H.L Mencken (1880-1956)
Henry Louis Mencken was an American journalist, satirist, social and cultural critic and scholar of American English. Known as the “Sage of Baltimore”, he is regarded as one of the most influential American writers and prose stylists of the first half of the twentieth century. He commented widely on the social scene, literature, music, prominent politicians and contemporary movements.
H.L Mencken was born on September 12, 1880 – the son of Anna and August Mencken, Senior .a cigar factory owner of German ancestry, in Baltimore USA.
The family spoke German throughout his childhood. When Henry was three, his family moved into a new home in the Union Square neighbourhood of old West Baltimore. Apart from five years of married life, Mencken was to live in that house for the rest of his life.
He began his primary education in the mid-1880s at a local school and when he was nine years old, he read Mark Twain’s ‘Huckleberry Finn’, which he later described as “the most stupendous event in my life”. He became determined to become a writer and read voraciously everything from Kipling, Thackeray, Addison, Steele, Pope, Swift, Johnson and the other notable 8th century authors, as well as all of Shakespeare’s works. As a boy, Mencken also had practical interests in photography and chemistry. He attended high school, the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, ‘BPI’, a males-only mathematics, technical and science-oriented public high school, from which he graduated in 1896.
He then worked for three years in his father’s cigar factory which he was expected to take over , but he disliked the work and in early 1898 he took a course in writing at one of the country’s first correspondence schools, the Cosmopolitan University. That same year, after the death of his father, Mencken was free to pursue his ambitions in journalism. In June he was hired as a full-time reporter.at the ‘Baltimore Morning Herald ‘. He was a reporter at the ‘Herald’ for six years and then moved to The ‘Baltimore Sun’, where began writing the editorials and opinion pieces that made his name. His dry humour and satire owed much to Ambrose Bierce and Mark Twain He also contributed to ‘The Evening Sun’ and ‘The Sunday Sun’ working full-time until 1948, when he stopped writing after suffering a stroke.
In addition to his regular job, he wrote short stories, a novel, and some poetry. In 1908, he became a literary critic for ‘The Smart Set’ magazine, and in 1924 he co- founded and edited ‘The American Mercury’, which soon had a national circulation and became highly influential on college campuses across America.
As a nationally syndicated columnist and book author, he commented widely on the social scene, literature, music, prominent politicians and contemporary movements, such as the temperance movement.
In his capacity as editor and man of ideas, Mencken became close friends with the leading literary figures of his time, as well as a mentor to several young reporters, including Alistair Cooke.
Mencken studied and admired the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. He was the first writer to provide a scholarly analysis in English of Nietzsche’s views and writings and he held similar views about the superior individual within communities. He believed that every community produced a few people of clear superiority and so he disdained populism and representative democracy, which he believed was a system in which inferior men dominated their superiors. But rather than dismissing democratic governance as a popular fallacy or treating it with open contempt, Mencken’s written responses contained a pronounced sense of satire and amusement.
As a determined atheist, he also spoke out against religious belief particularly Christian fundamentalism, Christian Science and creationism, and he lampooned the “Booboisie,” his word for the ignorant middle classes.
In 1923, the world knew H.L.Mencken as a confirmed and outspoken bachelor and he was 43 when first met Sara Haardt at Baltimore’s Goucher College when he delivered a lecture on ‘How to Get a Husband’. Haardt was then a 24-year-old English professor at the women’s college, the youngest on the faculty and their courtship would last seven years, much of it conducted through letters. They married secretly in August 1930, avoiding the press and with only ten guests and one photographer at the wedding. The seven hundred letters they exchanged during their twelve years together are collected in ‘Mencken & Sara: A Life in Letters’.
In her brief life Sara Haardt would write forty short stories and two short novels before she died of tuberculosis on May 31, 1935 leaving Mencken grief-stricken. He had always championed her writing and, after her death, had a collection of her short stories published under the title ‘Southern Album’.
As a scholar, Mencken is best known for ‘The American Language’, a multi-volume study of how the English language is spoken in the United States. Mencken was a supporter of scientific progress, but sceptical of economic and scientific theories.
Mencken opposed American entry into World War I and World War II but championed the mass admittance of Jews to America after their repression by the Nazis in Germany, albeit that in his diaries he was often outspokenly and broadly racist.
One literary critic wrote ‘The striking thing about Mencken’s mind is its ruthlessness and rigidity … Though one of the fairest of critics, he is the least pliant.’
Mencken died in his sleep on January 29, 1956.