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H. L. Mencken

So much has been written on the man called “The Sage of Baltimore” that we can merely touch on him in this space.

 Mencken's Timeline:

September 12, 1880 Born in Baltimore:
1883- Moved to1524 Hollins Street
January 29, 1956 Died in Baltimore  l524 Hollins Street
1899- Death of August Mencken, HLM's father
1899- Reporter, Baltimore Morning Herald
1906-1948 Ace Journalist for Baltimore Sun
1914-23 Smart Set (satire magazine)
1919- wrote The American Language
1925-33 American Mercury

    Henry Louis Mencken

 

1925 -Scopes Monkey Trial (The State of Tennessee vs. John T. Scopes) Dayton, Tennessee
. Mencken there as journalist for Baltimore Sun 
 Dec, 1925 - death of mother, Anna Mencken
 August 27, 1930 - Married: to Sara Haardt at Episcopal Church of St. Stephen the Martyr,
  location 2400 W. North Avenue
 Moved with Sara to 704 Cathedral Street, 3rd floor
1935 -Sara deceased. Moved back to 1524 Hollins Street to reside with brother, August
1948 - Life-altering stroke
January 29, 1956- Death. Buried Loudon Park Cemetery

 

          Baltimore's “Sage” was a controversial figure, taking stances on issues that were all over the political gamut and often the shady side of “politically correct.” He was a militant agnostic who went out of his way to smell out fundamentalists, only to chew them up and spit them out. He made plenty of anti-Semitic remarks, yet blasted Franklin Roosevelt for failure to open up the country to Europe's Jews after it was clear what Hitler was doing to them. He opposed the New Deal and detested Roosevelt. Mencken was a man's man, cigar smoking, beer drinking, his favorite venue one of his familiar Baltimore restaurants, holed up with other men, discussing and arguing. In classical music he favored the Gods-Battles operas of Richard Wagner. His favorite philosopher – Frederich Nietzsche. Mencken qua Mencken would have never cut it as a journalist today. The way the Sage could cut an enemy down, newspapers would never have been able to afford all the lawsuits.

       Henry's father, August M. Mencken, owned a cigar factory, which occupied various locations in Baltimore in the vicinity of Paca and Pratt Streets.  Mother, Anna, served as a dutiful wife and mother.  There were 4 children, Henry being the eldest.  There were 2 brothers, Charlie and August; a sister, Gertrude.  After childhood, Henry and August were closer, August also being a writer. August wrote technical books including a book on the history of hanging. Charlie had little in common with his two literary brothers.  Henry saw himself as a paterfamilias to his unmarried sister, but could not stand to spend time with her. She talked too much.

                HLM's Father, August, had Henry's life all laid out for him.  The son was to enter his father's business!  No mere case of making cigars or even of standing behind a counter selling them: There were trips to Cuba and other distant places to obtain  the tobacco. There was the manufacturing and keeping the books.  There was salesmanship, wholesale distribution to stores.   The plan was for the son to learn the business from the ground up. Mencken did work 3 miserable years with his father. Any suggestion about wanting to enter journalism sent the elder Mencken into an apoplectic fit. The subject could hardly be broached.

               Holiday time often turned suddenly grim for this family. On New Year's Eve, 1898, Henry's,  strong,  hard-working, iron-willed father took sick from a kidney infection. (Today, the illness would have involved the doctor's phoning in a prescription for an antibiotic!)  August M. Mencken died January 13.  (Henry's mother was to die a few days before Christmas, 1925; Henry himself, in January of 1956). Though HLM was stunned and aggrieved by the death of his father, he quickly saw that he now free to chose his own profession.

                  Newspaper reporting was less than an honorable profession when Henry pushed his way into  his first job, at the Baltimore Herald.  His total past experience was a mail order course. Reporters had to hit the tough streets of the city and grab the story as the news was happening. The job demanded the brazenness of a street walker and the tenaciousness of a dog with a bone. Henry knocked on the door of the Herald night after night until he hit a night where some drama was unfolding locally.  Most young reporters were paid by piece work but eventually Henry got put on the regular payroll. Here is something that would almost never happen today, where employers expect an extensive curriculum vitae, usually demanding a couple of Masters degrees in one's field! Moreover, newspapers hardly exist now. The Baltimore Sun once included a morning and evening paper, and several editions of each. Now this morning paper is so light that I can't even toss it halfway up a neighbor's driveway during my morning walks.

