Mencken: A Journalist and a Scholar
H. L. Mencken, who died in 1956, was barely three years old when the world - which he would report and comment upon with such scathing wit - made its first lasting impression on him. His eyes recorded it for later publication: "I was sitting in my mother's lap and blinking at a great burst of lights, some of them red and others green, but most of them only the bright yellow of flaring gas." He would learn later, from other sources, that he had witnessed fireworks emanating from a nearby carnival.
Three years earlier, in 1880, in the city of Baltimore, a newspaper reporter had been born.
H. L. Mencken would become much more than can be encompassed by the term journalist: publisher, literary critic, student of the American language, native philosopher, but it is as a newspaperman that he wanted to be, and is, remembered.
At 18, he haunted the city editor of the Baltimore Morning Herald every night for a month until he was given an assignment, largely thanks to a blizzard and a far-flung correspondent who had not been heard from in a week.
He was never formally hired; he simply kept getting assignments. In less than seven years, he would become editor-in-chief of the paper.
"I never went to college, thank God," he proudly proclaimed. Tuition was free for the education to be garnered in the alleys and along the waterfront of Baltimore. He made a strong case for this baccalaureate: "I believe that a young newspaper reporter in a big city, at that time, lived a life that has never been matched on earth for romance and interest."
How else could a teenager observe four men simultaneously hanged? Or see the city's mean streets run with blood after "razor-parties" on a Saturday night? The endless misery, pathos and imbecility he witnessed were "shocking for a little while, but then no more." It is a small wonder that Mencken would later remark,
"I was never an idealist."
Nor was he always the model journalist. He freely confessed to an early bout of "synthesis of news." He and two other reporters for rival papers agreed to synchronize their stories to save them from extracting every last detail from the beleaguered police. When a stevedore was kicked overboard by a mule and drowned, his name and other particulars could be leisurely fabricated over a relaxing draught. The editors, after comparing the three substantively identical accounts, were mightily impressed by the accuracy of their respective charges. Mencken would recover and, as as editor himself, battle fiercely against creative journalism.
Even though he was not without sin, Mencken was forever casting stones. They were often direct hits, and, consequently, he grew to be a most unpopular man, particularly in tony circles. But none were spared, not the clergy, not the politicians, not the entire American populace, not even his brother scribes: "All the knowledge that they pack into their brains is, in every reasonable cultural sense, useless ... It is a mass of trivialities and puerilities; to recite it would be to make even a barber beg for mercy."
The more fire his column in the Sunpapers drew, the more fiery it became. He was without fear. The most venomous letters against him were printed, he made
sure. He believed in nothing if not the freedom of people to speak their minds. He never responded to these missives, but he did feel generally that "most people who write letters to newspapers are fools."
Perhaps the greatest fool Mencken ever latched onto was William Jennings Bryan, presidential aspirant and fanatical creationist. When Bryan averred at the 1925 Scopes "Monkey Trial" that man was not a mammal, Mencken sunk his satiric incisors into the zealot's flanks and never let go.
His debilitating stroke in 1948 was the cruelest of blows for he would be sentenced to live eight more years lacking the ability to write or even speak with facility. Besides his wife, by then dead, his work and the American language were the sustaining loves of his life. His prose is seasoned with tantalizing words that surprise and delight: like sniffish and incunabula, cad and swag, ratiocination and whangdoodle, pish-posh and poltroonish.
Somehow, he deployed impressive words without pomposity. The sentence introduced them to the reader.
Mencken never complained during his last, sad years. He had seen too much of the world's cruelty to expect it to take a detour around him. Before his affliction, he declared that he was the luckiest of men: lucky for his friends; for living in a great, imperfect city; lucky, most of all, to have been a newspaper reporter.
In a sealed envelope opened upon his passing, he admonished the editors of the Sunpapers: "Don't overplay it."