H L MENCKEN
"It is hard to believe that a man is telling the truth when you know that you would lie if you were in his place."
"For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong. "
"Nine times out of ten, in the arts as in life, there is actually no truth to be discovered; there is only error to be exposed"
Injustice is relatively easy to bear; what stings is justice.
H L Mencken
Mencken was the son of August Mencken, a cigar factory owner of German extraction. His family moved into a new home at 1524 Hollins Street (in the Union Square neighborhood) when he was three years old. Apart from five years of married life, he was to live in that house for the rest of his life.
His parents insisted that his high school education favor the practical over the intellectual. Very early in his career, he took a night class in how to write copy for newspapers and business. He never attended a day of college; such was the formal education of one who became one of the most wide ranging American intellectuals of the 20th century. More than a few academics were not spared his withering scorn.
Very soon after finishing high school, his father died and H L became a reporter for the Baltimore Morning Herald in 1899. He moved to The Baltimore Sun in 1906, to which he contributed full time or occasionally until 1948, when he ceased to write.
In a few years time, he began writing the editorials and opinion pieces that evinced the powerful witty author he became. On the side, he wrote short stories, a novel, and even poetry (which he later reviled). In 1908, he became a literary critic for the magazine The Smart Set. In 1924, he and George Jean Nathan founded and edited The American Mercury, published by Alfred A. Knopf. It soon acquired a national circulation and became highly influential on college campuses across America. In 1933, Mencken resigned as editor.
In 1930, Mencken married Sara Haardt, a professor of English at Goucher College in Baltimore, and an author. 18 years his junior, she had led efforts in Alabama to ratify the 19th Amendment. The two met in 1923 after Mencken delivered a lecture at Goucher; a seven-year courtship ensued. The marriage made national headlines, and many were surprised that Mencken, who once called marriage "the end of hope" and who was well known for mocking relations between the sexes, had gone to the altar. "The Holy Spirit informed and inspired me," Mencken said. "Like all other infidels, I am superstitious and always follow hunches: this one seemed to be a superb one."  Even more startling, he was marrying an Alabama native despite his having written scathing essays about the American South.
Haardt was in poor health throughout their marriage, and died in 1935 of meningitis, leaving Mencken grief-stricken. Their jointly hosted soirees at their Baltimore townhouse ceased. He had always supported her writing, and after her death had a collection of her short stories published under the name Southern Album, a posthumous collection of her short stories.
The Great Depression and the New Deal, which Mencken did not support, did much to make Mencken out of fashion. Mencken also did not support the USA's participation in WWII, and personally detested President Franklin Roosevelt. There was little demand for his services as a book reviewer, satirist, and political commentator. Between Haardt's death and the 1948 stroke which left him aware and fully conscious but unable to read or write, Mencken's main intellectual activity, other than writing occasional pieces for the Baltimore papers, was his research on the American language and writing his memoirs. These took the form of humorous, anecdotal, and nostalgic essays, first published in the New Yorker, then collected in the books Happy Days, Newspaper Days, and Heathen Days.
After his stroke, Mencken enjoyed listening to classical music and talking with friends, but he sometimes referred to himself in the past tense as if already dead. Preoccupied as he was with how he would be perceived after his death, he organized his papers, letters, newspaper clippings and columns, even grade school report cards, despite being unable to read. These materials were made available to scholars in stages, in 1971, 1981, and 1991. This trove includes hundreds of thousands of letters sent and received - the only omissions were strictly personal letters received from women.
He is interred in Baltimore's Loudon Park Cemetery. His epitaph reads:
- "If, 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."
After his death, it was also inscribed on a plaque in the lobby of The Baltimore Sun. Mencken had suggested this epitaph for himself in something he had written for The Smart Set many decades earlier.
In his capacity as editor and "man of ideas," Mencken became close friends with the leading literary figures of his time, including Theodore Dreiser who introduced him to Charles Fort and the Fortean Society, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ben Hecht, 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) did more to pull America out of The Depression than all government measures combined. He also mentored John Fante. Ayn Rand addressed Mencken as "the greatest representative of a philosophy" to which she wanted to dedicate her life in a July 1934 letter, and listed him as her favorite columnist in later years.
Mencken frankly admired Friedrich Nietzsche and Joseph Conrad. His humor and satire owe much to Ambrose Bierce and Mark Twain. He did much to defend Theodore Dreiser, despite freely admitting his faults, including stating forthrightly that Dreiser often wrote badly and was a gullible man. Mencken also expressed his appreciation for William Graham Sumner in a 1941 collection of Sumner's essays, and regretted never having known Sumner personally.
For Mencken, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was the finest work of American literature. Much of that book relates how gullible and ignorant country "boobs" (as Mencken referred to them) are 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 by posing as enlightened speakers on temperance (to obtain the funds to get roaring drunk), as pious "saved" men seeking funds for far off evangelistic missions (to pirates on the high seas, no less), and as learned doctors of phrenology (who can barely spell). Mencken read the novel as a story of America's hilarious dark side, a place where democracy, as defined by Mencken, is "... the worship of Jackals by Jackasses."
