H. L. Mencken

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H. L. Mencken.

Henry Louis Mencken (September 12, 1880January 29, 1956), better known as H. L. Mencken, was a twentieth-century journalist, satirist, social critic, cynic, and freethinker, known as the "Sage of Baltimore". He is often regarded as one of the most influential American writers of the early 20th century.

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Biography

Mencken was born in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of August Mencken, a cigar factory owner of German extraction. Having moved into the new family home at 1524 Hollins Street (in the Union Square neighborhood) when he was three years old, he lived in the house for the rest of his life, apart from five years of married life. He became a reporter for the Baltimore Morning Herald in 1899 and moved to The Baltimore Sun in 1906. At this time, he had also begun writing editorial columns that demonstrated the author he would soon become. On the side, he wrote short stories, a novel, and even poetry (which he later reviled). In 1908, he became a literary critic for the magazine The Smart Set. Together with George Jean Nathan, Mencken founded and edited The American Mercury, published by Alfred A. Knopf, in January 1924. It soon had a national circulation and became highly influential on college campuses across America.

Mencken is perhaps best remembered today for The American Language, a multi-volume study of how the English language is spoken in the United States, and his satirical reporting on the prosecution, judge, jury, and venue of the Scopes trial, which he is credited for naming the "Monkey" trial.

Among Mencken's influences were Rudyard Kipling, Ambrose Bierce, Friedrich Nietzsche, Joseph Conrad, and especially Mark Twain.

In his capacity as editor and "man of ideas" Mencken became close friends with the leading literary figures of his time, including Theodore Dreiser, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Alfred Knopf, as well as a mentor to several young reporters, including Alistair Cooke. He also championed artists whose works he considered worthy. For example, he asserted that books such as Caught Short! A Saga of Wailing Wall Street (1929), “by” Eddie Cantor (ghost written by David Freedman) did more to pull America out of The Depression than all government measures combined. He also mentored John Fante.

As a nationally syndicated columnist and author of numerous books he notably attacked fundamentalist Christianity and the "Booboisie," his word for the ignorant middle classes. In 1926, he was arrested for selling an issue of The American Mercury banned in Boston. Mencken heaped scorn not only upon some public officials but the contemporary state of American democracy itself: in 1931, the Arkansas legislature passed a motion to pray for Mencken's soul after he had called the state the "apex of moronia."

Mencken sometimes took positions in his essays more for shock value than for deep-seated conviction, such as his essay arguing that the Anglo-Saxon race was demonstrably the most cowardly in human history, published at a time when much of his readership considered Anglo-Saxons the noble pinnacle of civilization.

Mencken married Sara Haardt, an Alabama writer and professor 18 years his junior, in 1930. Haardt was a professor of English at Goucher College in Baltimore who wrote short stories and had led efforts in Alabama to ratify the 19th Amendment. The two met in 1923 after Mencken delivered a lecture at the college. Mencken promoted her short stories, and a seven-year courtship ensued. The marriage made national headlines, and many were surprised that Mencken, who once called marriage "the end of hope," had gone to the altar. "The Holy Spirit informed and inspired me," Mencken said. "Like all other infidels, I am superstitious and always follow hunches: this one seemed to be a superb one." Haardt was in poor health throughout their marriage, and died in 1935 of meningitis. Mencken later published Southern Album, a posthumous collection of her short stories.

Mencken suffered a cerebral thrombosis in 1948, from which he never fully recovered. The damage to his brain left him aware and fully conscious but unable to read or write. In his later years he enjoyed listening to classical music and talking with friends, but he sometimes referred to himself in the past tense as if already dead.

Mencken was, in fact, preoccupied with how he would be perceived after his death, and he spent this period of time organizing his papers, letters, newspaper clippings and columns. His personal materials were released in 1971, 1981, and 1991 (starting 15 years after his death), and were so thorough they even included grade-school report cards. Hundreds of thousands of letters were included - the only omissions were strictly personal letters received from women.

He died in 1956 at the age of seventy-five, and was interred in the Loudon Park Cemetery in Baltimore, Maryland.

