1981, and 1991, and include hundreds of thousands of letters sent and received; the only omissions were strictly personal letters received from women.
Mencken died in his sleep on January 29, 1956. He was interred in Baltimore’s Loudon Park Cemetery.
Though it does not appear on his tombstone, during his Smart Set days Mencken wrote a joking epitaph for himself:
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.
The man of ideas
In his capacity as editor and man of ideas, Mencken became close friends with the leading literary figures of his time, including Theodore Dreiser, F. Scott Fitzgerald,Joseph Hergesheimer, Anita Loos, Ben Hecht, Sinclair Lewis, James Branch Cabell, and Alfred Knopf, as well as a mentor to several young reporters, includingAlistair Cooke. He also championed artists whose works he considered worthy. For example, he asserted that books such as Caught Short! A Saga of Wailing Wall Street (1929), by Eddie Cantor (ghost-written by David Freedman) did more to pull America out of the Great Depression than all government measures combined. He also mentored John Fante. Thomas Hart Benton illustrated an edition of Mencken’s book Europe After 8:15.
Mencken also published many works under various pseudonyms, including Owen Hatteras, John H Brownell, William Drayham, WLD Bell, and Charles Angoff. As a ghost-writer for the physician Leonard K Hirshberg, he wrote a series of articles and (in 1910) most of a book about the care of babies.
Mencken admired German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche—he was the first writer to provide a scholarly analysis in English of Nietzsche’s views and writings—andJoseph Conrad. His humor and satire owe much to Ambrose Bierce and Mark Twain. He did much to defend Dreiser, despite freely admitting his faults, including stating forthrightly that Dreiser often wrote badly and was a gullible man. Mencken also expressed his appreciation for William Graham Sumner in a 1941 collection of Sumner’s essays, and regretted never having known Sumner personally. In contrast, Mencken was scathing in his criticism of the German philosopher Hans Vaihingerwhom he described as “an extremely dull author” and whose famous book Philosophy of ‘As If’ he dismissed as an unimportant “foot-note to all existing systems.”
Mencken recommended for publication libertarian philosopher and author Ayn Rand’s first novel, We the Living, calling it “a really excellent piece of work.” Shortly after, Rand addressed him in correspondence as “the greatest representative of a philosophy” to which she wanted to dedicate her life, “individualism,” and, later, listed him as her favorite columnist.
Mencken is fictionalized in the play Inherit the Wind (a fictionalized version of the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925) as the cynical sarcastic atheist E.K. Hornbeck (right), seen here as played by Gene Kelly in the Hollywood film version. On the left is Henry Drummond, based on Clarence Darrow and portrayed by Spencer Tracy.
For Mencken, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was the finest work of American literature. Much of that book relates how gullible and ignorant country “boobs” (as Mencken referred to them) are swindled by con men like the (deliberately) pathetic “Duke” and “Dauphin” roustabouts with whom Huck and Jim travel down the Mississippi River. These scam-artists swindle by posing as enlightened speakers on temperance (to obtain the funds to get roaring drunk), as pious “saved” men seeking funds for far off evangelistic missions (to pirates on the high seas, no less), and as learned doctors of phrenology (who can barely spell). Mencken read the novel as a story of America’s hilarious dark side, a place where democracy, as defined by Mencken, is “the worship of jackals by jackasses.”
Such turns of phrase evoked the erudite cynicism and rapier sharpness of language displayed by Bierce in his darkly satiric Devil’s Dictionary. A noted curmudgeon, democratic in subjects attacked, Mencken savaged politics, hypocrisy, and social convention. Master of English, he was given to bombast, once disdaining the lowly hot dog bun’s descent into “the soggy rolls prevailing today, of ground acorns, plaster of paris, flecks of bath sponge and atmospheric air all compact.”
As a nationally syndicated columnist and book author, he commented widely on the social scene, literature, music, prominent politicians and contemporary movements, such as the temperance movement. Mencken was a keen cheerleader of scientific progress, but very skeptical of economic theories and critical of osteopathic/chiropractic medicine.
