Louis Mencken, better known as H. L. Mencken, was a twentieth century
journalist, satirist and social critic, a cynic and a freethinker,
known as the "Sage of Baltimore" and the "American
Nietzsche". He is often regarded as one of the most influential
American writers of the early 20th century. At one point in his
career he was America's favorite pundit and literary critic at the
Mencken was born in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of a cigar factory
owner of German extraction. Having moved into the new family home
at 1524 Hollins Street when he was three years old, he lived in
the house for the rest of his life, apart from five years of married
life. He became a reporter for the Baltimore Morning Herald in
1899, and moved to The Baltimore Sun in 1906. At this point in
time, he had also begun writing editorial columns that demonstrated
the author he would soon become.
the side, he wrote short stories, a novel and even poetry (which
he later reviled). In 1908 he also began writing as a literary
critic for the magazine The Smart Set. Together with George Jean
Nathan, Mencken founded and edited The American Mercury, published
by Alfred A. Knopf, in January 1924. It soon had a national circulation
and became highly influential on college campuses across America.
is perhaps best remembered today for The American Language, his
exhaustive, multi-volume study of how the English language is
spoken in the United States, and his scathingly satirical reporting
on the prosecution, judge, jury, and venue of the Scopes trial,
which he is credited for naming the "Monkey" trial.
Mencken's influences were Rudyard Kipling, Friedrich Nietzsche,
Joseph Conrad, and especially Mark
his capacity as editor and "man of ideas" Mencken became
close friends with the leading literary figures of his time, including
Theodore Dreiser, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Alfred Knopf, as well
as a mentor to several young reporters, including Alistair Cooke.
He also championed artists whose works he considered worthy. For
example, he asserted that books such as Caught Short! A Saga of
Wailing Wall Street (1929), “by” Eddie Cantor (ghost
written by David Freedman and still available at bookstores around
the world) did more to pull America out of The Depression than
all government measures combined.
was an outspoken defender of freedom of conscience and civil rights,
an opponent of persecution and of injustice and of the puritanism
and self-righteousness that masks the oppressive impulse. As a
nationally syndicated columnist and author of numerous books he
notably assaulted America's preoccupation with fundamentalist
Christianity, attacked the "Booboisie," his word for
the ignorant middle classes: "No one ever went broke underestimating
the intelligence of the American middle class." Mencken heaped
scorn not only upon self-serving public officials but the contemporary
state of American democracy itself: in 1931, the legislature of
the state of Arkansas passed a motion to pray for Mencken's soul,
after he had raised the state to the "apex of moronia".
sometimes took positions in his essays more for shock value than
for deep-seated conviction, such as his essay arguing that the
Anglo-Saxon race was demonstrably the most cowardly in human history,
published at a time when much of his readership considered Anglo-Saxons
the noble pinnacle of civilization. He captivated young intellectuals
with total assurance and a delightfully hateful, but no less erudite
commentators regard his views as libertarian, but some of Mencken's
writing displays elitism, and at times a pronounced racist element
in excess of early-twentieth century Social Darwinist thought:
educated Negro of today is a failure, not because he meets insuperable
difficulties in life, but because he is a Negro. His brain is
not fitted for the higher forms of mental effort; his ideals,
no matter how laboriously he is trained and sheltered, remain
those of a clown.
addition to these allegations, Mencken has been referred to as
anti-Semitic and misogynistic. Many of these charges appear to
be at least superficially accurate, and Mencken went on the record
in many places dismissing Hitler as "hardly more than a common
Ku Kluxer." Another allegation levelled against him was that
he was frequently obsessed with the importance of social status
or class. For example, Mencken broke off a relationship of many
years with his lover, Marion Bloom, when they were arranging to
be married. Critics saw this as being due to Bloom being insufficiently
wealthy, upper-class, and sophisticated for him. Mencken however
claimed he ended the relationship because she converted to Christian
the allegations of racism and elitism, Mencken sometimes acted
in a manner which tended to upset such views about his character.
