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Page added Jul-12-99
Last updated January, 2003
Two readers asked, why not an article on H.L. Mencken? It had always been in the back of my mind, so...I poked around Gale (publishers of many volumes on authors and genealogy).
Henry Louis Mencken was born in Baltimore on September 12, 1880. He died of heart failure on January 29, 1956, in Baltimore. He was briefly married to Sara Powell Haardt, a writer herself, in 1930. She died unfortunately in 1935. The couple had no children. He was especially interested in the piano and was a member of the Saturday Night Club. He attended the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute from 1892-96 and three years later became a reporter for the Baltimore Herald. He rose to the rank of editor-in-chief after duties as a city editor and Sunday editor until 1906, when he moved to the Baltimore Evening News. He remained a political correspondent and columnist for many papers nationwide. Mencken was an extremely prolific author, and his diaries and letters have been published and repubished in recent years.
He founded and edited The American Mercury: A Monthly Review from 1924-1933. He also edited The Smart Set, Parisenne and Saucy Stories in the 1910s.
The Mencken Society seeks to preserve the old boy and has many good links and resources.
Journalist and critic H. L. Mencken exercised an enormous influence on life and letters in early twentieth-century America. Described by William Henry Chamberlain in a 1956 issue of New Leader as the "scourge of the boobs," Mencken lambasted such sacred national institutions as religion, marriage, democracy, popular literature, and mass movements; according to Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor Elton Miles, the jolly attacks "yanked the garment of delusion off mankind to expose naked pretension, quackery, and stupidity." During the height of his notoriety in the 1920s, Mencken was called "the most powerful private citizen in the United States" in a New York Times editorial, and fellow journalist Walter Lippman deemed him "the most powerful personal influence on this whole generation of educated people." Mencken's singular voice rose from the pages of numerous nonfiction books, from magazines such as The Smart Set and The American Mercury, and from his hometown newspaper, the Baltimore Sun. As William Manchester noted in Disturber of the Peace: The Life of H. L. Mencken, the author's stinging prose "rolled across the nation and broke with a tremendous roar, sending the self-appointed policemen of our moral and political standards scampering about to see what was the matter." In a 1987 issue ofReason, correspondent Thomas W. Hazlett observed that even after more than three decades following his death, Mencken rests "alone at the top among the epoch's essayists and satirists. Mencken's pen savaged all that was Great and Bogus in America: the cads in Washington, the Babbitts on main street, the archmorons in the pulpits. . . . Mencken was charming and correct, a combination virtually unheard of in the annals of American Thought. Hence, his life was a gem."
"Mencken took aim upon politicians, bishops, Holy Rollers, Christian Scientists, Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and evangelicals of high and low degree," wrote James J. Kilpatrick in Menckeniana. "He belabored [censors ], chiropractors, prohibitionists,. . . charity mongers, drive managers, YMCA secretaries, executive secretaries, town boomers, Rotarians, Kiwanians, Boomers, and Elks. He scorned bank presidents, tin roofers, delicatessen dealers, retired bookkeepers, nose and throat specialists, railroad purchasing agents, and the National Association of Teachers of English. More broadly, the Mencken blunderbuss sprayed powder and shot upon fools, yokels, halfwits, ignoramuses, dunderheads, scoundrels, lunatics, morons, rogues, charlatans, mountebanks, imbeciles, barbarians, vagabonds, clowns, fanatics, idiots, bunglers, hacks, quacks, and wowsers." Mencken was neither willing nor able to ignore the foolish antics of many of his fellow Americans. A born individualist, he took a dim view of mass tastes and of any laws--civic or religious--that threatened the growth of a free personality. Hence, the era of the Ku Klux Klan, Prohibition, book censorship, and literal interpretation of the Bible found in Mencken its harshest and most unrelenting critic. In H. L. Mencken: Iconoclast From Baltimore, Douglas C. Stenerson claimed that the author "was moved to indignation by the discrepancy between the realities he observed about him and his vision of the kind of art, ethics, and personal behavior a society composed exclusively of truth-seekers and artists would produce." Mencken fought the prevailing American standards in a personal crusade of penned polemic, and in the process he helped to elevate the aims of American thought and literature and the quality of American prose.
