The essays of H.L.Mencken were critical of all aspects of American culture and influenced American thought for over 50 years, setting the standard for satire in his day, especially during the 15-year period following World War I and just prior to the start of the Great Depression. Walter Lippmann referred to Mencken as “the most powerful influence upon his whole generation of American people.” As an essayist he reflected the same provocative and iconoclastic themes as in his work as a newspaper and magazine journalist, editor, author, and contributor to other works. By one estimate, he wrote nearly 3000 newspaper columns. Many of these began as literary criticism and were later advanced in essay form, appearing as part of his six-volume Prejudices series (1919–27).
His essays are still widely read.
Mencken first gained recognition as a newspaperman at the Baltimore Sun, serving as editor, columnist, and political and war correspondent. He maintained his Baltimore residence throughout his life and, given many opportunities to relocate, argued: “The very richest man, in New York, is never quite sure that the house he lives in now will be his the next year …the restlessness and unhappiness that go with it, make it almost impossible for anyone to accumulate the materials of a home” (“On Living in Baltimore,” 1926). The course of Mencken’s reporting career was cut short by a pro-German position he took during World War I, which proved an obstacle to his standing as a civil libertarian, a theme in many of his later essays. Mencken subsequently became author and columnist for “The Free Lance,” gaining acclaim as a humorist, iconoclast, and agnostic, attacking moralists of every stripe and self-styled censors, the “smuthounds.”
Two important early essays appeared first in the Baltimore Sun in 1917, in praise of critic James Gibbons Huneker and writer Joseph Conrad. Mencken became an agent of literary revolt during this period with essays contributed to a wide range of popular and select publications, thus reaching a large and diverse audience. These included conservative political journals, special interest periodicals, and high-brow publications.
The Nation and the New Yorker printed his essays as well as Cosmopolitan and Reader’s Digest. Later the Yale Review published “American Language” (1936), which became a consistent favorite among American instructors of literature.
Mencken’s literary interests were stimulated by participation in a group calling itself the Saturday Night Club. This association spurred publication of his essays and short stories for popular magazines. Short Stories magazine was the principal outlet for his essays during this early period (1906–10), although others appeared in Redbook and Frank Leslie’s Popular Magazine. At Leslie’s, Mencken made the acquaintance of Ellery Sedgwick, an association that would create the stimulus for much of his prose nonfiction work. Shortly after Mencken returned to Baltimore from coverage of Berlin in 1917, Sedgwick asked him to write an article for the Atlantic Monthly, for a time after that Mencken devoted most of his energies to writing magazine articles.
Mencken coauthored two essays on medical issues with Baltimore physician Leonard Hirshberg which caught the attention of Theodore Dreiser, who invited a series on child care. Mencken declined the offer but submitted instead “The Slaughter of the Innocents” (1909), which he had ghost-written under Hirshberg’s name. Dreiser ran that piece as part of a series, then began to correspond with Mencken. This resulted in their meeting in New York in 1908 and the invitation to write humorous essays for the Bohemian magazine. Dreiser also recommended Mencken as book reviewer for the New York literary monthly, Smart Set, which is often recognized as the turning point in his writing career. In the “Magazine of Cleverness,” a subtitle Mencken despised, the new literary home offered a counterpoint to his own natural writing tendencies which emphasized a sense of the absurd and attacked the more ludicrous and bizarre aspects of American letters.
During the next decade at Smart Set Mencken estimated that he read 4000 books, reviewing major works by the likes of Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, Henry James, and even F.Scott Fitzgerald, whose first published story appeared in the magazine. As editor, Mencken published manuscripts by young American writers Zoë Akins, Eugene O’Neill, and Dorothy Parker. In this way he encouraged the growth of American literature and, at the same time, produced some of his best literary criticism, a calling he viewed as a combination of information and entertainment.
In 1914 Mencken assumed coeditorship of Smart Set, along with New York drama critic George Jean Nathan, later joining his partner in founding the American Mercury, giving him a sustained national readership. His work included In Defense of Women (1918), in which he attacked the institution of marriage, and “Treatise on Right and Wrong” (1934), for which he was widely assailed by critics. The “Days” trilogy constituting his autobiography was later published in the early 1940s from essays he had written for the New Yorker. Beginning with his childhood, or “Happy Days,” as he dubbed them, Mencken credited his disposition to his upbringing in Baltimore, a satisfying, secure, and protected environment.
