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Friday, September 1, 1995

H. L. Mencken, America’s Wittiest Defender of Liberty

Mencken Was America's Foremost Newspaperman and Literary Critic

During the first half of the twentieth century, H. L. Mencken was the most outspoken defender of liberty in America. He spent thousands of dollars challenging restrictions on freedom of the press. He boldly denounced President Woodrow Wilson for whipping up patriotic fervor to enter World War I, which cost his job as a newspaper columnist. Mencken denounced Franklin Delano Roosevelt for amassing dangerous political power and for maneuvering to enter World War II, and he again lost his newspaper job. Moreover, the President ridiculed him by name.

“The government I live under has been my enemy all my active life,” Mencken declared. “When it has not been engaged in silencing me it has been engaged in robbing me. So far as I can recall I have never had any contact with it that was not an outrage on my dignity and an attack on my security.”

Though intensely controversial, Mencken earned respect as America’s foremost newspaperman and literary critic. He produced an estimated ten million words: some 30 books, contributions to 20 more books and thousands of newspaper columns. He wrote some 100,000 letters, or between 60 and 125 per working day. He hunted-and-pecked every word with his two forefingers—for years, he used a little Corona typewriter about the size of a cigar box.

Mencken had interesting things to say about politics, literature, food, health, religion, sports, and much more. No one knew more about our American language. Influential pundits of the past like Walter Lippmann are long forgotten, but people still read Mencken’s work. During the past decade, publishers have issued almost a dozen books about him or by him. Biographer William Nolte reports that Mencken ranks among the most frequently quoted American authors.

Certainly Mencken was among the wittiest. For example: “Puritanism—the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy. . . . Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard. . . . The New Deal began, like the Salvation Army, by promising to save humanity. It ended, again like the Salvation Army, by running flophouses and disturbing the peace.”

Mencken stood about five feet, eight inches tall and weighed around 175 pounds. He parted his slick brown hair in the middle. He liked to chew on a cigar. He dressed with a pair of suspenders and a rumpled suit. According to one chronicler, Mencken at his best looked “like a plumber got up for church.”

Publisher Alfred Knopf had this to say about Mencken, a close friend for more than 40 years: “His public side was visible to everyone: tough, cynical, amusing, and exasperating by turns. The private man was something else again: sentimental, generous, and unwavering—sometimes almost blind—in his devotion to people of whom he felt fond . . . the most charming manners conceivable, manners I was to discover he always displayed in talking with women . . . he spent a fantastic amount of his time getting friends to and from doctors’ waiting rooms and hospitals, comforting them and keeping them company there.”

Mencken inspired friends of freedom. He helped cheer up stylish individualist author Albert Jay Nock, a frequent contributor to Mencken’s magazine the American Mercury, during Nock’s declining years. Mencken’s stalwart individualism awed young Ayn Rand who, in 1934, called him “one whom I admire as the greatest representative of a philosophy to which I want to dedicate my whole life.”

Henry Louis Mencken was born September 12, 1880, in Baltimore. His father, August Mencken, owned a cigar factory. His mother, Anna Abhau Mencken, like her husband, was a child of German immigrants. In 1883, the family moved to a three-story, red brick row house at 1524 Hollins Street. Here, except during his five-year marriage, Mencken lived for the rest of his life.

Mencken was a voracious reader from the get-go. At age nine, he discovered Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, which opened his eyes to rugged individualism and literary pleasures. This was, as he put it, “probably the most stupendous event in my whole life.” He was thrilled: “what a man that Mark Twain was! How he stood above and apart from the world, like Rabelais come to life again, observing the human comedy, chuckling over the eternal fraudulence of man! What a sharp eye he had for the bogus, in religion, politics, art, literature, patriotism, virtue. . . . And seeing all this, he laughed at them, but not often with malice.”

Mencken finished high school when he was 15 and went right to work in his father’s cigar factory, but he hated it. Within a few days after his father died of kidney failure in January 1899, Mencken tried his hand as a newspaperman. The first story he ever sold, to the Baltimore Herald, was about a stolen horse. By June that year, he was a full-time reporter earning $7 a week. Mencken proved to be unusually resourceful and industrious. He rose to become drama critic, editor of the Sunday paper, and city editor of the morning paper.

Early on, Mencken displayed a tremendous zest for life. In 1904, for example, he began a little musical group which became known as the “Saturday Night Club.” Almost every week for 46 years, as many as a dozen friends got together around 8:00 PM. Mencken played the piano with great enthusiasm. Other participants played the violin, cello, flute, oboe, drums, French horn, and piano. They most often played for a couple hours in a violin-maker’s shop and afterwards went to the Hotel Rennert for beer. During the 13 years of Prohibition, they took turns hosting festivities in their homes. They enjoyed chamber music, marches, waltzes, and operatic melodies. Mencken loved German romantics, Beethoven above all.

