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 for his satirical reporting on the Scopes trial, which he named the "Monkey" trial.
Mencken's parents insisted that his high school education favor the practical over the intellectual, and very early on he took a night class in how to write copy for newspapers and business. This was to be all of Mencken's formal education in journalism, or indeed in any other subject, as he never attended college.
Mencken became a reporter for the Baltimore Morning Herald in 1899, then moved to The Baltimore Sun in 1906. He continued to contribute to the Sun full time or occasionally until 1948, when he ceased to write.
In only a few years time, Mencken began writing the editorials and opinion pieces that made his name. 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, and in 1924, he and George Jean Nathan founded and edited The American Mercury, published by Alfred A. Knopf. It soon acquired a national circulation and became highly influential on college campuses across America. In 1933, Mencken resigned as editor.
In 1930, Mencken married Sara Haardt, a professor of English at Goucher College in Baltimore and an author who was 18 years his junior. Haardt had led efforts in Alabama to ratify the 19th Amendment. The two had met in 1923 after Mencken delivered a lecture at Goucher; a seven-year courtship ensued. The marriage made national headlines, and many were surprised that Mencken, who once called marriage "the end of hope" and who was well known for mocking relations between the sexes, 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." Even more startling, he was marrying an Alabama native despite his having written scathing essays about the American South.
Haardt was in poor health from tuberculosis throughout their marriage and died in 1935 of meningitis, leaving Mencken grief-stricken. He had always supported her writing, and after her death had a collection of her short stories published under the title Southern Album.
The Great Depression and the New Deal, which Mencken did not support, were factors in Mencken's dropping out of fashion, as were his lack of support for the United States' participation in WWII, and his personal detestation of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He ceased writing for the Baltimore Sun for several years, focusing on his memoirs and other projects as editor, while serving as an advisor for the paper that had been his home for nearly his entire career. In 1948, he briefly returned to the political scene, covering the presidential election in which President Harry S. Truman faced Republican Thomas Dewey and Henry A. Wallace of the Progressive Party (United States, 1948). After the election, Mencken suffered a stroke which left him aware and fully conscious but unable to read, write, or speak. Besides his last political campaign, his later work consisted of humorous, anecdotal, and nostalgic essays, first published in The New Yorker, then collected in the books Happy Days, Newspaper Days, and Heathen Days.
After his stroke, Mencken enjoyed listening to European classical music and talking with friends, but he sometimes referred to himself in the past tense as if already dead. Preoccupied as he was with how he would be perceived after his death, he organized his papers, letters, newspaper clippings and columns, even grade school report cards, despite being unable to read. These materials were made available to scholars in stages, in 1971, 1981, and 1991, and include hundreds of thousands of letters sent and received - the only omissions were strictly personal letters received from women.
"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."After his death, this was also inscribed on a plaque in the lobby of The Baltimore Sun. Mencken had suggested this epitaph for himself in something he had written for The Smart Set many decades earlier.
Mencken frankly admired Friedrich Nietzsche -- he was the first writer in English to provide a scholarly analysis of Nietzsche's writings and philosophy -- and Joseph Conrad. His humor and satire owe much to Ambrose Bierce and Mark Twain. He did much to defend Theodore Dreiser, despite freely admitting his faults, including stating forthrightly that Dreiser often wrote badly and was a gullible man. Mencken also expressed his appreciation for William Graham Sumner in a 1941 collection of Sumner's essays, and regretted never having known Sumner personally. For Mencken, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was the finest work of American literature. Much of that book relates how gullible and ignorant country "boobs" (as Mencken referred to them) are swindled by confidence men like the (deliberately) pathetic "Duke" and "Dauphin" roustabouts with whom Huck and Jim travel down the Mississippi River. These scam-artists swindle by posing as enlightened speakers on temperance (to obtain the funds to get roaring drunk), as pious "saved" men seeking funds for far off evangelistic missions (to pirates on the high seas, no less), and as learned doctors of phrenology (who can barely spell). Mencken read the novel as a story of America's hilarious dark side, a place where democracy, as defined by Mencken, is "... the worship of Jackals by Jackasses."
