Henry Louis Mencken was one of the foremost men of letters of the United States and certainly the most memorable. His witty, precise style penetrated to the heart of the American character, exposing its eccentricities and pretenses, revealing its dignity. Through the perceptive pen of this Baltimorean, the nation could behold itself in a spirit of humor. Mencken portrayed the humanity, frail yet powerful, of congressmen and saloonkeepers, policemen and livery stable attendants alike. No one was immune from this master of irony—not even himself. He discerned and portrayed the preposterousness of humanity as could only a person who took himself no more seriously than he deserved. In the Preface to Happy Days, Mencken described himself asa larva of the comfortable and complacent bourgeoisie, though I was quite unaware of the fact until I was along in my teens, and had begun to read indignant books. To belong to that great order of mankind is vaguely discreditable today, but I still maintain my dues-paying membership in it, and continue to believe that it was and is authentically human. . . .
H. L. Mencken was, at the very least, a prodigy. He was reading the works of Mark Twain by the age of eight and he tackled Charles Dickens before he was ten. He was also very determined to enter the world of letters. He appeared at the Baltimore Herald, asking for employment, on the day after his father died. (His father had wanted him to pursue the family cigar business.) For more than a month, the young Henry returned patiently each night until the editor allowed him a chance. The boy was eighteen at the time of his first two-sentence report of the theft of a horse and buggy. It would be only two years before Mencken was an editor of that same paper. After the demise of the Herald in 1906, he moved on to the Sunpapers of Baltimore, once again in the role of reporter and columnist, which he preferred. He also became associated with the magazines The Smart Set and The American Mercury as editor and literary critic. Mencken was astonishingly prolific during those years. He wrote news, editorials, reviews, poetry, prose, and even a play. He was submitting pieces to publications across the country. His first full book, George Bernard Shaw: His Plays, was published when Mencken was twenty-five years old. At twenty-eight, he also wrote the first work on Friedrich Nietzsche to be published in English, The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche.
It was Mencken’s reading, during his early twenties, of Shaw and Nietzsche which crystallized his tendency toward a thorough iconoclasm. He took upon himself the Nietzschean task of questioning, and often shattering, the unexamined conventions of the times. This role as a critic of ideas found an outlet in the column which Mencken wrote for the Sunpapers. He cast doubt upon beliefs which were indisputable—social services, democracy, religion, and the prevailing moral rigidity. He once characterized democracy as the form of government whereby the masses hold back the culturally gifted and thus allow the wealthy, rather than the able, to rule the country. According to his own admission, this literary giant was an infidel from his earliest years. Religious matters drew most often his humor, sometimes his scorn, but very rarely his seriousness. He castigated Puritanism, moralism, and especially prohibitionism as the fruits of sour people who could not stand to see anyone else having a good time. This was expressed in his famous definition of Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” His distaste for the moral reforms prevalent during the early 1900’s led him to declare that “all persons who devote themselves to forcing virtue on their fellow men deserve nothing better than kicks in the pants.”
If there was very little which was sacred to Mencken, his own profession was no exception. He claimed that his choice of career was determined at the age of eight by a Christmas gift from his father of a Baltimore No. 10 Self-Inker Printing Press. (It also determined his subsequent adoption of the initials H. L. since all of the lowercase r’s were smashed in the first day’s experimental press runs.) From then on he had printer’s ink in his blood and could go no other direction. Mencken’s phenomenal rise in his field was occasioned by skill coupled with great perseverance and audacity. It was not unheard of in those times for a journalist to exaggerate and even to fabricate news. Mencken made it an art. One slow Sunday evening at the Herald, he created an imaginary wild man loose in the woods of Baltimore. With the help of a police lieutenant, this creature was resurrected each Sunday for a month and many poor bums were arrested and interrogated during that time. Finally an innocent, feebleminded character was sentenced to jail. Most of Mancken’s occasional hoaxes, however, were totally benign and sometimes merely anticipated the facts. A Choice of Days contains an essay, “The Synthesis of News,” which wittily details the finer points of this art. While covering the area of South Baltimore, Mencken and two rival reporters formed a pact to synthesize the details of their more troublesome stories. When a name was unknown, they created one. If a story was needed, they got together over a beer and worked one out.This labor-saving device was in use the whole time I covered South Baltimore for the Herald, and I never heard any complaint against it. Every one of the three city editors, comparing his paper to the other two, was surprised and pleased...
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