         Where to start on this character of fame and sometimes infamy? Many people remember him for his role as journalist, contrarian and mocker in chief at the Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, 1925. Anyone unfamiliar with this event will enjoy running out and renting a copy of the old film “Inherit the Wind.” No event could have been more up Mencken's alley. At issue was the teaching of evolution in the schools. Dayton was a town of less than 2000 people at the time. It is in the heart of the Bible belt. In essence, a 24 year old schoolteacher, John Scopes, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, prompted a test case of the law by teaching evolution. Best of all were the two giant names in law. Prosecuting the case was William Jennings Bryan. Clarence Darrow, perhaps the most famous defense lawyer of the day, represented Scopes.

           The two lawyers held antithetical religious views: Bryan the Bible man, Darrow the agnostic. The trial gained sensation when Darrow actually put Bryan, the prosecutor, on the witness stand to query him about the Bible's literal word. Was Eve truly created from Adam's rib? Where did Cain get his wife? How did Jonah live inside the whale?  Darrow was trying to prove that the Bible could not be literal, and that anyone who believed it was, could not be scientific. His rapid-fire questions bedeviled poor Bryan, who actually said that man was not a mammal!  Meanwhile, H. L. Mencken was sending his daily reports to the Baltimore Sun.  Here is an example of his writing:

July 9 1925
On the eve of the great contest Dayton is full of sickening surges and tremors of doubt. Five or six weeks ago, when the infidel Scopes was first laid by the heels, there was no uncertainty in all this smiling valley. The town boomers leaped to the assault as one man. Here was an unexampled, almost a miraculous chance to get Dayton upon the front pages, to make it talked about, to put it upon the map. But how now?
Today, with the curtain barely rung up and the worst buffooneries to come, it is obvious to even town boomers that getting upon the map, like patriotism, is not enough. The getting there must be managed discreetly, adroitly, with careful regard to psychological niceties. The boomers of Dayton, alas, had no skill at such things, and the experts they called in were all quacks. The result now turns the communal liver to water. Two months ago the town was obscure and happy. Today it is a universal joke.

John
Scopes

I have been attending the permanent town meeting that goes on in Robinson's drug store, trying to find out what the town optimists have saved from the wreck. All I can find is a sort of mystical confidence that God will somehow come to the rescue to reward His old and faithful partisans as they deserve--that good will flow eventually out of what now seems to be heavily evil. More specifically, it is believed that settlers will be attracted to the town as to some refuge from the atheism of the great urban Sodoms and Gomorrah (http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/scopes/menk.htm)

          To quote T. S. Eliot, the trial ended not with a bang but a whimper After all the dazzle and fireworks, Clarence Darrow waived his right to a closing argument. Bryan, who had prepared a master summation,  never got to give it. At long last, the question of creation would not be decided, only the question of whether the schoolteacher Scopes had violated State Law. Clearly, he had. The Court fined him $100. Ah-CLUE was clearly depending on the appeal, but even that trial disappointed.  The defense appeal to the State Supreme Court fizzled out, ending in a Nolle Prosequi. (In other words, the State saw no need to continue the prosecution; Scopes no longer was working as a teacher; to carry on further would be a waste of court resources.)

          The Scopes trial certainly did not end people's literal belief in the Bible but sadly it did literally end the life of William Jennings Bryan, a man whose distinguished resume included running for president three times and serving as Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson. A few days after the trial in the steamy courtroom in July 1925, Bryan ate a meal, took a nap and died. Exertion, diabetes, fatigue and possible dehydration were culprits in this death.

       Mencken's documentation of this death in the Baltimore Sun was, to say the least, mean-spirited. He pursued his enemy beyond the grave.

