Henry Louis Mencken (September 12, 1880 – January 29, 1956), better known as H. L. Mencken, was a twentieth century journalist, satirist, and social critic, known as the "Sage of Baltimore" and the "American Nietzsche." He is often regarded as one of the most influential American writers of the early twentieth century. Beyond his own writings, he influenced others, including Richard Wright, in their literary careers. Mencken was well-known for the audacity of his works, both in the tone that he used and in his controversial, hard-hitting topics—such as racism and gender roles. Satire was his weapon, and perhaps also his defense, as his harshest criticisms were at the same time entertaining.
He is well-known as the journalist who covered the Scopes Trial, which he gave the name "Monkey Trial," publicizing this case, which tackled the issue of the proper teaching of biology in school—evolution or the Bible. In fact, the trial decided little, but it remains in the public mind as a decisive moment in the history of this important issue, in large part due to Mencken's reporting.
Henry Louis Mencken was born in Baltimore, Maryland, to August Mencken, a cigar factory owner of German extraction. He moved into the new family home at 1524 Hollins Street (in the Union Square neighborhood) in Baltimore when he was three years old, and apart from five years of married life, he lived in the house for the rest of his life. In 1899, he became a reporter for the Baltimore Morning Herald, until moving to The Baltimore Sun in 1906. At this time, he had also taken to writing editorial columns that first showed off the writing for which he would soon become famous. On the side, he wrote short stories, a novel, and even poetry (which he later reviled).
In 1908, he also began writing as a literary critic for the magazine The Smart Set. Together with George Jean Nathan, Mencken founded and edited The American Mercury, published by Alfred A. Knopf publishing house, in January 1924. It soon had a national circulation and became highly influential on college campuses across America.
During his time as editor, the "man of ideas" Mencken, became close friends with the leading literary figures of his time, including Theodore Dreiser, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Alfred A. Knopf, as well as a mentor to several young reporters, including Alistair 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 Depression than all government measures combined. He also mentored John Fante.
Mencken was an outspoken defender of freedom of conscience and civil rights, an opponent of persecution, injustice, puritanism, and self-righteousness. As a nationally syndicated columnist and author of numerous books, he notably assaulted America's preoccupation with fundamentalist Christianity and attacked the "Booboisie," his word for the ignorant middle classes. In 1926, he was arrested for selling an issue of The American Mercury banned in Boston. Mencken heaped scorn not only upon self-serving public officials but the contemporary state of American democracy itself: In 1931, the Arkansas legislature passed a motion to pray for Mencken's soul after he had called the state the "apex of moronia."
Mencken suffered a cerebral thrombosis in 1948, from which he never fully recovered. The damage to his brain left him aware and fully conscious but unable to read or write. In his later years he enjoyed listening to classical music and talking with friends, but he sometimes referred to himself in the past tense, as if already dead.
Mencken was, in fact, preoccupied with how he would be perceived after his death, and he spent this period of time organizing his papers, letters, newspaper clippings, and columns.
He died in 1956 at the age of seventy-five, and was interred in the Loudon Park Cemetery in Baltimore, Maryland. His epitaph reads:
Mencken suggested this epitaph in The Smart Set. After his death, it was inscribed on a plaque in the lobby of The Baltimore Sun.
His personal materials were released in 1971, 1981, and 1991 (starting 15 years after his death), and were so thorough they even included grade-school report cards. Hundreds of thousands of letters were included—the only omissions were strictly personal letters received from women. Mencken's papers as well as much of his library, which includes many books inscribed by major authors, are in the collections of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, in Baltimore. Some of the items are displayed in a special room in the 2003 wing of the library, the Mencken Room.
Mencken is perhaps best remembered today for The American Language, his exhaustive, multi-volume study of how the English language is spoken in the United States, and his scathingly satirical reporting on the prosecution, judge, jury, and venue of the Scopes Trial, which he is credited for naming the "Monkey" trial.
Mencken sometimes took positions in his essays more for shock value than from deep-seated conviction, such as his essay arguing that the Anglo-Saxon race was demonstrably the most cowardly in human history, published at a time when much of his readership considered Anglo-Saxons the noble pinnacle of civilization. He captivated young intellectuals with total assurance and a delightfully hateful, but nonetheless erudite, style.
