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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The Curmudgeon of America’s Press

By Tom Morrow

Henry Louis “H. L.” Mencken was a journalist, essayist, editor, satirist, critic of life and culture of American as well as a scholar of American English.

Known as the “Sage of Baltimore,” Mencken was one of the most influential American writers and prose stylists of the first half of the 20th century.

Born in 1880, Mencken was the son of a cigar factory owner. When he was nine years old, he read Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, which he later described as “the most stupendous event in my life.”

At age 15, he graduated as valedictorian from the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. In early 1898, he took a class in writing at the Cosmopolitan University, the extent of his formal education in journalism, or any other subject. He applied in February 1899 to the Morning Herald newspaper and was hired on as a full-time reporter.

After six years at the Herald, Mencken then moved to The Evening Sun where he worked until 1948.

Mencken became noted throughout America for his editorial opinion. He co-founded and edited The American Mercury, which developed a national circulation.

In 1925, Mencken covered the Scopes “Monkey” Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, writing scathing syndicated columns mocking the anti-evolution fundamentalists, especially William Jennings Bryan. The play and movie “Inherit the Wind” is a fictionalized account of the trial.

In 1926, Mencken followed with great interest the Los Angeles grand jury inquiry into the famous evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. She was accused of faking her kidnapping. Mencken didn’t continue his previous pattern of anti-fundamentalist articles, but came to her defense.

In 1930, Mencken married German-American Sara Haardt, a professor of English and 18 years his junior. The union was notable because Mencken once called marriage “… the end of hope.” He justified his marriage by saying, “The Holy Spirit informed and inspired me. Like all other infidels, I am superstitious and always follow hunches … this one seemed to be a superb one.” But after five years, his wife developed tuberculosis and died leaving Mencken grief-stricken.

During the Great Depression, Mencken did not support President Roosevelt which cost him much popularity. He also had strong reservations regarding U.S. participation in World War II, though he considered Adolf Hitler and the Nazis “ignorant thugs.”

Mencken suffered a stroke in 1948, leaving him fully conscious but nearly unable to read or write, and able to speak only with difficulty. During the last year of his life, his friend and biographer William Manchester read to him daily. Mencken died Jan. 29, 1956, buried in Baltimore.

An example of Mencken’s controversial-style of editorializing can be found in a July 26, 1920 edition of The Baltimore Sun:

“As democracy is perfected, the office of the President represents,

more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and

glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at

last and the White House will be occupied by a downright fool and

complete narcissistic moron.”

Though it isn’t on his tombstone, Mencken wrote his own epitaph: “If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl.”


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