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.”
In a 1980 essay marking the 100th anniversary of Mencken’s birth, John Dorsey spoke of his “absolute mastery of the language” … and “cadences that gallop down the page with the exuberance of a schoolboy just set free by the final bell on Friday afternoon. One reads Mencken for the joy of reading him, and that is enough.”
But there was more to Mencken, Dorsey noted.
“Mencken’s courage is the key to him. It is the essence that informed all of his life and all of his writings. He never took a popular position because it was popular, or shunned an unpopular one because it was unpopular … he never asked the support of others … the meaning of Mencken is the meaning of journalism at its best.”
Mencken covered every national political convention from 1904 until 1948. In 1948, he suffered a stroke, and was left unable to read or write. His brother cared for him, but he was terribly unhappy.
Years before, he wrote this farewell:
“If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl.”
Danville native Kevin Cullen is a former Commercial-News reporter. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.