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Henry Louis "H. L." Mencken (September 12, 1880 – January 29, 1956), was an American journalist, essayist, magazine editor, satirist, acerbic critic of American life and culture, and a student of American English. Mencken, known as the "Sage of Baltimoremarker", is regarded as one of the most influential American writers and prose stylists of the first half of the 20th century.

Mencken is known for writing The American Language, a multi-volume study of how the English language is spoken in the United States, and for his satirical reporting on the Scopes trial, which he named the "Monkey" trial.

Life

Mencken was the son of August Mencken, Sr., a cigar factory owner of German extraction. When Henry was three, his family moved into a new home at 1524 Hollins Street, in the Union Squaremarker neighborhood of Baltimore. Apart from five years of married life, Mencken was to live in that house for the rest of his days.

Mencken's parents insisted that his high school education favor the practical over the intellectual, and very early on he took a night class in how to write copy for newspapers and business. This was to be all of Mencken's formal education in journalism, or indeed in any other subject, as he never attended college.

Mencken became a reporter for the Baltimore Morning Herald in 1899, then moved to The Baltimore Sun in 1906. He continued to contribute to the Sun full time until 1948, when he ceased to write.

In only a few years' time, Mencken began writing the editorials and opinion pieces that made his name. On the side, he wrote short stories, a novel, and even poetry – which he later reviled. In 1908, he became a literary critic for the magazine The Smart Set, and in 1924, he and George Jean Nathan founded and edited The American Mercury, published by Alfred A. Knopf. It soon developed a national circulation and became highly influential on college campuses across America. In 1933, Mencken resigned as editor.

In 1930, Mencken married Sara Haardt, a professor of English at Goucher Collegemarker in Baltimore and an author who was 18 years his junior. Haardt had led efforts in Alabama to ratify the 19th Amendment. The two had met in 1923 after Mencken delivered a lecture at Goucher; a seven-year courtship ensued. The marriage made national headlines, and many were surprised that Mencken, who once called marriage "the end of hope" and who was well known for mocking relations between the sexes, had gone to the altar. "The Holy Spirit informed and inspired me," Mencken said. "Like all other infidels, I am superstitious and always follow hunches: this one seemed to be a superb one." Even more startling, he was marrying an Alabama native despite his having written scathing essays about the American South.

Haardt was in poor health from tuberculosis throughout their marriage and died in 1935 of meningitis, leaving Mencken grief-stricken. He had always supported her writing, and after her death had a collection of her short stories published under the title Southern Album.

During the Great Depression, Mencken did not support the New Deal. This cost him popularity, as did his strong reservations regarding the United States' participation in WWII, and his overt contempt for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He ceased writing for the Baltimore Sun for several years, focusing on his memoirs and other projects as editor, while serving as an advisor for the paper that had been his home for nearly his entire career. In 1948, he briefly returned to the political scene, covering the presidential election in which President Harry S. Truman faced Republican Thomas Dewey and Henry A. Wallace of the Progressive Party. After the election, Mencken suffered a stroke that left him aware and fully conscious but unable to read, write, or speak. Besides his last political campaign, his later work consisted of humorous, anecdotal, and nostalgic essays, first published in The New Yorker, then collected in the books Happy Days, Newspaper Days, and Heathen Days.

After his stroke, Mencken enjoyed listening to European classical music and, apparently after some recovery of his ability to speak, talking with friends, but he sometimes referred to himself in the past tense as if already dead. Preoccupied as he was with how he would be perceived after his death, he organized his papers, letters, newspaper clippings and columns, even grade school report cards, despite being unable to read. These materials were made available to scholars in stages, in 1971, 1981, and 1991, and include hundreds of thousands of letters sent and received - the only omissions were strictly personal letters received from women.

Mencken died on January 29, 1956. He was interred in Baltimore's Loudon Park Cemetery. 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."
After his death, this was also inscribed on a plaque in the lobby of The Baltimore Sun.Mencken had suggested this epitaph for himself in something he had written for The Smart Set many decades earlier.

