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H(enry) L(ouis) Mencken (1880-1956)

 

American literary critic, journalist, and essayist, who wrote – according to some estimations – 3 000 newspaper columns. During the 15-year period following World War I, Mencken set the standard for satire in his day. Mencken's Prejudices (1919-1927) is a treasure for all interested in exuberant prose. His essays are still widely read and cherished.

"Here is something that the psychologists have so far neglected: the love of ugliness for its own sake, the lust to make the world intolerable. Its habitat is the United States. Out of the melting pot emerges a race which hates beauty as it hates truth." (from 'The Libido for the Ugly,' 1927)

Henry Louis Mencken was born in Baltimore, Maryland. His grandfather had prospered in the tobacco business and his father, August, continued the family tradition. Mencken studied at the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute (1892-96) and then worked at his father's cigar factory. After his father died in 1899, Mencken was free to choose his own trade in the world. "I chose newspaper work without any hesitation whatever, and save when the scent of a passing garbage-cart has revived my chemical libido, I have never regretted my choice," he once said. He was a reporter or editor for several Baltimore papers, among them Baltimore Morning Herald. Later he joined the staff of the Baltimore Sun, for which he worked throughout most of his life. From 1916 to 1918 he was a war correspondent in Germany and in Russia.

Although Mencken published a collection of poems in 1903, he considred George Bernard Shaw: His Plays (1905) his "first real book". Mencken's study on the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (1908) was partly inspired by his own bourgeois German background. Upon the publication of the book, Mencken was charged being an intimate associate and agent of "the German monster, Nietzsky," as it was said in the official report. Mencken also taught himself German well enough to translate Nietzsche's Anti-Christ, which appeared in 1920. With Friedrich Nietzsche and Karl Marx he shared a similar view on the role of religion in society – it was an tool for manipulating credulous masses, but his personal philosophy is very close to that of Schopenhauer: "To read the thoughts of others is like taking the remains of someone else's meal, like putting on the discarded clothes of a stranger."

During World War I Mencken was pro-German, and his A Book of Prefaces (1917) was attacked by Stuart Sherman and others, who considered him unpatriotic. From 1914 to 1923 Mencken coedited with drama critic George Jean Nathan (1882-1958) the Smart Set, which mocked everything from politics to art, universities to the Bible, and beginning from 'The Sahara of the Bozart' (November 1917), it took as its target the culture of the South. With Nathan he cofounded Parisienne, Saucy Stories, and Black Mask pulp magazines in the late 1910s, and cofounded and edited American Mercury (1923-33). When Mencken became really interested in the city councils and the state legislatures and the Federal Congress, Nathan was appalled and left the Mercury. They were never more than friendly enemies. In 1919 Mencken published The American Language, a guide to American expressions and idioms, which was a critical and popular success. It grew in the following years with each reissue and have had several supplements. In 1917 Mencken started as a literary adviser at Knopf publishers. From the mid-1920s his work became increasingly political, and soon Mencken gained his nationwide fame the reigning critic of manners and politics.

Mencken was one of the most influential American critics in the 1920s. He helped such newcomers as Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis. In general, he preferred realism over high- flown idealism and modernism. He loved Huckleberry Finn and Conrad's Lord Jim. As an editor he published manuscripts by such young writers as Eugene O'Neill and Dorothy Parker, and was the friend and mentor of James M. Cain. Mencken reviewed major works of Upton Sinclair, Henry James and F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose first published story appeared in the Smart Set. Mencken contributed to Chicago Tribune (1924-28), New York American (1934-35), and the Nation (1931-32).

Mencken was a columnist in Evening Mail in New York (1917-18), and "The Free Lance" in Sunpapers (1919-41) in Baltimore. When Rudolph Valentino was slandered in an unsigned editorial headed 'Pink Powder Puff' in the Chicago Tribune (July 18, 1926), the great lover of the screen challenged the unknown journalist to a boxing or a wrestling match, and Mencken was chosen to play the part of the sage. He told that the actor should ignore the taunt – "Let the dreadful farce roll along to exhaustion." Soon after Valentino's death in August 1926, Mencken wrote of their meeting for the Baltimore Evening Sun.