As a frank admirer of Nietzsche, Mencken was a detractor of populism and representative democracy, which he believed was a system in which inferior men dominated their superiors. As did Nietzsche, he also spoke out against religious belief (and as a fervent nonbeliever, against the very notion of a deity), particularly Christian fundamentalism, Christian Science and creationism, and against the “Booboisie,” his word for the ignorant middle classes. In the summer of 1925, he attended the famous Scopes “Monkey Trial” in Dayton, Tennessee, and wrote scathing columns for the Baltimore Sun (widely syndicated) and American Mercury mocking the anti-evolution Fundamentalists (especially William Jennings Bryan). The play Inherit the Wind is a fictionalized version of the trial, and, as noted above, the cynical reporter E.K. Hornbeck is based on Mencken. In 1926, he deliberately had himself arrested for selling an issue of The American Mercury that was banned in Boston under the Comstock laws. Mencken heaped scorn not only on the public officials he disliked, but also on the contemporary state of American elective politics itself.
In the summer of 1926, Mencken followed with great interest the Los Angeles grand jury inquiry into the famous Canadian-American evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. She was accused of faking her reported kidnapping and the case attracted national attention. There was every expectation Mencken would continue his previous pattern of anti-fundamentalist articles, this time with a searing critique of McPherson. Unexpectedly, he came to her defense, identifying various local religious and civic groups which were using the case as an opportunity to pursue their respective ideological agendas against the embattled Pentecostal minister. He spent several weeks in Hollywood, California, and wrote many scathing and satirical columns on the movie industry and the southern California culture. After all charges had been dropped against McPherson, Mencken revisited the case in 1930 with a sarcastically biting and observant article. He wrote that since many of that town’s residents acquired their ideas “of the true, the good and the beautiful” from the movies and newspapers, “Los Angeles will remember the testimony against her long after it forgets the testimony that cleared her.”
In 1931 the Arkansas legislature passed a motion to pray for Mencken’s soul after he had called the state the “apex of moronia.”
In the mid 1930s Mencken feared Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal liberalism as a powerful force. Mencken, says Charles A. Fecher, was, “deeply conservative, resentful of change, looking back upon the ‘happy days’ of a bygone time, wanted no part of the world that the New Deal promised to bring in.”
The striking thing about Mencken’s mind is its ruthlessness and rigidity . . . Though one of the fairest of critics, he is the least pliant. . . . [I]n spite of his skepticism, and his frequent exhortations to hold his opinion lightly, he himself has been conspicuous for seizing upon simple dogmas and sticking to them with fierce tenacity . . . true skeptics . . . see both truth and weakness in every case.
— Literary critic Edmund Wilson (1921)
In every unbeliever’s heart there is an uneasy feeling that, after all, he may awake after death and find himself immortal. This is his punishment for his unbelief. This is the agnostic’s Hell.
— H. L. Mencken
Racism and elitism
In addition to his identification of races with castes, Mencken had views about the superior individual within communities. He believed that every community produced a few people of clear superiority. He considered groupings on a par with hierarchies, which led to a kind of natural elitism and natural aristocracy. “Superior” individuals, in Mencken’s view, were those wrongly oppressed and disdained by their own communities, but nevertheless distinguished by their will and personal achievement—not by race or birth.
In 1989, per his instructions, Alfred A. Knopf published Mencken’s “secret diary” as The Diary of H. L. Mencken. According to an Associated Press story, Mencken’s views shocked even the “sympathetic scholar who edited it,” Charles A. Fecher of Baltimore. There is a club in Baltimore called the Maryland Club which had oneJewish member, and that member died. Mencken said, “There is no other Jew in Baltimore who seems suitable,” according to the article. And the diary quoted him as saying of blacks, in September 1943, “…it is impossible to talk anything resembling discretion or judgment to a colored woman. They are all essentially child-like, and even hard experience does not teach them anything.” However, Mencken opposed lynching. For example, he had this to say about a Maryland incident:
Not a single bigwig came forward in the emergency, though the whole town knew what was afoot. Any one of a score of such bigwigs might have halted the crime, if only by threatening to denounce its perpetrators, but none spoke. So Williams was duly hanged, burned and mutilated.