For example, the most published author during his tenure as editor
of The Smart Set was a woman; he helped Jews escape from Nazi
Germany during World War II; and on several occasions, Mencken
referred to African-Americans as being the equal of whites, in
stark contrast to his other overtly racist comments.
suffered a cerebral thrombosis in 1948, from which he never fully
recovered. The damage to his brain left him aware and fully conscious
but unable to read or write. In his later years he enjoyed listening
to classical music and talking with friends, but he sometimes
referred to himself in the past tense as if already dead.
was, in fact, preoccupied with how he would be perceived after
his death, and he spent this period of time organizing his papers,
letters, newspaper clippings and columns. His personal materials
were released in 1971, 1981, and 1991 (starting 15 years after
his death), and were so thorough they even included grade-school
report cards. Hundreds of thousands of letters were included -
the only omissions were strictly personal letters received from
died in 1956 at the age of seventy-five, and was interred in the
Loudon Park Cemetery in Baltimore, Maryland. His epitaph reads:
after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought
to please my ghost, forgive some sinner, and wink your eye at
some homely girl.
suggested this epitaph in The Smart Set. After his death, it was
inscribed on a plaque in the lobby of The Baltimore Sun. The well-known
journalist P. J. O'Rourke called Mencken the "...creator
of a new and distinct style of journalism I like to call 'big-city
papers as well as much of his library, which includes many books
inscribed by major authors, are in the collections of the Enoch
Pratt Free Library, in Baltimore. Some of the items are displayed
in a special room in the 2003 wing of the library, the Mencken
While it is true his essays are sprinkled liberally with epithets
that any respectable author of today would deplore ("blackamoor,"
"niggero," "coon"), Mencken's life, beliefs,
and writings show his views to be much more nuanced and progressive
than those of most whites of the era. Mencken, as a libertarian,
believed men should be measured as individuals, rather than categorized
on the basis of race, and with remarkable consistency he accorded
respect and friendship to individuals he deemed superior or excellent
within their communities.
considered the African-American intellectual George Schuyler to
be a life-long friend —rare in any case, considering Mencken's
infamous capacity for personal criticism. On the other hand, while
Mencken was fair to individuals, he was deeply negative in regard
to social groups and other groupings of people, and ethnic groups
were no exception. The balance of abuse meted out by Mencken to
races, religions, and groups is overwhelmingly skewed against
the "dominant" groups, such as Southern Whites, Christians
(especially of the Methodist or Baptist traditions), and even
German immigrants, with whom Mencken shared his heritage.
of arguing that one race or group was superior to another (like
modern White supremacists), Mencken believed that every community—
whether the community of train porters, African-Americans, newspapermen,
or artists — produced a few people of clear superiority.
He considered groupings on a par with hierarchies, which led to
a kind of natural elitism and aristocracy. "Superior"
individuals, in Mencken's view, were those wrongly oppressed and
disdained by their own communities, but nevertheless distinguished
by their will and personal achievement —not by race or birth.
Of course, based on his heritage, achievement, and work ethic,
Mencken considered himself a member of this group.
Mencken engaged the African-American community with a respect,
honesty, and lack of condecension absent from the racists of the
day and even the progressive white advocates. Hence to call Mencken
"racist" is perhaps simplistic— in many respects
he was far ahead of his time in expressing an appreciation of
African-American culture —in the balance, his writings are
thought to have had a positive influence on society rather than
a negative one.
in his legendary salvo against Southern American culture, "The
Sahara of the Bozart", argued that the whole Confederate
region fell into cultureless savagery and backwardness after the
Civil War— with the exception of the African-American community.
