H. L. Mencken

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H. L. (Henry Louis) Mencken (September 12, 1880January 29, 1956) was a twentieth century journalist 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.



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H. L. Mencken

Mencken was born in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of a cigar factory owner. 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. On 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. He founded his own influential magazine, The American Mercury in January of 1924, which soon had a national circulation.

Mencken 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.

Among Mencken's influences were Rudyard Kipling, Friedrich Nietzsche, Joseph Conrad, and especially Mark Twain.

In 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 Alastair Cooke.

Mencken 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 broken underestimating the intelligence of the American middle class." Menken heaped scorn not only upon self-serving public officials but the contemporary state of American democracy itself. It was hard to counter him without appearing lame: 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".

Most 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:

"The 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.".
Libertarianism [edit]


Austrian School
Classical liberalism
Individualist anarchism


Key issues
Economic views
Views of rights
Theories of law

In 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 Science.

Despite 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.

Mencken 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 style.

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Mencken suffered a cerebral thrombosis in 1948, from which he never fully recovered. Ironically, and unfortunately, the damage to his brain left him fully conscious and aware 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.

Mencken 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 women.

He died in 1956 and was interred in the Loudon Park Cemetery in Baltimore, Maryland. 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.

Mencken 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 smartass.'"

Race issues

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. 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. 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 persuasion), and even German immigrants, with whom Mencken shared his heritage.

Instead 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 heirarchies, 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.

Overall, 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 have had a positive influence on society rather than a negative one.

Mencken, 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.

The most authoritative work on this subject is Earl 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 Twain 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, even if their content is uneven and their views highly dated.

The 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:

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 from Scruggs, pg. 1)

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) 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.

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 this 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. 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 from Scruggs, pg. 57)

Mencken, 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).

It is no coincidence he regarded 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 Huck and Jim travel down the Mississippi River. These scam-artists swindle country "boobs" (as Mencken referred to them); by posing as enlighened 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."

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-rightous viciousness. (A 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.) Critics must walk a thin line between declaring "The Emporer 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.


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