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H. L. (Henry Louis) Mencken (September 12, 1880 – January 29, 1956) was a twentieth century journalist and social critic, a cynic and a freethinker, known as the "Sage of Baltimore" and the "American Nietzsche". He is often regarded as one of the most influential American writers of the early 20th century.
H. L. Mencken
Mencken was born in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of a cigar factory owner. He became a reporter for the Baltimore Morning Herald in 1899, and moved to The Baltimore Sun in 1906. At this point in time, he had also begun writing editorial columns that demonstrated the author he would soon become. On the side, he wrote short stories, a novel and even poetry (which he later reviled). In 1908 he also began writing as a literary critic for the magazine The Smart Set . He founded his own influential magazine, The American Mercury in January of 1924, which soon had a national circulation.
Mencken is perhaps best remembered today for The American Language, his exhaustive, multi-volume study of how the English language is spoken in the United States, and his scathingly satirical reporting on the prosecution, judge, jury, and venue of the Scopes trial, which he is credited for naming the "Monkey" trial.
Among Mencken's influences were Rudyard Kipling, Friedrich Nietzsche, Joseph Conrad, and especially Mark Twain.
In his capacity as editor and "man of ideas" Mencken became close friends with the leading literary figures of his time, including Theodore Dreiser, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Alfred Knopf, as well as a mentor to several young reporters, including Alastair Cooke.
Mencken was an outspoken defender of freedom of conscience and civil rights, an opponent of persecution and of injustice and of the puritanism and self-righteousness that masks the oppressive impulse. As a nationally syndicated columnist and author of numerous books he notably assaulted America's preoccupation with fundamentalist Christianity, attacked the "Booboisie," his word for the ignorant middle classes, and heaped scorn not only upon most democratic officials but American democracy itself. In 1931, the legislature of the state of Arkansas passed a motion to pray for Mencken's soul, after he had raised the state to the "apex of moronia".
Most commentators regard his views as libertarian, but some of Mencken's writing displays elitism, and at times a pronounced racist element in excess of early-twentieth century Social Darwinist thought:
- "The educated Negro of today is a failure, not because he meets insuperable difficulties in life, but because he is a Negro. His brain is not fitted for the higher forms of mental effort; his ideals, no matter how laboriously he is trained and sheltered, remain those of a clown.".
In addition to these allegations, Mencken has been referred to as anti-Semitic and misogynistic. Many of these charges appear to be at least superficially accurate, and Mencken went on the record in many places dismissing Hitler as "hardly more than a common Ku Kluxer." Another allegation levelled against him was that he was frequently obsessed with the importance of social status or class. For example, Mencken broke off a relationship of many years with his lover, Marion Bloom, when they were arranging to be married. Critics saw this as being due to Bloom being insufficiently wealthy, upper-class, and sophisticated for him. Mencken however claimed he ended the relationship because she converted to Christian Science.
Despite the allegations of racism and elitism, Mencken sometimes acted in a manner which tended to upset such views about his character. For example, the most published author during his tenure as editor of The Smart Set was a woman; he helped Jews escape from Nazi Germany during World War II; and on several occasions, Mencken referred to African-Americans as being the equal of whites, in stark contrast to his other overtly racist comments.
Mencken sometimes took positions in his essays more for shock value than for deep-seated conviction, such as his essay arguing that the Anglo-Saxon race was demonstrably the most cowardly in human history, published at a time when much of his readership considered Anglo-Saxons the noble pinnacle of civilization. He captivated young intellectuals with total assurance and a delightfully hateful, but no less erudite style.
Mencken suffered a cerebral thrombosis in 1948, from which he never fully recovered. Ironically, and unfortunately, the damage to his brain left him fully conscious and aware but unable to read or write. In his later years he enjoyed listening to classical music and talking with friends, but he sometimes referred to himself in the past tense as if already dead.
Mencken was, in fact, preoccupied with how he would be perceived after his death, and he spent this period of time organizing his papers, letters, newspaper clippings and columns. His personal materials were released in 1971, 1981, and 1991 (starting 15 years after his death), and were so thorough they even included grade-school report cards. Hundreds of thousands of letters were included - the only omissions were strictly personal letters received from women.
He died in 1956 and was interred in the Loudon Park Cemetery in Baltimore, Maryland. His epitaph reads:
- If after I depart this vale you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner, and wink your eye at some homely girl.
Mencken suggested this epitaph in The Smart Set. After his death, it was inscribed on a plaque in the lobby of The Baltimore Sun. The well-known journalist P. J. O'Rourke called Mencken the "...creator of a new and distinct style of journalism I like to call 'big-city smartass.'"