 

Mencken had already achieved fame by his scholarly work, “The American Language,” 1919. As early as 1902 he was writing articles in the Evening Sun about the odd way that American English was shaping up. He said that he drew his inspiration from the writings of Mark Twain, his experiences on the streets of Baltimore, and “...the argot of the colored waiters in Washington...” (www.bartleby.com/185) Contrasting American English with British English, Mencken asserted that American English is relatively uniform and without dialect (specifically omitting immigrant and ethnic groups in America). By contrast with British English, Mencken found no true dialect in the American tongue. (“Dialect” includes unique features in pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar. “Accent” refers only to word pronunciation.) British dialects include Yorkshire, Cumbrian, Geordie, Northumbrian, Cockney, etc. It is doubtful that HLM's hypothesis of 1919 would hold up today, nearly 100 years later. Listening to hours of television and radio English each day tends to erode the once colorful dialects. Also, people travel and mingle much more.

Peabody Bookshop and Beer Stube

             Yet—does anyone remember the Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliff, English serial killer arrested in 1981 after too many years of ripping? Some fool put in a prank phone call to the police, claiming to be the man. The Brits set up a national phone line where listeners to hear the voice and hopefully recognize it. The cops were sadly mislead that the killer, like the caller, would have a Geordie dialect. As a result, Sutcliff's trail of bloodshed got much longer.

          In Mencken's view, Americans create their own language as they go along, e.g. “Ok.” New verbs are created by sticking a proposition in front of a noun: to engineer, to stump, to hog. There is also “torturing” of nouns with “harsh affixes” - to burglarize, to itemize, One can combine words to make new words: down-and-out, flat-footed. Mencken also describes “...shading down suffixes to barbaric simplicity..” e.g. Scary, classy, tasty. (HLM, “The American Language,” ch. 5 )  (Much of this book can be read at above Bartleby web address). In these few examples, the reader gets a sense of Mencken's creative interest in language as well as his humorous, irreverent writing style.

       Although he had no shortage of lady friends, Henry seemed like a man who would never marry. He and Mariam Bloom had a courtship for years which, however, failed to--well, bloom!  Her becoming a Christian Scientist broke the camel's back or at least gave him an exit excuse. Yet, marry he did, in 1930, to an English professor at Goucher, Sara Haardt. The marriage ceremony was held at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church (!!!), which was located in the 2400 block Walbrook Avenue, Baltimore. Sara was l8 years younger than Mencken. The couple had met years before, when Henry was giving a lecture at Goucher College. Henry moved out of his family's home. The couple took an apartment at 704 Cathedral Street, 3rd floor. (Sadly, Sara was to die five years later. HLM then moved back to Hollins Street. The Cathedral Street address is 3 blocks in varying directions from 3 of HLM's favorite restaurant haunts. Henry and Sara often dined at Marconi's, corner of Cathedral and Saratoga Streets. The Peabody Bookshop and Beer Stube stood at 913 N. Charles St. One walked through rows of books about the length of a city block to get to the restaurant and drinkery in the rear. This is one Baltimore landmark that never should have been torn down, but now there is only a parking lot. Shellhaus was a German restaurant at 412 N. Howard Street.

           Speaking of German restaurants, German emerges again and again as a leitmotif in Mencken's life. Baltimore had long been a city of immigrants from Europe: Irish, Polish, Italian—and German. As early as 1783 The German Society of Maryland was established to shepherd the new arrivals. By 1890, 40,000 Baltimore residents were American-born citizens with recent German roots. Mencken was one of them. Circa 1900, there existed no fewer than 30 German-language churches in the city. One of these, Zion Lutheran, remains today, offering services in German and English.

         Mencken seemed to seek out Germans (as would any ethnic group). Heinrich Ewald Buchholz was, like HLM, a writer and a frequent contributor to the Baltimore Sun (pen name “Ezekiel Cheever” --is that supposed to be an improvement?!)Mencken was a very clubable man. For nearly 40 years, Mencken, Buchholz and others assembled at “The Saturday Night Club.”The venue was a back room of Shellhaus' Restaurant. The men played music and entered into stimulating, raucous discussions. Buchholz, like many of Mencken's literary friends, also became a rival. Mencken seemed to lure these friends into intellectual feuds. Buchholz wrote “Of What Use Are the Common People.” Mencken wrote a savage review. The friendship ended only with Buchholz' death.