The "man of ideas"

In his capacity as editor and "man of ideas," Mencken became close friends with the leading literary figures of his time, including Theodore Dreiser who introduced him to Charles Fort and the Fortean Society, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ben Hecht, Sinclair Lewis, James Branch Cabell, and Alfred Knopf, as well as a mentor to several young reporters, including Alistair Cooke. He also championed artists whose works he considered worthy. For example, he asserted that books such as Caught Short! A Saga of Wailing Wall Street (1929), by Eddie Cantor (ghost written by David Freedman) did more to pull America out of the Great Depression than all government measures combined. He also mentored John Fante. In a July 1934 letter, Ayn Rand, (A Z Rosenbaum), addressed Mencken as "the greatest representative of a philosophy" to which she wanted to dedicate her life, and, in later years, listed him as her favorite columnist.

Mencken frankly admired Friedrich Nietzsche—he was the first writer in English to provide a scholarly analysis of Nietzsche's writings and philosophy—and Joseph Conrad. His humor and satire owe much to Ambrose Bierce and Mark Twain. He did much to defend Theodore Dreiser, despite freely admitting his faults, including stating forthrightly that Dreiser often wrote badly and was a gullible man. Mencken also expressed his appreciation for William Graham Sumner in a 1941 collection of Sumner's essays, and regretted never having known Sumner personally.
For Mencken, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was the finest work of American literature. Much of that book relates how gullible and ignorant country "boobs" (as Mencken referred to them) are swindled by confidence men like the (deliberately) pathetic "Duke" and "Dauphin" roustabouts with whom Huck and Jim travel down the Mississippi River. These scam-artists swindle by posing as enlightened speakers on temperance (to obtain the funds to get roaring drunk), as pious "saved" men seeking funds for far off evangelistic missions (to pirates on the high seas, no less), and as learned doctors of phrenology (who can barely spell). Mencken read the novel as a story of America's hilarious dark side, a place where democracy, as defined by Mencken, is "...the worship of Jackals by Jackasses."

As a nationally syndicated columnist and book author, he notably attacked ignorance, intolerance, "frauds," fundamentalist Christianity, osteopathy, chiropractic, and the "Booboisie," his word for the ignorant middle classes. In 1926, he deliberately had himself arrested for selling an issue of The American Mercury that was banned in Boston under the Comstock laws. Mencken heaped scorn not only on the public officials he disliked, but also on the contemporary state of American democracy itself: in 1931, the Arkansasmarker legislature passed a motion to pray for Mencken's soul after he had called the state the "apex of moronia."

Saturday Night Club and rivalry with Heinrich E. Buchholz

Mencken had a great interest in music. He joined a local Baltimore club known as the Saturday Night Club. The Saturday Night Club was a gathering of local men who got together once a week and played music. It was there he met a fellow writer, Heinrich Ewald Buchholz. Buchholz was a writer for the Baltimore Sun and also published a number of books on education and democracy. Though he lacked musical talent, Buchholz served as secretary for The Saturday Night Club, often miscategorizing sheet music.

Mencken and Buchholz soon formed a close friendship, which within time, turned to a friendly rivalry. The two writers intellectually challenged one another on many occasions,and Buchholz would soon begin to regard Mencken as his literary hero. Mencken and Buchholz's intellectual feud added stimulation and intelligence to their conversations. For almost 40 years, the two men carried on these battles, which was seen chiefly as an expression of their deep friendship. One of Buchholz's major writing,Of What Use Are the Common People, was reviewed by Mencken. Although Mencken was harsh, Buchholz considered it an honor. The two men continued their friendly rivalry until Buchholz's sudden illness and death.

Buchholz is best know for his contributions to The Baltimore Sun, which focused on local education. For the majority of his career, he wrote under the pen name Ezekiel Cheever. This was the name of a famous English school teacher of the 1600s. Buchholz, writing chiefly on education found it a fitting homage to such a great and revolutionary teacher. It is also interesting to note that the original Ezekiel Cheever's son of the same name was the influence for a character of the same name in Arthur Miller's The Crucible.