Mencken's attacks on what he called the "booboisie" were given added emphasis because, as Kilpatrick put it, he "wrote with a twinkle in his eye." Whether he was reviewing a novel or covering a political convention, Mencken strove first to entertain his audience. In a biography entitledMencken, Carl Bode declared that the critic's prose style "was one of the striking creations of his era, far more dynamic than his solidly conservative ideas. His genius for seizing the unexpected and amusing word, for making the irreverent comparison, and for creating a tone that was not acid but alkaline helped to make him the most readable of American essayists." A humorist in the tradition of Mark Twain and the frontier journalists of the nineteenth century, Mencken played on his readers' emotions by employing a prodigious and colorful vocabulary--and by stating his opinions bluntly. New World Writing: Sixth Mentor Selection contributor James T. Farrell contended that as a voice of the Roaring Twenties, Mencken "made revolt and protest fun. He was a great satirist and humorist. He lambasted right, left, and center, and everything fell before his original onslaught of words. Some of this is interesting today only because it is so well-written. . . . But practically everything he wrote is remarkable for its style. You will always come upon a neologism, a vivid phrase, a sharp sentence, a tirade of words which pour out and reveal an amazing capacity to handle the American language."
Henry Louis Mencken was born on September 12, 1880, in Baltimore, Maryland. His father and uncle jointly owned a cigar factory, so the family was prosperous enough to afford a comfortable rowhouse just outside the central business district. When Mencken was three, his parents moved to this home at 1524 Hollins Street, and there Mencken grew up, the oldest of four children. Education was stressed in the Mencken household--throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Mencken ancestors had been noted scholars and theologians--so young Henry was sent to Professor Friedrich Knapp's Institute, a private school for children of German descent. He then attended Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, a public secondary school, and graduated at the top of his class when he was only sixteen. Mencken was expected to take a position in his father's business, and he did so reluctantly after high school. For many years he had been fascinated with writing, literature, and newspapers, and he wanted more than anything to be a reporter. While his father lived, however, he had to content himself with correspondence courses and a program of independent reading. In 1899, his father died suddenly of an acute kidney infection. Henry, free to make his own decisions at last, announced that he was going to seek newspaper work.
Although he was a year shy of twenty and had no prior journalistic experience, Mencken presented himself at the offices of the BaltimoreHerald and asked for a job. He was promptly turned down, but the editor, sensing the youth's enthusiasm invited him to drop in from time to time in case some opening should occur. Mencken did drop in--every night. His persistence amused the staff. Finally, on a snowy evening, he was sent to the suburbs to report on a stolen horse. A few days later he was asked to rewrite some obituaries. For several months he worked for free, taking assignments as they came, and by summer he had earned a staff job with a salary of seven dollars per week. According to Philip Wagner in his pamphlet H. L. Mencken, the young reporter "soon demonstrated his ability and moved swiftly through every job in the office: police reporter, drama critic, Sunday editor, city editor, and by 1906 at the age of twenty-five actually the editor of the paper." Mencken worked eighteen hours a day and loved every minute of it. In his memoir Newspaper Days, 1899- 1906, he wrote that the life of a cub reporter "was the maddest, gladdest, damndest existence ever enjoyed by mortal youth. At a time when the respectable bourgeois youngsters of my generation were college freshmen, oppressed by simian sophomores and affronted with balderdash daily and hourly by chalky pedagogues, I was at large in a wicked seaport of half a million people, with a front seat at every public show, as free of the night as of the day, and getting earfuls and eyefuls of instruction in a hundred giddy arcana, none of them taught in schools."
In 1906 the Herald folded, and its exuberant editor was hired by the Baltimore Sun. By that time Mencken was recognized as "in no way a common talent," to quote William H. Nolte in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Wagner noted that the Sun "provided the real launching pad for [Mencken's] career as a national figure and in turn gained immeasurably from the relationship." There Mencken wrote theater reviews and anonymous editorials, chiefly for the Sunday edition. He also found time to write and publish the books George Bernard Shaw: His Plays and The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Both were the first full-length treatments of Shaw and Nietzsche to appear in America; critics feel that their lasting value lies more in the way they demonstrate Mencken's developing mindset than in the way they explore the topics at hand. Neither book had much impact on the reading public, but they did draw the attention of the editor of The Smart Set, a magazine based in New York City. In 1908 Mencken agreed to write a monthly book review column for The Smart Set in addition to his duties at the Sun. At the Smart Set offices Mencken met George Jean Nathan, the magazine's new theater critic. The two men struck up a friendship that eventually led to a partnership; though they came from different backgrounds they were united in their cynical view that American art had all the quality and lasting power of a carnival sideshow.
