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Mencken, H. L.

H. L. Mencken: (Henry Louis Mencken) (mĕng´kən, mĕn´–), 1880–1956, American editor, author, and critic, b. Baltimore, studied at the Baltimore Polytechnic. Probably America's most influential journalist, he began his career on the Baltimore Morning Herald at the age of 18, became editor of the Baltimore Evening Herald, and from 1906 until his death was on the staff of the Baltimore Sun or Evening Sun. He also played a key role in the production of two extremely influential national magazines. From 1914 to 1923 he was coeditor of the Smart Set with George Jean Nathan; together they founded the American Mercury in 1924, and Mencken was its sole editor from 1925 to 1933.

Mencken's pungent, iconoclastic criticism and scathing invective, although aimed at all smugly complacent attitudes, was chiefly directed at what he saw as the ignorant, self-righteous, and overly credulous American middle class, members of which he dubbed Boobus americanus. His essays were collected in a series of six volumes, Prejudices (1919–27; repr. in 2 vol., 2010). In the field of philology he compiled a monumental and lively study, The American Language (1st ed. 1919; 4th ed. 1936; with supplements, 1946, 1948). Among his other works are George Bernard Shaw: His Plays (1905), In Defense of Women (1917), Treatise of the Gods (1930), and the autobiographical trilogy Happy Days, 1880–1892 (1940), Newspaper Days, 1899–1906 (1941), and Heathen Days, 1890–1936 (1943), collected in one volume in 1947. Mencken also fought against the strain of Puritanism in American literature and was an important literary champion of such writers as Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, and Eugene O'Neill. His keen interest in and intelligent appraisal of 20th-century American letters are evident in the essays collected in H. L. Mencken on American Literature (2002).

Bibliography

See his letters (ed. by G. L. Forgue, 1961) and diary (ed. by C. A. Fecher, 1990); biographies by W. Manchester (1950), C. Angoff (1956), S. Mayfield (1968), C. Bode (1969), F. C. Hobson, Jr. (1994), and T. Teachout (2002); studies by D. C. Stenerson (1971), F. C. Hobson, Jr. (1974), C. Scruggs (1984), and E. A. Martin (1984); A. Bulsterbaum, H. L. Mencken: A Research Guide (1988).

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Mencken, H.L.

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).

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Mencken, H. L.

MENCKEN, H. L.

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.

See Also: COMMUNICATIONS AND THE PRESS; LITERATURE.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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

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