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H.L. Mencken: Biography & Books

Instructor: Bryanna Licciardi

Bryanna has received both her BA in English and MFA in Creative Writing. She has been a writing tutor for over six years.

H. L. Mencken is one of the most feared and revered critics of the 20th century. Read about how his writing helped influence much of the popular, social, and political culture.

Biography

Henry Louis Mencken was born September 12, 1880, in Baltimore, Maryland, to a family of German descendants. His German background would lead to his appreciation and sympathy of the German culture. As a child, his passion for writing initiated both from reading Huckleberry Finn and the printing press his father gifted him. After Mencken graduated from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute top of his class, he wanted to pursue journalism, but his father had other plans for him. In 1896, Mencken went to work at his father's tobacco business until his father's death in 1899. Mencken wasted no time. Within days of his father's death, he left the business to pursue journalism, catching his first break at Baltimore Morning Herald.

Portrait of H. L. Mencken
H. L. Mencken photo

In 1911, Mencken was given his own column at The Baltimore Sun called 'The Free Lance,' in which he criticized literature and popular culture. In his literary criticism, he sought to de-emphasize the popular writers, whose fame he considered unworthy, and encourage new, insightful voices in literature like James Joyce and F. Scott Fitzgerald. In his popular criticism, he struck out to unveil the ignorance he witnessed in the American public. The following is one of his most famous creeds: 'I believe that it is better to tell the truth than a lie. I believe it is better to be free than to be a slave. And I believe it is better to know than to be ignorant.'

In addition to his column, he was the co-editor of the literary magazine The Smart Set. He also broke ground with his own magazine called The American Mercury. In fact, his magazine was so shocking and audacious that it was banned for a period of time. His fight for free press and the First Amendment (freedom of speech) kept him relevant and prominent in the media. Mencken's word on culture was so critical and fearless that people from all over the country came to anticipate what he had to say. His most famous journalistic achievement was his coverage of the infamous 1920s 'Scopes Trial,' a science teacher on trial in Tennessee for teaching evolution. Though many other journalists were covering the trial, which Mencken nicknamed 'The Monkey Trials', Mencken's satirical coverage became the most notable. The 'backwards' thinking and religious oppression inspired much of his criticism.

Despite Mencken's adamant and public dislike of the institute of marriage, Mencken was swept off of his feet by writer and professor Sara Haardt, who was almost twenty years younger than him. The two married in 1930, but knowing that their time together would be short lived. Haardt was dying of tuberculosis and lived only another five years. Mencken, heartbroken by her death, was also struggling to remain relevant. The devastation of the Great Depression left him not much to say, because he was not well studied on the economy. He continued to fight for his voice until 1948, when he suffered a stroke that left him unable to speak, read, or write. Though he would eventually recover his voice, he was never the same. Mencken died while sleeping on January 29, 1956.

Photograph of H. L. Mencken by Carl Van Vechten, 1932
H L Mencken photo

Books

Reporter, editor, essayist, and columnist - Mencken did it all, and with a certain literary flare. Mencken was ruthless, both in content and his choice of subject, though he did use humor to attract his audience. His work is considered satirical and cutthroat, making him one of the most influential critics of the 20th century. His own influences were Mark Twain and Friedrich Nietzsche. He studied Nietzsche so much so that Mencken was eventually nicknamed 'The American Nietzsche'. Mencken strongly opposed religion, politics, and many other institutes he considered hypocritical. Part of his creed is that all government is evil and religion is a curse to mankind. A great example of his fearlessness can be seen during World War II. Mencken was adamantly against US involvement, as he believed it would lead to political oppression and mass murder. He publicly criticized President Franklin D. Roosevelt, costing Mencken his job.

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