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H. L. Mencken as a Boy? Oh, Boy!

By Danny Heitman | HUMANITIES, November/December 2014 | Volume 35, Number 6

In 1936, after presiding for a generation as America’s most influential man of letters, Henry Louis Mencken faced an uncertain future. His acerbic style, which had so sharply defined the freewheeling sensibility of the 1920s, now seemed curiously off-key in a country reeling from the Depression. His disdain for Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s government activism further distanced him from many Americans who applauded FDR’s New Deal. He’d resigned as editor of the American Mercury, which he had developed into a leading journal of national life, after a steady decline in circulation. Mencken’s wife, Sara, had died in 1935. The best part of Mencken’s life appeared to be behind him.

But then Mencken published two articles in the New Yorker about his turn-of-the-century boyhood in Baltimore. The public embraced these nostalgic recollections from a caustic commentator on the American scene who was, quite improbably, showing a soft side. Mencken’s timing couldn’t have been better.

Harried by the cares of the 1930s, readers proved eager to embrace Mencken’s remembrance of happier times. And if Mencken and many of his fellow citizens could no longer agree on the politics of the present, they could share a common affection for the joys of youth.

Mencken’s cheerful recounting of his earliest days led to other retrospective essays, most of them also published in the New Yorker. The magazine pieces evolved into three memoirs, published as World War II approached and then deepened, another reality that made people wistful for the good old days. Mencken’s autobiographical trilogy—Happy Days, Newspaper Days, and Heathen Days—was a critical and popular hit. H. L. Mencken, once written off as a has-been, was the comeback kid of American letters.

Now, thanks to a new edition of the Days trilogy just published by the Library of America (LOA), another Mencken revival could be at hand. LOA’s Days volume is the second Mencken project for the nonprofit publisher, which issued a two-volume edition of Mencken’s Prejudices, his literary and political essays from the 1920s, in 2010. Mencken wrote a shelfful of criticism, reportage, and social commentary, but the LOA Prejudices and Days give us the formidable bookends of his prolific career—the trenchant Jazz Age observations that established his fame, along with the milder memoirs that renewed it.

A picture of Mencken on the Days cover shows him paunchier and grayer than in his heyday, although his hair remains parted down the middle, Alfalfa-fashion—a reminder that Mencken never quite moved on from that period when he reigned supreme as the American Voltaire. His firm grip on the past, which so complicated Mencken’s appeal to readers struck by the realities of a changing world, was also a great resource for a memoirist trying to evoke the dawn of the twentieth century.

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, the Mencken scholar and biographer who edited LOA’s Prejudices, is back on board as editor for LOA’s Days trilogy. Following LOA tradition, the book includes a chronology at the end of the volume that walks us through critical dates in the author’s life.

Rodgers displays her usual thoroughness in covering Mencken’s biographical landmarks, although a life as grand as his defies easy summary. The Days text itself, while highly readable, is more anecdotal than systematic. Happy Days, the first installment, chronicles Mencken’s childhood, while Newspaper Days follows his early career as a Baltimore reporter and editor. Heathen Days serves as a kind of catchall for material that escaped the first two volumes, but there’s prime stuff in this final installment, such as Mencken’s account of the 1925 Scopes trial over the teaching of evolution.

But the Days books, as good as they are, don’t create a clear sense of Mencken’s contribution to American literature and culture. Readers unfamiliar with Mencken might best enjoy reading Days alongside Rodgers’s 662-page Mencken: The American Iconoclast, published in 2005. Rodgers’s study (supported by an NEH grant) is one of five major biographies of Mencken, who died in 1956. Writers keep trying to capture Mencken’s life on the page, one gathers, because they believe that no one will ever get to the bottom of him. He had, after all, not one life but many, gaining national fame as a reporter, groundbreaking political and social commentator, arts critic, amateur philologist, magazine editor, and memoirist. Mencken also wrote thousands of letters, and his far-flung correspondence, which reached everyone from Theodore Dreiser to Edgar Lee Masters to James M. Cain, is an accomplishment in itself.

In An Infuriating American, a slender new book about Mencken’s career, author Hal Crowther almost audibly sighs from the page at the thought of capturing what made Mencken great. “Mencken is almost too big to approach with any confidence,” Crowther confesses. “Setting yourself to write about him, you feel like an old farmer with his old mule, at sunrise of a long, hot day, looking out over fifty acres that ought to be plowed before sundown. Give me strength, Lord, and where do I begin?”

Perhaps it’s best to begin with Mencken’s birth in Baltimore in 1880, where he spent a childhood that was, by his own account, “placid, secure, uneventful and happy.” Mencken concluded that his origins, as far as he could tell, had “no psychological, sociological or politico-economic significance.” Mencken’s family had founded one of the most successful cigar factories in the region and, after Mencken finished high school, his father nudged him into the business. But Mencken, an avid reader from an early age, longed to be a newspaperman, and when his father died suddenly in 1899, the young Mencken saw his chance.

