Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956) was born into a German-American family in Baltimore, Maryland. He was the eldest son of August Mencken, a successful businessman who owned a tobacco business, and in whose footsteps the young boy was expected to follow. When he was not roaming the alleys and vacant lots of West Baltimore, he spent most of his time reading. When he was 8 years old he discovered Mark Twain that would have a profound influence on his life. About the same time his father bought him a small printing press, which helped form his interest in printing and newspapers. He attended the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, where was valedictorian of the class of 1896. When he graduated, he wanted to become a newspaper reporter, but his father insisted that he go to college or work at the cigar factory, so Mencken chose the factory. When his father died of a stroke two years later, the 18-year old Mencken haunted the Baltimore Morning Herald city room every day until the editor gave him a job. He was the youngest reporter on the paper. Looking back on those days at the turn of the century, he later wrote: “I believe that a young journalist, turned loose in large city, had more fun than any other man.”
His ascent was extraordinary. In less than two years he became the paper’s drama critic; in three years he was its city editor, and the year after that became its managing editor. After the Herald closed down, Mencken joined the Baltimore Sunpapers. By 1910, he was publishing a regular column., The Free Lance, in which he took on everything and everyone. Mencken left the Sunpapers when the United States entered World War I and would not return until 1920. He remained with the Sunpapers, on and off, until a dehabilitating stroke in 1948 left him unable to read or write. His elebrated Monday column far the Evening Sun covered subjects as varied as politics, the literary scene and music, but it was to Baltimore that he gave his major attention. Anyone who reads his work will get an idea as why Mencken is better identified in the public mind with his native city than any other writer of the 20th Century.
H. L. Mencken was as famous in America as George Bernard Shaw was in England, but it was not only through his work as a journalist. He continues to be recognized throughout the world as an influential critic of literature who helped launch the Southern and Harlem literary renaissances. In The Smart Set, the literary journal he edited with George Jean Nathan from 1914-1923, Mencken helped pave the way for many writers we know and study today: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Eugene O’Neill, Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, and James Joyce. In 1924, Mencken began a new journal, called The American Mercury. Aimed at the “civilized minority,” the magazines blended politics, the arts, and sciences. It was the first magazine edited by whites to publish the work of African American authors, such as James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes. Mencken was praised by writers for his prompt and courteous handling of their manuscripts, and by other editors for his quality monthly. The American Mercury influenced other magazines that followed it, including The New Yorker. So great was Mencken’s renown that college students flaunted The American Mercury as a sign of intellectual independence, waving it before their teachers.
Of his books, Mencken is best known for his monumental study, The American Language, ranked as one of the top 100 influential books in the United States. He also wrote on Nietzsche, Shaw, religion, ethics, politics, literature, women, and baby care. His three volumes of reminiscences of his childhood and newspaper years have turned out to be his most popular. Happy Days, Newspaper Days and Heathen Days provide a glimpse into life in Baltimore and America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“The two main ideas that run through all of my writing, whether it be literary criticism or political polemic are these: I am strong in favor of liberty and I hate fraud.” The Constitution and the Bill of Rights, Mencken believed, were sacred documents. “I know of no other man,” Mencken once said, “who believes in liberty more than I do.” His belief fueled his fight for civil liberties for all men, regardless of race. As early as 1917 he addressed the concerns for African-Americans. His articles against lynching on the Eastern Shore of Maryland during the 1930s resulted in a boycott of Baltimore goods and threats against his life. Even so, he worked closely with the NAACP to help promote the Costigan-Wagner Anti-Lynching Bill. His continuing fight for equality is evidenced in his articles against segregation, prompting Clarence M. Mitchell [1911-1984], Washington Bureau Director of the NAACP to tell his sons that Mencken was on the side of the black man. When Franklin D. Roosevelt refused to let Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution enter the United States, Mencken was one of the first journalists to denounce that action, stating that the United States should open its doors.
His impassioned defense of the First Amendment, in favor of freedom of speech was woven throughout his career. His defense of this basic right is evident in his series of reports from the Scopes Monkey Trial, where a school teacher was arrested for teaching the theory of evolution in Dayton, Tennessee. The state wanted to make it a crime to teach anything other than the biblical account of human creation. Mencken despised the effort of any group, whether ministers, reformers, or politicians, to force their way of thinking on society. There were many journalists covering “The Trial of the Century,” but Mencken’s articles were syndicated and quoted throughout the country.
In addition to freedom of speech, another First Amendment right Mencken repeatedly defended was freedom of the press. “My belief,” he insisted, “is that a newspaper should tell the truth, however unpleasant.” Mencken’s belief in a free press was so strong that when The American Mercury was banned, he risked going to jail to fight against censorship. Mencken stood out among journalists, the newspaperman Gerald Johnson once said, not only because of his wit, but because honesty and courage are what made him great.
Mencken was one of the most famous and colorful literary figures of his time, a friend to senators, movie stars, redcaps, writers, lawyers, doctors, politicians, journalists, convicts, musicians, philologists, rabbis and priests. So extensive was his medical knowledge, that he was regularly asked to address doctors. Lawyers, debating Mencken on some point, were surprised he had not gone to college, let alone not graduated from Harvard Law School. When he was not writing about medicine or law, he could be found having intense discussions on religion with rabbis or priests. Mencken was led to comment that he had an excess of energy. It enabled him to write as many as 60 letters a day (over 100,000 in his lifetime), thirty books, thousands of articles, and edit two magazines, with time left over for activities other men considered full time jobs – putting up a brick wall in his garden, brewing beer, or playing all night sessions with members of his music group, The Saturday Night Club.
The effect of all this energy made him irresistibly attractive to women. “Girls swarmed after him,” according to Anita Loos, herself inspired by Mencken to write Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. In newspaper polls, women called Mencken one of the most fascinating men in the United States. “America’s Best Known Bachelor” was, during the 1920s, the patron saint of single men. In 1930, after a seven-year on and off courtship, the confirmed bachelor finally married, at age 50, a Goucher College graduate and Southern writer, Sara Haardt. The news of Mencken’s marriage made headlines across the country. One reporter wrote: “Bachelors of the nation are aghast and sore afraid, like a sheep without a leader.” After years of bachelorhood, they asked, how had Mencken known he was enough in love to contemplate marriage? “The Holy Spirit informed and inspired me. Like all other infidels, I am superstitious and always follow hunches: this one seemed to be a superb one.”
The question, “What do you think of Mencken?” so often repeated during the 1920s, goes on to this day. He is regularly quoted in newspapers and magazines, appearing in such diverse publications as the The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and Vogue magazine. He has even been a character in the cartoon strip, Brenda Starr, and his fight for freedom of speech has been mentioned in various TV shows, most recently on Law and Order. Under the dome of the US Capitol his name continues to be invoked by members of Congress.
Is Mencken relevant? Teachers of American Studies, English, History, Journalism, and Political Science will find Mencken’s writing useful when discussing race, literature, language, writing, and political and social history. What continues to live on in addition to Mencken’s writing style are the ideas set forth by one of the most influential journalists of the 20th century. If he himself is damned or praised, the liberating force he provided for American culture is woven into the fabric of our daily existence, and should be so celebrated. If the body of literature he left behind manages to “stir up the animals,” this is exactly the sort of the reaction H. L. Mencken desired.