Theodore Dreiser

          The once renowned Peabody Bookshop was opened in 1922, the Beer Stube being annexed some years later. Siegfried Weisberger and his brother – the brothers hailed from Austria, not from Germany-- ran the place. HLM was especially close with Siegfried, sharing his interest in German classical music and in Nietzsche. Like Henry, Siegfried was a self-educated man.

       Another great literary friend and also frequent foe was Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945). Dreiser was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, of German background. Henry's early background was pristine compared to Dreiser's. The writer of “Sister Carrie” was born into a struggling family, the 9th of l0 living children (some had not survived). Dreiser had left high school early, but a concerned teacher paid his way for a year of college. In 1892 Theodore found a job as reporter for a Chicago newspaper. Mencken, who detested all kinds of censorship, became Dreiser's staunch defender when the latter's novel “Sister Carrie” fell under heavy attack. In 1908 Dreiser edited a magazine called “The Delineator.” Henry became a contributor to the magazine. Thus began a lifelong relationship.

      Theodore Dreiser's novels cast him as a mechanistic determinist a la Thomas Hardy and Emile Zola. Yet, Dreiser apparently harbored some sense of the sacred, viewing the seeking of scientific knowledge as a type of prayer. Mencken attacked even the concept of prayer and the two men had their first falling out. (http://www.nytimes.com/1992/03/08/books/mencken-and-dreiser-friends-when-speaking.html?pagewanted=1) Dreiser moved to Greenwich Village where he had a series of friends and lovers (female). Mencken, the sometimes freethinker, condemned his friend's “promiscuous” behavior (another falling out). Unlike Buchholz, Dreiser took Mencken's literary criticism of his work personally. HLM wrote of Dreiser in 1918: “There are moments when a dead hand falls on him,and he is once more the Indiana peasant, snuffling absurdly over imbecile sentimentalities, giving a grave ear to quackery, snorting and eye-rolling with the best of them.” (ibid). Dreiser was offended.

Pictures from the Scopes Monkey trial, Dayton Tenn

July 1925

              Another falling out with Dreiser, a bizarre one, occurred in December 1925. Dreiser, en route to Florida with a friend, made an unannounced, brief visit to l524, so brief that he initially left his companion in his car. No friend could have arrived at a worse time. HLM's mother, Anna, was actively dying. Henry was an attentive, thoughtful son, maintaining such niceties as phoning her when he would be out later than expected. Mother and son were close, and Henry was distraught when, just days before, his mother suddenly fell ill. Dreiser, according to accounts, uttered not a word to acknowledge the gravity of the situation! Henry lambasted Dreiser upon learning that the latter's friend had been left in the cold car, insisting that the woman be brought in. Helen Richardson entered the house just briefly. Then the visitors left. Henry did not speak to Dreiser for years. (Theodore Dreiser's behavior remains a puzzle. If he could not handle his friend's insults, he was even more hopeless at handling his friend's grief. (We all know people who don't do death well. These people will avoid a dying person like the plague! Often they are just as spooked with the distraught family) members! Dreiser popped in on Mencken, expecting HLM to be wearing his persona. Clearly, he was not.

                   More about this “persona” needs to be said. The Facebook folks take this word to mean a way of disguising your photo or your essential facts, so that your actual identity is not posted up there for the world to see. They are not too far off the mark from the definition that comes from depth psychology. Most of us are somewhat different from the self we present to the world. We need tools for adapting to various social occasions. These tools include verbal and nonverbal speech, choice of how we'll use the language (Sunday Best vs. slang), assertiveness (vs. deference), aloofness (vs. intimacy), Serious? Jocular? Whimsical? . Focused? Intense? Laid back? Sitting up straight? Legs up on the desk? Grim? Mocking? Shocked or shocking? etc..Take a man whose job is making cold phone calls. If that man didn't adopt a job persona, his ego would be unprotected from the wrath and rage which many of us greet the telemarketer. We need our game face. Sometimes we need our “defend my turf” face. The trick is knowing what mode to pull out of the bag and when. The bottom line is, that silly-looking 3-letter word “ego” has to be defended! Yet you need some breathing room between “who you really are” and your persona. But without a sufficient persona, you're like a quarterback without the linesmen. You'll be knocked on your back every play. Is it too much a stretch to suggest that Mencken took a persona of the aggressive, fulminating, cynical curmudgeon, debunker, misanthrope that is suggested by the following quotes?