Mencken 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) led many of the American literati to move to Europe or protest; Mencken was arguably the most pugnacious of the latter. 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 Mencken. He would have delighted in being called "anti-American"; his contrarian spirit and admiration of continental European culture (Germany especially) led him to mount unapologetically scathing attacks on nearly all aspects of American culture.
As a nationally syndicated columnist and book author, he notably attacked fundamentalist Christianity and the "Booboisie," his word for the ignorant middle classes. In 1926, he deliberately had himself arrested for selling an issue of The American Mercury that was banned in Boston. Mencken heaped scorn not only on the public officials he disliked, but also on the contemporary state of American democracy itself: in 1931, the Arkansas legislature passed a motion to pray for Mencken's soul after he had called the state the "apex of moronia."
Mencken not infrequently 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, which he wrote at a time when much of his readership considered Anglo-Saxons as standing at the apex of world civilization.
Mencken is perhaps best remembered today for:
- The American Language, a multi-volume study of how the English language is spoken in the United States;
- His satirical reporting on the Scopes trial. He is credited for naming it the "Monkey" trial.
Mencken's greatest contribution to American letters is arguably his humor and satire. Much influenced by Mark Twain and Jonathan Swift, Mencken believed the lampoon was more powerful than the lament; his hilariously overwrought indictments of nearly every subject (including more than a few that were unmentionable in polite company at the time) are certainly worth reading for their superb prose style.
His style proved quite influential. For example, in his autobiographical Black Boy, the Afro-American author Richard Wright described the power of Mencken's technique, and how his discovery of Mencken would inspire him to become a writer himself. Wright recalled his reaction to A Book of Prefaces and to one of the volumes of the Prejudices series as follows:
- "I 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 it." (Quoted in Scruggs, p. 1)
In 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 them:
- "Here 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."
Whether 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 the muckraker journalists of his day, such as Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell. However, 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.
The 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 Klux Klan:
- "Mr. 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.
- "What 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." (quoted in Scruggs, p. 57)
In his "On Being an American," Mencken 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, which he defined as "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, might be happy"). Although he attacked every President of the United States who served during the years of his career as a writer and critic, from Taft to Truman, Mencken reserved a special ire for his attacks on Woodrow Wilson, whose administration he saw as epitomizing the moralistic, puritanical impulses of American life. Mencken's snipes at Wilson resulted in Mencken being singled out by the Bureau of Investigation (the predecessor of the FBI) and other law enforcement agencies as a potential subversive during Wilson's administration.
One 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. It is a very similar concept to the more commonly used German terms Spiesser and Spiessbürger.) Critics 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.
This 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):
- "You never push a noun against a verb without trying to blow up something."
Instead of arguing that one race or group was superior to another, 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 natural 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.
In 1989, as per his instructions, Alfred A. Knopf published Mencken's "secret diary" as The Diary of H. L. Mencken. According to an item in the South Bay (California) Daily Breeze  on December 5, 1989, titled "Mencken's Secret Diary Shows Racist Leanings," Mencken's views shocked even the "sympathetic scholar who edited it," Charles A. Fecher of Baltimore. There was a club in Baltimore called the Maryland Club which had one Jewish member, and that member died. Mencken said "There is no other Jew in Baltimore who seems suitable," according to the article. And the diary quoted him as saying of blacks, in 1943, "...it is impossible to talk anything resembling discretion or judgment to a colored woman..."
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 Science.
Mencken's views on democracy were well-known by his familiar readers. Rather than simply dismissing democracy as a popular fallacy (like Friedrich Nietzsche, for example) or treating it with open contempt, Mencken's response to it was a publicized sense of amusement.
His feelings on this subject (like his casual feelings on many other such subjects) are sprinkled throughout his writings over the years, very occasionally taking center-stage with the full force of Mencken's prose:
"[D]emocracy gives [the beatification of mediocrity] a certain appearance of objective and demonstrable truth. The mob man, functioning as citizen, gets a feeling that he is really important to the world - that he is genuinely running things. Out of his maudlin herding after rogues and mountebanks there comes to him a sense of vast and mysterious power—which is what makes archbishops, police sergeants, the grand goblins of the Ku Klux and other such magnificoes happy. And out of it there comes, too, a conviction that he is somehow wise, that his views are taken seriously by his betters - which is what makes United States Senators, fortune tellers and Young Intellectuals happy. Finally, there comes out of it a glowing consciousness of a high duty triumphantly done which is what makes hangmen and husbands happy."
This sentiment is, of course, fairly consistent with Mencken's distaste for common notions and the philosophical outlook he unabashedly set down throughout his life as a writer (drawing on Friedrich Nietzsche and Herbert Spencer, among others).
Mencken wrote as follows about the difficulties of good men reaching national office when such campaigns must necessarily be conducted remotely:
- "The 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.
- "The 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." (Baltimore Evening Sun, July 26, 1920)
Much of Mencken's enthusiasm for Kaiser Wilhelm's Germany was based upon that nation's inward autocracy, despite its being nominally a
While Mencken's essays are sprinkled liberally with racial epithets ("blackamoor," "niggero," "coon," "prehensile kikes") Mencken 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.