The Baltimore Sun

The Baltimore Herald went out of business in 1906, and Mencken landed at the newspaper where he would write for more than 40 years. One observer remarked: “The staid old Baltimore Sun has got itself a real Whangdoodle.” The Baltimore Evening Sun was launched in 1910, and Mencken served as editor. From 1911 to 1915, he wrote a daily “Free Lance” column which covered politics, education, music, whatever interested him. He edited the adjacent letters-to-the editor columns, and whenever a nasty letter came in attacking one of his columns, he made sure it was printed—he recognized that people enjoyed reading abuse.

There was abuse aplenty as people reacted to his bombastic writing style. He ridiculed hypocritical politicians, clergymen, and social reformers. For example, Mencken called Fundamentalist do-gooder William Jennings Bryan “the most sedulous flycatcher in American history . . . a charlatan, a mountebank, a zany without shame or dignity.” He was accused of anti-Semitism because he gratuitously referred to so many people as “Jews.” Yet he didn’t criticize Jews as much as others. He described Anglo-Saxons as “a wretchedly dirty, shiftless, stupid and rascally people . . . anthropoids.”

Mencken lashed out at President Woodrow Wilson for maneuvering America into World War I. He insisted that the British government shared responsibility for the horrifying conflict, and he attacked the moral pretensions of British officials who pursued a naval blockade punishing innocent people as well as combatants in Germany. Mencken discontinued his column because of wartime hysteria.

Meanwhile, he had established himself as a literary critic. Since 1908, he had reviewed books for Smart Set, a monthly literary magazine. He and drama critic George Jean Nathan were named editors in 1914. Mencken relentlessly attacked puritanical standards and hailed authors like Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Mencken turned increasingly to writing books—he had written eight on music, literature, and philosophy by 1919. That year marked the debut of his most enduring work. It arose from his passion for American speech which evolved spontaneously into something more dynamic than the English of England. No government planned it: the American language became more expressive as ordinary people went about their daily business, now and then contributing new words. The first edition of The American Language soon sold out, and Mencken began work on the second of four editions. “All I ask,” he wrote his publisher Alfred Knopf, “is that you make The American Language good and thick. It is my secret ambition to be the author of a book weighing at least five pounds.”

In 1920, with World War I a bad memory, the Baltimore Sun asked Mencken to resume writing a column for $50 a week. Thus began his memorable “Monday” articles which appeared weekly for the next 18 years. About two-thirds of them dealt with politics.

The American Mercury

By 1923, Mencken decided he wanted a national forum for his political views. He resigned from the Smart Set, and with backing from Knopf he and Nathan launched the monthly American Mercury. The first issue, bearing a distinctive pea-green cover, appeared in January 1924. Nathan soon disagreed about which direction the magazine should go, and he resigned. Mencken offered feisty commentary plus writing by many of America’s most distinguished authors. There were articles by philosophical anarchist Emma Goldman and birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger. Also, such black authors as W.E.B. Dubois, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, and George Schuyler. Circulation grew for four years, peaking around 84,000 in 1928.

Although Mencken wasn’t known as a political philosopher, he made clear his commitment to individual liberty. “Every government,” he wrote, “is a scoundrel. In its relations with other governments it resorts to frauds and barbarities that were prohibited to private men by the Common Law of civilization so long ago as the reign of Hammurabi, and in its dealings with its own people it not only steals and wastes their property and plays a brutal and witness game with their natural rights, but regularly gambles with their very lives. Wars are seldom caused by spontaneous hatreds between people, for peoples in general are too ignorant of one another to have grievances and too indifferent to what goes on beyond their borders to plan conquests. They must be urged to the slaughter by politicians who know how to alarm them.”

Mencken expressed outrage at violence against blacks and as Hitler menaced Europe, Mencken attacked President Roosevelt for refusing to admit Jewish refugees into the United States: “There is only one way to help the fugitives, and that is to find places for them in a country in which they can really live. Why shouldn’t the United States take in a couple hundred thousand of them, or even all of them?”

