Mencken, Henry Louis H.L.
Henry Louis H.L. Mencken
Born September 12, 1880 (Baltimore, Maryland)
Died January 29, 1956 (Baltimore, Maryland)
Writer and editor
"The United States is incomparably the greatest show on earth. . . . I never get tired of the show."
Henry Louis (H.L.) Mencken was one of the most influential writers and editors of the twentieth century. Although he lived his entire life in the eastern coastal city of Baltimore, Maryland, his reach extended to every corner of the nation. An incredibly productive newspaper and magazine writer as well as an author of nonfiction books, Mencken produced biting social commentary on many aspects of life in the United States. He criticized not only politicians and religious leaders but also those ignorant, intolerant members of the vast U.S. middle class that he termed the "booboisie." Mencken was at the height of his career and popularity during the Roaring Twenties and is recognized as a major voice of the period. He informed, entertained, and provoked his readers, helping them to understand and judge the trends, issues, and events of this exciting but confusing time.
The "maddest, gladdest" days
Henry Louis Mencken was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1880. He was the oldest of four children born to parents of proud German descent. His father and uncle were joint owners of a thriving cigar factory, and the family enjoyed material comfort
and security throughout his childhood. When Mencken was three, the family moved into a three-story brick house near Baltimore's central business district. Mencken would continue to live in this same house for all but five years of his life.
His parents supported all of his pursuits, providing him with piano lessons, for example, when he began to express an interest in music. (Mencken's lifelong passion for music found an outlet when, as an adult, he was a member of the Saturday Night Club, a group of friends who got together to play classical music and socialize, for many decades.) He also developed a huge appetite for books after discovering through Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn the joys of reading.
The importance of education was much stressed in the Mencken home. Young Harry, as he was called by his family, attended Professor Friedrich Knapp's Institute, a private school for children of German descent. He went on to a public high school, Baltimore Polytechnic High School. Mencken's father bet him that he could not graduate at the top of his class, but he did, finishing his senior year as class valedictorian (the student who gives the farewell speech for his class) and winning one hundred dollars from his father. Throughout his school years, Mencken had enjoyed writing stories, plays, and poems, and he dreamed of becoming a newspaper reporter. His favorite childhood gift, in fact, had been a working printing press that he had received for Christmas when he was eight years old.
Mencken's father, however, expected his son to go to work in the family cigar business. Mencken did so reluctantly. When his father died suddenly in 1899, Mencken went within days to the door of the Baltimore Herald to ask for a job. He was turned down because he lacked experience as a journalist, but having been told that he might inquire again sometime about available jobs, he went back every day. Finally Mencken was given his first assignment, which resulted in a five-line story about a stolen horse. He moved on to writing obituaries (death notices) and was eventually hired as the Herald's youngest staff reporter, making a salary of seven dollars per week.
In the third volume of his autobiography, Newspaper Days, 1899–1906, Mencken describes the life of a fledgling reporter as "the maddest, gladdest, … existence ever enjoyed by mortal youth." He claimed that these years gave him a better education than others his age were receiving in college: "I was at large in a wicked seaport of half a million people, with a front seat at every public show." Within seven years, through his enthusiastic attitude and very hard work, including regular eighteen-hour workdays, Mencken had worked his way up to the position of editor in chief of the Herald.
Becoming a public personality
In 1906 the Herald went out of business, and Mencken was hired by the Baltimore Sun. It was his work for this newspaper (which would continue over the next forty-eight years) that would launch his career. Initially Mencken wrote anonymous theater reviews and editorials. In whatever spare time he could find, he worked on two nonfiction books, one about English playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) and one about German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), which were published in 1905 and 1908, respectively.
These scholarly but highly readable works attracted the attention of the editor of a leading magazine called Smart Set, and in 1908 Mencken was hired to write monthly book reviews for the magazine, while continuing to work at the Sun. It was during this period that he began a long and fruitful friendship and partnership with George Jean Nathan (1882–1958), who was a theater critic at Smart Set.
About two years later, Mencken was asked to write a column under his own name for the Sun. Now he would become a public personality, expressing his own views rather than reporting the news as a faceless, objective reporter. Mencken named the column "The Free Lance," perhaps a reference to the sharpness of his wit (since a lance is a kind of spear) as he began his assault on the supposedly respectable aspects of society. His particular targets were religious fanaticism, censorship, and other forces that he considered threatening to individual liberty.
Mencken's column ran for four years but was discontinued in 1915. At this point, a conflict was brewing in Europe, due to Germany's aggression toward other nations, that erupted into World War I (1914–18). Mencken had aggravated many people by initially siding with Germany; this controversial stance led the Sun to cancel his column. Once war broke out, he served briefly as a war correspondent for the newspaper, but after his return in 1917 he was given no more assignments.
An influential literary and social critic
Meanwhile, Mencken's work at Smart Set was establishing his status as an influential literary critic. He was credited with injecting some much-needed rigor and high standards into the field of American literature, as he called for art that questioned accepted ideas and that portrayed life with more realism and truth. He also championed the work, and thus helped establish the careers, of such groundbreaking writers as Theodore Dreiser (1871–1945), Sinclair Lewis (1885–1951; see entry), F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940; see entry), James Joyce (1882–1941), and Eugene O'Neill (1888–1953). The magazine provided these authors with a place to publish their work.