Quotes

The Jews could be put down very plausible as the most unpleasant race ever heard of. As commonly encountered they lack any of the qualities that mark the civilized man: courage, dignity, incorruptibility, ease, confidence. They have vanity without pride, voluptuousness without taste, and learning without wisdom. Their fortitude such as it is, is wasted upon puerile objects, and their charity is mainly a form of display.

Treatise on the Gods, 1930.

The current revolt against the so-called liberal theology is perfectly sound. That theology is nothing save an excuse and an evasion. It reduces both science and theology to the ridiculous. If a man can't believe that Jesus arose from the dead he should say so frankly and have done. It is not only foolish but also dishonest for him to pretend to accept all the implications of Christianity without admitting the basic postulate. In this field the Catholic Church, as usual, has been enormously more intelligent than the Protestant. It has rejected so-called Modernism in toto and refuses any compromise with it. The Protestants' attempts to compromise have simply made Protestantism ludicrous. No man of any intellectual dignity can accept it, or even discuss it seriously. The only really respectable Protestants are the Fundamentalists. Unfortunately, they are also palpable idiots, and so Christianity gains nothing by their adherence - in fact, it is gravely injured by their adherence, just as spiritualism would be made preposterous, even if it were not so intrinsically, by the frowsy old imbeciles who believe in it.

Minority Report: H. L. Mencken's Notebooks, 1956.

The true history of World War II, like that of World War I, will probably never be written. The professional historians, as usual, will swallow the official doctrine, which is palpably false. They will take every scrap of official document seriously, and even accept with gravity the reports of the newspapers. It is not hard for a man of reasonable intelligence to get some glimpses of the process by which the United States was hauled into the war, but there are great gaps in the record, and it is not to the interest of anyone concerned to fill them. All that can be established with fair certainty is that no account of the matter by Roosevelt II and his followers will be even so much as half true.

Minority Report: H. L. Mencken's Notebooks, 1956.

The great problem ahead of the United States is that of reducing the high differential birthrate of the inferior orders, for example, the hillbillies of Appalachia, the gimme farmers of the Middle West, the lintheads of the South, and the Negroes. So far no rational effort to grapple with it has been made. On the contrary, the prevailing political mountebanks have sought to put down a discussion of it as immoral: their aim has been to prosper and increase the unfit as much as possible, always at the cost of the fit. But this can't go on forever, else we'll have frank ochlocracy in America, and the progress of civilization will be halted altogether. The theory that inferior stocks often produce superior individuals is not supported by any known scientific facts. All of them run the other way.

Minority Report: H. L. Mencken's Notebooks, 1956.

The belief that man is outfitted with an immortal soul, differing altogether from the engines which operate the lower animals, is ridiculously unjust to them. The difference between the smartest dog and the stupidest man - say a Tennessee Holy Roller - is really very small, and the difference between the decentest dog and the worst man is all in favor of the dog.

Minority Report: H. L. Mencken's Notebooks, 1956.

Not a single solitary sound reason has yet been advanced for putting the Ku Klux Klan out of business. If the Klan is against the Jews, so are half of the good hotels of the Republic and three-quarters of the good clubs. If the Klan is against the foreign born or the hyphenated citizen, so is the National Institute of Arts and Letters. If the Klan is against the Negro, so are all of the states south of the Mason-Dixon line. If the Klan is for damnation and persecution, so is the Methodist Church. If the Klan is bent upon political control, so are the American Legion and Tammany Hall.

If the Klan wears grotesque uniforms, so do the Knights of Pythias and Mystic Shriners. If the Klan holds its meetings in the dead of night, so do the Elks. If the Klan conducts its business in secret, so do all college Greek letter fraternities and the Department of State. If the Klan holds idiotic parades in the public streets, so do the police, the letter-carriers, and firemen. If the Klan's officers bear ridiculous names, so do the officers of the Lambs' Club. If the Klan uses the mails for shaking down suckers, so does the Red Cross. If the Klan constitutes itself a censor of private morals, so does the Congress of the United States. If the Klan lynches a Moor for raping someone's daughter, so would you or I.

The Smart Set, 1923.

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