 

A national political campaign is better than the best circus ever heard of, with a mass baptism and a couple of hangings thrown in .

 Democracy is also a form of worship. It is the worship of Jackals by Jackasses.

A society made up of individuals who were all capable of original thought would probably be unendurable

Before a man speaks it is always safe to assume that he is a fool. After he speaks, it is seldom necessary to assume it.

Men have a much better time of it than women. For one thing, they marry later; for another thing, they die earlier.

Morality is the theory that every human act must be either right or wrong, and that 99 % of them are wrong

A professor must have a theory as a dog must have fleas.

Most people are unable to write because they are unable to think, and they are unable to think because they congenitally lack the equipment to do so, just as they congenitally lack the equipment to fly over the moon.

War will never cease until babies begin to come into the world with larger cerebrums and smaller adrenal glands.

Are these quotes the real man? Let's put our man under the microscope for a minute. Let's remember that HLM had a rough time of it on many fronts.  For instance:

          Pedigree. HLM had one. Otto Mencken and Johan Mencken (circa 1700's) had been shining stars from the University of Leipzig. Mencken's father, though born in the U.S., held up these forebears. Henry himself was acutely conscious of their achievements and believed that his own accomplishments could not measure up. Henry believed in pedigree. Mariam Bloom's lack of same was one the the reasons he gave for his not marrying her. (He would not even introduce her to Mama Anna). One remembers that HLM never attended college, though in his day Higher Ed was not obligatory for success.

1524 Hollins Street

         Prison Sentence. From childhood a prison sentence hung over HLM's head: LIFE working in the cigar factory. Henry's father introduced his eldest son to this trade at an early age. The possibility that Henry might desire another career was not open for discussion.

         Sib. Rivalry. As a boy, Henry was rivaled by his brother, Charlie, bigger, sturdier, and better at games. (However, as men, Charlie paled in comparison to his illustrious brother).

        Religious ambiguity. Father, August, was a proclaimed agnostic. Yet, he made the children run off to Sunday School. HLM despised the hypocrisy of religion. He chose his father's agnosticism, but was far from indifferent to it. He seemed to enjoy few things more than a religious debate. (There are different types of atheists/agnostics. There is a type who doesn't even think about God's existence or lack thereof. There is a type who won't allow that there is a rational language in which to discuss the subject ((Logical Positivists: Ayer and his '”drogulus” in the room)). There is a type who never shuts up about the subject. HLM would seem to be the latter type).

        Death of the God. Henry's father was a minor deity to him. August was very close to this special older child. When HLM was a young man suffering in the cigar factory, he had to agree with his father that the word “newspaper reporter” would not be uttered for one year. The father had let his son know that he, August, also had once dreamed of a more elevated but less secure career but chose safety and let his dream dissolve. Then came that New Year's Eve when the patriarch's after-dinner nap suddenly took on a lethal hue. The son ran breathless several blocks to the doctor, who was not home and who would have been useless anyway.

        Being German in the early l900's in Baltimore also set a person up as a minor deity. It certainly elevated the person, in his own eyes at least, when compared to the other ethnic groups which populated the city: the Polish, the Irish, the Jewish. The Blacks were below consideration. Many of them lived in the alley streets which backed up to streets like Hollins, close by but so far away. Henry was comfortably entrenched in Germany reporting on World War I and thoroughly enjoying the Germans (and they, him) before the United States entered the war. Suddenly he had to clear out. Germany was the enemy. Being of German heritage was thereafter very unfashionable in the United States. A street was renamed Redwood Street. Before the war, it was called German Street.

               All told,  perhaps Henry needed his persona -- or perhaps there was none; that he was a case of "what you see is what you get." It hardly matters. Such a sage could not nowadays exist. Mencken lived long enough to see the beginning of telecast journalism. He foresaw from it only bad things for reporters of his ilk. It is not likely that he foresaw the advent of CNN, FOX, MS-NBC, Sky News and other TV channels which blab news and non-news to glued to the tube viewers 24/7.In 1948 Henry suffered a stroke which affected his ability to write, speak, and recognize words. His brother August cared for him at the Hollins Street home until HLM's death in l956.