Article abstract: Mencken, in his roles as editor, writer, and critic, kept an ever-watchful eye on American politics, letters, language, and ideas. He argued eloquently for an indigenous and independent American literature, and he encouraged and nurtured the authors who were striving to create it.
Henry Louis Mencken was born to Anna Margaret (née Abhau) and August Mencken on September 12, 1880. His early years were remarkable only for their unusual comfort and security. August Mencken managed a thriving cigar factory, and by Henry’s third year, he had moved the Mencken family into a charming three-story brick house at 1524 Hollins Street in Baltimore. This would be the home where Henry would spend all of his life, with the exception of five years of marriage to Miss Sara Powell Haardt (1930-1935).
August was a responsible family man and had a special interest in his sons, taking them to Washington with him on his weekly business trips; buying them a Shetland pony, conveniently stabled in their ample backyard; removing them to the cooler and more rustic Ellicott City for their summers; and providing Henry, on the Christmas of 1888, with an almost prophetic self-inker printing press.
Much of the character of the mature H. L. Mencken can be traced to these early years and to the influence and encouragement of his father. As an example, when Henry showed an interest in photography, August immediately helped him to set up a developing room on the third floor of their home. Henry, fascinated as much by the chemistry as the artistry of the new medium, wrote his first factual article about a new toning solution he had perfected.
Henry was also given piano lessons, which proved to be the happy genesis of a deep and sustaining love of music. His participation in the “Saturday Night Club,” a quasi-musical organization, was a lifetime social and musical outlet for him.
When, at eight years old, Henry became a curious reader, he found in his own home a wide variety of periodicals and newspapers. Even more important, he discovered his father’s small collection of well-worn books, including the novels of Mark Twain. Henry read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) with great fervor, and then rushed on to read the rest of Twain. Subsequently, he became a voracious reader and, as an adult, a major critical champion of Twain’s work.
When Henry was about to graduate from Polytechnic Institute, it became clear that with a concerted effort, he could graduate with distinction, and so August offered him a purse of one hundred dollars if he could graduate at the head of his class. On June 23, 1896, Henry proudly delivered the school’s valedictory address. He was almost sixteen, and one hundred dollars to the good.
In Henry’s early years can be seen the seeds of almost all of his later habits and ideas. That the son of a German cigar manufacturer at the turn of the century should be an inveterate smoker, devoted to his family, economically conservative, responsive to social Darwinism, proud of his European ancestry, enamored of middle-class values and comforts, suspicious of Puritans and uplifters, and cheerfully agnostic is perhaps to be expected; that he should turn away from his family’s manufacturing business to be a journalist was an understandable disappointment to his father, and a lucky turn of events for American literature.
Mencken’s journalistic career began at the Baltimore Morning Herald in 1899, with a five-line story about a horse-stealing rumor circulating in the suburbs of Baltimore. By 1903, Mencken was city editor of the paper, and was working on his first book: George Bernard Shaw: His Plays, published in 1905. In 1906, Mencken switched his allegiance to the Baltimore Sun to manage its Sunday edition. From 1911 to 1915, he wrote his Free Lance column for the Evening Sun, an editorial endeavor that eventually gave way to a regular Monday column. Typical of his writing in this period is this description of America: “ . . . here, more than anywhere else that I know of or have ever heard of, the daily panorama of human existence . . . is so inordinately gross and preposterous . . . that only a man who was born with a petrified diaphragm can fail to laugh himself to sleep every night, and to awake every morning with all the eager, unflagging expectation of a Sunday-school superintendent touring the Paris peep-shows.” His bombastic, vituperative, and productive association with the Sun lasted until 1948, when his last newspaper editorial, “Mencken’s Last Stand,” appeared on November 9.
In 1908, at the request of the publishers of his book on George Bernard Shaw, Mencken completed The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. It...
(The entire section is 1998 words.)