and sardonic humorist
, who delighted in skewering the self-important -- especially politician
s and religious leader
s -- and had a knack for aphorism
s. Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956) worked for a variety of publications across the United States, but lived his whole life in Baltimore
Mencken was born Sept. 12, 1880, to an upper-middle-class family whose comfortable life was based on August Mencken's tobacco-processing business. Mencken, the oldest of three sons and one daughter, spent his youth expected to take over the business, though industry and commerce never especially interested him. He spent his youth engrossed in books: he later described reading Huckleberry Finn as "probably the most stupendous event of my life" and treasured a toy printing press he received as a gift on his eighth birthday.
Although he was a tremendously bright boy, Mencken never got used to the rigidity and arbitrariness of traditional schooling, and dropped out of the Baltimore Polytechnic in his teens. His father put him to work learning the tobacco business, but Mencken began making plans to get out -- civilly if possible, but "by open rebellion" if necessary.
Then August Mencken died, on Jan. 13, 1899. His son did what was needed at the tobacco factory, but only three days later, after work, he got cleaned up, walked 15 blocks to the office of the Baltimore Morning Herald, and asked for work.
The editors at the Herald didn't think much of him, but said there might be occasional work he could do and he should come by from time to time to see if there might be a trial assignment available.
Mencken went back every day for weeks. Finally, on Feb. 23, the city editor sent him to Baltimore's far north suburb of Govanstown to cover a horse theft.
He kept going to the paper, and the paper kept giving him work. Eventually, it even started paying him. He covered crimes and industrial accidents and executions of convicted black men at the Baltimore jail -- all of which affected him and enhanced his interest in social justice, of a sort.
The young man advanced quickly. He was given a column, then became city editor, and then the 27-year-old high-school dropout was managing editor of the Herald by 1906 ... when the paper closed.
But by then, Mencken had made a name for himself in the Baltimore newspaper business, and he was rapidly picked up by the victorious competition, the Baltimore Sun, as Sunday editor. Then he became an editorial writer, and in 1911, started writing a column called "The Free Lance," which lasted until 1915. He started a new column in 1919, which he maintained until he could no longer write, in 1948.
Far more than a newspaperman
Mencken published 30 books, starting with a volume of poetry (Ventures into Verse) that he later more or less disowned. He wrote book reviews for The Smart Set from 1908 to 1914. He wrote an expansive history of American English, called The American Language, published in 1919, and wrote biographies of Friedrich Nietzsche and George Bernard Shaw.
With George Jean Nathan, he founded The American Mercury in 1924, a sort of political and literary magazine intended for "the civilized minority," which contained much of his best and fiercest writing.
Mencken left a treasure trove of work, but perhaps the single piece for which he is best known is his obituary of William Jennings Bryan, the three-time presidential candidate, populist, orator, and ferocious Christian fundamentalist. Bryan helped prosecute John Thomas Scopes, a teacher put on trial in 1925 for teaching the theory of evolution; Mencken covered the trial, viciously assailing the (successful) attempt to put faith before science, and saving his nastiest barbs for Bryan's performance. The old warrior died just after the trial, and Mencken memorialized him as "thirsting savagely for blood. All sense departed from him. He bit right and left, like a dog with rabies. He descended to demagogy so dreadful that his very associates at the trial table blushed. His one yearning was to keep his yokels heated up, to lead his forlorn mob of imbeciles against the foe."
Although Mencken respected working men, he was no populist. Mencken's ideal was aristocratic: the learned, successful gentleman who was unabashed in declaring his thoughts. He excoriated the men who made up the "booboisie," the uncouth twits with money who never participated in civic life and lived only for their own pleasures.
Populism, in fact, disgusted Mencken. He attacked Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Supreme Court justice who helped dismantle the theory of "substantive due process" -- the legal doctrine that had been used to quash progressive measures such as factory-safety regulations. He was revolted by Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal, a popular package of vigorous economic reforms and federal make-work projects designed to ameliorate the effects of the Great Depression.
Mencken's opposition to the New Deal might have been principled, but he was certainly on the losing side. His commentary on social and political affairs fell in prestige, and in retrospect, it's clear his career as a commentator peaked in the 1920s.
To his credit, Mencken recognized he was no longer at the leading edge of public opinion. He turned to more academic pursuits: revising The American Language and producing three memoirs: Happy Days on his childhood, Newspaper Days on his early career, and Heathen Days on his career after his iconoclasm became unpopular.
Mencken married Sara Haardt in 1930, and they lived happily and energetically for several years. Sara was rarely healthy, though -- she suffered from flu and fevers, and succumbed to tubercular meningitis in 1935. Mencken had loved her desperately, and friends said he always seemed a little sad, for the rest of his life.
Mencken carried on writing until 1948, when he suffered a severe stroke. Though doctors hadn't expected him to live through the night when they first saw him, he survived. He recovered physically, but the stroke rendered him aphasic, unable to read or write, barely even able to dictate. In interviews and conversation, Mencken referred to 1948 as the year he died. He published a collection of out-of-print columns, A Mencken Chrestomathy that was very well received, but stopped producing new writing. The stroke left him badly befuddled some days, to the point that he accepted a literary prize -- a practice he had always avoided, and criticized in others.
Mencken died of a heart attack, in his sleep, on the morning of Jan. 13, 1956, leaving his estate to the Pratt Library and Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.