Mencken was at the top of his game in the 1920s, when a backlash against WWI-era superpatriotism and government expansion (exemplified in the Palmer Raids) led many of the American literati to move to Europe, or to protest; Mencken was arguably the most pugnacious of the latter. The "anti-American" label is an epithet today (and to a lesser degree in Mencken's time); the term is not used here to defame Mencken. He would have delighted in being called "anti-American"; his contrarian spirit and admiration of continental European culture (Germany especially) led him to mount unapologetically scathing attacks on nearly all aspects of American culture.
As a nationally syndicated columnist and book author, he notably attacked ignorance, intolerance, "frauds", fundamentalist Christianity and the "Booboisie," his word for the ignorant middle classes. In 1926, he deliberately had himself arrested for selling an issue of The American Mercury that was banned in Boston under the Comstock laws. Mencken heaped scorn not only on the public officials he disliked, but also on 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 not infrequently 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, which he wrote at a time when much of his readership considered Anglo-Saxons as standing at the apex of world civilization.
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 Scopes Trial, which he is credited for naming the "Monkey" trial.
In 1989, as per his instructions, Alfred A. Knopf published Mencken's "secret diary" as The Diary of H. L. Mencken. According to an item in the South Bay (California) Daily Breeze on December 5, 1989, titled "Mencken's Secret Diary Shows Racist Leanings," Mencken's views shocked even the "sympathetic scholar who edited it," Charles A. Fecher of Baltimore. There was a club in Baltimore called the Maryland Club which had one Jewish member, and that member died. Mencken said "There is no other Jew in Baltimore who seems suitable," according to the article. And the diary quoted him as saying of blacks, in 1943, "...it is impossible to talk anything resembling discretion or judgment to a colored woman..." But violence against blacks outraged Mencken. For example, he had this to say about a Maryland lynching:
"Not a single bigwig came forward in the emergency, though the whole town knew what was afoot. Any one of a score of such bigwigs might have halted the crime, if only by threatening to denounce its perpetrators, but none spoke. So Williams was duly hanged, burned and mutilated."
Another allegation leveled against him was that he was frequently obsessed with the importance of social status or class. For example, Mencken broke off a relationship of many years with his lover, Marion Bloom, when they were arranging to be married. Critics saw this as being due to Bloom being insufficiently wealthy, upper-class, and sophisticated for him. Mencken, however, claimed he ended the relationship because she converted to Christian Science, which he disdained.
His feelings on this subject (like his casual feelings on many other such subjects) are sprinkled throughout his writings over the years, very occasionally taking center-stage with the full force of Mencken's prose:
"[D]emocracy gives [the beatification of mediocrity] a certain appearance of objective and demonstrable truth. The mob man, functioning as citizen, gets a feeling that he is really important to the world - that he is genuinely running things. Out of his maudlin herding after rogues and mountebanks there comes to him a sense of vast and mysterious power—which is what makes archbishops, police sergeants, the grand goblins of the Ku Klux and other such magnificoes happy. And out of it there comes, too, a conviction that he is somehow wise, that his views are taken seriously by his betters - which is what makes United States Senators, fortune tellers and Young Intellectuals happy. Finally, there comes out of it a glowing consciousness of a high duty triumphantly done which is what makes hangmen and husbands happy."
This sentiment is, of course, fairly consistent with Mencken's distaste for common notions and the philosophical outlook he unabashedly set down throughout his life as a writer (drawing on Friedrich Nietzsche and Herbert Spencer, among others).
Mencken wrote as follows about the difficulties of good men reaching national office when such campaigns must necessarily be conducted remotely:
Much of Mencken's enthusiasm for Kaiser Wilhelm's Germany was based upon that nation's inward autocracy, despite its being nominally a parliamentary democracy.
