American journalist and humorist famous for his criticism of American society. Born in 1880 in Baltimore, Maryland, Mencken held positions at several newspapers and magazines during his long career.

Mencken was one of the most quoted thinkers of the first half of the twentieth century, and with good reason. Some examples:

"No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American people."

"Nature abhors a moron"

"Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who would want to live in an institution."

Jury - A group of 12 people, who, having lied to the judge about their health, hearing, and business engagements, have failed to fool him.

The trouble with Communism is the Communists, just as the trouble with Christianity is the Christians.

Mencken despised the Puritan ideology predominant in America at the time. But he also respected the people's right to believe in God in any form they desired, even if he reserved the right to point out what he believed was silliness.

Despite his scathing critcisms, he remained a patriot and a supporter of the American way of life. Mencken found in American society a group of people that could guarantee the majority of its members the basics of life, even during the Great Depression.

American commentator and sardonic humorist, who delighted in skewering the self-important -- especially politicians and religious leaders -- and had a knack for aphorisms. Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956) worked for a variety of publications across the United States, but lived his whole life in Baltimore, Md.

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.

Newspaper career

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.

Later years

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.

Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and start slitting throats.
- H. L. Mencken

A man of mixed enlightenment

H.L. Mencken was a smart man, sometimes. I find myself agreeing with a lot of what he had to say, and he talked about a lot of things.

He was, of course, an insufferable elitist - he was of the opinion that democracy was the domination of superior men by their inferiors. Anybody who feels that way almost necessarily puts themselves in the former category, but in some cases, he was. He opposed among other things organized religion, creationism, anti-intellectualism, bigotry of all stripes, and in a great case of "one of these things is not like the others", at least superficially, chiropractic medicine. He was also an outspoken defendant of the First Amendment as well as a pianist and a member of a musicians' club.

As someone vehemently opposed to injustice, at least injustice as he saw it, he certainly did some flag-hoisting of his own; in 1926, he deliberately and publicly violated the Comstock laws of Boston, Massachusetts, in order to provoke an arrest as a form of civil disobedience.

The American Mercury and civil disobedience

Mencken was the co-creator of the now-defunct magazine The American Mercury, an early issue of which included the article Up From Methodism, by Herbert Asbury. It was a purportedly true story of a small-town prostitute who wished to repent, but was shunned from the local church and so backslid.

This enraged Rev. J. Frank Chase of Boston's Watch and Ward Society, a group devoted to aggressive censorship of literature and art, who lobbied successfully to have that issue of The American Mercury banned in Boston. A newspaper vendor was arrested for selling the banned issue, which provoked Mencken to arrange a media circus involving the public sale of a copy of the banned issue to Rev. Chase himself, who smiled and posed for the press cameras.

Mencken ended up spending over $20,000 (more than $244,000 in 2010 dollars) on legal defense, a lawsuit against Rev. Chase for illegal prior restraint of the press, and a series of court cases and appeals attempting to overturn the Federal Comstock Acts, as well as expenses for lost sales and advertising.

While ultimately unsuccessful in most of his legal battles, he was absolutely committed to overturning unjust and unconstitutional laws which were later successfully struck down.

Elitism, bigotry, and anti-Semitism

He was an unabashed elitist, and preferred to treat democracy, in his writings, with an amused contempt. He was a strong follower of the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, and believed in an absolutely impartial government by the elite minds of any given community.

He spoke and wrote strongly against bigotry, and wrote at least one article summarily dismissing the concept of racial superiority, particularly Anglo-Saxon superiority. His 1923 essay, "The Anglo Saxon", not only dismissed the idea of a pure race, but, in a heavy paraphrase, claimed that even if there were such a thing as a pure Anglo-Saxon, that the race would be defined by inferiority and cowardice. The most famous quote from this essay is,

"The normal American of the 'pure-blooded' majority goes to rest every night with an uneasy feeling that there is a burglar under the bed and he gets up every morning with a sickening fear that his underwear has been stolen."

Though an admirer of German culture, likely due to his infatuation with Nietzsche, there is strong, though somewhat conflicting, evidence that he did not share anti-Semitic feelings with many of his like-minded contemporaries. Indeed, he was vigorously defended by progressive Gore Vidal,

Far from being an anti-Semite, Mencken was one of the first journalists to denounce the persecution of the Jews in Germany at a time when the New York Times, say, was notoriously reticent. On November 27, 1938, Mencken writes (Baltimore Sun), "It is to be hoped that the poor Jews now being robbed and mauled in Germany will not take too seriously the plans of various politicians to rescue them." He then reviews the various schemes to "rescue" the Jews from the Nazis, who had not yet announced their own final solution.

Syndicated columnist, prolific writer

Besides national syndication for the various columns he wrote across his career, he was the author of over 21 works in 29 volumes; 7 chapbooks; and a library of posthumous collections, letters, and unreleased works. His topics ranged from coverage of the Scopes monkey trial to commentary on the plays of George Bernard Shaw and analysis of selected works of Nietzsche.

He was also the perpetrator of the famous bathtub hoax, a completely fictitious account of the invention of, and the introduction into the United States, of the bathtub. Published during WWI, and intended as a simple joke, it was republished, referenced, and accepted as fact in such varied circles as journals of medicine and encyclopedias. He was admittedly astonished at the wide circulation it received, and to this day it is referenced erroneously as fact.

  • The Bathtub Hoax and Other Blasts and Bravos, Alfred A. Knopf (1958) (Full transcript of the original article here)
  • S. L. Harrison aka H. L. Mencken: Selected Pseudonymous Writings ISBN 0-9708035-4-0.
  • H. L. Mencken. Prejudices: A Selection ISBN 0-8018-8535-3
  • Disturber of the Peace, William Manchester (1951)
  • The Impossible H.L. Mencken ISBN 0385262078

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