The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

Local News

October 20, 2013

Mencken: Journalism at its best

H. L. Mencken died when I was 2 years old, but he’s a dear friend.

I now have 52 Mencken books. He wrote most of them. He signed four of them, which make them near-holy objects to me. The others were written about him.

Henry Louis Mencken was born in Baltimore in 1880 and died there in 1956. He was the star political reporter and columnist for The Baltimore Evening Sun, editor of The Smart Set and The American Mercury magazines, and a legendary author, essayist, journalist and social critic. If you appreciate forceful, exhilarating prose, he’s your guy.

I discovered Mencken in 1974, when I entered the journalism program at the U of I. While browsing in the Danville Public Library, I stumbled onto a copy of HLM’s autobiographical “Newspaper Days.” I read it and was hooked.

The more I read of Mencken, the more I wanted to read. My little collection includes, among others, “Prejudices,” “Happy Days,” “Heathen Days,” “A Mencken Chrestomathy,” “A Second Mencken Chrestomathy,” “Thirty-Five Years of Newspaper Work,” “Minority Report,” “In Defense of Women,” “A Gang of Pecksniffs,” “The American Language” and “A Treatise on the Gods.”

Mencken was a German-American burgher who lived in the same Baltimore row house nearly his entire life. He loved good music, good friends and good food. The confirmed bachelor finally married at age 50, but his wife died five years later.

In many ways, his newspaper days were some of the most exciting ever seen. He knew cops and robbers, judges and prostitutes, police lieutenants and shyster lawyers, presidents and authors.

“I believe that a young journalist, turned loose in a large city, had more fun (at the turn of the 20th century) than any other man,” he once wrote. “Strange marvels unrolled continuously, and out of marvels copy was made.”

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