Mencken, H. L. (1880-1956)

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Mencken, H. L. (1880-1956)

From the 1920s through the 1950s, H. L. Mencken was one of the best-known and most feared writers in the United States. Professionally, Mencken was a newspaperman (for the Baltimore Evening Sun), a literary and social critic who debunked pompous politicians and simple-minded Americans as belonging to the "booboisie," a magazine editor (of The American Mercury), and a philologist (as author of the unscholarly but esteemed The American Language). Temperamentally, he was a curmudgeon, iconoclast, satirist, cynic, and writer provocateur. Known for his acid wit, he spared no one and pilloried everyone. He was both ruthless and rigid, Edmund Wilson once said, and also courageous and fearless. Mencken did not suffer fools gladly, if at all, although he was probably glad for their presence because they provided fodder for his newspaper and magazine columns. He has been compared with Thomas Paine, Jonathan Swift, and Mark Twain.

The comparison with Twain would no doubt make Mencken proud. As a child, he read voraciously; Twain was his favorite author and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn his favorite book. The idiosyncratic intellectual who become known as the "Sage of Baltimore" never went to college, but gave no evidence of being unlettered. Mencken started his newspaper career at the age of 18 in 1899 at the Morning Herald in his native Baltimore. He got the job through persistence by offering to work for free, and was hired when he quickly showed his talent as a reporter. His first published story was about the theft of a horse, buggy, and several sets of harnesses. Within a year, he was pontificating on subjects far and wide in his own weekly column on the editorial page, in which he also published some of his own poetry. He brought to the page an original and fresh point of view and also began to contribute to national magazines such as Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly, which helped expand his audience from local to national.

In 1906, Mencken joined the Baltimore Evening Sun, and he would remain affiliated with the Sun papers for most of his lifetime. Later, he became a literary reviewer for The Smart Set, a second-tier but important magazine. In 1920 he rejoined the Sun and resumed his weekly commentary. In 1924 he became co-editor of a new magazine, The American Mercury, over which he had total editorial control in a year. As the editor of the Mercury, Mencken went to Boston to sell an issue of the magazine so he could be arrested for selling material that was considered indecent by the standards of the day. The judge threw out the case, and Mencken's star rose because he had thumbed his nose at the bluenoses. By then, he was widely known and widely discussed. He was an intellectual who rose to the top at a time when the written word was supreme, not yet in competition with radio and television. The written word was the medium for conveying ideas, and Mencken's blunt and fresh prose set him off from many other writers of the day.

During the culture wars of the 1920s, Mencken was clearly on the side of the modernists; he coined such phrases as "the Bible Belt" and "the Monkey trial" to refer derisively to the 1925 trial of John Scopes, the Tennessee school teacher who had been arrested for teaching evolution. The trial pitted William Jennings Bryan against Clarence Darrow, and when Bryan died as the trial ended, Mencken wrote: "There was something peculiarly fitting in the fact that his last days were spent in a one-horse Tennessee village, beating off the flies and gnats, and that death found him there."

When he was putting down certain elements in American society, Mencken would refer to them as "homo boobensis Americanus" or "homo boobiens," more of his neologisms for the "booboisie." He was hard on religion of any stripe and once referred to an unnamed evangelist as a "Presbyterian auctioneer of God." He said that Puritans had "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy." Politicians were also among his targets. Of the long-winded 1932 convention that nominated Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who went on to become a four-term president, Mencken wrote of speaker after boring speaker: "More than once weary delegates objected that the Niagara of bilge was killing them and along toward four in the morning Josephus Daniels went to the platform and protested against it formally." As was often the case with Mencken, the phrase "Niagara of bilge" was original. He did not write that patriotism is the last vestige of a scoundrel—that phrase is rightly credited to Samuel Johnson—but he did say: "Whenever you hear a man speak of his love for his country it is a sign that he expects to be paid for it." Displaying his contempt for the masses, Mencken once said: "Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard."

Mencken spent the early part of his life in effect disavowing his German roots, but was later accused of being soft on Hitler, anti-Semitic, and racist. His diary, published nearly 40 years after his death, resulted in an anti-Mencken backlash, which is somewhat surprising given that his equally pointed letters had been published 20 years earlier, but not so when it is understood that the diary appeared as a politically incorrect document in a generation that valued political correctness. It is sometimes difficult reconciling the private Mencken with the public Mencken. During his lifetime and after his death, several prominent Jews and blacks came to his defense, and shortly before a cerebral thrombosis in 1948 ended his public career, he wrote a piece for the Evening Sun condemning the Baltimore Park Board for a law that forbade blacks and whites from playing tennis together on municipal courts. Even if the board had the right to make the law, Mencken argued that such a law reflected neither common sense nor common decency.

Mencken was a prodigious writer. In addition to his essays, he wrote (counting subsequent editions) more than fifteen books. The most enduring of them was The American Language, whose first edition appeared in 1919. By the time the fourth edition was published in 1936, it was believed to be a significant if unscholarly contribution to the field of philology. Unlike much of what Mencken wrote, The American Language was a book in praise of something, although he jabbed at anyone who was pretentious, including real-estate agents who wanted to be known as "Realtors" and who insisted that the word was protected by trademark and should therefore be capitalized. Mencken wrote the book to lay out the differences between the "English" spoken in Great Britain and the "American" spoken in the United States, and so it was for three editions. But when the fourth appeared, Mencken noted that American had begun to subsume English, a sign not only of the growing U.S. influence after World War I but also an indication that the British had become more accepting of American English. The book is heavily footnoted, for Mencken was profuse in acknowledging the many tips that came his way from readers of earlier editions.

A handsome man, Mencken parted his hair down the middle. Photographs almost always show him with a cigar in his mouth, no doubt a habit he acquired because his father was a cigar manufacturer. A contemporary, Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, described the journalist in 1927: "… I saw a rather short, stocky figure of a man whose blue eyes shone ahead of him like a sort of searchlight. He leaned a little forward, stooping his shoulders, as if to hasten his pace, and he was strongly careened to the right: a boat under full sail." His good looks and intellect made him attractive to women and he certainly had numerous sexual liaisons, but he did not marry until 1930, after his mother died. That childless marriage, to a woman nearly two decades his junior, was cut short by his wife's death in 1935. He never remarried.

—R. Thomas Berner

Further Reading:

Bode, Carl. Mencken. Baltimore and London, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1969, 1986.

——, editor. The New Mencken Letters. New York, The Dial Press, 1977.

Cooke, Alistair, editor. The Vintage Mencken. New York, Vintage Books, 1955.

Hobson, Fred. Mencken: A Life. New York, Random House, 1994.

Mencken, H. L. The American Language. New York, Knopf, 1919.

——. Thirty-five Years of Newspaper Work. Baltimore and London, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994

Stenerson, Douglas C. Critical Essays on H. L. Mencken. Boston, G. K. Hall & Co., 1987.