Today in Literary History – September 12, 1880 – the birth of H.L. Mencken

Today is the anniversary if the birth of one of my all-time favourite writers, H.L. Mencken, born in Baltimore, Maryland, on September 12, 1880.

Mencken, known to his family and friends as Hank, was an incredibly prolific writer of books, essays, satirical pieces and newspaper columns. He wrote about social trends, politics, literature, music, philology, philosophy and religion.

In fact, he was one of the leading atheists in the days when prominent god deniers were pretty thin on the ground. He had a hand in arranging and promoting the “Scopes Monkey Trial” in Tennessee in 1925.

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He also lent the English language, which he dearly loved, a number of colourful words and phrases, such as the term “the booboisie” and the truism that “no one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.”

My love of Mencken and his work goes back many decades. I first heard about him when I was a teenager and read Alistair Cooke’s Six Men, his memoir of six remarkable public figures he had known, one of them being Mencken.

il_570xN.274300555I spent many years combing used book stores for original publications and reprints of Mencken’s books. When I was at university I spent many hours in the library stacks reading bound copies of his magazine The American Mercury when I probably should have been busy with coursework.

Mencken is often described as a curmudgeon, and it is true that his style lends itself well to the puncturing of pomposity and hypocrisy, but he also helped promote and publish a lot of writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway,  Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser when they were unknown.

Mencken has also taken some well-deserved criticism for his casual use of racist and anti-Semitic terms in his posthumously published diaries. I won’t try and defend him on that front.

But, always the contrarian, Mencken published more young black writers in his magazines than any other editors of his day and, according to the Washington Post he was “very likely the single most important influence on black writers in this century, and indeed, personally made it possible for several to break into writing in significant fashion.”

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Despite his slurs, he had close friendships African Americans and his two closest friends outside of his family were both Jewish, his business partner of many years, George Jean Nathan, and the publisher Alfred A. Knopf who shared Mencken’s love for opera.

Mencken and Knopf travelled together every summer to the Bayreuth Festival in Germany for many years. (By an odd coincidence Mencken and Knopf share a birthday, Knopf having been born on this day in 1892.)

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So, a complex character. Funny, scalding, judgemental and sometimes sentimental, and always a meticulous literary craftsman.

I suppose the thing I like most about Mencken is the way he sees the follies of human posturing and pretence and cuts through it with great wit and style.

Having read his scathing critiques of the American presidents of his time -Wilson, Harding, Hoover, Roosevelt- I would give almost anything to read just one page of “the Sage of Baltimore” eviscerating Donald Trump!

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