Two weeks after the funeral, Mencken arrived at the offices of the Baltimore Herald and nagged the editor into hiring him, launching a journalism career that he called “the maddest, gladdest, damnedest existence ever enjoyed by mortal youth.”

Mencken’s newsroom apprenticeship included covering crime, fires, and local politics, but his intellectual ambitions quickly involved him in writing about music, literature, and theater as well. His book reviews for the Smart Set magazine helped him build a national audience, and he eventually became a coeditor of the journal with George Jean Nathan. While he continued his newspaper work, which was growing in prominence after his move to the Baltimore Sun, Mencken used the Smart Set to publish revolutionary new writers, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, Willa Cather, and Eugene O’Neill. By building a new community of authors, then clanging the bell on their behalf, Mencken aimed to shake up national letters.

In 1924, Mencken and Nathan started their own magazine, the American Mercury, which anticipated the New Yorker with its clever design, erudite writing, and eclectic content. The Mercury featured writing not only by James Weldon Johnson and Dorothy Parker, but also by bricklayers, bishops, senators, hoboes, and prisoners. But the most anticipated byline belonged to Mencken, whose boisterous style became a national sensation.

He invented the term Bible Belt to describe the culturally conservative South, a region he also mocked as “the Sahara of the Bozart.” He dismissed democracy as a farce, concluding that its essential fallacy rested in relying on a majority of morons. Here’s how Mencken famously put it: “No one in this world, so far as I know—and I have researched the records for years, and employed agents to help me—has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”

Mencken’s unflinching columns and essays electrified the country. “What amazed me was not what he said, but how on earth anybody had the courage to say it,” Richard Wright recalled. In the 1920s, young people disillusioned by the aftermath of World War I found resonance in Mencken’s words, said Hamilton Owens, a journalistic protégé. “His was the point of view they wanted. His harsh realism, his complete scorn for the prevailing patriotic hypocrisies, his ‘destructiveness’ and above all his uproarious gusto at swinging his ax on the idols gave them that sense of direction which they had lacked.”

Mencken’s tone, though, leaned toward bemusement, not bitterness. “I do not believe in democracy,” he conceded, “but I am perfectly willing to admit that it provides the only really amusing form of government ever endured by mankind.”

Alistair Cooke, who became friends with Mencken as a young reporter, said those who read Mencken’s fiery pronouncements in print were often shocked to discover how genial he was in person, when they met him at his house on Baltimore’s Hollins Street. “Fuming clergymen appeared in Hollins Street determined to pronounce damnation on a man who had spent so much mean talent insisting that he was unholier than they,” Cooke wrote. “They were always disarmed to discover not only an affable and easy host but a knowing student of theology and, as the doctors and lawyers of his acquaintance discovered, a gifted amateur of medicine and jurisprudence.”

It’s this genial side of Mencken that shines most brightly in the Days books, and one of the biggest charms of the memoirs is the way that Mencken aims the sharpest barbs at himself for a change. “I was on the fattish side as an infant, with a scow-like beam and noticeable jowls,” Mencken notes in Happy Days. “There is a photograph of me at eighteen months which looks like the pictures the milk companies print in rotogravure sections of the Sunday papers, whooping up the zeal of their cows. If cannibalism had not been abolished in Maryland some years before my birth I’d have butchered beautifully.”

The beginning of Happy Days is a good example of the Mencken style:

At the instant I first became aware of the cosmos we all infest I was sitting in my mother’s lap and blinking at a great burst of lights, some of them red and others green, but most of them only the bright yellow of flaring gas. . . . The occasion: the third and last annual Summer Nights’ Carnival of the Order of Orioles, a society that adjourned sine die, with a thumping deficit, the very next morning, and has since been forgotten by the whole human race.

Note the comic use of the word “infest,” a not-so-subtle way of equating the human pageant with an anthill. That’s trademark Mencken, just as the vivid domestic detail—the color of the lights, the flare of the street lamps—is signature Mencken, too. And into this colloquial prose, Mencken manages, as he usually does, to slip in a little Latin.

Mencken loved to meet readers at the intersection of the elevated and the everyday, which is why he cherished newspapering so much. Through journalism, he could take the world of ideas into the life of the street. His breezy sentences, seasoned with exotic words from a phenomenal vocabulary, seem inspired not by ostentation, but the belief that language, in all its richness and variety, was meant to be enjoyed.

In a hilarious chapter of Heathen Days, noting his misadventures as an agnostic teen at the local YMCA, Mencken refers to an evangelizing, acne-faced youth as a “papuliferous exegete.” One keeps a dictionary handy when reading Mencken, but his references, even when humorously obscure, still hum with a pleasing music.

In a chapter of Newspaper Days about his coverage of the Baltimore fire of 1904, Mencken notes with great satisfaction the headline he wrote: “HEART OF BALTIMORE WRECKED BY GREATEST FIRE IN CITY’S HISTORY.” “It was simple; it was direct; there was no fustian in it; and yet it told the story perfectly,” he boasts.

