Authors: H. L. Mencken

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American critic

Author Works

Nonfiction:

George Bernard Shaw: His Plays, 1905

The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, 1908

A Book of Burlesques, 1916 (satire)

A Book of Prefaces, 1917

In Defense of Women, 1918

The American Language, 1919, revised 1936, 1945 (Supplement I), 1948 (Supplement II)

Prejudices, 1919-1927 (in six series)

Notes on Democracy, 1926

Treatise on the Gods, 1930

Treatise on Right and Wrong, 1934

Happy Days, 1940 (autobiography)

Newspaper Days, 1941 (autobiography)

Heathen Days, 1943 (autobiography)

A Mencken Chrestomathy, 1949

Dreiser-Mencken Letters: The Correspondence of Theodore Dreiser and H. L. Mencken, 1907-1945, 1986 (2 volumes; Thomas P. Riggio, editor)

My Life as Author and Editor, 1993 (Jonathan Yardley, editor)

Thirty-five Years of Newspaper Work: A Memoir, 1994 (Fred Hobson, Vincent Fitzpatrick, and Bradford Jacobs, editors)

A Second Mencken Chrestomathy, 1995 (Terry Teachout, editor)

From Baltimore to Bohemia: The Letters of H. L. Mencken and George Sterling, 2001 (S. T. Joshi, editor)

H. L. Mencken on American Literature, 2002 (Joshi, editor)

Drama:

The Artist, pb. 1912

Heliogabalus: A Buffoonery in Three Acts, pb. 1920 (with George Jean Nathan)

Biography

“The Gaseous Vertebrata who own, operate and afflict the universe have treated me with excessive politeness,” Henry Louis Mencken (MEHNG-kuhn) wrote in his autobiography, as he recalled how satisfactory his life had been, so that he would not wish one detail of it changed. He was born into a Baltimore family of the “comfortable and complacent bourgeoisie,” largely of German descent, and was educated in his native city, where he lived all of his life. For many years he was on the staff of The Baltimore Sun; in 1914 he became editor of The Smart Set, and from 1924 to 1933 he edited The American Mercury, the liveliest magazine of that decade. In 1930 he married Sara Powell Haardt, who died in 1935.{$I[AN]9810000547}{$I[A]Mencken, H. L.}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Mencken, H. L.}{$I[tim]1880;Mencken, H. L.}

H. L. Mencken

(Library of Congress)

Despite later critical interest in F. Scott Fitzgerald and the early Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, it was not these writers who dominated the 1920’s. The two important literary figures attracting attention at the time were Mencken and Sinclair Lewis, and their influence was great. Just as the novels of Lewis, satirizing so much in American life, were hailed or damned according to the point of view of the reader, so the pungent essays of Mencken, slaughtering so many sacred cows, evoked cries of delight or anguish. The objects of their satire were much the same–the provincialism, narrowness, hypocrisy, and self-satisfaction of the United States–and while their methods were often crude, the two writers accomplished salutary results.

Mencken’s writing can be divided into two parts: literary criticism and criticism of the national political and social scenes. As a literary critic, he appealed to the younger generation of the day because of the freshness of his point of view, the vivid phrases by which he expressed himself, and his scorn of venerable academic critics. To the irreverent college students of iconoclastic days, his slashing attacks on some hitherto-revered “Dr. Professor” were highly stimulating. The chief target of his satire was the Puritan tradition in American letters, with its literary taboos. Viewed in retrospect, however, his literary criticism has not stood up well. Though he championed some writers of merit, such as Joseph Conrad, his obvious preference was for purely naturalistic fiction such as that of Theodore Dreiser. Mencken’s limited imagination was evidenced by his inability to appreciate or even understand poetry. His criticism was not based on any reasoned aesthetic; it was purely subjective, a matter of likes and dislikes. However, he was fearless in defending unpopular causes, and he succeeded in admitting some much-needed light and air into American literature. He was, for instance, perhaps the leading white supporter of the Harlem Renaissance.

