Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956) was an American journalist, editor, critic, and philologist. Though he was not a distinguished stylist, the extraordinary vigor of his expression was memorable.
The first American to be widely read as a critic was H. L. Mencken. Though, earlier, James Russell Lowell and Edgar Allan Poe had been better endowed than Mencken with critical intelligence, their proficiency in other literary forms had obscured to some degree their skills as critics.
Mencken was born in Baltimore, Md., on Sept. 12, 1880, and privately educated there. After graduating from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute at the age of 16, he became a reporter on the Baltimore Herald. He rose rapidly; soon he was the Herald's city editor and then editor.
In 1906 Mencken joined the organization known as the Sunpapers, which he served in a variety of ways until his retirement. His outstanding piece of journalism, widely syndicated, concerned the Scopes trial of 1925 in Tennessee, in which a high school science instructor was prosecuted for teaching evolution, contrary to a state law. The Smart Set and the American Mercury, both of which Mencken shared in editing (1908-1923; 1924-1933) with George Jean Nathan, were additional vehicles for his opinions.
Mencken's journalistic skills became his chief handicap as a critic, for he sacrificed discrimination for immediate attention, esthetic and philosophical distinctions for the reductions of easy reading, and subtleties of statement for buffoonery and bombast. Yet, though one may deplore his methods, they gained a wide audience and opened the way for the development of criticism. In this sense, he was the progenitor of modern American criticism, though he himself has no disciples.
Despite what was just short of pandering to popular taste by one who derided popular taste, Mencken derived certain critical principles from his study of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and French critic Rémy de Gourmont. Nietzsche's contempt for the leveling tendencies of democracy and Christianity influenced Mencken's heavily ironic Notes on Democracy (1926), A Treatise on the Gods (1930), and A Treatise on Right and Wrong (1934). His thorough knowledge of Nietzsche was established in his pioneering American study The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (1908). However, unlike Nietzsche (who was at heart an idealist and a visionary, and who, if he despised contemporary morality and mankind, nevertheless hoped to induce a master morality and to breed a race of supermen), Mencken scoffed at this "messianic delusion," adopting only the negative aspects of Nietzscheanism for his castigation of things American and "bourgeois."
After establishing himself as a misogynist with In Defense of Women (1918), Mencken startled his followers by marrying Sara Haardt in 1930. Their union was short, however, for his wife died in 1935.
From Rémy de Gourmont's declaration that to "erect into laws one's personal impressions" is the purpose of the "sincere" critic, Mencken derived the impetus that resulted in the six series of Prejudices (1919-1927), which, together with A Book of Prefaces (1917), constitute his strongest claim as a critic. His crusades for Theodore Dreiser, Willa Cather, and Sinclair Lewis helped establish those novelists; he was ambivalent toward William Dean Howells and George Bernard Shaw; and he greatly overestimated a class of poor writers. Lumping together certain mild practitioners of his own craft whom he suspected of timidity and prudishness—the "Mores, Brownells, Phelpses, Mabies, Brander Matthewses, and other such grave and glittering fish"—helped to clear the field for fresher talents. Unfortunately, even when Mencken was vehemently right, his reader had the uneasy suspicion that this was fortuitous.
Mencken's appreciation of the juicy phrase interested him in its informal aspects. Behind this interest was a distrust of Englishmen—a philo-Teutonism—that deluded him into holding that American speech was the unique product of a new environment. Genuine industry and the liveliest curiosity produced in 1919 The American Language and in the following years its supplements (1945, 1948) and revisions (1921, 1923, 1936). In a field where one finds such great names as those of Ben Jonson, the brothers Grimm, and Otto Jespersen, Mencken meets his peers. But none, not even that of Dr. Jonson, stands for livelier discourse and happier illustrations of its points than Mencken's. By the time of his death on Jan. 29, 1956, in his beloved Baltimore, recognition of his service to the language was everywhere admitted.
H. L. Mencken's other works include Ventures into Verse (1903), Bernard Shaw: The Plays (1905), The Artist (a play, 1912), A Book of Burlesques (1916), A Little Book in C Major (1916), Damn: A Book of Calumny (1918), Heliogablus (1920), Making a President (1932), New Dictionary of Quotations (1942), Christmas Story (1946), and Mencken Chrestomathy (1949). Mencken gathered the more outrageous attacks upon him in Menckeniana: A Schimplexion (1927).
Further Reading on Henry Louis Mencken
In addition to the three volumes of autobiography, Happy Days, 1880-1892 (1940), Newspaper Days, 1899-1906 (1941), and Heathen Days, 1890-1936 (1943), information on Mencken's life is in William R. Manchester, Disturber of the Peace: The Life of H. L. Mencken (1951), written in consultation with Mencken. An irreverent treatment is found in Charles Angoff, H. L. Mencken: A Portrait from Memory (1956). Douglas C. Stenerson, Mencken: Iconoclast from Baltimore (1971), is a sound appraisal. Sara Mayfield, in The Constant Circle: H. L. Mencken and His Friends (1968), tells the story of Mencken's marriage to Sara Haardt. William Nolte, H. L. Mencken: Literary Critic (1966), tries to evaluate Mencken's contribution to his craft. Joseph W. Beach, The Outlook for American Prose (1926), is a fair appraisal of Mencken's style by a contemporary.