For Mencken, nothing about American culture was sacred. He savaged public figures with his satire, but focused unmercifully as well on general elements of the society he referred to as “Boobus Americanus.” He often took the position that the average American had lost a love of liberty, become complacent and fainthearted, thereby inviting leadership by what he termed “cheer leaders, press agents, up-lifters.” In politics, literature, and religion—those enterprises, according to Mencken, inclined to dullness— he strongly asserted that each had reached unheard-of heights of stupidity in the United States. He expressed disgust for all manner of politicians, describing them as either master rogues or major bores. He likened Warren Harding’s inaugural address to “dogs barking idiotically through endless nights.” His classic, often-repeated line, upon hearing of the death of Calvin Coolidge, was “How can they be sure?” He referred to Franklin Roosevelt as “Franklin the First,” or “Our Lord and Master,” casting FDR alongside Woodrow Wilson and William Jennings Bryan as part of Mencken’s “triumvirate of shame,” labeling them respectively as “thief, liar and fool.” His obituary of Bryan, “In Memoriam: WJB” (1926), evaluating the life work of the populist figure, written right after the Scopes-Monkey trial, stands as one of his famous and most frequently reprinted essays.
In his essay “On Being an American” (1922,), Mencken lambasted virtually every immigrant ethnic group, castigating them as “second rate Englishmen,” uncivilized and out of touch with their own national culture. In “Sahara of the Bozart” (1917), an essay written originally for the New York Evening Mail, he targeted especially the southern U.S. for its post-Civil War lack of culture. He then published his longest essay entitled “Puritanism as a Literary Force” (1917), which critiqued major literary figures and the influence of the British. He questioned whether intellectual life would exist at all in the U.S. were it not for regular imports from abroad, with London identified as the principal clearing house for new ideas. In “Three American Immortals” (1919) he revisited the promise of major American literary figures, including Emerson, Whitman, and Poe.
Mencken also condemned the limited accomplishments of those to come later, American writers preoccupied with the desires of their fellow men as opposed to the great bulk of serious writing by Dostoevskii and Dreiser, for example, in which the hero’s battle ends in defeat, often oblivion. He added that on those rare occasions in which American literary figures have shown signs of enterprise, they have usually reacted to a hostility toward their ideas by departing for alien shores. Mencken observed no earnest pursuit of aesthetic passion in intellectual work but merely uninspiring and self-conscious efforts on a par with English music and German painting. These concerns were lost, he said, on an uncritical American public. He used Shaw as an example, “a blue nose” passed off to America as an Irish patriot.
Mencken consistently mocked American education. He maintained that most American scholars would be entirely lost if they were unable to borrow from others, adding that their limited mental capacity made it impossible for them to take on difficult enterprises.
As a result, academic institutions were suffering from attempts to Americanize their curriculum. In “Criticism of Criticism of Criticism” (1919) he compared a professor with a theory to a dog with fleas. His assault on the style of Thorstein Veblen, entitled “Professor Veblen” (1919), and his comic evaluation of Columbia University President Nicholas Murray Butler—“He is a member of the American Academy himself, elected as a wet to succeed Edgar Allan Poe” (“Want Ad,” 1919)—continue to delight readers.
As to his own motivation, Mencken said: “…an author, like any other so-called artist, is a man in whom the normal vanity of all men is so vastly exaggerated that he feels the sheer impossibility to hold it in. His overpowering impulse is to gyrate before his fellow men, flapping his wings and emitting defiant yells” (“The Fringes of Lovely Letters,” 1926). He followed his own counsel and wrote his “yells” in the form of personal reminiscent essays, which remain among his most popular works.
Henry Louis Mencken. Born 12 September 1880 in Baltimore, Maryland. Studied at the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, 1892–96. Worked in his father’s cigar factory, 1896–99.
Reporter or editor for several Baltimore papers, 1899–16; literary critic, 1908–23, and editor, with George Jean Nathan, 1914–23, Smart Set, New York; founder, with Nathan, Parisienne, Saucy Stories, and Black Mask pulp magazines, late 1910S, and American Mercury (also editor), 1923–33; war correspondent in Germany, 1916–18; literary adviser, Knopf publishers, New York, from 1917; columnist, New York Evening Mail, 1917–18, and of “The Free Lance,” Baltimore Sunpapers, 1919–41 and 1948;
contributor, Chicago Tribune, 1924–28, New York American, 1934–35, and the Nation, 1931–32. Married Sara Powell Haardt, 1930 (died, 1935). Suffered a stroke which impaired his speech, 1949.
Awards: American Academy Gold Medal, 1950. Died (of heart failure) in Baltimore, 29 January 1956.