In what was an audacious (and seriously intended) argument, Mencken
claimed Southern blacks were actually the heirs and descendents
of the talented aristocrats— by way of mistresses! Further
Mencken opined that this community was the only site of cultural
vitality or activity whatsoever, in spite of being hindered by
the barbaric oppression of a culture that condoned and enforced
Jim Crow laws and still tacitly sanctioned lynching.
most authoritative work on this subject is Charles Scruggs' book,
"The Sage in Harlem" — a survey of Mencken's influence
on and support of African-American intellectuals. Mencken, as
the editor and main creative force behind The American Mercury
magazine, was responsible for publishing more black authors than
any other publication of its stature —certainly more than
any other white dominated publication. The articles by African-Americans
ranged from a Pullman Porter's account of life in that occupation
to sophisticated articles by important black thinkers.
Perhaps Mencken's most important contribution to American letters
is his satirical style. Mencken, influenced heavily by Mark
and Jonathan Swift, believed the lampoon was more powerful than
the lament; his hilariously overwrought indictments of nearly
every subject (and more than a couple that were unmentionable
at the time) are certainly worth reading as examples of fine craftsmanship.
Mencken style influenced many writers; American author Richard
Wright described the power of Mencken's technique (his exposure
to Mencken would inspire him to become a writer himself). In his
autobiographical Black Boy, Wright recalls his reaction to A Book
of Prefaces and one of the volumes of the Prejudices series:
was jarred and shocked by the clear, clean, sweeping sentences
... Why did he write like that? I pictured the man as a raging
demon, slashing with his pen ... denouncing everything American
... laughing ... mocking God, authority ... This man was fighting,
fighting with words. He was using words as a weapon, using them
as one would use a club ... I read on and what amazed me was not
what he said, but how on earth anybody had the courage to say
was at the top of his game in the 1920s, when a backlash against
WWI-era superpatriotism and government expansion (exemplified
in the Palmer Raids) produced many overtly anti-American protests
by literati, among whom Mencken was arguably the most pugnacious.
The "anti-American" label is an epithet today (and to
a lesser degree in Mencken's time); the term is not used here
to defame HLM. He would have delighted in being called "anti-American";
his contrarian spirit and envy of more cultured states (Germany
especially) compelled him to mount unapologetically scathing attacks
on nearly all aspects of American culture.
his classic essay "On Being an American" (published
in his Prejudices: Third Series), Mencken fires a salvo at American
myths. The following choice quote displays his amusing take on
why the United States is the "Land of Opportunity",
and segues into a laundry-list of national pathologies as he sees
the business of getting a living ... is enormously easier than
it is in any other Christian land—so easy, in fact, that
an educated and forehanded man who fails at it must actually make
deliberate efforts to that end. Here the general average of intelligence,
of knowledge, of competence, of integrity, of self-respect, of
honor is so low that any man who knows his trade, does not fear
ghosts, has read fifty good books, and practices the common decencies
stands out as brilliantly as a wart on a bald head, and is thrown
willy-nilly into a meager and exclusive aristocracy. And here,
more than anywhere else I know of or have heard of, the daily
panorama of human existence, of private and communal folly—the
unending procession of governmental extortions and chicaneries,
of commercial brigandages and throat-slittings, of theological
buffooneries, of aesthetic ribaldries, of legal swindles and harlotries,
of miscellaneous rogueries, villainies, imbecilities, grotesqueries
and extravagances—is so inordinately gross and preposterous,
so perfectly brought up to the highest conceivable amperage, so
steadily enriched with an almost fabulous daring and originality,
that only the 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.
the reader agrees with Mencken or finds him infuriatingly coarse
and incorrect, all can observe his technique with profit; it is
rare in contemporary discourse. The criticisms he poses are nearly
the same as those of famous literary expatriates including Richard
Wright, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald; the injustices
(or at least incongruities) are the same ones fought by period
Muckraker journalists such as Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell.
instead of decrying the "daily panorama of human existence,
of private and communal folly" and calling for reform or
improvement, Mencken says he is "entertained" by them.
