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||H(enry) L(ouis) Mencken (1880-1956)|
American literary critic, journalist, and essayist, who 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. Mencken's Prejudices (1919-1927) is a treasure for all interested in exuberant prose. His essays are still widely read and cherished.
"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)
Henry Louis Mencken was born in Baltimore, Maryland. His
grandfather had prospered in the tobacco business and his father,
August, continued the family tradition. Mencken studied at the
Baltimore Polytechnic Institute (1892-96) and then worked at his
father's cigar factory. After his father died in 1899, Mencken was free
to choose his own trade in the world. "I chose newspaper work without
any hesitation whatever, and save when the scent of a passing
garbage-cart has revived my chemical libido, I have never regretted my
choice," he once said. He was a reporter or editor for several
Baltimore papers, among them Baltimore Morning Herald. Later he
joined the staff of the Baltimore Evening Sun, for which he worked
throughout most of his life.
The Sunpapers sent Mencken as a war
correspondent to Europe, where he covered the eastern front and spent in 1917 some time in Germany. Writing for the Atlantic Monthly, he described in
one article General Ludendorff, a hero of the First World
War, as a man of intelligence worth "ten Kaisers." (The Trial of Adolf Hitler: The Beer Hall
Putsch and the Rise of Nazi Germany by David King, 2017, pp.
24-25) However, occasionally Mencken made wrong choices in the
people worthy of admiration: Ludendorff would later serve as a front
for Hitler's putsch in Munich of 1923. Mencken admired Charles Darwin, Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim, and Schubert's music, and disliked prohibition, democracy, and religious fundamentalism. "Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy."
Although Mencken published a collection of poems in 1903, he
considered George Bernard Shaw: His
Plays (1905) his "first real book". Mencken's study on the
philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (1908) was partly inspired by his own
bourgeois German background. Upon the publication of the book, Mencken
was charged being an intimate associate and agent of "the German
monster, Nietzsky," as it was said in the official report. Mencken also
taught himself German well enough to translate Nietzsche's Anti-Christ,
which appeared in 1920. With Friedrich Nietzsche and Karl Marx he
shared a similar view on the role of religion in society – it was an
tool for manipulating credulous masses, but his personal philosophy is
very close to that of Schopenhauer: "To read the thoughts of others is
like taking the remains of someone else's meal, like putting on the
discarded clothes of a stranger." His obituary turned into a character
assault on William Jennings Bryan, who died a few days after the end of
the Scopes evolution trial of 1925, was censored even by his own
editors at theBaltimore Sun.
"I was significant that one of the cruelest things he ever wrote," the
critic Alfred Kazin noted, "was probably the most brilliant." (Mencken: the American Iconoclast by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, 2005, pp. 293-294)
Against American public opinion, Mencken was during World War I pro-German. As a result, his A Book of Prefaces (1917) was attacked by Stuart Sherman and others, who considered him unpatriotic. "England gave us Puritanism," he remarked, "German gave us Pilsner. Take your choice." From 1914 to 1923 Mencken coedited with drama critic George Jean Nathan (1882-1958) the Smart Set, which mocked everything from politics to art, universities to the Bible, and beginning from 'The Sahara of the Bozart' (November 1917), it took as its target the culture of the South. With Nathan he cofounded Parisienne, Saucy Stories, and Black Mask pulp magazines in the late 1910s, and cofounded and edited American Mercury (1923-33). When Mencken became really interested in the city councils and the state legislatures and the Federal Congress, Nathan was appalled and left the Mercury. They were never more than friendly enemies. In 1919 Mencken published The American Language, a guide to American expressions and idioms, which was a critical and popular success. It grew in the following years with each reissue and have had several supplements. In 1917 Mencken started as a literary adviser at Knopf publishers. From the mid-1920s his work became increasingly political, and soon Mencken gained his nationwide fame the reigning critic of manners and politics.
Mencken was one of the most influential American critics in
the 1920s. He helped such newcomers as Theodore
Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis. In general,
preferred realism over high- flown idealism and modernism. He loved Huckleberry
Finn, referring to it as, "...probably the most stupendous event of my whole life." As an editor he published
manuscripts by such young writers as Eugene O'Neill and Dorothy Parker,
and was the friend and mentor of James M. Cain.