Mencken also wrote: “I admit freely enough that, by careful breeding, supervision of environment and education, extending over many generations, it might be possible to make an appreciable improvement in the stock of the American negro, for example, but I must maintain that this enterprise would be a ridiculous waste of energy, for there is a high-caste white stock ready at hand, and it is inconceivable that the negro stock, however carefully it might be nurtured, could ever even remotely approach it. The educated negro of today is a failure, not because he meets insuperable difficulties in life, but because he is a negro. He is, in brief, a low-caste man, to the manner born, and he will remain inert and inefficient until fifty generations of him have lived in civilization. And even then, the superior white race will be fifty generations ahead of him.”
Rather than dismissing democratic governance as a popular fallacy or treating it with open contempt, Mencken’s response to it was a publicized sense of amusement. His feelings on this subject (like his casual feelings on many other such subjects) are sprinkled throughout his writings over the years, very occasionally taking center-stage with the full force of Mencken’s prose:
Democracy gives [the beatification of mediocrity] a certain appearance of objective and demonstrable truth. The mob man, functioning as citizen, gets a feeling that he is really important to the world—that he is genuinely running things. Out of his maudlin herding after rogues and mountebanks there comes to him a sense of vast and mysterious power—which is what makes archbishops, police sergeants, the grand goblins of the Ku Klux and other such magnificoes happy. And out of it there comes, too, a conviction that he is somehow wise, that his views are taken seriously by his betters—which is what makes United States Senators, fortune tellers and Young Intellectuals happy. Finally, there comes out of it a glowing consciousness of a high duty triumphantly done which is what makes hangmen and husbands happy.
This sentiment is fairly consistent with Mencken’s distaste for common notions and the philosophical outlook he unabashedly set down throughout his life as a writer (drawing on Friedrich Nietzsche and Herbert Spencer, among others).
Mencken wrote as follows about the difficulties of good men reaching national office when such campaigns must necessarily be conducted remotely:
The larger the mob, the harder the test. In small areas, before small electorates, a first-rate man occasionally fights his way through, carrying even the mob with him by force of his personality. But when the field is nationwide, and the fight must be waged chiefly at second and third hand, and the force of personality cannot so readily make itself felt, then all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre—the man who can most easily adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum.
The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.
Mencken countered the arguments for Anglo-Saxon superiority prevalent in his time in a 1923 essay entitled “The Anglo-Saxon,” which argued that if there was such a thing as a pure “Anglo-Saxon” race, it was defined by its inferiority and cowardice. “The normal American of the ‘pure-blooded’ majority goes to rest every night with an uneasy feeling that there is a burglar under the bed and he gets up every morning with a sickening fear that his underwear has been stolen.”
In the 1930 edition of Treatise on the Gods Mencken wrote:
The Jews could be put down very plausibly as the most unpleasant race ever heard of. As commonly encountered, they lack many of the qualities that mark the civilized man: courage, dignity, incorruptibility, ease, confidence. They have vanity without pride, voluptuousness without taste, and learning without wisdom. Their fortitude, such as it is, is wasted upon puerile objects, and their charity is mainly a form of display.
This passage was removed from subsequent editions at his express direction.
Author Gore Vidal later defended Mencken:
Far from being an anti-Semite, Mencken was one of the first journalists to denounce the persecution of the Jews in Germany at a time when The New York Times, say, was notoriously reticent. On November 27, 1938, Mencken writes (Baltimore Sun), “It is to be hoped that the poor Jews now being robbed and mauled in Germany will not take too seriously the plans of various politicians to rescue them.” He then reviews the various schemes to “rescue” the Jews from the Nazis, who had not yet announced their own final solution.
As Germany gradually conquered Europe, Mencken attacked President Franklin D. Roosevelt for refusing to admit Jewish refugees into the United States and called for their wholesale admission:
There is only one way to help the fugitives, and that is to find places for them in a country in which they can really live. Why shouldn’t the United States take in a couple hundred thousand of them, or even all of them?
