Henry Louis “H.L.” Mencken was born on September 12, 1880 at his family’s home in Baltimore, Maryland and never traveled very far from his hometown, despite a long and notable career as a journalist, essayist, magazine editor, satirist, and a critic of American life and culture. Although he had excellent grades in high school, he never attended college. (“I was spared…the intellectual humiliations of a college education.”). Dubbed the “Sage of Baltimore,” Mencken is regarded as one of the most influential American writers and prose stylists of his time. As early as the 1920s he was one of America’s most influential literary critics.
A self-taught student of American English, Mencken is perhaps best remembered today for The American Language (1919), a multi-volume study of how the English language is spoken in the United States, and for his satirical reporting on the Scopes “monkey” trial, a term coined by Mencken.
Henry’s father, August Mencken (1854-1899), was a cigar factory owner (which August co-owned with his brother Henry). In his factory, mostly German workers assembled cigars made of Cuban tobacco. August’s German-born father, Burkhardt Ludwig Mencken, came to America after the 1848 revolution in Germany. (Mencken was also related to Otto von Bismarck.) Henry’s mother was Anna Margaret Abhau (1858-1935), also a first-generation German-American. Henry was the first of four children in the Mencken family: Henry Louis, Charles Edward (1882-1956), Anna Gertrude (1886-1980), and August (1889-1967).
Working reluctantly in his father’s cigar factory, Mencken quickly left that for journalism and literature following August’s death in 1899. Starting out as a reporter for the Morning Herald, by 1906 he was a political columnist at The Baltimore Sun. Two years later he became a co-editor and author for the magazine The Smart Set (1908-1923) and later for the American Mercury (1925-1933, with George Jean Nathan), but he continued to work at the Sun newspapers until 1948.
Whether readers either found him “a public nuisance” or agreed with Walter Lippmann that he was “the most powerful personal influence on this whole generation of American people,” invariably, the phrase of the day was: “What do you think of Mencken?”
– from “By His Own Rules” by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers (Cigar Aficionado)
It is difficult to categorize Mencken. He was a great admirer of German culture and Friedrich Nietzsche in particular. He promoted many progressive ideas, yet was at the same time an anti-union Republican who hated Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal — and was an American patriot who opposed both world wars against Germany, but criticized Roosevelt for not accepting Jewish refugees. He fought against ignorance and intolerance, yet at times could himself be intolerant.
His career was ended in 1948 by a stroke that left him unable to read or write for the rest of his life. He died in Baltimore on January 29, 1956. His grave is located in Baltimore’s Loudon Park Cemetery. Despite being a bitter critic of American life and American values, Mencken remained a popular author for many decades, perhaps because of his legendary satiric, Mark-Twain-like humor. He is still one of the most-quoted writers and personalities of all time.
H.L. Mencken – Selected Works
A sample of published works by Mencken, some with links to Amazon.com. Also see “Books about Mencken” below.
- George Bernard Shaw: His Plays (1905)
- The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (1907)
- The Artist: A Drama Without Words (1912)
- A Book of Burlesques (1916)
- A Little Book in C Major (1916)
- Pistols for Two (1917)
- In Defense of Women (1917)
- Damn! A Book of Calumny (1918)
- The American Language (1919)
- Prejudices (1919-1927)
- Selected Prejudices (1927)
- The Hills of Zion (1925)
- Notes on Democracy (1926)
- Libido for the Ugly (1927)
- Menckeneana: A Schimpflexikon (ed) (1928)
- On Politics: A Carnival of Buncombe (1920-1936)
- Treatise on the Gods (1930)
- Making a President (1932)
- Treatise on Right and Wrong (1934)
- Happy Days, 1880-1892 (1940, autobiography)
- Newspaper Days, 1899-1906 (1941, autobiography)
- Heathen Days, 1890-1936 (1943, autobiography)
- A Mencken Chrestomathy (1948)
- A Mencken Chrestomathy (1948)
- Minority Report (1956)
- More books: Amazon.com: Books by H.L. Mencken
Also see the Project Gutenberg links below for online and downloadable ebook versions of some of Mencken’s works.
Books About Mencken
Also see Mencken’s autobiographical trilogy (Happy Days, Newspaper Days, Heathen Days) above.
- The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken by Terry Teachout (2003) – Paperback
Amazon: “When H.L. Mencken talked, everyone listened – like it or not. … Some loved him, others loathed him, but everybody read him. Now Terry Teachout takes on the man Edmund Wilson called ‘our greatest practicing literary journalist,’ brilliantly capturing all of Mencken’s energy and erudition, passion and paradoxes, in a masterful biography of this iconoclastic figure and the world he shaped.”
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AT THE GERMAN WAY
ON THE WEB
- The Mencken Society – Promoting the living works of Henry Louis Mencken, the “Sage of Baltimore”
- The H.L. Mencken Page – Interesting overview of Mencken, but not updated since 2002.
- Project Gutenberg: The American Language – Mencken’s classic as a free ebook in various formats
- Project Gutenberg: In Defense of Women – Mencken’s classic as a free ebook in various formats
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