Henry Louis Mencken (September 12, 1880 – January 29, 1956), better known as H. L. Mencken, was a twentieth-century journalist, satirist, social critic, cynic, and freethinker, 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 20th century. At one point in his career, he was simultaneously America's favorite pundit and literary critic.
Mencken was born in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of August Mencken, a cigar factory owner of German extraction. Having moved into the new family home at 1524 Hollins Street (in the Union Square neighborhood) when he was three years old, he lived in the house for the rest of his life, apart from five years of married life. He became a reporter for the Baltimore Morning Herald in 1899 and moved to The Baltimore Sun in 1906. At this time, he had also begun writing editorial columns that demonstrated the author he would soon become. 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, in January 1924. It soon had a national circulation and became highly influential on college campuses across America.
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.
Among Mencken's influences were Rudyard Kipling, Ambrose Bierce, Friedrich Nietzsche, Joseph Conrad, and especially Mark Twain.
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, 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 and still available at bookstores around the world) 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 sometimes took positions in his essays more for shock value than for 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 no less erudite style.
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 (See Racial issues).
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
In addition to these allegations, 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 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 levelled 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.
Despite the allegations of racism and elitism, Mencken sometimes acted in a manner which tended to upset such views about his character. For example, the most published author during his tenure as editor of The Smart Set was a woman; he helped Jews escape from Nazi Germany during World War II; and on several occasions, Mencken referred to African-Americans as being the equal of whites.
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, and with remarkable consistency he accorded respect and friendship to individuals he deemed superior or excellent within their communities. 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 modern 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, such was often simply a vehicle for a deeper egalitarian meaning. For example The Negro as Author began as a straightforward critique of a fictional work of a black author writing with racial themes as a focus:
The Shadow, by Mary White Ovington, is a bad novel, but it is interesting as a first attempt by a colored writer to plunge into fiction in the grand manner.
In fact Mary White Ovington was not "colored," and Mencken conveniently pretends not to know. He instead uses this omission as a means to single out her work as an example of sympathetic, liberal-esque anti-racist activism (among educated whites) which in the end only turned out bad writing that undercut the public image of genuine emerging black authors. Within this humorous context, Mencken then commented positively on the future of black writing:
The thing we need is a realistic picture of this inner life of the negro by one who sees the race from within--a self portrait as vivid and accurate as Dostoyevsky's portrait of the Russian or Thackeray's of the Englishman. The action should be kept within the normal range of negro experience. it should extend over a lone enough range of years to show some development in character and circumstance. It should be presented against a background made vivid by innumerable small details.
Overall, Mencken engaged the African-American community with a respect, honesty, and lack of condecension absent from the racists of the day and even the progressive white advocates . Hence to call Mencken "racist" is perhaps simplistic— in many respects he was far ahead of his time in expressing an appreciation of African-American culture.
Mencken, in his legendary salvo against Southern American culture, "The Sahara of the Bozart" ("Bozart" being a mock misspelling of "Beaux-Arts"), 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 descendents 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.
The most authoritative work on this subject is Charles Scruggs' book, The Sage in Harlem — a survey of Mencken's influence on and support of African-American intellectuals. Mencken, as the editor and main creative force behind The American Mercury magazine, was responsible for publishing more black authors than any other publication of its stature —certainly more than any other white dominated publication. The articles by African-Americans ranged from a Pullman Porter's account of life in that occupation to sophisticated articles by important black thinkers.
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:
Mencken was at the top of his game in the 1920s, when a backlash against WWI-era superpatriotism and government expansion (exemplified in the Palmer Raids) produced many overtly anti-American protests by literati, among whom Mencken was arguably the most pugnacious. The "anti-American" label is an epithet today (and to a lesser degree in Mencken's time); the term is not used here to defame HLM. He would have delighted in being called "anti-American"; his contrarian spirit and envy of more cultured states (Germany especially) compelled him to mount unapologetically scathing attacks on nearly all aspects of American culture.
In his classic essay "On Being an American" (published in his Prejudices: Third Series), Mencken fires a salvo at American myths. The following choice 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:
Whether the reader 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:
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 are 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 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."
One of the disadvantages of slashing satire is that it does only that: slash. Alfred Kazin called Mencken's criticisms impotent since "Every Babbitt read him gleefully and pronounced his neighbor a Babbitt" -- they permitted a circular firing squad of self-righteous viciousness. ("Babbitt" is a now-rare epithet derived from the Sinclair Lewis book of the same name; it can be loosely defined as an uncultured, "square", typically middle-aged and middle-class businessman characterized by timidity and ignorance of their philistinism. It is a very similar concept to the more commonly used German terms Spiesser and Spiessbürger). 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 Monkey Trial. As the story ends, the protagonist tells Hornbeck (the character representing Mencken):
In a 26 July 1920 article in the Baltimore Evening Sun, Mencken wrote about the difficulties of good men reaching national office when such campaigns must necessarily be conducted remotely:
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 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. 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 Cathederal 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.