"The charm of journalism, to many of its practitioners, lies in the contacts it gives them with the powerful and eminent. They enjoy communion with men of wealth, high officers of state, and other such magnificoes. The delights of that privilege are surely not to be cried down, but it seems to me that I got a great deal more fun, in my days on the street, out of the lesser personages who made up the gaudy life of the city. A mayor was thrilling once or twice, but after that he tended to become a stuffed shirt, speaking platitudes out of a tin throat." (from 'Reflections on Journalism' in Twentieth-Century Essays, ed. by Ian Hamilton, 1999)

On his visit to Paris in 1929, Mencken stayed at Hôtel La Trémoille on rue de la Tremoille. He was unimpressed by the marvels of the city, saying that "the cafés of Paris dangerously outnumber the pissoirs."

In 1930 Mencken married the writer and professor of English Sara Haardt, who was eighteen years his junior and seriously ill. After years of attacking the authority of the Bible and the church, he was married in the Episcopal Church. Before proposing he had courted Haardt for seven years, but during this period he had also continued his relationship with Marion Bloom, a country girl from Maryland, and had an affair Aileen Pringle, a quick-witted silent-movie star. "A very amusing movie gal," Mencken said of her. Pringle married in 1944 James M. Cain; they divorced within two years. Sara Haardt died of tuberculosis in 1935.

Mencken abandoned in 1938 his famous Evening Sun Monday articles, and at the beginning of World War II he gave up writing regularly for the Sun. Mencken's autobiographical trilogy began with Happy Days (1940), and was followed by Newspaper Days (1941), and Heathen Days (1943). The last volume, My Life as Author and Editor (1993), appeared posthumously. Mencken suffered in 1949 a stroke which impaired his speech. He was also unable to read and write and did not remember the names of his friends. Mencken died of heart failure on January 29, 1956 in Baltimore, in the row house on Hollins Street where he had lived most of his life. In Minority Report (1956) he had written: "The imbeciles who have printed acres of comment on my books have seldom noticed the chief character of my style. It is that I write almost scientific precision – that my meaning is never obscure. The ignorant have often complained that my vocabulary is beyond them, but that is imply because my ideas cover a wider range that theirs do. Once they have consulted the dictionary they always know exactly what I intend to say."

In his essays Mencken, who was in "permanent opposition", attacked on all aspects of American life, private and communal folly, the daily panorama of human existence, saving nothing, but he had an immense authority for a time. And he was always cocksure about everything. "I have fixed and invariable ideas. They have not changed since I was four or five years," he once stated. He called immigrant ethnic groups uncivilized and out of touch with their own national culture, criticized the influence of the British, questioning whether intellectual life would exist at all in the U.S. were it not imported from abroad, assaulted the style of Thorstein Veblen, and mocked American education, literature ("thin and watery"), and such political figures as Woodrow Wilson (a "pedagogue gone mashugga") and Calvin Coolidge, whose intelligence is compared to that of a "cast-iron lawn dog". Upon hearing of the death of Calvin Coolidge, he launched the often-repeated line 'How can they be sure?' "Moronia" was the name he sometimes used for the country he lived in.