Mencken was adamant that the United States not become entangled in another European war. He believed it would mean further expansion of government power, oppression, debt, and killings without ridding the world of tyranny. Better to keep America as a peaceful sanctuary for liberty:

“I believe that liberty is the only genuinely valuable thing that men have invented,” he wrote, “at least in the field of government, in a thousand years. I believe that it is better to be free than to be not free, even when the former is dangerous and the latter safe. I believe that the finest qualities of man can flourish only in free air—that progress made under the shadow of the policeman’s club is false progress, and of no permanent value. I believe that any man who takes the liberty of another into his keeping is bound to become a tyrant, and that any man who yields up his liberty, in however slight the measure, is bound to become a slave.” Mencken added: “In any dispute between a citizen and the government, it is my instinct to side with the citizen . . . I am against all efforts to make men virtuous by law.”

As for capitalism, Mencken declared that “We owe to it almost everything that passes under the general name of civilization today. The extraordinary progress of the world since the Middle Ages has not been due to the mere expenditure of human energy, nor even to the flights of human genius, for men had worked hard since the remotest times, and some of them had been of surpassing intellect. No, it has been due to the accumulation of capital. That accumulation permitted labor to be organized economically and on a large scale, and thus greatly enhanced its productiveness. It provided the machinery that gradually diminished human drudgery, and liberated the spirit of the worker, who had formerly been almost indistinguishable from a mule. Most of all, it made possible a longer and better preparation for work, so that every art and handicraft greatly widened its scope and range, and multitudes of new and highly complicated crafts came in.”


For a brief period, Mencken faced his ideological battles with a romantic partner. In May 1923, he delivered a talk called “how to catch a husband” at Baltimore’s Goucher College and there met a 26-year-old, Alabama-born English teacher named Sara Haardt. He was taken by her good looks, radiant intelligence and passion for literature. She saw a decent, joyous, civilized man. A lifelong bachelor who had lived with his mother until she died in 1925, when he was 45, Mencken was wary of marriage. Apparently Sara’s worsening tuberculosis brought him to the altar. After her death on May 31, 1935, Mencken wrote a friend: “When I married Sara, the doctors said she could not live more than three years. Actually, she lived five, so I had two more years of happiness than I had any right to expect.”

Sara’s death hit him especially hard, because he was already down. With the Great Depression everywhere blamed on capitalism, individualist Mencken seemed like a relic. He had seldom analyzed economic policy, so he wasn’t intellectually equipped to explain how the federal government itself had triggered and prolonged the Great Depression—powerful evidence for that case became available only in the 1960s.

Circulation of the American Mercury plunged. Mencken resigned as editor by December 1933. He was succeeded by economic journalist Henry Hazlitt. Three years after Sara died, Mencken’s attacks on President Roosevelt’s foreign policy cost him his Baltimore Sun column. It didn’t help that Mencken’s devotion to traditional German culture apparently led him to discount ominous news coming out of Hitler’s Germany. He was an outcast.

Mencken did much to redeem himself as far as the public was concerned by affirming the joys of private life. He added two massive supplements to The American Language, acclaimed as a learned and entertaining masterwork about popular speech. He wrote his charming memoirs which began as a series of New Yorker articles, then expanded into a trilogy, Happy Days (1940), Newspaper Days (1941), and Heathen Days (1943). They display a tolerant, enthusiastic view of life. He edited a generous collection of his newspaper articles into a book, A Mencken Chrestomathy (1948)—it’s still in print.

On November 28, 1948, Mencken went to pick up a manuscript from his secretary’s apartment and suffered a stroke. While he regained his physical capabilities, he lost the ability to read, and he had difficulty speaking. Most people forgot about him.

Mencken died in his sleep on Sunday, January 29, 1956. His ashes were buried near his parents and his wife at Loudon Park Cemetery. Mencken’s former American Mercury compatriot, Newsweek columnist Henry Hazlitt, called Mencken “a great liberating force. . . . In his political and economic opinions Mencken was from the beginning, to repeat, neither `radical’ nor `conservative,’ but libertarian. He championed the freedom and dignity of the individual.”

Though Mencken was gone, controversy soon swirled about him again. New collections of his work proved popular. Previously unpublished manuscripts appeared. He was accused of anti-Semitism, and these charges gained a wider hearing with the 1989 publication of his candid diary. Long-time Jewish friends defended him. A succession of biographies focused on different aspects of his life.

Nearly all of Mencken’s chroniclers opposed his political views—in particular, his hostility to the New Deal—but they have found him irresistibly appealing. They were drawn to his prodigious enterprise, vast learning, steadfast courage, good cheer, and free spirit. Someday, hopefully more people will appreciate Mencken’s vital role in nourishing a love for liberty during some of America’s darkest decades.

  • Jim Powell, senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is an expert in the history of liberty. He has lectured in England, Germany, Japan, Argentina and Brazil as well as at Harvard, Stanford and other universities across the United States. He has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Esquire, Audacity/American Heritage and other publications, and is author of six books.