"On the Continent, the day is saved by the fact that the plutocracy tends to become more and more Jewish. Here the intellectual cynicism of the Jew almost counterbalances his social unpleasantness. If he is destined to lead the plutocracy of the world out of Little Bethel he will fail, of course, to turn it into an aristocracy--i. e., a caste of gentlemen--, but he will at least make it clever, and hence worthy of consideration. The case against the Jews is long and damning; it would justify ten thousand times as many pogroms as now go on in the world. But whenever you find a Davidsbündlerschaft making practise against the Philistines, there you will find a Jew laying on. Maybe it was this fact that caused Nietzsche to speak up for the children of Israel quite as often as he spoke against them. He was not blind to their faults, but when he set them beside Christians he could not deny their general superiority. Perhaps in America and England, as on the Continent, the increasing Jewishness of the plutocracy, while cutting it off from all chance of ever developing into an aristocracy, will yet lift it to such a dignity that it will at least deserve a certain grudging respect.
Although Mencken idealized German culture and Nietzsche and may have inherited racial and antisemitic attitudes common in late 19th-century Germany, he came to view Hitler as a buffoon, and once compared Hitler to a common Ku Klux Klan member (but only in complaining about the American left's tendency to decry Hitler's murderousness while ignoring what he felt was the much worse record of Stalin and the Bolsheviks), Mencken made no public statements ridiculing Nazism and, according to his diary, was opposed to U.S. involvement in World War II.
In Treatise on the Gods (1930), Mencken wrote:
The Jews could be put down very plausibly as the most unpleasant race ever heard of. As commonly encountered, they lack many 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.
On the other hand, it may be more correct to view his remarks on Jews as simply symptomatic of his generally critical, elitist posture--especially keeping in mind his actual public positions on matters of desperate importance to Jews generally. The progressive writer Gore Vidal defended Mencken thusly:
In a cheery way, [Mencken] dislikes most minorities and if he ever had a good word to say about the majority of his countrymen, I have yet to come across it. Recently, when his letters were published, it was discovered that He Did Not Like the Jews, and that he had said unpleasant things about them not only as individuals but In General, plainly the sign of a Hitler-Holocaust enthusiast. So shocked was everyone that even the New York Review of Books' unofficial de-anti-Semitiser, Garry Wills (he salvaged Dickens, barely), has yet to come to his aid with An Explanation. But in Mencken's private correspondence, he also snarls at black Americans, Orientals, Britons, women, and WASPs, particularly the clay-eating Appalachians, whom he regarded as subhuman. But private irritability is of no consequence when compared to what really matters, public action.
Far from being an anti-Semite, Mencken was one of the first journalists to denounce the persecution of the Jews in Germany at a time when the New York Times, say, was notoriously reticent. On November 27, 1938, Mencken writes (Baltimore Sun), "It is to be hoped that the poor Jews now being robbed and mauled in Germany will not take too seriously the plans of various politicians to rescue them." He then reviews the various schemes to "rescue" the Jews from the Nazis, who had not yet announced their own final solution.
As Hitler menaced Europe, Mencken attacked President Roosevelt for refusing to admit Jewish refugees into the United States:
There is only one way to help the fugitives, and that is to find places for them in a country in which they can really live. Why shouldn't the United States take in a couple hundred thousand of them, or even all of them?
Mencken married a Jewish woman (Sara Haardt) and nearly married another (Marion Bloom). He also numbered Jews amongst his friends and confidants - including Louis Untermeyer, Philip Goodman, Alfred Knopf and George Jean Nathan. He prided himself on being passably conversant in Yiddish, and was knowledgeable as to most Jewish folkways and lore.
The collection contains Mencken's typescripts, his newspaper and magazine contributions, his published books, family documents and memorabilia, clipping books, a large collection of presentation volumes, a file of correspondence with prominent Marylanders, and the extensive material he collected while preparing The American Language.
Other collections of Menckenia are at Dartmouth College, Harvard University, Princeton University, and Yale University. The Sara Haardt Mencken collection is at Goucher College. Some of Mencken's vast literary correspondence is held at the New York Public Library.