Mencken 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
Mencken was a columnist in Evening Mail in New York (1917-18), and "The Free Lance" in Sunpapers (1919-41) in Baltimore. When Rudolph Valentino was slandered in an unsigned editorial headed 'Pink Powder Puff' in the Chicago Tribune (July 18, 1926), the great lover of the screen challenged the unknown journalist to a boxing or a wrestling match, and Mencken was chosen to play the part of the sage. He told that the actor should ignore the taunt – "Let the dreadful farce roll along to exhaustion." Soon after Valentino's death in August 1926, Mencken wrote of their meeting for the Baltimore Sun.
"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)
his visit to Paris in 1929, Mencken stayed at Hôtel La Trémoille on rue
de la Tremoille. He was unimpressed by the marvels of the city, saying
that "the cafés of Paris dangerously outnumber the pissoirs."
In 1930 Mencken married the writer and professor of English Sara Haardt, who was eighteen years his junior and seriously ill. After years of attacking the authority of the Bible and the church, he was married in the Episcopal Church. Before proposing he had courted Haardt for seven years, but during this period he had also continued his relationship with Marion Bloom, a country girl from Maryland, and had an affair Aileen Pringle, a quick-witted silent-movie star. "A very amusing movie gal," Mencken said of her. Pringle married in 1944 James M. Cain; they divorced within two years. Sara Haardt died of tuberculosis in 1935.
Mencken abandoned in 1938 his famous Evening Sun Monday articles, and at the beginning of World War II he gave up writing regularly for the Sun. He opposed America's entry into the war, assaulted in his diary on FDR and the War Party, but denounced the "intolerable brutalities" and "extraordinary imbecility" of Hitler and the Nazis. (A Story of America First: The Men and Women who Opposed U.S. Intervention in World War II by Ruth Sarles, 2003, p. xxxviii) Mencken's autobiographical trilogy began with Happy Days (1940), and was followed by Newspaper Days (1941), and Heathen Days (1943). The last volume, My Life as Author and Editor (1993), appeared posthumously. Mencken suffered in 1949 a stroke which impaired his speech. He was also unable to read and write and did not remember the names of his friends. Mencken died of heart failure on January 29, 1956 in Baltimore, in the row house on Hollins Street where he had lived most of his life. In Minority Report (1956) he had written: "The imbeciles who have printed acres of comment on my books have seldom noticed the chief character of my style. It is that I write almost scientific precision – that my meaning is never obscure. The ignorant have often complained that my vocabulary is beyond them, but that is imply because my ideas cover a wider range that theirs do. Once they have consulted the dictionary they always know exactly what I intend to say."
In his essays Mencken, who was in "permanent opposition", attacked on all aspects of American life, private and communal folly, the daily panorama of human existence, saving nothing, but he had an immense authority for a time. And he was always cocksure about everything. "I have fixed and invariable ideas. They have not changed since I was four or five years," he once stated. He called immigrant ethnic groups uncivilized and out of touch with their own national culture, criticized 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?' "Moronia" was the name he sometimes used for the country he lived in.
For further reading: The Man Mencken by Isaac Goldberg (1925); H.L. Mencken by Ernest Boyd (1925); The Irreverent Mr. Mencken by Edgar Kemler (1950); H.L. Mencken by Charles Angoff (1956); H.L. Mencken by William H. Nolte (1966); H.L. Mencken by Philip Wagner (1996); Mencken by Carl Bode (1969); H.L. Mencken by Douglas C. Stenerson (1971); H.L. Mencken by W.H.A. William (1977); H.L. Mencken by George H. Douglas (1978); Mencken: A Study of His Thought by C.A. Fecherr (1978); On Mencken, ed. by John Dorsey (1980); Disturber of the Peace by William Manchester (1986, original edition 1951); The Skeptic by Terry Teachout (2002); Mencken: the American Iconoclast by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers (2005); The Mencken Paradox: Anti-semite or MOT by David Stewart Thaler (2006); Damning Words: the Life and Religious Times of H.L. Mencken by D.G. Hart (2016)