Mencken took advantage of the free time opened up by his severed relationship with the Sun to work on something he had long been planning. In The American Language: A Preliminary Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States (1919), Mencken asserted that the English spoken in the United States was actually a distinct dialect, and he showed how it had evolved over time from the language spoken by the country's first settlers. Both he and his publishers were surprised by the public's enthusiasm for the book, which sold out quickly. Over the next several decades, Mencken would publish periodic updates to this work, which became a classic of linguistic study.
Increasingly Mencken was seen as an insightful observer of and commentator on U.S. culture. Using a singular blend of scorn, humor, and well-crafted writing, he attacked politicians like President Warren G. Harding (1865–1923; served 1921–23; see entry), fundamentalists (conservative Christians who believe that the stories told in the Bible are literally true) like William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925; see entry), crooked businessmen, and the white terrorist group the Ku Klux Klan, among many other targets. Somehow he made it seem that his readers, like him, were above all of the foolishness that he was spotlighting. They were not part of the "booboisie" that bore the sharpest brunt of Mencken's scorn. Underlying all of the humor and ridicule, of course, was a serious belief in individual freedoms and especially the right of the minority to express opinions not held by the majority.
Covering the Scopes trial
During the 1920s Mencken's skill in making his own kind of sense out of a chaotic period of cultural transition made him not only the most influential editor but also one of the most important writers in the nation. In 1920 he was rehired by the Sun and assigned a weekly column that appeared on the newspaper's editorial page. It was in this capacity that Mencken traveled to Dayton, Tennessee, in the summer of 1925 to cover one of the most riveting events of the decade, popularly known as the "Monkey Trial."
Earlier that year, the state of Tennessee had passed a law preventing teachers from sharing with their students the scientific theory of evolution proposed by Charles Darwin (1809–1882), a nineteenth-century scientist whose work traced the development of humans and other species over millions of years. Although the theory suggested that humans and apes may have had common ancestors, it was incorrectly interpreted by some as saying that humans had descended from apes (hence the term Monkey Trial).
Beloved Humorist Will Rogers
Recognized as one of the greatest and most beloved of all U.S. humorists, Will Rogers was well known during the Roaring Twenties for his dry, mocking, and witty comments on the events and trends of the period. His down-home style made him a favorite of people at all levels of society.
Rogers's roots were in the relatively untamed West of the late nineteenth century. He was born in 1879 on a ranch in Oklahoma, which was then known as Indian Territory. Both of his parents were part-Cherokee Indian, and he was proud of his Native American heritage. Rogers never graduated from high school, but he learned to ride horses and rope cattle at a very early age. In 1898 he left home to work as a cowboy in Texas. From there he traveled to Argentina, then across the ocean to South Africa, where his skill in performing rope tricks landed him a place in Texas Jack's Wild West Circus.
Rogers made his New York debut in 1905 and appeared in his first Broadway musical, The Wall Street Girl, in 1912. He worked regularly over the next decade, but was never a headliner. That changed when Rogers, in an effort to make his act more interesting, started telling stories and jokes and making funny comments on the news of the day. His easygoing manner and slow drawl both entertained people and put them at ease, and soon he was focusing more on comedy than roping.
Rogers soon found himself in the spotlight. He was a hit in 1916 when he had a starring role in the Ziegfeld Follies, and he made his film debut in 1918 in Laughing Bill Hyde. During the 1920s Rogers became so well known that his stock phrase, "All I know is what I read in the papers" came into widespread, general use. Beginning in 1926 he wrote a weekly, syndicated newspaper column for the New York Times that was read by an estimated twenty million readers. Beginning in 1930 he also shared his humorous comments on politics and daily life through weekly radio broadcasts.
In 1934 Rogers appeared in renowned playwright Eugene O'Neill's only comedy, Ah, Wilderness! During the late 1920s and early 1930s Rogers starred in such films as A Connecticut Yankee (1931), Judas Priest (1934), and Steamboat 'round the Bend (1935) and became one of the best-loved movie actors of the period.
Rogers died unexpectedly in 1935, when an airplane carrying him and his friend Wiley Post, a noted pilot, crashed en route to Alaska. On his tombstone is engraved one of his most famous sayings: "I never met a man I didn't like."
The theory of evolution seemed to contradict the story of creation found in the Bible, in which God created human beings (beginning with the first man and woman, Adam and Eve) and everything else in the world over the course of one week. Many people felt their traditional values and beliefs were threatened by the idea of evolution, and they sought to prevent it from being taught in public schools.
Soon after the passage of the Tennessee law, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) offered to defend any teacher who wished to test the law's constitutionality. A high school biology teacher named John Scopes (1900–1970) volunteered, and he was arrested after teaching a lesson on evolution. His trial was set for July, and two prominent public figures had offered to represent the two sides of the issue. Leading the prosecution team was politician and fundamentalist activist William Jennings Bryan, and heading up the defense was Clarence Darrow (1857–1938; see entry), a well-respected lawyer famous for successfully defending underdog clients.