Perhaps Mencken's most important contribution to American letters is his satirical style. Mencken, influenced heavily by Mark Twain and Jonathan Swift, believed the lampoon was more powerful than the lament; his hilariously overwrought indictments of nearly every subject (and more than a couple that were unmentionable at the time) are certainly worth reading as examples of fine craftsmanship.
The Mencken style influenced many writers; American author Richard Wright described the power of Mencken's technique (his exposure to Mencken would inspire him to become a writer himself). In his autobiographical Black Boy, Wright recalls his reaction to A Book of Prefaces and one of the volumes of the Prejudices series:
I was jarred and shocked by the clear, clean, sweeping sentences … Why did he write like that? I pictured the man as a raging demon, slashing with his pen … denouncing everything American … laughing … mocking God, authority … This man was fighting, fighting with words. He was using words as a weapon, using them as one would use a club … I read on and what amazed me was not what he said, but how on earth anybody had the courage to say it.
In his classic essay "On Being an American" (published in his Prejudices: Third Series), Mencken fired a salvo at American myths. The following quote displays his amusing take on why the United States is the "Land of Opportunity," and segues into a laundry-list of national pathologies as he sees them:
Here the business of getting a living … is enormously easier than it is in any other Christian land—so easy, in fact, that an educated and forehanded man who fails at it must actually make deliberate efforts to that end. Here the general average of intelligence, of knowledge, of competence, of integrity, of self-respect, of honor is so low that any man who knows his trade, does not fear ghosts, has read fifty good books, and practices the common decencies stands out as brilliantly as a wart on a bald head, and is thrown willy-nilly into a meager and exclusive aristocracy. And here, more than anywhere else I know of or have heard of, the daily panorama of human existence, of private and communal folly—the unending procession of governmental extortions and chicaneries, of commercial brigandages and throat-slittings, of theological buffooneries, of aesthetic ribaldries, of legal swindles and harlotries, of miscellaneous rogueries, villainies, imbecilities, grotesqueries and extravagances—is so inordinately gross and preposterous, so perfectly brought up to the highest conceivable amperage, so steadily enriched with an almost fabulous daring and originality, that only the man who was born with a petrified diaphragm can fail to laugh himself to sleep every night, and to awake every morning with all the eager, unflagging expectation of a Sunday-school superintendent touring the Paris peep-shows (Mencken 1922).
Whether one agrees with Mencken or finds him infuriatingly coarse and incorrect, all can observe his technique with profit; it is rare in contemporary discourse. The criticisms he poses are nearly the same as those of famous literary expatriates including Richard Wright, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald; the injustices (or at least incongruities) are the same ones fought by period "Muckraker" journalists such as Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell. However, instead of decrying the "daily panorama of human existence, of private and communal folly" and calling for reform or improvement, Mencken says he is "entertained" by them. On its face, this approach displays a crass indifference and total lack of compassion; Mencken admitted as much, as it was part of his personal philosophy: A kind of fierce libertarianism inspired by a Nietzschean contempt for the "improvers of mankind," a social Darwinist outlook derived from Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner, and a "Tory" elitism.
The power of satire comes from the transformation of enemies and villains into a source of entertainment; they are reduced from powerful people to be contended with into farcical creatures deserving of mockery. Black journalist and Mencken contemporary James Weldon Johnson celebrated this technique as a way of fighting racism without stooping to the level of Jim Crow enforcers and the Ku Klux Klan:
Mr. Mencken's favorite method of showing people the truth is to attack falsehood with ridicule. He shatters the walls of foolish pride and prejudice and hypocrisy merely by laughing at them; and he is more effective against them than most writers who hurl heavily loaded shells of protest and imprecation. What could be more disconcerting and overwhelming to a man posing as everybody's superior than to find that everybody was laughing at his pretensions? Protest would only swell up his self-importance.
Mencken, in On Being an American called the United States "incomparably the best show on Earth." He clearly took joy in covering religious controversies, political conventions, and unearthing new "quackeries" (among his favorite targets were the Baptist and Methodist churches, Christian Science, Chiropractics, and most of all, Puritanism). Although he attacked every President of the United States who served during the years of his career as a writer and critic, from Taft to Truman, Mencken reserved a special ire for his attacks on Woodrow Wilson, whose administration he saw as epitomizing the moralistic, Puritanical impulses of American life. Mencken's snipes at Wilson resulted in Mencken being singled out by the Bureau of Investigation (the predecessor of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)) and other law enforcement agencies as a potential subversive during Wilson's administration.
