Journalist, critic, author, and essayist. His insightful and humorous skepticism about American life and letters, expressed with penetrating style, made him one of the most influential critics of the 1920s and 1930s. Born in Baltimore, Maryland, he seemed destined ('doomed', in his words) to join the family tobacco and cigar business. His father's early death freed him of family obligations, and he began his career as a journalist in 1899 with the Baltimore Morning Herald; in 1906 he moved to the Baltimore Sun, where he remained in various capacities for most of his life. He rapidly gained a reputation as a boy genius and learned everything about running a newspaper within a few years. He continued to live in Baltimore all his life in spite of allurements to move to New York, which he termed a 'third-rate Babylon'. He coedited 'Smart Set', a satirical monthly magazine, from 1914 to 1923 with drama critic George Jean Nathan. In 1924, Mencken founded the 'American Mercury' and remained as its editor until 1933. He was an outspoken opponent of the 'Anglo-maniacal' Woodrow Wilson and the United State's entry into World War I. Rather than submit to heavy government censorship of his articles, he ceased writing for the paper until after the war. It was during the war years that he wrote his most important piece of scholarship, The American Language (1919; revised editions, 1921, 1923, 1936, 1963; supplements, 1945 and 1948), which traced the development and established the importance of American (as opposed to Anglo-Saxon) English. A six-volume collection of his essays and reviews, entitled Prejudices, was published between 1919 and 1927. His influence on American letters was extensive. He helped such newcomers as Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis. As an editor he published manuscripts by young writers such as Eugene O'Neill and Dorothy Parker. He reviewed works of Upton Sinclair, Henry James, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose first published story appeared in 'Smart Set'. He introduced the work of George Bernard Shaw and Friedrich Nietzsche to the American public. During the 1930's, his publications faced financial ruin as readership fell during the Depression. In order to improve his financial situation, he published 'Black Mask', a monthly pulp magazine featuring the 'hard boiled' detective and crime stories that were so popular at the time. Two then unknown but now famous contributors to 'Black Mask' were Raymond Chandler (creator of Philip Marlowe) and Dashiell Hammett (Sam Spade). Happy Days (1940), Newspaper Days (1941), and Heathen Days (1943) are Mencken's autobiographies. The shortcomings of democracy and middle-class American culture were the targets of Mencken's wit and criticism. 'No one is 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 public office thereby'. He railed constantly against Puritanism in all of its forms, and was an implacable foe of religious fundamentalists and the power they wielded in American life. Religion as practiced by people of his day he saw as a great wall to keep civilization out while barbarism flourished within. His coverage of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial, which brought Clarence Darrow against William Jennings Bryan, are some of the best known of his newspaper columns. His knowledge and use of the American Language (not English!) was one of his most effective weapons against the 'buncombes' he fought everywhere. It was Mencken who coined the expression 'Bible Belt' to refer to the backwards South. Bootleggers were elevated to ?Booticians?, and the middle class was reduced to the ?booboisie?. A Baltimore stripper once asked him to develop another word to raise the tone of her profession. Taking the scientific term for the periodic molting of a bird?s feathers, he modified it to 'Ecdysiast' (a term Gypsy Rose Lee always hated) for the girls who bare all. His coverage of almost every political convention from 1904 to 1948 had tremendous impact. In the early part of the century, when radios were rare and television non-existent, his reports were read avidly all over the country. They were a combination of straight reporting of convention news when political deals were cut in smoke-filled rooms, and delightful exposes of the nonsense of the conventions and the conventioneers themselves. Mencken believed that all government was bad; therefore, the less we had of it, the better: 'All government, in its essence, is organized exploitation, and in virtually all its forms it is the implacable enemy of every industrious and well-disposed man'. Government 'invades his liberty and collars his money in order to protect him, but, in actuality, it always makes a stiff profit on the exchange. This profit represent the income of the professional politicians, nine-tenths of whom are professional rogues.' And the biggest rogue of them all was always the president of the United States. No president escaped unscathed. Wilson was a 'pedagogue gone mashugga'. Coolidge has the 'intelligence of a lawn dog', his career is 'as appalling and as fascinating as a two-headed boy'. Upon hearing of Coolidge's death, he launched the often-repeated line,'How can they be sure?' Hoover: 'the perfect self-seeker... His principles are so vague that even his intimates seen unable to put them into words... He know who his masters are, and he will serve them'. Warren Harding is the master of a language in which ?the relations between word and meaning have long since escaped him?. Harding's style 'reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the wall... of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it'. With the rise of 'Roosevelt II', breadlines, the New Deal, and the massive expansion of government, Mencken's influence declined. In 1948 he suffered a massive stroke that seriously impaired his ability to speak and, cruel fate for an author and journalist, he was no longer able to read or write. He always referred to his stroke as 'the day I died'. He was an incredibly prolific writer. According to some estimations, he wrote 30 books and nearly 3,000 newspaper columns. Beginning in 1971, Mencken's letters, diaries, papers, and unpublished manuscripts were periodically released under the terms of his will. The books published from that collection include Mencken and Sara: A Life in Letters (1987), correspondence between him and his wife; The Diary of H. L. Mencken (1989), from the journal he kept from 1930 to 1948; and My Life as Author and Editor (1993), an autobiographical volume. Early in his career he jokingly wrote his own epitaph for the 'Smart Set': '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'.
Bio by: Bobb Edwards