Mencken’s comments on national affairs were of a piece with his literary criticism and were directed against similar targets: the United States’ ingrown Puritanism, displayed at that time in Prohibition; the national cult of “boosterism”; public idols such as Woodrow Wilson–all were attacked, while the author was either hailed or vilified. The satire was not subtle; it was said that Mencken’s weapon was not the rapier but the bludgeon. In the course of his bitter reflections on the national mores he displayed genuine wit and coined some phrases that have become a part of the language: “the Bible belt” and “the booboisie,” for example. So great was his prestige at the time that to write “Menckenese” became the ambition of many university literati. While many of these Mencken essays can still provide amusing reading, they are so tied in with situations and events peculiar to the 1920’s that they have become dated.

Mencken was always the individualist, a foe of the mass mind and mass culture. Toward religion, he was, as he freely admitted, a complete skeptic; and the ascendancy during the 1920’s of the more fanatical aspects of fundamentalism gave him some excellent subjects for satire. Politically, he was a Tory, with little faith in democracy and a hatred of all radical movements, reforms, and paternalism. Much of this attitude, which disturbed so many readers, was merely a restatement of traditional American individualism. Above all, he was the enemy of humbug wherever he found it in American life.

Mencken fell from popular favor in the 1930’s, when the Depression made his remarks about the masses seem callous. His reputation rose again in the 1940’s, with the publications of his memoirs: Happy Days, Newspaper Days, and Heathen Days.

A very different aspect of Mencken’s work is demonstrated in the volumes of The American Language, on which he spent years of research. These books have been acclaimed by scholars as important contributions to philology, and yet his characteristic wit makes fascinating reading of an otherwise dry subject. It is probable that The American Language will outlive all his other books. In 1948 Mencken suffered a stroke that left him unable to continue writing. He died eight years later.

The 1980’s saw the release of diaries and other writings Mencken had wanted kept secret until long after his death. These reminded readers of his incisive wit and showed his more human side, but they also showed him speaking privately of African Americans, Jews, homosexuals, and others in terms no longer considered acceptable. Some say that these writings show his true bigoted nature, thus casting doubt on all his work, while others ask that they be considered in the contexts of the time, when such expressions were considered more permissible, and of his own life, which reflected kindness, affection, and respect toward individual members of those groups.

BibliographyAngoff, Charles. H. L. Mencken. New York: T. Yoseloff, 1956. A memoir.Harrison, S. L. Mencken Revisited: Author, Editor, and Newspaperman. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1999. Each of these ten essays sheds new light on Mencken’s character. The author clarifies Mencken’s reputation as a bigot, noting that he was tolerant and an advocate for minority rights. Concludes with an overview of Mencken’s lasting effects, his books, and the books about him.Hobson, Fred C. Mencken: A Life. New York: Random House, 1994. The first biography to incorporate material from the posthumous books.Manchester, William. Disturber of the Peace: The Life of H. L. Mencken. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1951. This engaging biography has the advantage of having been written with Mencken’s cooperation, by a man who knew Mencken personally. Manchester has a lively, anecdotal style, and his book is only slightly limited by its date of publication, which was five years before Mencken’s death.Mayfield, Sara. The Constant Circle. New York: Delacorte Press, 1968. Covers Mencken’s friendships with other literary and newspaper people.Mencken, H. L., and George Sterling. From Baltimore to Bohemia: The Letters of H. L. Mencken and George Sterling. Edited by S. T. Joshi. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2001. Correspondence is complemented by bibliographical references and index.Rodgers, Marion Elizabeth. Mencken: The American Iconoclast. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Scholarly and at the same time compelling and readable, Rodgers offers an extensively researched, well-documented biography and study of Mencken.Scruggs, Charles. The Sage in Harlem. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989. Describes Mencken’s relationship with James Weldon Johnson, and the Harlem Renaissance in general.Stenerson, Douglas C., ed. Critical Essays on H. L. Mencken. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987. This useful collection includes George Jean Nathan’s memoir of Mencken; contemporary looks at his work and influence; and more recent studies, such as Fred Hobson’s “This Hellawful South: Mencken and the Late Confederacy.”Teachout, Terry.The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.
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