Mencken's The Negro as Author began as a straightforward critique of a fictional work of a black author writing with racial themes as a focus:
"The Shadow, by Mary White Ovington, is a bad novel, but it is interesting as a first attempt by a colored writer to plunge into fiction in the grand manner."
In fact Mary White Ovington was not "colored," as Mencken conveniently pretends not to know. He instead uses this omission as a means to single out her work as an example of sympathetic, liberal-esque anti-racist activism (among educated whites) which in the end only turned out bad writing that undercut the public image of genuine emerging black authors. Within this humorous context, Mencken then commented positively on the future of black writing:
"The thing we need is a realistic picture of this inner life of the negro by one who sees the race from within--a self portrait as vivid and accurate as Dostoyevsky's portrait of the Russian or Thackeray's of the Englishman. The action should be kept within the normal range of negro experience. it should extend over a long enough range of years to show some development in character and circumstance. It should be presented against a background made vivid by innumerable small details."
In his legendary salvo against Southern American culture, "The Sahara of the Bozart" ("Bozart" being a mock misspelling of "Beaux-Arts"), Mencken 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 descendants of the talented aristocrats — by way of African-American mistresses of Caucasian men. 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.
Scruggs's The Sage in Harlem is the most authoritative work on Mencken's influence on and support of African-American intellectuals is. As the editor and main creative force behind The American Mercury, Mencken published more black authors than any other mainstream American outlet of that day. Articles by African-Americans ranged from a Pullman porter's account of life in that occupation to sophisticated articles by important black thinkers.
"From the June, 1936 issue of The American Mercury: "You protest, and with justice, each time Hitler jails an opponent; but you forget that Stalin and company have jailed and murdered a thousand times as many. It seems to me, and indeed the evidence is plain, that compared to the Moscow brigands and assassins, Hitler is hardly more than a common Ku Kluxer and Mussolini almost a philanthropist."
Given Mencken's contempt for the Ku Klux Klan, this was not intended as flattery. In his introduction to Nietzsche's The Antichrist, Mencken displays sentiments which have been characterized as "indisputably anti-semitic".:
"On the Continent, the day is saved by the fact that the plutocracy tends to become more and more Jewish. Here the intellectual cynicism of the Jew almost counterbalances his social unpleasantness. If he is destined to lead the plutocracy of the world out of Little Bethel he will fail, of course, to turn it into an aristocracy--i. e., a caste of gentlemen--, but he will at least make it clever, and hence worthy of consideration. The case against the Jews is long and damning; it would justify ten thousand times as many pogroms as now go on in the world. But whenever you find a Davidsbündlerschaft making practise against the Philistines, there you will find a Jew laying on. Maybe it was this fact that caused Nietzsche to speak up for the children of Israel quite as often as he spoke against them. He was not blind to their faults, but when he set them beside Christians he could not deny their general superiority. Perhaps in America and England, as on the Continent, the increasing Jewishness of the plutocracy, while cutting it off from all chance of ever developing into an aristocracy, will yet lift it to such a dignity that it will at least deserve a certain grudging respect."
American literary critic, humorous journalist, essayist, whose comic scepticism about human progress, expressed with penetrating style, is a treasure for all interested in extravagant language. Mencken 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, and his essays are still widely read.
"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)
Mencken was born in Baltimore, Maryland. He studied at the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute (1892-96), and continued to study literarature with a private tutor. He worked at his father's cigar factory (1896-99) and from 1899, when his father died, Mencken was a reporter or editor for several Baltimore papers, among them Baltimore Morning Herald. He later joined the staff of the Baltimore Sun, for which he worked most of his life. From 1916 to 1918 he was a war correspondent in Germany and in Russia.
From 1914 to 1923 Mencken co-edited with drama critic George Jean Nathan (1882-1958) The Smart. With Nathan he co-founded Parisienne, Saucy Stories, and Black Mask pulp magazines in the late 1910s, and co-founded and edited American Mercury (1923-33). In 1919 he published THE AMERICAN LANGUAGE, a guide to American expressions and idioms. It grew in the following years with each reissue and has had several supplements. From 1917 Mencken was a literary adviser at Knopf publishers. From the mid-1920s his work became increasingly political, and his reputation as the sharpest critic of public men grew to national proportions.
Mencken was one of the most influential American critics in the 1920s. He helped such newcomers as Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis. As an editor he published manuscripts by such young writers as Eugene O'Neill and Dorothy Parker. He 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). He was a columnist in Evening Mail in New York (1917-18), and 'The Free Lance' in Sunpapers (1919-41) in Baltimore.
"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)
Mencken's autobiographical trilogy started with HAPPY DAYS (1940), and was followed by NEWSPAPER DAYS (1941), and HEATHEN DAYS (1943). Last volume, MY LIFE AS AUTHOR AND EDITOR, appeared posthumously in 1993. Mencken suffered in 1949 a stroke, which impaired his speech. He died of heart failure on January 29, 1956 in Baltimore. He was married to writer Sara Haardt, who died in 1935.
In his essays Mencken attacked on all aspects of American life, saving nothing. He called immigrant ethnic groups uncivilized and out of touch with their own national culture, critiqued 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?'