Shortly after Mencken's thirtieth birthday, the editors of the Sun approached him about writing a bylined column. Manchester described the assignment: "It might deal with any subject whatever, so long as it remain irresponsible and readable. It was a significant order. It marked Mencken's final departure from the world of anonymous opinion. . . . He had left, and for good, the army of unidentified writers who present a newspaper's daily information and commentary and had become a public personality, free to exploit his own name." Mencken called his column "The Free Lance," and his pieces "swiftly became the sort of thing that no one of consequence in Baltimore dared not to read," according to Wagner. With rollicking good humor, Mencken opposed everything respectable, defended prostitution, alcohol, and war, and attacked every example of city boosterism, political hypocrisy, and public posturing. Manchester suggested that these "lethal and highly subversive ideas were couched in a language designed to inflame the greatest possible number of readers." While the editors of the Sun ground their teeth, Mencken was denounced from pulpits and from City Hall, but many ordinary readers seemed to appreciate his irreverent tone. "The Free Lance" ran from 1911 until 1915 and was canceled because Mencken openly favored Germany in the escalating World War I. Manchester concluded, however, that long before "The Free Lance" was at last discontinued, "it had developed Mencken as one of the foremost polemical writers of his day. . . . It had, however, done more than that. In its columns of fine body type lay the blueprint of all his future books."
Mencken's penchant for "stirring up the animals" was not confined to Baltimore. Through the pages of The Smart Set, first as book critic and then, in 1914, as co-editor, he became one of the country's most influential literary critics. Wagner wrote that the flood of Mencken's criticism, published in The Smart Set and reprinted in his books, "swept away the deadening literary standards, and the deadly standard-bearers, of our early twentieth century and cleared the way for a tremendous flowering of new writing." In scathing essays such as "Puritanism as a Literary Force," published in A Book of Prefaces, Mencken took issue with the Puritan stress on morality in literature and art. American fiction, he felt, was being stifled by religious censorship; he called for an art that could question accepted axioms and standards and for writing that portrayed the cold realities of life. New Republic contributor Alfred Kazin called Mencken "the last literary critic in this country to inspire novelists more than professors." Indeed, Mencken was instrumental in discovering or promoting numerous acclaimed authors, including Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, and Eugene O'Neill. Nolte remarked: "H. L. Mencken is not generally remembered for his criticism of belles lettres. Still, the fact is that Mencken, more than any other writer, helped to create a sophisticated reading public and thereby pave the way for the literature that came into being in the years just before, during, and after World War I."
The years of that war were difficult ones for Mencken. The Sun closed its doors to him because of his pro-German sympathies, and The Smart Set offered little salary as he and George Jean Nathan struggled to edit and publish it on a shoestring budget. Bode noted, however, that the lack of a forum during the war "did nothing to reduce[Mencken's] vitality as a writer. It simply channeled that vitality into his books." Mencken finally found time to produce a work on the subject that fascinated him the most--the American language and its hardy independent evolution from its parent tongue, European English. In 1919, Mencken published The American Language: A Preliminary Inquiry Into the Development of English in the United States. Mencken and his publisher Alfred A. Knopf were both surprised and delighted by the interest in the lengthy volume. Its first printing sold out rapidly; Wagner contended that the impression it made "on the new college generation especially, by its style, its humor and its lightly worn scholarship, was tremendous." InOn Mencken, Alistair Cooke described The American Language as "a prolonged demonstration of the fact that the Americans, in a three- hundred-year experience of a new language, new crops, new climates, a new society, and the melding of many immigrant languages and ways of life, had developed institutions, foods, habits, relationships that coined thousands of new nouns, adjectives, and--in their speech--even new syntactical forms. It was, in fact, a new dialect." The first edition of The American Language was hardly on the bookstore shelves before Mencken began to work on an expanded version. Throughout the rest of his life, he returned to this linguistic work regularly, constantly updating and revising his book. Bode concluded of The American Language: "The scholarship would become more and more specific, more and more monumental. . . . The acclaim of the work would grow with its size. . . . It would end as a classic, something few foresaw when it appeared in 1919."
