Henry Louis Mencken, better known as H. L. Mencken, was an American journalist, literary and social critic, essayist, and editor of two influential magazines, The Smart Set and The American Mercury. He edited both of these magazines in collaboration with drama critic George Jean Nathan. Mencken also wrote over 30 books, including A Book of Prefaces, but The American Language is perhaps his greatest literary achievement. In this book, Mencken clarified the differences between American and British English, defining in print the outlines of common American speech. While not a populist in political outlook, Mencken's broad appeal, fame, and influence made him a household word throughout the United States and influenced the public thinking of his era.
Mencken was born on September 12, 1880. He was the eldest of four children. His parents were August Mencken and Anna Margaret Abhua Mencken. August and his brother owned the Mencken Cigar Company. About his childhood Mencken once wrote that he was born in the center of a comfortable and complacent bourgeoisie and was embraced with an affection that kept him fat, saucy, and contented. As a result he grew up with a sense of self-confidence that played an important role in his life.
Mencken was an inspiration to other writers such as Richard Wright, the author of Native Son and his autobiography Black Boy. After reading an editorial in a southern newspaper criticizing Mencken, he became curious and wanted to read Mencken's books, but African Americans were not allowed to check books out of the library. He came up with an ingenious plan and conspired with a white coworker to forge a note to be able to get the books he wanted. The first book he got was A Book of Prefaces. Years later he wrote in Black Boy that he was jarred and shocked by Mencken's style. According to him A Book of Prefaces was his gateway to world literature.
While many writers found Mencken inspirational, to his many detractors he was a scourge. His critics characterized him as a bigot, racist, anti-Semite, misogynist, and misanthrope, and according to Richard O'Mara in the Christian Science Monitor, Mencken was an incredible egotist. However, William H. A. Williams, in H. L. Mencken Revisited, writes that these were only “snippets” of Mencken's personality and his “colorful” writing. Williams asserts that during his career Mencken helped many black authors, including Richard Wright. He also supported the antilynching bill and repeatedly denounced the KKK, and he criticized the Roosevelt administration for refusing admittance of Jews seeking refuge from Nazi Germany.
Mencken was undoubtedly one of the most controversial and prolific authors of his generation, and possibly the most quoted. Mencken's legacy is archived in the Mencken Room of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, which holds myriad artifacts left by the Sage of Baltimore: his Corona typewriter, his desk, his books, and nearly every word of the estimated 15 million (some say 50 million) he wrote during his lifetime.
Finally, he was a libertarian of the most extreme variety, and his literary theory, like his politics, was based chiefly on the freedom to speak the truth. Mencken died on January 29, 1956, in Baltimore, Maryland.
John G. Hall
See also: Anderson, Sherwood ; Ku Klux Klan ; Roosevelt, Franklin Delano ; Twain, Mark
Kramer, Hilton. “Who Reads Mencken Now?” New Criterion, January 1, 2003.
McCarthy, Daniel. “The Irrepressible Mencken.” The American Conservative, January 30, 2006.
Mencken, H.L. The American Language. New York: Bartleby.com, 2000. http://www.bartleby.com/185/ . Accessed January 7, 2013.
Mencken, H.L. A Book of Prefaces. New York: BiblioBazaar, 2009. Kindle Ebook: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/19355 . Accessed January 7, 2013.
Nolte, William H., ed. H.L. Mencken's Smart Set Criticism. Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 1987.
Spivak, Lawrence, and Charles Angoff. America Mercury Reader. Baltimore, MD: American Mercury, 2001.