Life and Work of H.L. Mencken: Writer, Editor, and Critic

Scathing social critic who influenced American culture for decades

Photograph of H.L. Mencken at his desk
H.L. Mencken.

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H.L. Mencken was an American author and editor who rose to prominence in the 1920s. For a time, Mencken was considered one of the sharpest observers of American life and culture. His prose contained countless quotable phrases that worked their way into the national discourse. During his lifetime, the Baltimore native was often called "The Sage of Baltimore."

Often regarded as a wildly controversial figure, Mencken was known for expressing strident opinions that were difficult to categorize. He commented on political issues in a syndicated newspaper column and exerted influence on modern literature through a popular magazine he co-edited, The American Mercury.

Fast Facts: H.L. Mencken

  • Known As: The Sage of Baltimore
  • Occupation: Writer, editor
  • Born: September 12, 1880 in Baltimore, Maryland
  • Education: Baltimore Polytechnic Institute (high school)
  • Died: January 29, 1956 in Baltimore, Maryland
  • Fun Fact: Ernest Hemingway made mention of Mencken's influence in his novel The Sun Also Rises, in which protagonist Jake Barnes reflects, "So many young men get their likes and dislikes from Mencken."

Early Life and Career

Henry Louis Mencken was born September 12, 1880 in Baltimore, Maryland. His grandfather, who had emigrated from Germany in the 1840s, prospered in the tobacco business. Mencken's father, August, was also in the tobacco business, and young Henry grew up in a comfortable middle class home.

As a child, Mencken was sent to a private school operated by a German professor. As a teen he moved on to a public high school, the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, from which he graduated at the age of 16. His education was focused on science and mechanics, subjects that would prepare him for a career in manufacturing, Yet Mencken was far more fascinated by writing and the study of literature. He credited his love of writing to his childhood discovery of Mark Twain, and especially Twain's classic novel, Huckleberry Finn. Mencken grew into an avid reader and aspired to be a writer.

His father, however, had other ideas. He wanted his son to follow him into the tobacco business, and for a few years, Mencken worked for his father. However, when Mencken was 18, his father died, and he took it as a chance to follow his ambition. He presented himself at the office of a local newspaper, The Herald, and asked for a job. He was turned down at first, but persisted and eventually landed a job writing for the paper. An energetic and quick learner, Mencken quickly rose to be the Herald's city editor and ultimately the editor.

Journalism Career

In 1906, Mencken moved to the Baltimore Sun, which became his professional home for most of the rest of his life. At the Sun, he was offered the chance to write his own column, titled "The Freelance." As a columnist, Mencken developed a style in which he attacked what he perceived as ignorance and bombast. Much of his writing targeted what he considered mediocrity in politics and culture, often delivering cutting satire in carefully crafted essays.

Mencken blasted those he considered hypocrites, which often included sanctimonious religious figures and politicians. As his scathing prose appeared in magazines nationwide, he attracted a following of readers who saw him as an honest appraiser of American society.

When World War I broke out, Mencken, who was very proud of his German roots and skeptical of the British, seemed to be on the wrong side of mainstream American opinion. He was somewhat sidelined during controversies about his loyalty, especially after the United States entered the war, but his career rebounded in the 1920s.

Fame and Controversy

In the summer of 1925, when a Tennessee schoolteacher, John Scopes, was put on trial for teaching about the theory of evolution, Mencken traveled to Dayton, Tennessee to cover his trial. His dispatches were syndicated to newspapers around the country. The noted orator and political figure William Jennings Bryan had been brought in as a special prosecutor for the case. Mencken gleefully mocked him and his fundamentalist followers.

Mencken's reporting on the Scopes Trial was widely read, and citizens of the Tennessee town hosting the trial were outraged. On July 17, 1925, the New York Times published a dispatch from Dayton topped with the following stacked headlines: "Mencken Epithets Rouse Dayton's Ire," "Citizens Resent Being Called 'Babbitts,' 'Morons,' 'Peasants,' 'Hill-Billies,' and 'Yokels,'" and "Talk of Beating Him Up."