Reception of the first edition of The American Language was a harbinger of things to come. In the 1920s, a new generation of disillusioned war veterans and sophisticated college students began to see Mencken, in Wagner's words, as "what the times needed: a clearinghouse for the cynicism and discontents of the postwar years and a lash for their excesses wielded with alternating scorn and high good humor." Gradually Mencken drifted away from literary criticism and became instead a critic of the mundane American scene. He found much to criticize: bungling politicians like Warren G. Harding, Bible-thumping zealots like William Jennings Bryan, unscrupulous businessmen, Southerners, censor boards, the Ku Klux Klan, and especially Prohibition. Wagner related: "The object was to make his victim a butt of ridicule. . . . By inference, his readers could never be identified with the bores, shams, and neanderthals whom he delighted to take apart. . . . Before going into battles, Mencken always saw to it that the cheering section--his reader--was in good heart and ready to back him. He was a master of this sort of rhetorical sleight of hand." In On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature, Kazin observed: "By prodigious skill [Mencken] managed to insult everyone except his readers. He flattered them by kindling a sense of disgust; his ferocious attacks on babbittry implied that his readers were all Superior Citizens; his very recklessness was intoxicating." ("babbittry" refers to American scholar and critic Irving Babbit who, with Paul Elmer More, founded the New Humanism Movement, which called for literary moderation and restraint in the manner of classical literature and traditions).
Mencken felt no need to present a balanced argument in his essays. He was content to express his opinion, with the humor serving as a warning not to take him too seriously. When he was serious, it was generally in defense of individual rights or intellectual freedom, as Farrell explained. "The key to Mencken's thought is to be found in his libertarianism," Farrell wrote. "He believed in complete liberty. . . . He saw encroachments on the liberty of the individual from all sides. The institutions of society in general, and of democracy in particular, were threatening the liberty of the individual. And liberty meant, more than anything else, liberty of thought." Mencken also held that all people were not equal-- especially intellectually--and that democracy, "the worship of jackals by jackasses," merely legislated the lowest mass tastes. Religion, as Mencken saw it, was just another tool used to bamboozle and manipulate the credulous masses, but it too served to stifle freedom through censorship and blue laws. Farrell concluded that Mencken "took the privilege of . . . liberty in his own writings. Like or dislike them, agree or disagree with them, one cannot fail but be struck by their honesty and vigor."
"Much of Mencken's genius lay in the drive and dexterity that allowed him to be a newspaperman at the same time that he was an author and editor," noted Bode. "One role is enough for an ordinary person. Mencken played all three to the hilt. He became, certainly during the 1920s, the most influential magazine editor in the country. And, within the sphere of the subjects he chose, he became the best-known writer." Mencken still considered himself first and foremost a newspaperman, and he began writing for the Sun again in 1920. In addition to covering such spectacles as political conventions and the 1924 Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee, that challenged the teaching of evolution, Mencken wrote weekly "Monday Articles" for the Sun's editorial page. These "imprinted his particular brand of commentary on the psyche of America," according toDictionary of Literary Biography contributor J. James McElveen. Bode likewise observed that the general record of the Monday Articles "was magnificent. Over a span of eighteen years, from 1920 to 1938, Mencken published more good writing, through these columns, than any other newspaperman of his era. The Free Lance made him famous locally but the Monday Articles helped to establish his national renown."