It is no coincidence he regarded Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to be the finest work of American literature; much of that book details episodes of gullible and ignorant people being swindled by Confidence Men like the (deliberately) pathetic "Duke" and "Dauphin" roustabouts with whom Huck and Jim travel down the Mississippi River. These scam-artists swindle country "boobs" (as Mencken referred to them); by posing as enlightened speakers on temperance (to obtain the funds to get roaring drunk), pious "saved" men seeking funds for far off evangelistic missions (to pirates on the high seas, no less), and learned doctors of phrenology (who can barely spell). The book can be read as a story of America's hilarious dark side, a place where democracy, as defined by Mencken, is "the worship of Jackals by Jackasses."
In 1920, Mencken wrote 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.
Most commentators regard his views as libertarian, but some of Mencken's writing displays elitism, and at times a pronounced racist element in excess of early twentieth century Social Darwinist thought:
The educated Negro of today is a failure, not because he meets insuperable difficulties in life, but because he is a Negro. His brain is not fitted for the higher forms of mental effort; his ideals, no matter how laboriously he is trained and sheltered, remain those of a clown.
While it is true that Mencken's essays are sprinkled liberally with racial epithets ("blackamoor," "niggero," "coon," "prehensile kikes,") Mencken's life, beliefs, and writings show his views on race to be much more nuanced and progressive than those of most people of the era. Mencken believed men should be measured as individuals, rather than categorized on the basis of race. Mencken considered the African-American intellectual George Schuyler to be a life-long friend—rare in any case, considering Mencken's infamous capacity for personal criticism. On the other hand, while Mencken was fair to individuals, he was deeply negative in regard to social groups and other groupings of people, and ethnic groups were no exception. The balance of abuse meted out by Mencken to races, religions, and groups is overwhelmingly skewed against the "dominant" groups, such as Southern Whites, Christians (especially of the Methodist or Baptist traditions), and even German immigrants, with whom Mencken shared his heritage.
Instead of arguing that one race or group was superior to another (like later White supremacists), Mencken believed that every community—whether the community of train porters, African-Americans, newspapermen, or artists—produced a few people of clear superiority. He considered groupings on a par with hierarchies, which led to a kind of natural elitism and 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. Of course, based on his heritage, achievement, and work ethic, Mencken considered himself a member of this group.
Mencken's ventures into the controversial are still often misunderstood. In fact, when Mencken was apparently expressing racist sentiments in an overt way, it was often simply a vehicle for a deeper egalitarian meaning. In his legendary salvo against Southern American culture, "The Sahara of the Bozart" ("Bozart" being a mock misspelling of "Beaux-Arts"), Mencken argued that the whole Confederate region fell into cultureless savagery and backwardness after the Civil War—with the exception of the African-American community. In what was an audacious (and seriously intended) argument, Mencken claimed Southern blacks were actually the heirs and descendants of the talented aristocrats—by way of mistresses! Further, Mencken opined that this community was the only site of cultural vitality or activity whatsoever, in spite of being hindered by the barbaric oppression of a culture that condoned and enforced Jim Crow laws and still tacitly sanctioned lynching.
Mencken gained fame from his coverage of the "Scopes Monkey Trial" in 1925, during which Clarence Darrow defended teacher John Scopes, who allegedly taught evolution in a classroom in Tennessee in the 1920s, which was then illegal due to the Butler Act. Mencken coined the phrase "Monkey Trial" and the "infidel Scopes." Journalists such as Mencken helped pay the defense fees for Scopes in order to sustain the trial, which Mencken considered a gold mine of material, saying, "I have stored up enough material to last me twenty years."
Mencken's support of the defense is surprising because he had previously expressed the opinion that school teachers should have to teach whatever material the local schoolmasters require, likening teachers to plumbers who should not stray from their jobs. Mencken earned the praise of William Jennings Bryan for affirming his support of the Butler Act before the trial but soon drew his ire when his opinion changed at the onset of the trial. Scopes began to attack Bryan in his reports on the trial and infuriated local residents by referring to them as "primates." He left the trial before its conclusion for fear for his life. When Bryan died five days after the end of the trial, Mencken remarked, "We killed the son of a bitch."
The American Language was Mencken's 1919 book about changes Americans had made to the English Language.