For further reading: The Man Mencken by Isaac Goldberg (1925); H.L. Mencken by Ernest Boyd (1925); The Irreverent Mr. Mencken by Edgar Kemler (1950); H.L. Mencken by Charles Angoff (1956); H.L. Mencken by William H. Nolte (1966); H.L. Mencken by Philip Wagner (1996); Mencken by Carl Bode (1969); H.L. Mencken by Douglas C. Stenerson (1971); H.L. Mencken by W.H.A. William (1977); H.L. Mencken by George H. Douglas (1978); Mencken: A Study of His Thought by C.A. Fecherr (1978); On Mencken, ed. by John Dorsey (1980); Disturber of the Peace by William Manchester (1986, original edition 1951); The Skeptic by Terry Teachout (2002)

Selected works:

  • Ventures into Verse, 1903
  • George Bernard Shaw: His Plays, 1905
  • The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, 1908
  • What You Ought to Know About Your Baby, 1910 (with Keen Hirshberg)
  • Men versus the Man: a Correspondence between Robert Rives La Monte, Socialist and H. L. Mencken, Individualist, 1910 (with Robert Rives La Monte)
  • The Gist of Nietzsche, 1910 (compiled by Henry Louis Mencken)
  • The Artist: A Drama Without Words, 1912
  • Europe after 8:15, 1914 (with George Jean Nathan)
  • A Little Book in C Major, 1916
  • A Book of Burlesques, 1916
  • The Creed of a Novelist, 1916
  • A Book of Prefaces, 1917
  • Pistols for Two, 1917 (with George Jean Nathan)
  • Damn! A Book of Calumny, 1918
  • In Defense of Women, 1918
  • The American Language, 1919
  • Prejudices, 1919-27 (6 vols.)
  • The Sahara of the Bozart, 1920
  • Heliogabalus, a Buffoonery in Three Acts, 1920 (with George Jean Nathan)
  • The American Credo: A Contribution Toward the Interpretation of the National Mind, 1920
  • The Literary Capital of the United States, 1920
  • Gamalielese, 1921 (in The Baltimore Sun on March 7, 1921)
  • Notes on Democracy, 1926
  • Americana 1925, 1925 (edited by H.L. Mencken)
  • Americana 1926, 1926
  • James Branch Cabell, 1927
  • Libido for the Ugly, 1927
  • Menckeneana: A Schimpflexikon, 1928
  • Treatise on the Gods, 1930
  • Making a President, 1932
  • Treatise on Right and Wrong, 1933
  • The Sunpapers of Baltimore. 1837-1937, 1937 (with others)
  • Happy Days, 1880–1892, 1940
  • Newspaper Days, 1899–1906, 1941
  • A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources, 1942
  • Heathen Days, 1890–1936, 1943
  • Christmas Story, 1944 (in The New Yorker)
  • The American Language, Supplement I, 1945
  • The Days of H.L. Mencken: Happy Days, Newspaper Days, Heathen Days, 1947
  • The American Language, Supplement II, 1948
  • A Mencken Chrestomathy, 1949
  • The Vintage Mencken, 1955
  • Minority Report, H. L. Mencken's Notebooks, 1956 (edited by Malcolm Moos)
  • On Politics: A Carnival of Buncombe, 1956
  • The Bathtub Hoax and Blasts & Bravos from the Chicago Tribune, 1958
  • Prejudices: A Selection, 1958 (edited by James T. Farrell)
  • The Letters of H. L. Mencken, 1961 (edited by Guy J. Forgue)
  • H.L. Mencken on Music, 1961 (ed. Louis Cheslock)
  • HL Mencken's Smart Set Criticism, 1968 (edited by William H. Nolte)
  • The young Mencken: The Best of His Work, 1973 (collected by Carl Bode)
  • A Choice of Days, 1980 (edited by Edward L. Galligan)
  • Dreiser-Mencken Letters: The Correspondence of Theodore Dreiser and H. L. Mencken, 1907-1945, 1986 (edited by Thomas P. Riggio)
  • The Impossible H. L. Mencken: A Selection Of His Best Newspaper Stories, 1991(edited by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers)
  • My Life As Author and Editor, 1993 (edited and with an introduction by Jonathan Yardley)
  • Thirty-five Years of Newspaper Work, 1994 (edited by Fred Hobson, Vincent Fitzpatrick, Bradford Jacobs)
  • Prejudices: The Complete Series, 2010 (edited by Marion Rogers)


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