Simultaneously, Mencken and Nathan were becoming celebrities through their magazine work. Having kept The Smart Set afloat during the war- -sometimes by writing most of the issue themselves under an array of pseudonyms--they watched as circulation rose steadily in the first years of the 1920s. Neither editor was entirely satisfied with The Smart Set, however, so in 1924 they founded a new magazine, The American Mercury. Within the year, Mencken became sole editor of The American Mercury, and as Manchester related, "it became a product of the peculiar maelstrom which he had created, and in which he now lived." McElveen described Mencken's product: "With its Paris-green cover, the magazine was simply designed by standards of later decades but was a superb typographical specimen in its day. It was not only a status symbol but a voice of critical significance during the wild, unabashed decade of prosperity and Prohibition. . . . Mencken was an imaginative editor, and his special writing style, along with his keen insight and trenchant wit, gave the American Mercury a lively and intellectually stimulating quality that appealed to sophisticated and perceptive readers." Manchester remarked that Mencken's "stupendous gift for invective had now reached heights so incredible, so breathtaking, so awe-inspiring, so terrible, that in its indictment of the national culture it wrung monthly gasps from sixty thousand readers and porcupined the hair of intellectuals, Army officers, bond salesmen, and garage mechanics in St. Paul, St. Louis, St. Joseph, and St. Cloud. How could so violent a hymn of hate be sung so jubilantly?" Bode concluded that The American Mercury "was more than a breath of fresh air; it was a gust that once or twice grew into a gale."
Mencken's literary output during the 1920s was prodigious. Corollary to his regular journalism, his collected articles appeared in a series of volumes entitled Prejudices, and his thoughts on politics appeared in Notes on Democracy. His work attracted praise from other writers and critics, as well as from the college students who so admired him. "In so far as [ Mencken] has influenced the tone of public controversy he has elevated it," Lippman wrote in Men of Destiny. New Republic essayist Edmund Wilson likewise contended that Mencken "is the civilized consciousness of modern America, its learning, its intelligence and its taste, realizing the grossness of its manners and mind and crying out in horror and chagrin." According to Joseph Wood Krutch in If You Don't Mind My Saying So . . . Essays on Man and Nature, Mencken's was "the best prose written in America during the twentieth century. Those who deny that fact had better confine themselves to direct attack. They will be hard put to find a rival claimant." In Bookman F. Scott Fitzgerald concluded simply that Mencken "has done more for the national letters than any man alive."
Mencken's detractors were equally passionate. Many colorful diatribes against him emanated from the hinterland; Manchester quotes one of these, from a Reverend Doctor Charles E. Jones in Gospel Call: "If a buzzard had laid an egg in a dunghill and the sun had hatched a thing like Mencken, the buzzard would have been justly ashamed of its offspring." Other more objective critics also found fault with Mencken. "The total effect of his writing is nearer to intellectual vaudeville than to serious criticism," observed Irving Babbitt in Modern Writers at Work, encapsulating a commonly held belief that Mencken sacrificed discrimination for bombast. Stenerson wrote: "Despite the changes which transformed America during Mencken's lifetime, his basic attitudes remained much the same in his maturity as they had been in his youth. His wide-ranging interests, the soundness of his information on many issues, and the common sense with which he treated them, were offset, to a considerable extent, by his failure to see any need for modifying his premises. . . . His prejudices were the themes of his art, not the building blocks of a coherent system of thought." This was to be Mencken's downfall, as Upton Sinclair predicted in The Bookman: "The darling and idol of the young intelligenzia has no message to give them, except that they are free to do what they please--which they interpret to mean that they are to get drunk, and read elegant pornography, and mock at the stupidities and blunders of people with less expensive educations. . . . For the present, that is all that is required; that is the mood of the time. But some day the time spirit will change; America will realize that its problems really have to be solved."
The spirit did change, almost overnight, with the 1929 stock market crash. As Hilton Kramer noted in the New York Times Book Review, the "carnival atmosphere that had supported Mencken's outrageous rhetoric was, after all, the coefficient of a false prosperity, and the collapse of that prosperity left him stranded in a style remote from the needs of a new social reality." Mencken's humorous attacks on "Homo boobiens" no longer seemed funny as the depression deepened. Moreover, Mencken, the great individualist, opposed the New Deal programs and discounted the seriousness of Hitler's rise to power in Germany. "What were jesting matters for him were serious or painful for most, and he lost his audience," states Galbraith in the Washington Post Book World. Though he caused a stir by marrying writer Sara Powell Haardt in 1930, Mencken witnessed a precipitous decline in his popularity over the next several years. Two books for which he had high hopes, Treatise on the Gods andTreatise on Right and Wrong sold few copies and earned lackluster reviews. The power he continued to wield became more and more localized in Baltimore, where his Monday Articles still appeared in the Sun. "Ten years before," claims Manchester, "[Mencken] had ridden in on a wave of disillusion and irresponsibility, the surprised beneficiary of a changed society. Now that society had changed again and he was riding out, as helplessly the victim of the public whim as he had once been its darling. . . . There was no room for a writer with nothing to say about the crisis gripping the world. There was no room for H. L. Mencken."
