Birthday: September 12, 1880
Died At Age: 75
Sun Sign: Virgo
Also Known As: Henry Louis
Born in: Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.
Spouse/Ex-: Sara Haardt
father: August Mencken Sr.
siblings: August Mencken Jr.
Died on: January 29, 1956
place of death: Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.
City: Baltimore, Maryland
U.S. State: Maryland
epitaphs: 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
education: Baltimore Polytechnic Institute
Mencken, known as the ‘Sage of Baltimore’ was a journalist, critic, satirist and editor and was the role model for renowned twentieth century writers like Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill and F. Scott. He was highly critical of the American way of life, culture and the weakness of American democracy. His master-piece, ‘The American Language’ that came out in multi-volume, traced the evolution of American English. The way Bernard Shaw was popular in England, Mencken was popular in America not only for his writings, but also for the influence he had over Harlem and Southern areas in awakening the literary genre. He was highly critical of the politicians, other journalists, chiropractors and the Ku Klux Klan. His criticism against Puritans was very severe. He attacked Puritanism as ‘the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy’. He was greatly impressed by the writings of German philosopher Nietzsche and French critic, Remy de Gourmont. Influenced by Nietzsche, he expressed his hatred for democracy and Christianity in his works like ‘Notes on Democracy’, ‘A Treatise on the Gods’ and ‘A Treatise on Right and Wrong’. When his journal, ‘The American Mercury’ was banned, Mencken raised his objection by demanding freedom of press and speech that resulted in his imprisonment. In his contempt for the American society, he was highly individualistic and outspoken. New York Times regarded his ‘caustic wit and bludgeon-like style’, which could either instill admiration or complete hatred, made him ‘the most powerful private citizen in America’.
Childhood & Early Life
Henry Louis ‘H. L.’ Mencken was born to German-American parents - August Mencken, a cigar factory owner and Anna Abhau Mencken.
He completed his primary education at Professor Knapp's School. At the age of 16, he graduated from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.
From 1896 to 1898, he worked in his father’s cigar factory. He disliked the job and left the factory. The same year, he enrolled for a correspondence course in writing from the Cosmopolitan University.
In 1899, shortly after his father’s death, he handed over the family business to his uncle and started pursuing his career in writing.
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He started his career with the ‘Baltimore Morning Herald’ in 1899 as its part-time reporter but soon rose to the position of editor.
In 1906, the ‘Herald’ ran out of business and was bought by Charles H. Grasty who launched The Baltimore Sun in 1910, where Mencken worked as a managing editor from 1911 to 1915.
Simultaneously, he started his career as a literary critic by editing satirical magazine like The Smart Set. He worked in the magazine from 1914-23.
In 1924, he partnered with Jean Nathan, the famous American drama critic and editor, and founded the magazine, ‘The American Mercury’ that was published by Alfred A. Knopf. He worked in it as an editor.
The magazine was widely popular in America. In 1933, he resigned from The American Mercury.
Mencken’s popularity fell down during the days of Great Depression, the economic downturn that lasted from 1929 to 1939 and due to his opposition against Franklin D. Roosevelt's “New Deal.”
However, he was able to regain his popularity with the publication of the fourth edition of his book ‘The American Language’ in 1936 and its Supplements that followed in 1945 and 1948.
In 1948, he entered the political scene by focusing on the presidential election of Harry S. Truman.
In 1948, he suffered from stroke from which he never recovered.
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The American Language published in 1919 was his masterpiece, where he traced the history and evolution of American vernacular speech. The book gained him much popularity in the field of philology with republication in 1936 andprovided with Supplements in 1946 and 1948.
Prejudices, appearing in six volumes and published in 1919 were the collection of his critical writing.
Happy Days (1940), Newspaper Days (1941), and Heathen Days (1943) are the three, autobiographical trilogy, where Mencken expressed his enchantment over his personal life.
Awards & Achievements
He was the recipient of Gold Medal for American Academy of Arts from Belles Lettres and Criticism for his humorous writings.
He is fondly remembered as the “Baltimore Sage” in recognition of his literary service.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1923, while he went to deliver a lecture in Baltimore, he met Sara Haardt, a professor of English at Goucher College and fell in love with her. She was eighteen years junior to him.
Courtship between Sara and Mencken lasted for seven years and finally they got married in 1930.
Sara was ill with tuberculosis throughout their married life and in 1935, she succumbed to meningitis, leaving Mencken heavily grief-stricken.
Mencken collected her short stories and published them under the title Southern Album.
In 1948, he suffered severe stroke that totally ruined his writing career.
On January 29, 1956, he died of heart attack while he was asleep.
His home at 1524, Hollins Street was donated to the University of Maryland, after the death of his youngest brother, August in 1967.
In 1983, the house was acquired by the city of Baltimore and now it is maintained as part of the City Life Museum that is kept open on special occasions..
This American critic and journalist was the founder of the musical group called, “The Saturday Night Club,” where he used to play piano.
“Baltimore Sage” played a vital role in the “Scopes Trial,” where he stood in support of science over superstition.