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H. L. Mencken

social critic, essayist

H. L. Mencken

Henry Louis Mencken was born into a family of Baltimore cigar makers on September 12, 1880. Privately educated, his interest in literature began at the age of 8. He had his first library card at age 9, and graduated from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute at age 16.

After his father died in 1899, Mencken gave up the family cigar business in favor of a journalism career, becoming a reporter for the Baltimore Morning Herald. By the time the paper ceased publication in 1906, Mencken had become its editor.

Moving over to the Baltimore Sun in 1906, Mencken remained associated with that paper until 1941, as reporter, columnist, and editor. His article on the 1925 Scopes Trial, in which a Tennessee school teacher was found guilty of teaching evolution, was syndicated around the country. In 1908, he became a drama critic for the magazine Smart Set, and served as the magazine's coeditor, with George Jean Nathan, from 1914 to 1923. In 1924, he and Nathan founded The American Mercury, a magazine of humor and comments about American customs and politics.

The first American to be widely read as a critic, Mencken's columns addressed many of the social issues of the day, from civil rights and social darwinism to Prohibition and the Great Depression. Many of his criticisms and essays were collected into Prejudices, published in six volumes between 1919 and 1927.

Mencken also earned acclaim for The American Language (1918), in which he examined the development of the English language in America and praised the acceptance of new words and forms of expression as a reflection of the American style of life. Considered by many to be one of the best works on American English since Noah Webster published his dictionary, Mencken published three revisions (in 1921, 1923 and 1936) and two supplements (in 1945 and 1948).

Mencken suffered a stroke in 1948 which left him unable to read or write. He died in Baltimore on January 29, 1956.

His Writings

Ventures into Verse (1903)
Bernard Shaw: The Plays (1905)
The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche
The Artist (play, 1912)
A Book of Burlesques (1916)
A Little Book in C Major (1916)
A Book of Prefaces
(collection of criticisms and essays, 1917)
In Defense of Women
The American Language (1918)
Damn: A Book of Calumny (1918)
Prejudices (6-volume collection of criticisms and essays, 1919-1927)
Heliogablus (play, 1920)
Notes on Democracy (1926)
Menkeniana: A Schimplexion (1927)
A Treatise on the Gods (1930)
Making a President (1932)
A Treatise on Right and Wrong (1934)
Happy Days, 1880-1892 (3-volume autobiography, 1940)
Newspaper Days, 1899-1906 (1941)
New Dictionary of Quotations (1942)
Heathen Days, 1890-1936 (1943)
Christmas Story (1946)
Mencken Chrestomathy (1949)

My Life as Author and Editor was, by terms of Mencken's will, locked in a safe for 35 years after his death, and finally published in 1993.

Noah Webster

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This page was last updated on 01/27/2018.