In one particular arena, however--political convention coverage--Mencken continued to dominate throughout the 1930s. "Mencken's political specialty . . . was the national conventions, occasions which accorded him not only the greatest scope for his talent but much personal pleasure as well," Galbraith contended in the Washington Post Book World. "And here he was ahead of his time; before anyone, he saw them as a triumph of banality over content. . . . Mencken, a full 40 years ago, learned what all but the television people now know: the convention is our greatest non-event." Through Mencken's cynical eye, the colorful conventions were quickly reduced to absurdities punctuated by vacuous speeches and the antics of hero-worshipping hayseeds. According to Joe Conason in the Village Voice, Mencken "could enliven the deadliest bore in politics--Coolidge, Hoover, Landon--long enough to elicit a hearty laugh, and dismiss him when the guffaws subsided. His comic view of politics enabled him to see its absurdity with a clarity that seems contemporary 60 years later." From 1920 to 1948, with the sole exception of 1944, Mencken covered every convention, Democratic, Republican, and third party. Even as his energies waned and theSun 's deadlines grew tighter, he never tired of the quadrennial political spectacles.
In 1935, Mencken's wife Sara died. The era's most notorious confirmed bachelor had enjoyed his brief marriage, and he mourned his wife's loss for many years thereafter. Mencken was unable to face life alone in the apartment he and Sara had shared, so he returned to the home that had been his base almost his whole life--1524 Hollins Street. From there, beginning in the late 1930s, he began to write anecdotal essays about his childhood for the New Yorker magazine. Wagner noted of these stories: "Absolutely and literally true they certainly were not. . . . They were better than that: they caught and preserved the smells and flavor and temper of an era." The essays accumulated: Mencken's youth on Hollins Street, his cub reporter days at the Herald, his recollection of the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904, his early travels to New York. Eventually these were published in three popular volumes, Happy Days, 1880-1892; Newspaper Days, 1899-1906, and Heathen Days, 1890- 1936. Bode declared that the tales "were too extended to be called anecdotes. They were too actual to be local-color fiction. They were too exuberant and personal to qualify as social history. Perhaps the best way to put it is that they constituted the human comedy of young Mencken in old Baltimore. The writing was supple and deft, avoiding quaintness, condescension, and sentimentality. And above all it had the apparent artlessness which concealed the skills and resources he drew on." Bode concluded that "the result was classic." The Days books introduced Mencken to a new generation of readers and revived his national reputation. Wagner felt these works to be "what he gave to our literature which time is least likely to tarnish or erode."
Mencken's last productive year was 1948. He spent it in characteristic ways--covering the political conventions, attacking segregation laws as "relics of Ku Kluxery," and defending civil rights and civil liberties. His last article for the Sun lambasted a rule that would not allow blacks and whites to play tennis together on a local court. Several days later he suffered a severe stroke, the lasting legacy of which was an inability to read, write, or speak clearly. William Manchester was one of the few people Mencken continued to see after the stroke; in Disturber of the Peace Manchester described Mencken's condition: "The great tragedy of his situation was that everything which had given life meaning for him was gone. Since his boyhood days the pattern of his life had built around the reading of the written word and the expression of his reflections. For sixty years . . . the cultivation of that expression had been the moving purpose of his life, and he had developed it to an art unmatched in his time. Now that was impossible, and he was left to vegetate back to a robust physical health with the purposes of his very being withdrawn. It was a terrible blow, and he was the first to recognize its magnitude." Attended by his brother and visited only by his secretary and a few close friends, Mencken lived eight more years in his Hollins Street home. He died there, in his sleep, on January 29, 1956.