Mencken’s home at 1524 Hollins Street in Baltimore’s Union Square neighborhood, where he lived for sixty-seven years before his death in 1956, was bequeathed to the University of Maryland, Baltimore on the death of his younger brother, August, in 1967. The City of Baltimore acquired the property in 1983, and the H. L. Mencken House became part of the City Life Museums. It has been closed to general admission since 1997, but is opened for special events and group visits by arrangement.
Shortly after World War II, Mencken expressed his intention of bequeathing his books and papers to Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library. At the time of his death in 1956 the Library was in possession of most of the present large collection. As a result, his papers as well as much of his personal library, which includes many books inscribed by major authors, are held in the Library’s Central Branch on Cathedral Street in Baltimore. The original third floor H. L. Mencken Room and Collectionhousing this collection was dedicated on April 17, 1956. The new Mencken Room, on the first floor of the Library’s Annex, was opened in November 2003.
The collection contains Mencken’s typescripts, newspaper and magazine contributions, published books, family documents and memorabilia, clipping books, large collection of presentation volumes, file of correspondence with prominent Marylanders, and the extensive material he collected while preparing The American Language.
Other Mencken related collections of note are at Dartmouth College, Harvard University, Princeton University, and Yale University. The Sara Haardt Mencken collection at Goucher College includes letters exchanged between Haardt and Mencken and condolences written after her death. Some of Mencken’s vast literary correspondence is held at the New York Public Library.
Cigar in mouth,quizzical eyes on the delegates and typewriter at ready, Mr. Mencken was a familiar figure at many national political conventions, the last one in 1948.
George Bernard Shaw: His Plays (1905)
The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (1907)
The Gist of Nietzsche (1910)
What You Ought to Know about your Baby (Ghostwriter for Leonard K. Hirshberg) (1910)
Men versus the Man: a Correspondence between Robert Rives La Monte, Socialist and H. L. Mencken, Individualist (1910)
Europe After 8:15 (1914)
A Book of Burlesques (1916)
A Little Book in C Major (1916)
A Book of Prefaces (1917)
In Defense of Women (1918)
Damn! A Book of Calumny (1918)
The American Language (1919)
Selected Prejudices (1927)
Heliogabalus (A Buffoonery in Three Acts) (1920)
The American Credo (1920)
Notes on Democracy (1926)
Menckeneana: A Schimpflexikon (1928) – Editor
Treatise on the Gods (1930)
Making a President (1932)
Treatise on Right and Wrong (1934)
Happy Days, 1880–1892 (1940)
Newspaper Days, 1899–1906 (1941)
A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources (1942)
Heathen Days, 1890–1936 (1943)
Christmas Story (1944)
The American Language, Supplement I (1945)
The American Language, Supplement II (1948)
A Mencken Chrestomathy (1949)
Minority Report (1956)
On Politics: A Carnival of Buncombe (1956)
Cairns, Huntington, ed. (1965), The American Scene.
The Bathtub Hoax and Blasts & Bravos from the Chicago Tribune (1958)
Lippman, Theo jr, ed. (1975), A Gang of Pecksniffs: And Other Comments on Newspaper Publishers, Editors and Reporters.
Rodgers, Marion Elizabeth, ed. (1991), The Impossible HL Mencken: A Selection of His Best Newspaper Stories.
Yardley, Jonathan, ed. (1992), My Life As Author and Editor.
A Second Mencken Chrestomathy (1994)
Thirty-five Years of Newspaper Work (1996)
A Religious Orgy in Tennessee: A Reporter’s Account of the Scopes Monkey Trial, Melville House Publishing, 2006.
Chapbooks, pamphlets, and notable essays
Ventures into Verse (1903)
The Artist: A Drama Without Words (1912)
The Creed of a Novelist (1916)
Pistols for Two (1917)
The Sahara of the Bozart (1920)
“The Hills of Zion” (1925)
The Libido for the Ugly (1927)