Shortly after the conclusion of the trial, William Jennings Bryan died. Mencken, who had reviled Bryan in life, wrote a brutally shocking appraisal of him. In the essay, titled "In Memoriam: W.J.B.," Mencken attacked the recently departed Bryan without mercy, dismantling Bryan's reputation in classic Mencken style: "If the fellow was sincere, then so was P. T. Barnum. The word is disgraced and degraded by such uses. He was, in fact, a charlatan, a mountebank, a zany without sense or dignity."

Mencken's skewering of Bryan seemed to define his role in the America of the Roaring Twenties. Savage opinions written in elegant prose brought him fans, and his rebellion against what he saw as Puritanical ignorance inspired readers.

The American Mercury

While writing his syndicated newspaper column, Mencken held a second and equally demanding job as a co-editor, with his friend George Jean Nathan, of the literary magazine The American Mercury. The magazine published short fiction as well as journalism, and generally featured articles and pieces of criticism by Mencken. The magazine became known for publishing the work of major American writers of the era, including William FaulknerF. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, and W.E.B. Du Bois.

In 1925, an issue of The American Mercury was banned in Boston when a short story in it was deemed to be immoral. Mencken traveled to Boston and personally sold a copy of the issue to one of the censors so he could be arrested (as a crowd of college students cheered him on). He was acquitted and widely praised for his defense of freedom of the press.

Mencken resigned from the editorship of the American Mercury in 1933, at a time when his political views were seen as getting more conservative and out of touch with progressive readers. Mencken expressed open contempt for President Franklin D. Roosevelt and endlessly mocked and condemned the programs of the New Deal. The eloquent rebel of the 1920s had turned into a grumpy reactionary as the country suffered during the Great Depression.

The American Language

Mencken had always been deeply interested in the development of language, and in 1919 had published a book, The American Language, which documented how words came into use by Americans. In the 1930s, Mencken returned to his work documenting language. He encouraged readers to send him examples of words in various regions of the country, and busied himself with that research.

A greatly enlarged fourth edition of The American Language was published in 1936. He later updated the work with supplements published as separate volumes. Mencken's research on how Americans changed and used the English language is dated by now, of course, but it is still informative and often very entertaining.

Memoirs and Legacy

Mencken had been friendly with Harold Ross, the editor of The New Yorker, and Ross, in the 1930s, encouraged Mencken to write autobiographical essays for the magazine. In a series of articles, Mencken wrote about his childhood in Baltimore, his raucous years as a young journalist, and his adult career as an editor and columnist. The articles were eventually published as a series of three books, Happy DaysNewspaper Days, and Heathen Days.

In 1948 Mencken, keeping to his long tradition, covered both major party political conventions and wrote syndicated dispatches about what he had seen. Late that year he suffered a stroke from which he only partly recovered. He had difficulty speaking, and his ability to read and write had been lost.

He lived quietly in his house in Baltimore, visited by friends, including William Manchester, who would write the first major biography of Mencken. He died on January 29, 1956. Though he had been out of the public eye for years, his death was reported as front-page news by the New York Times.

In the decades since his death, Mencken's legacy has been widely debated. There is no doubt he was a writer of great talent, but his display of bigoted attitudes surely diminished his reputation.

Sources

  • "Mencken, H. L." Gale Contextual Encyclopedia of American Literature, vol. 3, Gale, 2009, pp. 1112-1116. Gale Virtual Reference Library. 
  • Berner, R. Thomas. "Mencken, H. L. (1880–1956)." St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, edited by Thomas Riggs, 2nd ed., vol. 3, St. James Press, 2013, pp. 543-545. 
  • "Henry Louis Mencken." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., vol. 10, Gale, 2004, pp. 481-483. 
  • Manchester, William. The Life and Riotous Times of H.L. Mencken. Rosetta Books, 2013.
  • Mencken, H. L., and Alistair Cooke. The Vintage Mencken. Vintage, 1990.