That’s Mencken’s literary ideal, in a nutshell—not to use the shortest words, necessarily, nor the plainest, but the right ones—the turns of phrase that hold a reader to the page with the steady promise of reward.

It’s why, we learn in Happy Days, that Mencken liked Mark Twain so much. He calls his childhood discovery of Huckleberry Finn “probably the most stupendous event of my whole life.” Mencken elaborates:

If I undertook to tell you the effect it had upon me my talk would sound frantic, and even delirious. Its impact was genuinely terrific. I had not gone further than the first incomparable chapter before I realized, child though I was, that I had entered a domain of new and gorgeous wonders, and thereafter I pressed on steadily to the last word. My gait, of course, was still slow, but it became steadily faster as I proceeded. As the blurbs on the slip-covers of murder mysteries say, I simply couldn’t put the book down.

Twain affirmed for Mencken the idea of American English as something distinct, magical, and worth celebrating. Somehow, in addition to his duties as a writer, author, and editor, he managed to compile The American Language, a mammoth survey of the native tongue that, if it had been Mencken’s only work, would have secured his place in the pantheon of literature.

Reading Mencken, like reading Twain, inevitably brings one to the subject of race. Throughout the Days books, Mencken casually refers to African Americans as “blackamoors,” and he doesn’t seem especially pained by their struggles.

Then again, at a time when it was politically brave to do so, Mencken promoted the work of African-American writers. The last newspaper article he published in 1948, before a devastating stroke ended his career, was a column denouncing a Baltimore area ordinance that forbade African Americans from playing on certain public tennis courts and golf courses. He had close Jewish friends such as Alfred A. Knopf. But Mencken’s diaries and other personal writings sometimes display derogatory remarks about African Americans and Jews.

“His attitude toward black people was a curious mingling of total egalitarianism on the one hand and patronizing superiority on the other,” Charles Fecher, who edited the diaries, wrote of Mencken. “My own view . . . is that if by the standards of our day Mencken was anti-Semitic, by those of his own he was not. Inasmuch as he lived in his time and not in ours, it is by this we should judge and, I believe, acquit him,” said literary critic Jonathan Yardley.

Mencken exposed his warts to posterity because, or so it seems, he had no unrecorded thoughts. In addition to churning out letters, books, and journalism on a mythic scale, he left behind a voluminous trove of literary material embargoed, at his own wishes, to outside view until twenty-five years after his death. LOA’s Days uses an element of this delayed literary bequeast—some “Additions, Corrections and Explanatory Notes” that Mencken tacked onto the Days books after they were published.

The supplemental material appears at the back of the LOA edition rather than within the body of the book. Readers in search of biographical bombshells will probably be disappointed. Many of the asides in Mencken’s added notes deal with marginalia or occasional score-settling concerning obscure Baltimore figures. There are insights into more notable characters, as when he says this of attorney Clarence Darrow, the doomed hero of the Scopes trial: “My opinion of Darrow was never very high. He was an orator, not a lawyer, and his frequent pronunciamentoes on legal and social questions were usually banal.”

In a footnote to Happy Days, Mencken provides fresh insight into why he was so oblivious to the suffering of the Depression: “It requires a conscious effort for me to pump up any genuine sympathy for the downtrodden, and in the end I usually conclude that they have their own follies and incapacities to thank for their troubles.”

If Mencken displays little pity for others in these pages, he also shows little pity for himself. He discloses no bitterness, for example, about his father’s steadfast insistence that he work in the family business, even though Mencken mentions, rather glancingly, that this personal dilemma led him to contemplate suicide.

It’s the kind of crisis that would rest at the center of most modern memoirs, but in his preface to Days, Mencken sniffs at what was then an emerging tendency toward psychological angst in autobiography, a tradition that continues today. “I was,” he writes, “a larva of the comfortable and complacent bourgeoisie, though I was quite unaware of the fact until I was along in my teens, and had begun to read indignant books.”

And so it is even in the Days books, which brought a mellower Mencken to the reading public, he didn’t entirely give up his contrarian streak.

What Crowther wrote of Mencken’s broader literary legacy could well apply to the Days books: “A journey into Mencken country is nothing like a walking tour of the Lake District, or of the chateaus along the Loire. For everything we encounter that’s inspirational or charming, there’s something appalling or incomprehensible. Pretty country, no. But it’s never dull, and no one ever returned complaining that it was a waste of time.”

About the Author

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, has been reading Mencken since high school. In 2004, he delivered the H. L. Mencken Memorial Lecture in Baltimore.

Funding Information

NEH has provided support to Marion Elizabeth Rodgers to edit Mencken: The Days Trilogy, Expanded Edition, which was published in September by Library of America. Rodgers also has received two NEH grants, totaling $29,155, to work on Mencken: The American Iconoclast. The Smart Set, which was edited by Mencken, is being digitally archived by the Modernist Journals Project with NEH support.