Essays and Related Prose
A Book of Prefaces, 1917
In Defense of Women, 1918
Prejudices, 6 vols., 1919–27; Prejudices: A Selection, edited by James T.Farrell, 1958
Happy Days: 1880–1892, 1940
Newspaper Days: 1899–1906, 1941
Heathen Days: 1890–1936, 1943
The Vintage Mencken, edited by Alistair Cooke, 1955
A Carnival of Buncombe, edited by Malcolm Moos, 1956; as On Politics, 1960
The Bathtub Hoax, and Other Blasts and Bravos from the Chicago Tribune, edited by Robert McHugh, 1958
Smart Set Criticism, edited by William H.Nolte, 1968
The Young Mencken: The Best of His Work, edited by Carl Bode, 1973
A Choice of Days (selection), edited by Edward L.Galligan, 1980
The Impossible Mencken: A Selection of His Best Newspaper Stories, edited by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, 1991
Other writings: Ventures into Verse (1903), George Bernard Shaw (1905), The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (1908), The Artist: A Drama Without Words (1912), A Little Book in C Major (1916), Damn! A Book of Calumny (1918), The American Language (1919 and later revisions and supplements), memoirs (including Thirty-Five Years of Newspaper Work: A Memoir, edited by Fred Hobson, Vincent Fitzpatrick, and Bradford Jacobs, 1994), diaries, and correspondence.
Adler, Betty, and Jane Wilhelm, H.L.M.: The Mencken Bibliography, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1961
Adler, Betty, The Mencken Bibliography: A Ten-Year Supplement, 1962–1971, Baltimore: Enoch Pratt Free Library, 1971
Bulsterbaum, Allison, H.L.Mencken: A Research Guide, New York: Garland, 1988
Fitzpatrick, Vincent, HLM: The Mencken Bibliography, a Second Ten-Year Supplement, 1972–1981, Baltimore: Enoch Pratt Free Library, 1986
Frey, Carroll, A Bibliography of tbe Writings of H.L.Mencken, Folcroft, Pennsylvania: Folcroft, 1969 (original edition, 1924)
Porter, Bern, H.L.Mencken: A Bibliography, Pasadena, California: Geddes Press, 1957
Angoff, Charles, H.L.Mencken: A Portrait from Memory, New York: Yoseloff, 1956
Bode, Carl, Mencken, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969
Boyd, Ernest, H.L.Mencken, New York: McBride, 1925
Cooke, Alistair, “The Baltimore Fox: An Appraisal by a British Journalist of a Writer with an Inimitable Style,” Saturday Review, 10 September 1955; from Cooke’s Introduction to The Vintage Mencken, edited by Cooke, New York: Vintage, 1955
Cooke, Alistair, “The Last Happy Days of H.L.Mencken,” Atlantic Monthly 197 (May 1956): 33–38
Dorsey, John, editor, On Mencken, New York: Knopf, 1980
Douglas, George H., H.L.Mencken: Critic of American Life, Hamden, Connecticut: Archon, 1978
Downs, Robert B., “The Great Debunker,” in his Books That Changed America, New York: Macmillan, 1970
Farrell, James T., “Dr. Mencken: Criticus Americanus,” in his Reflections at Fifty and Other Essays, New York: Vanguard Press, 1954; London: Spearman, 1956
Goldberg, Isaac, The Man Mencken: A Biographical and Critical Survey, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1925
Hecht, Ben, “About Mencken,” in his Letters from Bohemia, Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1964
Kemler, Edgar, The Irreverent Mr. Mencken, Boston: Little Brown, 1950
Kummer, Frederic Arnold, “Something Must Have Happened to Henry,” Bookman 65 (June 1927)
Leary, Lewis, “H.L.Mencken: Changeless Critic in Changing Times,” in The Young Rebel in American Literature, edited by Carl Bode, London: Heinemann, 1959; New York: Praeger, 1960
Manchester, William, Disturber of the Peace: The Life of H.L. Mencken, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1986 (original edition, 1951)
Mayfield, Sara, The Constant Circle: H.L.Mencken and His Friends, New York: Delacorte Press, 1968
Nolte, William H., H.L.Mencken: Literary Critic, Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1966
Rubin, Louis D., “H.L.Mencken of the Baltimore Sunpapers,” Virginia Quarterly Review 71 (Spring 1995)
Stenerson, Douglas C., H.L.Mencken: lconoclast from Baltimore, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971
William, W.H.A., H.L. Mencken, Boston: Twayne, 1977
Williams, Michael, “Mencken’s Bible for Boobs,” Commonweal, 2 April 1930
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