Positions

Elitism

Instead of arguing that one race or group was superior to another, Mencken believed that every community — whether the community of train porters, blacks, newspapermen, or artists — produced a few people of clear superiority. He considered groupings on a par with hierarchies, which led to a kind of natural elitism and natural aristocracy. "Superior" individuals, in Mencken's view, were those wrongly oppressed and disdained by their own communities, but nevertheless distinguished by their will and personal achievement — not by race or birth. Based on his achievement and work ethic, Mencken considered himself a member of this group.

In 1989, per his instructions, Alfred A. Knopf published Mencken's "secret diary" as The Diary of H. L. Mencken. According to an item in the South Bay (California) Daily Breeze [8690] on December 5, 1989, titled "Mencken's Secret Diary Shows Racist Leanings," Mencken's views shocked even the "sympathetic scholar who edited it," Charles A. Fecher of Baltimore. There was a club in Baltimore called the Maryland Club which had one Jewish member, and that member died. Mencken said "There is no other Jew in Baltimoremarker who seems suitable," according to the article. And the diary quoted him as saying of blacks, in 1943, "...it is impossible to talk anything resembling discretion or judgment to a colored woman..." But violence against blacks outraged Mencken. For example, he had this to say about a Maryland lynching:

"Not a single bigwig came forward in the emergency, though the whole town knew what was afoot.
Any one of a score of such bigwigs might have halted the crime, if only by threatening to denounce its perpetrators, but none spoke.
So Williams was duly hanged, burned and mutilated."


Another allegation leveled 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, which he disdained.

Democracy

Rather than dismissing democracy as a popular fallacy or treating it with open contempt, Mencken's response to it was a publicized sense of amusement. His feelings on this subject (like his casual feelings on many other such subjects) are sprinkled throughout his writings over the years, very occasionally taking center-stage with the full force of Mencken's prose:

[D]emocracy gives [the beatification of mediocrity] a certain appearance of objective and demonstrable truth.
The mob man, functioning as citizen, gets a feeling that he is really important to the world—that he is genuinely running things.
Out of his maudlin herding after rogues and mountebanks there comes to him a sense of vast and mysterious power—which is what makes archbishops, police sergeants, the grand goblins of the Ku Klux and other such magnificoes happy.
And out of it there comes, too, a conviction that he is somehow wise, that his views are taken seriously by his betters—which is what makes United States Senators, fortune tellers and Young Intellectuals happy.
Finally, there comes out of it a glowing consciousness of a high duty triumphantly done which is what makes hangmen and husbands happy.


This sentiment is, of course, fairly consistent with Mencken's distaste for common notions and the philosophical outlook he unabashedly set down throughout his life as a writer (drawing on Friedrich Nietzsche and Herbert Spencer, among others).

Mencken wrote as follows about the difficulties of good men reaching national office when such campaigns must necessarily be conducted remotely:

The larger the mob, the harder the test. In small areas, before small electorates, a first-rate man occasionally fights his way through, carrying even the mob with him by force of his personality. But when the field is nationwide, and the fight must be waged chiefly at second and third hand, and the force of personality cannot so readily make itself felt, then all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most easily adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum.


The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.


Much of Mencken's enthusiasm for Kaiser Wilhelm's Germany was based upon that nation's autocratical elements .

Jews

Mencken occasionally made anti-semitic statements. In his introduction to Nietzsche's The Antichrist:
"On the Continent, the day is saved by the fact that the plutocracy tends to become more and more Jewish.
Here the intellectual cynicism of the Jew almost counterbalances his social unpleasantness.
If he is destined to lead the plutocracy of the world out of Little Bethel he will fail, of course, to turn it into an aristocracy--i. e., a caste of gentlemen--, but he will at least make it clever, and hence worthy of consideration.
The case against the Jews is long and damning; it would justify ten thousand times as many pogroms as now go on in the world.


Nevertheless, Mencken had a favorable attitude toward the "Judaized" plutocracy as compared to the "Christianized" democrats and proletarians, whom he held in bitter contempt:

"But whenever you find a Davidsbündlerschaft making practise against the Philistines, there you will find a Jew laying on.
Maybe it was this fact that caused Nietzsche to speak up for the children of Israel quite as often as he spoke against them.
He was not blind to their faults, but when he set them beside Christians he could not deny their general superiority.
Perhaps in America and England, as on the Continent, the increasing Jewishness of the plutocracy, while cutting it off from all chance of ever developing into an aristocracy, will yet lift it to such a dignity that it will at least deserve a certain grudging respect."


