Other info : Career | Bibliography
Henry Louis "H. L." Mencken was an American journalist, essayist, magazine editor, satirist, critic of American life and culture, and scholar of American English. Known as the "Sage of Baltimore", he is regarded as one of the most influential American writers and prose stylists of the first half of the twentieth century. Many of his books remain in print.
Mencken is known for writing The American Language, a multi-volume study of how the English language is spoken in the United States, and for his satirical reporting on the Scopes trial,
which he dubbed the "Monkey Trial". He commented widely on the social
scene, literature, music, prominent politicians, pseudo-experts, the temperance movement, and uplifters. A keen cheerleader of scientific progress, he was very skeptical of economic theories and particularly critical of anti-intellectualism, bigotry, populism, fundamentalist Christianity, creationism, organized religion, the existence of God, and osteopathic/chiropractic medicine.
In addition to his literary accomplishments, Mencken was known for
his controversial ideas. A frank admirer of German philosopher Nietzsche, he was not a proponent of representative democracy, which he believed was a system in which inferior men dominated their superiors. During and after World War I, he was sympathetic to the Germans, and was very distrustful of British propaganda. However, he also referred to Adolf Hitler and his followers as "ignorant thugs." Mencken, through his wide criticism of actions taken by government, has had a strong impact on the American libertarian movement.
Mencken was the son of August Mencken, Sr., a cigar factory owner of German ancestry. When Henry was three, his family moved into a new home at 1524 Hollins Street (now the H. L. Mencken House) facing bucolic Union Square park in the Union Square
neighborhood of old West Baltimore, Apart from five years of married
life, Mencken was to live in that house for the rest of his life.
In his best-selling memoir Happy Days, he described his childhood in Baltimore as "placid, secure, uneventful and happy."
When he was nine years old, he read Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, which he later described as "the most stupendous event in my life". He became determined to become a writer himself. He read prodigiously. In one winter while in high school he read Thackeray and "then proceeded backward to Addison, Steele, Pope, Swift, Johnson and the other magnificos of the Eighteenth century". He read the entire canon of Shakespeare, and became an ardent fan of Kipling and Thomas Huxley. But as a boy Mencken also had practical interests, photography and chemistry in particular, and eventually had a home chemistry laboratory which he used to perform experiments of his own devising, some of them inadvertently dangerous.
He began his primary education in the mid-1880s at Professor Knapp's
School located on the east side of Holliday Street between East
Lexington and Fayette Streets, next to the famous playhouse Holliday Street Theatre and across from the newly constructed Baltimore City Hall
of 1875 (the site today is the War Memorial and City Hall Plaza laid
out in 1926 in memory of World War I dead). At fifteen, in June 1896, he
graduated as valedictorian from the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.
BPI was a mathematics, technical and science-oriented public high
school, founded in 1883, which was then located on old Courtland Street
just north of East Saratoga Street; this location is today the east side
of St. Paul Street in St. Paul Place and east of Preston Gardens.
He worked for three years in his father's cigar factory. He disliked
this work, especially the selling part, and resolved to leave, with or
without his father's blessing. In early 1898, he took a class in writing
at one of the country's first correspondence schools (the Cosmopolitan
This was to be all of Mencken's formal education in journalism, or
indeed in any other subject. On his father's death a few days after
Christmas in the same year, the business reverted to his uncle, and
Mencken was free to pursue his career in journalism. He applied in
February 1899 to the Morning Herald newspaper (which became the Baltimore Morning Herald
in 1900), and was hired as a part-timer there, but still kept his
position at the factory for a few months. In June he was hired on as a
full-time reporter, and his new career was well underway.