Mencken, H. L.

views updated May 23 2018


Henry Louis Mencken (September 12, 1880–January 29, 1956) was a newspaperman, magazine editor, literary critic, political pundit, language scholar, and curmudgeon. He was known as the "Sage of Baltimore," the city where he was born and where he died. Mencken resisted all attempts to lure him away from his native town to more lucrative literary pursuits in New York. He hated New York, loved Baltimore, and wrote of it with affection, nostalgia, and at times brutal honesty. He remains one of the city's most famous authors.

Mencken began his journalistic career in 1899 as a reporter for the Baltimore Morning Herald, and when that paper folded in 1906 he joined the Baltimore Sun, where he remained for the rest of his life. In 1908 he became book editor of the Smart Set magazine, and in 1914 he and his friend and colleague, George Jean Nathan, became its co-editors. They left the magazine in 1924 to found The American Mercury, which Mencken continued to edit until 1933.

Mencken's bludgeon-like, hammer-blow style, which he used to attack democracy and the "genteel tradition" in American literature, made him the most famous (and also the most hated) critic of the 1920s. But while engaged in these demolition projects he was also turning out edition after edition of a great scholarly work, The American Language (first published in 1919), in which he studied the way that English had developed in the United States.

Mencken's popularity and immense influence came to an end with the Depression for the simple reason that he refused for a long time to admit that anything had happened. When he could no longer ignore the Depression, he claimed that its effects were being greatly exaggerated by the "incompetent unemployed." His fanatical hatred of Franklin D. Roosevelt made him reject and ridicule all the New Deal programs to restore the economy; he blamed Roosevelt for saddling the country with an impossible load of debt and for dragging it into World War II. But Mencken paid a heavy price for this attitude: By the mid-1930s his lone dissenting voice was largely ignored and forgotten.

Mencken came back in the early 1940s with three delightful volumes of autobiography (the Days books) and a new edition and two huge supplements of The American Language. These brought him a new, more solid reputation and a wider audience. But the publication of his Diary in 1989, with its blatant anti-Semitism, turned him once more, thirty-three years after his death, into a highly controversial figure.



Fecher, Charles A. Mencken: A Study of His Thought. 1978.

Fitzpatrick, Vincent. H. L. Mencken. 1989.

Hobson, Fred. Mencken: A Life. 1994.

Charles A. Fecher

Mencken, H.L.

views updated May 17 2018

Mencken, H.L. ( Henry Louis) (1880–1956) US social critic. A brilliantly witty and ferociously savage critic of US middle-class culture, his influence was at its height while he was editor of the American Mercury (1924–33). In addition to his essays and journalism, he wrote a multi-volume study of The American Language (1919–48).