Although Mencken idealized Germanmarker culture and Nietzsche and may have inherited racial and antisemitic attitudes common in late 19th-century Germany, he came to view Adolf Hitler as a buffoon, and once compared him to a common Ku Klux Klan member.

In Treatise on the Gods (1930), Mencken wrote:

The Jews could be put down very plausibly as the most unpleasant race ever heard of.
As commonly encountered, they lack many of the qualities that mark the civilized man: courage, dignity, incorruptibility, ease, confidence.
They have vanity without pride, voluptuousness without taste, and learning without wisdom.
Their fortitude, such as it is, is wasted upon puerile objects, and their charity is mainly a form of display.


The progressive writer Gore Vidal defended Mencken:

Far from being an anti-Semite, Mencken was one of the first journalists to denounce the persecution of the Jews in Germany at a time when the New York Times, say, was notoriously reticent.
On November 27, 1938, Mencken writes (Baltimore Sun), "It is to be hoped that the poor Jews now being robbed and mauled in Germany will not take too seriously the plans of various politicians to rescue them."
He then reviews the various schemes to "rescue" the Jews from the Nazis, who had not yet announced their own final solution.


As Hitler menaced Europe, Mencken attacked President Roosevelt for refusing to admit Jewish refugees into the United States:

There is only one way to help the fugitives, and that is to find places for them in a country in which they can really live.
Why shouldn't the United States take in a couple hundred thousand of them, or even all of them?


Nevertheless, Terry Teachout calls Mencken an "anti-Semitic boor."

Memorials

House

Mencken's home at 1524 Hollins Street, where he lived for 67 years before his death in 1956, in Baltimore's Union Squaremarker neighborhood was bequeathed to the University of Maryland, Baltimore on the death of Mencken's younger brother August in 1967. The City of Baltimore acquired the property in 1983 and the "H. L. Mencken House" became part of the City Life Museums. The house has been closed to general admission since 1997, but is opened for special events and group visits by arrangement.

Library

Shortly after World War II, Mencken expressed his intention of bequeathing his books and papers to Baltimoremarker's Enoch Pratt Free Library. At the time of his death in 1956, the Library was in possession of most of the present large collection. As a result, Mencken's papers as well as much of his library, which includes many books inscribed by major authors, are held in the Central branch of the Pratt Library on Cathedral Street in Baltimoremarker. The original H. L. Mencken Room and Collection, on the third floor, housing this collection, was dedicated on April 17, 1956. The new Mencken Room, on the first floor of the Library's Annex, was opened in November, 2003.

The collection contains Mencken's typescripts, his newspaper and magazine contributions, his published books, family documents and memorabilia, clipping books, a large collection of presentation volumes, a file of correspondence with prominent Marylanders, and the extensive material he collected while preparing The American Language.

Other collections of Menckenia are at Dartmouth Collegemarker, Harvard Universitymarker, Princeton Universitymarker, and Yale Universitymarker. The Sara Haardt Mencken collection is at Goucher Collegemarker. Some of Mencken's vast literary correspondence is held at the New York Public Librarymarker.

Works



Miscellaneous

  • When a stripteaser asked him to coin a "more dignified" term for her profession, Mencken (who loved night life) proposed 'ecdysiast,' meaning 'one who sheds'.
  • In the autobiography Black Boy by Richard Wright, Richard reads Prejudices by Mencken.
  • In 2008, The Library of America selected Mencken's essay "More and Better Psychopaths" for inclusion in its two-century retrospective of American True Crime.


See also



References

Notes

Biographies

  • Hobson, Fred (1994) Mencken: A Life. Random House. ISBN 0-8018-5238-2. Also published in paper back by The Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Rodgers, Marion Elizabeth (2005) Mencken: The American Iconoclast. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-507238-3
  • Scruggs, Charles (1984) The Sage in Harlem.
  • Teachout, Terry. (2002) The Skeptic : A Life of H. L. Mencken. Harper Collins Publishers. ISBN 0-06-050528-1


External links




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