Most critics agree that Mencken's influence has survived his death. "If Mencken had never lived," Kazin observed in On Native Grounds, "it would have taken a whole army of assorted philosophers, monologists, editors, and patrons of the new writing to make up for him. As it was, he not only rallied all the young writers together and imposed his skepticism upon the new generation, but also brought a new and uproarious gift for high comedy into a literature that had never been too quick to laugh." Nor has time dimmed the pertinence of Mencken's message, according to McElveen. "Mencken's dissent--his way of demolishing society's hypocrisy, of smashing the idols of human folly--set him apart from other writers of his day," wrote McElveen. "His thought embraced the whole range of the twentieth century; and his writings have not aged, because mankind is subject to the same shortcomings and foibles that prevailed in his day." Indeed, much of Mencken's work remains in print, new volumes of collected correspondence are still appearing, and a thriving Mencken Society, based in Baltimore, keeps his memory alive. "Mencken's basic attitude at all times, disrespect for the powers of this earth, for everything seeking to make us more righteous and obedient at all costs, will always lead people back to his work," Kazin stated in the New York Review of Books. Ben Hecht, commenting on Mencken in A Child of the Century, concluded that the work penned by the famous "Sage of Baltimore" is "proof that brave words can still lift the soul of man."
In a note published in The Letters of H. L. Mencken, the author himself summed up his philosophy. "My notion is that all the larger human problems are insoluble, and that life is quite meaningless--a spectacle without purpose or moral," he wrote. "I detest all efforts to read a moral into it. I do not write because I want to make converts. . . . I write because the business amuses me. It is the best of sports."
Mencken began keeping a diary in 1930, when he was fifty years old, and maintained it religiously until 1948, when he suffered from the debilitating stroke. Although Mencken had specifically requested that his journals not be published, The Diary of H. L. Mencken nevertheless appeared in 1989. The volume received mixed reviews, with some critics questioning the necessity of its publication in the first place, others citing its biographical and historical interest, and many taking issue with Mencken's anti-Semitic views. Linking his response to The Diary of H. L. Mencken with his opinion of Mencken during the author's life, Robert Ward of New York Times Book Review commented: "Here was a great man, a brilliant man, a man who made our experience in Baltimore seem legitimate, and yet there was something ugly and almost willfully stupid about his prejudices."
At the time of his death in 1956, Mencken left behind a lengthy memoir (approximately 2,000 pages) with instructions that it should not be posthumously published before 1991. Several volumes culled from this memoir were subsequently published during the 1990s, all of which generated controversy concerning Mencken's posthumous reputation. My Life as Author and Editor, edited by Jonathan Yardley, was intended to function as Mencken's defense of his often antagonistic writings throughout his career. Peter Prescott of the Los Angeles Times, however, expressed disappointment with the book, arguing that it undermines, rather than enhances, Mencken's literary reputation by presenting "a picture of a petty and mean-spirited man. There's plenty of evidence elsewhere that Mencken was neither, but here he gloats over his attacks." Also viewing the book as an impediment to Mencken's reputation, Mark Harris of the Chicago Tribune Books commented: "It places his larger credibility in doubt by suggesting that he was never inspired by aesthetic principles but by prejudices.... He appears to be wishing obscurity upon writers who do not please him, upon races and classes of people from whom he feels alienated."
Joseph Epstein of Times Literary Supplement finds both My Life as Author and Editor and a similar memoir, Thirty-Five Years of Newspaper Work, to be "the work of a sadly embittered, greatly grudging man." Like several other critics, Epstein objected in particular to the anti-Semitism revealed in many of Mencken's statements, asserting that while he found accusations of anti-Semitism associated with the earlier publication of Mencken's Diaries "most unfair," Thirty-Five Years of Newspaper Work has led him to believe that "when [Mencken] found himself cornered by events, [he] decided to blame the Jews." Despite numerous objections concerning the personal views Mencken voiced in his posthumous memoirs, critics have nevertheless praised the works as sources of astute and often witty political and cultural commentary.
1949 saw the publication of A Mencken Chrestomathy, a collection of some of Mencken's out-of-print prose. A second volume of similar scope was in progress at the time of his stroke but remained unpublished until 1995. A Second Mencken Chrestomathy, edited by Terry Teachout, is divided into four sections titled "Americana," "Progress," "Constructive Criticism," and "Lesser Eminentoes." Critics praised the collection as a valuable source of Mencken's often pithy commentary: "The older I grow," writes Mencken in A Second Mencken Chrestomathy, "the more I distrust the familiar doctrine that age brings wisdom."