Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1998
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 was an arduous task, undertaken in a time when only a few of Friedrich Nietzsche’s works had been published in English.
In 1919, Mencken completed his opus The American Language, probably the most important contribution to American language studies since Noah Webster’s revolutionary A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language (1806), which declared for the first time America’s linguistic independence from Great Britain. Mencken’s enormous tome was followed by two equally wide-ranging supplements, still definitive works in their field.
By 1909, Mencken was writing regular book reviews for The Smart Set, a magazine that he was soon to coedit with George Jean Nathan. His associations at The Smart Set, with Nathan and the distinguished publisher Alfred A. Knopf, eventually culminated in the founding of The American Mercury in 1924. While The Smart Set had embodied the dual personalities of Nathan and Mencken, The American Mercury primarily projected the inimitable character and style of H. L. Mencken. One can almost see Mencken’s round cherubic face, ever-present cigar, and neatly parted hair, as he intones the objectives of the new review: “The editors are committed to nothing save this: to keep common sense as fast as they can, to belabor sham as agreeably as possible, to give civilized entertainment.” The American Mercury quickly became one of the major journalistic and literary phenomena of the 1920’s.
Amid a mountain of correspondence (which was always graciously answered within twenty-four hours), between national presidential conventions and lesser political caucuses, interspersed with cut-and-paste research for his nearly twenty books, Mencken managed to complete, by the end of 1943, his three-volume autobiography: Happy Days (1940), Newspaper Days (1941), and Heathen Days (1943).
By his own estimate, Mencken’s writings embrace some five million words. He wrote, on the average, between two and three thousand sensible and amusing words a day. If that were his only accomplishment, it would be enough to sustain his reputation as a great American man of letters. In addition to his own incredible productivity, however, he was also, as an editor and a critic, a fine judge of literary talent and a warm and helpful mentor for the young authors of his day.
Mencken printed the first plays of the controversial new playwright Eugene O’Neill. He was the first to recognize the excellence of Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street (1920), and he perceptively encouraged Lewis to write a novel about a typical American businessman and booster, which became Babbitt (1922). Mencken befriended and provided an appreciative audience for Edmund Wilson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, and Willa Cather.
As a journalist and a writer himself, Mencken was also a staunch upholder of First Amendment rights. He was quick to come to the defense of Theodore Dreiser when his novel The “Genius” (1915) was singled out for censorship by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. He also came to the aid of James Branch Cabell, whose novel Jurgen (1919) met similar well-intentioned opposition. Mencken’s instinct for quality, and his intense loyalty, made him a great patriarch of American Letters.
Although Mencken was not in any way a systematic thinker, he did maintain a stable set of values, or prejudices, through many decades of change in American society. The natural consequence of his consistency was a continual waxing and waning of his reputation, which he accepted philosophically.
For example, Mencken’s social Darwinist views were understandably more popular in the free-for-all 1920’s than they were in the imposed austerity of the Great Depression. His convivial attitude toward drinking was more accepted at the turn of the century than during the era of Prohibition. His pro-German pride and bilingualism were a great help in his early Nietzsche studies but were a considerable encumbrance during World War II. His humorous attitude toward politics, which was seen as unpatriotic during the world wars, came into vogue again in the early 1950’s.
What is saliently American about H. L. Mencken is that, while he reserved the right to criticize with great gusto the entire panorama of American life—from William Jennings Bryan to Calvin Coolidge, from Fundamentalist religion to the New Deal, from Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) to his favorite invention, the American “booboisie”—he also embodied the best that America has to offer. He was a man of tremendous character, writing with a white-hot intensity about the things he cared about. It would be a fine thing if every age and every nation had its gadfly, its H. L. Mencken, to expose hypocrisy and defend the rights of common sense against thoughtless men and ideologies.
Bode, Carl. Mencken. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969. An extensive, well-documented, and readable biography of Mencken. Illustrated with numerous, carefully chosen photographs.
Cairns, Huntington, ed. H. L. Mencken: The American Scene. New York: Vintage Books, 1982. This is a well-organized compilation of Mencken’s writing. It explores his ideas on politics, religion, morals, and American journalism, letters, and English. It is an excellent introduction to the full range of Mencken’s prose.
Hobson, Fred C., Jr. Serpent in Eden: H. L. Mencken and the South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1974. This is an investigation into the interesting relationship between Mencken and the South. It discusses his strident criticisms of the South, such as his essay “Sahara of the Bozart,” as well as examining his respect for some of the South’s best writers and small-review editors.
Manchester, William. Disturber of the Peace: The Life of H. L. Mencken. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1951. This engaging biography has the advantage of having been written with Mencken’s cooperation, by a man who knew Mencken personally. Manchester has a lively, anecdotal style, and his book is only slightly limited by its date of publication, which was five years before Mencken’s death.
Mencken, H. L. A Carnival of Buncombe: Writings on Politics. Edited by Malcolm Moos. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. A selection of Mencken’s political writings spanning the fertile period from February, 1920, to November, 1936, with a concise and provocative foreword by Joseph Epstein.
Mencken, H. L. A Choice of Days. Edited by Edward L. Galligan. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980. A one-volume abridgment of the author’s autobiographical works: Happy Days, Newspaper Days and Heathen Days. It was published on the hundredth anniversary of his birth.
Mencken, H. L. A Mencken Chrestomathy. New York: Vintage Books, 1982. A chrestomathy is a collection of choice passages from an author, and this book lives up to its name. It consists primarily of sections from Mencken’s out-of-print writings, such as the Prejudices series, A Book of Burlesques, and In Defense of Women, as well as magazine and newspaper articles which never found their way into any of Mencken’s many books. An essential anthology of Mencken’s prose.
Mencken, H. L. The Vintage Mencken. Edited by Alistair Cooke. New York: Vintage Books, 1955. A rather eclectic assortment of Mencken pieces, put together just before his death by Alistair Cooke with the help of the editors of the Sunpapers and Mencken’s publisher Alfred Knopf. It includes some enduring classics, among them “The Lure of Beauty,” “The Hills of Zion,” and “Mencken’s Last Stand.”
Stenerson, Douglas C. H. L. Mencken: Iconoclast from Baltimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971. A well-documented, modern biography, with an emphasis on Mencken’s place in American journalism and the history of American ideas.