Saturday, September 12, 2015

H.L. Mencken: He Debunked America's Stiff Upper Lip With A Smile

Today, September 12, marks the birthday of Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956), the "Sage of Baltimore." He was a leading journalist and author on the American scene, and a student of the American language. Mencken's stature seems to be on the rise over the last few decades. I'd guess it's because we experienced a concurrent rise in many nation-wide opportunities to watch logic, practicality, and skepticism destroy a multitude of political pretenders and their policies regardless of political persuasion. P. J. O'Rourke seems to have picked up the Sage's role as iconoclast and debunker during this period.

Mencken (r.) celebrates the end of Prohibition at the Rennert Hotel in Baltimore, 1933

As much as I enjoy reading all of Mencken's work, the autobiographical books remain my favorites. His three-part "Days" series, Happy Days (1940), Newspaper Days (19441), and Heathen Days (1943) should be essential reading. They cover life and times from birth through 1936, the most productive and positive time in his life. After the mid-30's, Mencken fell a bit out of fashion as his curmudgeonly persistence began to grind on the American psyche. His perceived sympathy with German nationalism helped undermine his reputation into the 40's.

Those who want the full story should read Terry Teachout's, The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken (2003). Teachout is a superb writer who treats his subject with objectivity and warmth. I also enjoyed the biography by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers but did not find it as readable.

If reading isn't to your liking but you still want some immersion into the man and his times, C-SPAN's American Writers Project produced a fine two-hour program on Mencken that should not be missed. It is a thorough multimedia exploration.

Mencken at his residence in Baltimore, September 1955 

I'm the third generation in my family to consider Mencken a favorite writer. Though the author as skeptic likely played a role in his popularity over the years, I think the humor sold him to the family - certainly has in my case. But there is a sad note to this story. In 1959 - I was 13 that year - two family members who were among the first generation to appreciate Mencken passed away just one day part. My dad was the executor of this challenging estate. The late relatives had shared a large home with other brothers and accumulated seventy years of cultural history within its walls. It seemed the only thing that left the house was weekly trash. Included in that history collection were thousands of magazines. No institution or person wanted them as they had not yet achieved a patina of age, worth or "significance." I was given the responsibility of burning them and in doing so I watched a near complete, mint collection of The Smart Set and The American Mercury magazines rise up in smoke on a cold winter day. Both magazines were under the editorship of H.L. Mencken early in his career and featured many new writers who were to become famous in the decades to follow. Today, the collection would bring a nice six figures at any literary auction. If the Sage of Baltimore were alive today, he would not be happy at this outcome, nor would he be surprised:

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 office thereby.

N.B. Terry Teachout recently published two important biographies, one about the great American jazz composer, pianist, and bandleader, Duke Ellington; the other about jazz icon, Louis Armstrong. If you enjoy music history or simply a well-written biography both books should be on your reading list.  



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