Mencken was on hand for most of the trial and was at his most biting. In his reports sent back to the Sun, he described the carnival atmosphere that had overtaken Dayton. In articles with such titles as "Homo Neanderthalensis" and "Tennessee in the Frying Pan," he portrayed the town's residents as ignorant and prejudiced, with Bryan as the central embodiment of religious fanaticism and intolerance. He sarcastically called the defendant "the Infidel Scopes" (an infidel is a person with no religion, or whose religion is not that of the majority) in order to ridicule what he saw as a vicious attack on a teacher's right to share new knowledge and theories with his students.
After reaching a peak with Darrow's merciless grilling of Bryan about his religious beliefs, the trial ended with Scopes's conviction (which would soon be overturned). By the time the trial ended, Mencken had already returned to Baltimore, but his newspaper provided the money for the fine that Scopes was ordered to pay.
More hard work and controversy
The mounting success of Smart Set inspired Mencken and Nathan to start a new magazine called the American Mercury, which was to focus more on commentary and less on literature than Smart Set. By the end of the year, Mencken had taken sole control of the new magazine, injecting his own brand of wit, insight, and intellectual energy into its pages. At the peak of its popularity in 1927, the American Mercury had a circulation of seventy-seven thousand readers. It was especially popular with the younger generation, who had come of age during or soon after World War I and who were eager to hear their own disillusionment and doubts about their increasingly prosperous, materialistic country voiced.
As busy as he was with his journalistic pursuits, Mencken found time to publish a number of books, including a collection of his articles that appeared in Prejudices (a series published between 1919 and 1927) and a volume of political writings, Notes on Democracy (1926). Critics were divided about Mencken: some praised him as one of the most talented writers in the United States, while others called his work bombastic (containing important-sounding but empty language) and shallow, with no strong or lasting message.
With the advent of the Great Depression years (1929–41), when the nation experienced a severe economic downturn and much hardship and suffering, the country's mood shifted, and so did people's taste for Mencken's outrageous style of social criticism. There were serious issues to be faced now, and his writing no longer seemed so funny. Mencken's opposition to the New Deal, the program proposed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45) to offset the effects of the Depression, along with his seeming lack of concern about the rise of German dictator Adolf Hitler (1889–1945), damaged his reputation. Two new books, Treatise on the Gods (1930) and Treatise on Right and Wrong (1934), were not as successful as he had expected.
In 1930 Mencken surprised those who considered him a lifelong bachelor by marrying writer and literature professor Sara Powell Haardt. Her death only five years after their marriage saddened Mencken deeply, and he moved out of the apartment they had shared and back into the house in which he had grown up. Those five years were, in fact, the only time he had lived anywhere besides his childhood home.
One arena in which Mencken's writing continued to shine throughout the 1930s and 1940s was in his coverage of political conventions. These were spectacles that he cherished, and he took joy in exposing the shallowness of the overblown rhetoric with which conventions were filled. In the late 1930s he also began writing some essays about his childhood for the New Yorker magazine. These were published in three volumes: Happy Days, 1880–1892 (1940), Newspaper Days, 1899–1906 (1941), andHeathen Days (1890–1936). These highly personal and readable accounts of Mencken's life were very warmly received.
In 1948 Mencken suffered a stroke that left him unable to read, write, or speak clearly. This was a terrible blow to a man who had built his life around the printed word. He lived for eight more years, cared for by his youngest brother and visited by only a few close friends. He died in his sleep on January 29, 1956.
The appearance of several books published decades after Mencken's death brought him into the spotlight again. In 1989 The Diary of H.L. Mencken appeared, despite Mencken's wish that his journals should never be published. Some readers and critics were dismayed by evidence of anti-Semitic (prejudice against Jews) and racist views found in the diary. Mencken's defenders noted that these were commonly held opinions at the time, and that he had always been a strong defender of equal rights for all. (In fact, the last article Mencken wrote before his stroke pointed out the idiocy of a law prohibiting blacks and whites from playing tennis together.) A similar exchange of opinions about Mencken occurred upon the publication of My Life as an Author and Editor (1993).
For More Information
Bode, Carl. Mencken. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969.
Cairns, Huntington. H.L. Mencken: The American Scene. New York: Vintage Books, 1982.
Manchester, William. Disturber of the Peace: The Life of H.L. Mencken. New York: Harper, 1951.
Mencken, H.L. Newspaper Days, 1899–1906 (1941, reprint). Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.
Mencken, H.L. Prejudices (1927, reprint). Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.
Teachout, Terry. A Life of H.L. Mencken. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.
Burke, Gibbons. "Henry Louis Mencken (1880–1956)." The H.L. Mencken Page. Available online at http://www.io.com/gibbonsb/mencken/. Accessed on June 28, 2005.
"H.L. Mencken Room and Collection." Enoch Pratt Free Library. Available online at http://www.pratt.lib.md.us/slrc/hum/mencken.html. Accessed on June 28, 2005.