On its face, this approach displays a crass indifference and total
lack of compassion; Mencken admitted as much, as it was part of
his personal philosophy: a kind of fierce libertarianism inspired
by a Nietzschean contempt for the "improvers of mankind",
a social Darwinist outlook derived from Herbert Spencer and William
Graham Sumner, and a "Tory" elitism.
power of satire comes from the transformation of enemies and villains
into a source of entertainment; they are reduced from powerful
people to be contended with into farcical creatures deserving
of mockery. Black journalist and Mencken contemporary James Weldon
Johnson celebrated this technique as a way of fighting racism
without stooping to the level of Jim Crow enforcers and the Ku
Mencken's favorite method of showing people the truth is to attack
falsehood with ridicule. He shatters the walls of foolish pride
and prejudice and hypocrisy merely by laughing at them; and he
is more effective against them than most writers who hurl heavily
loaded shells of protest and imprecation.
could be more disconcerting and overwhelming to a man posing as
everybody's superior than to find that everybody was laughing
at his pretensions? Protest would only swell up his self-importance.
in "On Being an American" called the United States "...
incomparably the best show on Earth..."; he clearly took
joy in covering religious controversies, political conventions,
and unearthing new "quackeries" (among his favorite
targets are the Baptist and Methodist churches, Christian Science,
Chiropractics, and most of all, Puritanism).
is no coincidence he regarded Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to
be the finest work of American literature; much of that book details
episodes of gullible and ignorant people being swindled by Confidence
Men like the (deliberately) pathetic "Duke" and "Dauphin"
roustabouts with whom Huck and Jim travel down the Mississippi
River. These scam-artists swindle country "boobs" (as
Mencken referred to them); by posing as enlightened speakers on
temperance (to obtain the funds to get roaring drunk), pious "saved"
men seeking funds for far off evangelistic missions (to pirates
on the high seas, no less), and learned doctors of phrenology
(who can barely spell). The book can be read as a story of America's
hilarious dark side, a place where democracy, as defined by Mencken,
is "... the worship of Jackals by Jackasses."
of the disadvantages of slashing satire is that it does only that:
slash. Alfred Kazin called Mencken's criticisms impotent since
"Every Babbitt read him gleefully and pronounced his neighbor
a Babbitt" -- they permitted a circular firing squad of self-righteous
viciousness. ("Babbitt" is a now-rare epithet derived
from the Sinclair Lewis book of the same name; it can be loosely
defined as an uncultured, "square", typically middle-aged
and middle-class businessman characterized by timidity and ignorance
of their philistinism.)
must walk a thin line between declaring "The Emperor has
no clothes" (a fine service to all), and going too far by
furiously tearing the clothes off of undeserving bystanders. Mencken
tended to go too far as matter-of-course; consequently he was
the first to say what needed to be said in his criticisms of lynching,
World War I-era civil liberties abuses, and especially the dismally
moral and philistine American arts. On the other hand, this extremism
left him with a body of work filled with unsubtle reviews of the
subtle and scores of openly vicious statements about all ethnicities.
viciousness was summed up in the play Inherit the Wind, a fictionalized
version of the Scopes Monkey Trial. As the story ends, the protagonist
tells Hornbeck (the character representing Mencken):
never push a noun against a verb without trying to blow up something.
a 26 July 1920 article in the Baltimore Evening Sun, Mencken wrote
about the difficulties of good men reaching national office when
such campaigns must necessarily be conducted remotely:
larger the mob, the harder the test. In small areas, before small
electorates, a first-rate man occasionally fights his way through,
carrying even the mob with him by force of his personality. But
when the field is nationwide, and the fight must be waged chiefly
at second and third hand, and the force of personality cannot
so readily make itself felt, then all the odds are on the man
who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the
man who can most easily adeptly disperse the notion that his mind
is a virtual vacuum.
Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy
is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the
inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some
great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach
their heart's desire at last, and the White House will be adorned
by a downright moron.
"One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms. It is
not only more effective; it is also vastly more intelligent."
- The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy."
- One who is willing to serve three Gods, but draws the line at
1928, Mencken gathered together a collection of the nasty things
said about him and published it in a 132-page book, Menckenia:
A Schimplexikon. It sold very well.