Today in Literary History – January 29, 1956 – H.L. Mencken dies

The American journalist, editor and essayist H.L. Mencken, known as “The Sage of Baltimore'” died on January 29, 1956 at the age of seventy-five. He had suffered a stroke in 1948 that left him unable to read or write for his final years. He often referred to 1948 as the year he died.

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He had jokingly composed an epitaph but despite apocryphal stories it never was actually carved on his headstone: “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.”

Mencken was hugely productive. The New York Times once estimated that in his 50 year career he wrote over 70 million words. He wrote books, memoirs, newspaper columns, book reviews, satires and a monumental history of “the American language.” Apart from that he also kept a detailed diary for much of his life.

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Mencken’s work as a reporter and columnist made him hugely influential in setting political opinion. He had little regard for most politicians, regarding them as idiots at best and crooks at the worst.

He founded two popular literary magazines, The Smart Set and The American Mercury, where he promoted and encouraged writers who would go on to be American icons: Theodore Dreiser, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Anita Loos, Ben Hecht and Sinclair Lewis among them.

Mencken was also an opponent of fundamentalist Christianity and religion in general. He helped engineer the famous “Scopes Monkey Trial” in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925, where a school teacher was brought to trial for teaching evolution. Mencken and the lawyer Clarence Darrow used the opportunity to skewer Creationist thinking.

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I’ve been reading Mencken for as long as I can remember. His style is rollicking, rococo and aphoristic and constantly full of surprises and arresting turns of phrase. Politically, Mencken was an outsider but more often than not he came down on the Conservative side of things. Even when I disagree with his views I still love his wit.

Here are some of his many famous quotes:

Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.

No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.

Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.

Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.

An idealist is one who, on noticing that a rose smells better than a cabbage, concludes that it makes a better soup.

We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.

 

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