Who was H.L. Mencken?

I was a larva of the uncomfortable and complacent bourgeoisie … encapsulated in affection, and kept fat, saucy and contended. Thus I got through my nonage without acquiring an inferiority complex…

– Henry Louis Mencken, 1880 -1956

As part of my editorial reporting independent study, I took on a task to discover the life of Mencken and determine how he changed the newspaper industry. Mencken was an author, a publisher, a poet, a reviewer and a writer. But most of all, he was a newspaperman, and a damn good one.

H.L. Mencken at the peak of his career.

Mencken was born and raised in the heart of Baltimore, where he discovered his natural talents as a writer and journalist. He never attended a college or a university and in fact, voiced opposition to the thought of such an institution.

And that’s certainly not all he voiced opposition to. Based on books, articles and personal interviews, I’ve found that Mencken was a journalist who was never afraid to take a stab at something or someone. Visiting the Mencken Room of the Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore last month, I distinctly remember being shown an editorial cartoon of Mencken that depicts his very writing style.

The cartoon shows Mencken riding on a horse holding a large ink pen, which illustrates a joust and he is carrying a bucket labeled “Ink of Baltimore.” Jousting is the Maryland state sport. The cartoon shows that Mencken stuck his pen in as many areas as he felt necessary.

And by pen, I mean typewriter. During Mencken’s time writing a daily column in the Evening Sun,  he wrote roughly 2,500 words each day – and almost flawlessly. Copies saved from his original work shows hardly any errors or “typos” when writing his columns on the typewriter. This shows how much of a natural this journalist was. Words flowed out of his mind as if it had already been written.

He started this column, “The Free Lance” in 1911, then went on to write a weekly column in the Sunpapers in 1920. His most notable work came about in 1925, when Mencken closely covered the Scopes Trials in Dayton, Tennessee. Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, which Mencken described as “colossal buffoonery,” centered around  free speech and the First Amendment, two issues journalists are tied very closely to.

During Mencken’s time as a newspaperman, he defined editorial reporting in its early stages. He covered such events and topics in such a way that readers either loved him or hated him. There was no filter in his writing, as there may be in many examples today. Certainly the journalistic playing field was far different during Mencken’s time, but nevertheless, he was a leading voice in the printed pages that hit the streets of Baltimore.

What appears rather different about him as a person and his writing style compared to today’s editorial journalists is his mission or “agenda.” From what I’ve been told, Mencken had no agenda. He was not attached to a particular political party, nor was he swayed by prominent community members or contributors. He spoke his mind and he reported his observations. Today, many journalists are labeled by being a “right-wing reporter” or “liberal reporter.” But Mencken had no political tie. He targeted whomever deemed targeting and he did so with prose and strong rhetoric.

Equally notable about Mencken was his work publishing several periodicals. Even after his death, he had already lined up written works to be published throughout time. He stopped writing for the Sunpapers in 1941, after disagreeing with President Franklin Roosevelt’s foreign policy. It was then when he began writing “Thirty-Five Years of Newspaper Work: A Memoir by H.L. Menken.”

In 1947 Mencken suffered from a minor Stroke and in 1956 he died in his sleep. Reading his columns and books, it is no wonder as to why he is viewed as  the most influential and provocative journalists of the 20th century. I’ve been told that many many writers have tried to capture and reproduce his writing style, but they simply cannot. He has certainly left an imprint on the world of journalism.

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