Henry Louis Mencken (September 12, 1880 – January 29, 1956) was an American journalist, satirist, cultural critic and scholar of American English. Known 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. He commented widely on the social scene, literature, music, prominent politicians and contemporary movements. His satirical reporting on the Scopes trial, which he dubbed the “Monkey Trial”, also gained him attention.
As a scholar, Mencken is known for The American Language, a multi-volume study of how the English language is spoken in the United States. As an admirer of the 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. Mencken 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 privately used coarse language and slurs to describe various ethnic and racial groups, a practice which was not uncommon for his era. Mencken also at times seemed to show a genuine enthusiasm for militarism, though never in its American form. “War is a good thing,” he once wrote, “because it is honest, it admits the central fact of human nature…. A nation too long at peace becomes a sort of gigantic old maid.”
Mencken’s longtime home in the Union Square neighborhood of West Baltimore was 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 Anna Margaret (Abhau) and August Mencken, Sr., a cigar factory owner. He was 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 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 in which he performed 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 theBaltimore 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 in any other subject. Upon 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 as a full-time reporter.
Mencken served as a reporter at the Herald for six years. Less than two and a half years after the Great Baltimore Fire, the paper was purchased in June 1906 by Charles H. Grasty, the owner and editor of The News since 1892, and competing owner and publisher Gen. Felix Agnus, of the town’s oldest (since 1773) and largest daily, The Baltimore American. They proceeded to divide the staff, assets and resources of The Heraldbetween 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 stopped writing after suffering 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 Smart Set magazine, 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 fromtuberculosis 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
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 PresidentFranklin 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 theProgressive 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, which left him aware and fully conscious but nearly unable to read or write and able to speak only with 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 he were 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, 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 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.
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