Mencken was inspired by "the argot of the colored waiters" in Washington, as well as by one of his favorite authors, Mark Twain, and his experiences on the streets of Baltimore. In 1902, Mencken remarked on the "queer words which go into the making of 'United States.'" The book was preceded by several columns in The Evening Sun. Mencken eventually asked "Why doesn't some painstaking pundit attempt a grammar of the American language… English, that is, as spoken by the great masses of the plain people of this fair land?" It would appear that he answered his own question. Mencken wanted to defend "Americanisms" against the English, who he increasingly detested, in the tradition of Noah Webster, who wrote the first American dictionary.
The book discusses the beginnings of American variations from English, the spread of these variations, American names and slang over the course of its 374 pages. According to Mencken, American English was more colorful, vivid, and creative than its British counterpart. The book sold exceptionally well by Mencken's standards—1400 copies in the first two months. Reviews of the book praised it lavishly, with the exception of one by Mencken's old nemesis, Stuart Sherman. Many of the sources and research material associated with the book are in the Mencken collection at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, Maryland.
In addition to the allegations of racism, Mencken has been referred to as anti-Semitic and misogynistic. Many of these charges appear to be at least superficially accurate, and Mencken went on the record in many places dismissing Adolf Hitler as "hardly more than a common Ku Kluxer" (which, given his disgust with the Ku Klux Klan, is a rather nasty insult).
Another allegation leveled against him was that he was frequently obsessed with the importance of social status or class. For example, Mencken broke off a relationship of many years with his lover, Marion Bloom, when they were arranging to be married. Critics saw this as being due to Bloom being insufficiently wealthy, upper-class, and sophisticated for him. Mencken, however, claimed he ended the relationship because she converted to Christian Science.
One of the disadvantages of slashing satire is that it does only that—slash. Critics must walk a thin line between declaring "The Emperor has no clothes" (a fine service to all), and going too far by furiously tearing the clothes off of undeserving bystanders. Mencken tended to go too far as matter-of-course; consequently he was the first to say what needed to be said in his criticisms of lynching, World War I-era civil liberties abuses, and especially the dismally moral and philistine American arts. On the other hand, this extremism left him with a body of work filled with unsubtle reviews of the subtle and scores of openly vicious statements about all ethnicities.
This viciousness was summed up in the play Inherit the Wind, a fictionalized version of the Scopes Trial. As the story ends, the protagonist tells Hornbeck (the character representing Mencken):
Mencken was one of the great American intellectuals of the twentieth century. As a prodigious writer, his works were known in many outlets by many people. His willingness to approach controversial subjects brought validity to such issues as the study of racism. Without the backing of popular, respected writers such as Mencken in legitimate outlets as the Baltimore Sun, civil rights in America might not have progressed as it did. Despite the labels of racist and misogynist on Mencken, emphasis should be given to the fact that Mencken simply discussed such taboo issues as race and gender roles. This trend is symbolic of a seeming devotion to the underdog and the much advocated protection of liberties. This devotion is further evidenced in Mencken's support of John Scopes during his trial. Mencken's emphasis on liberty took the form mostly of free speech, which he used to criticize everyone equally. Mencken's vitriolic attacks on American presidents were great exercises for the right of free speech in American journalism, and made him many enemies.
Mencken's home at 1524 Hollins Street in Baltimore's Union Square neighborhood was bequeathed to the University of Maryland, Baltimore on the death of Mencken's younger brother in August 1967. The City of Baltimore acquired the property in 1983 and the "H. L. Mencken House" became part of the City Life Museums. The house has been closed to general admission since 1997, but is opened for special events and group visits by arrangement.
The H. L. Mencken Room and Collection is located at the Central branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library on Cathedral Street in Baltimore.
Shortly after World War II, Mencken expressed his intention of bequeathing his books and papers to the Pratt Library. At the time of his death in 1956, most of the present large collection had been received by the Library and a special room on the third floor was being prepared to house the collection suitably. The Mencken Room was dedicated on April 17, 1956.
The collection contains Mencken's typescripts, his newspaper and magazine contributions, his published books, family documents and memorabilia, personal clipping books, a large collection of presentation volumes, a file of correspondence with prominent Marylanders, and the research material used in preparing The American Language.
There are additional collections of Menckeniana at Dartmouth College, Harvard University, Princeton University, and Yale University. The Sara Hardt Mencken collection is held at Goucher College. The New York Public Library has collections of Mencken's vast literary correspondence.
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