H. L. Mencken

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H. L. Mencken
Henry Louis Mencken
BirthplaceBaltimore, Maryland, U.S.
Journalist, satirist, critic

Mencken, H. L.

(Henry Louis Mencken) (mĕng`kən, mĕn`–), 1880–1956, American editor, author, and critic, b. Baltimore, studied at the Baltimore Polytechnic. Probably America's most influential journalist, he began his career on the Baltimore Morning Herald at the age of 18, became editor of the Baltimore Evening Herald, and from 1906 until his death was on the staff of the Baltimore Sun or Evening Sun. He also played a key role in the production of two extremely influential national magazines. From 1914 to 1923 he was coeditor of the Smart Set with George Jean NathanNathan, George Jean,
1882–1958, American editor and drama critic, b. Fort Wayne, Ind. He left the New York Herald to join H. L. Mencken in editing Smart Set (1914–23), which they made into a guide for the young American intellectual.
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; together they founded the American Mercury in 1924, and Mencken was its sole editor from 1925 to 1933.

Mencken's pungent, iconoclastic criticism and scathing invective, although aimed at all smugly complacent attitudes, was chiefly directed at what he saw as the ignorant, self-righteous, and overly credulous American middle class, members of which he dubbed Boobus americanus. His essays were collected in a series of six volumes, Prejudices (1919–27; repr. in 2 vol., 2010). In the field of philology he compiled a monumental and lively study, The American Language (1st ed. 1919; 4th ed. 1936; with supplements, 1946, 1948). Among his other works are George Bernard Shaw: His Plays (1905), In Defense of Women (1917), Treatise of the Gods (1930), and the autobiographical trilogy Happy Days, 1880–1892 (1940), Newspaper Days, 1899–1906 (1941), and Heathen Days, 1890–1936 (1943), collected in one volume in 1947. Mencken also fought against the strain of Puritanism in American literature and was an important literary champion of such writers as Theodore DreiserDreiser, Theodore
, 1871–1945, American novelist, b. Terre Haute, Ind. A pioneer of naturalism in American literature, Dreiser wrote novels reflecting his mechanistic view of life, a concept that held humanity as the victim of such ungovernable forces as economics,
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, Sherwood AndersonAnderson, Sherwood,
1876–1941, American novelist and short-story writer, b. Camden, Ohio. After serving briefly in the Spanish-American War, he became a successful advertising man and later a manager of a paint factory in Elyria, Ohio.
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, Sinclair LewisLewis, Sinclair,
1885–1951, American novelist, b. Sauk Centre, Minn., grad. Yale Univ., 1908. Probably the greatest satirist of his era, Lewis wrote novels that present a devastating picture of middle-class American life in the 1920s.
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, and Eugene O'NeillO'Neill, Eugene (Gladstone),
1888–1953, American dramatist, b. New York City. He is widely acknowledged as America's greatest playwright. Early Life

O'Neill's father was James O'Neill, a popular actor noted for his portrayal of the Count of Monte Cristo.
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. His keen interest in and intelligent appraisal of 20th-century American letters are evident in the essays collected in H. L. Mencken on American Literature (2002).


See his letters (ed. by G. L. Forgue, 1961) and diary (ed. by C. A. Fecher, 1990); biographies by W. Manchester (1950), C. Angoff (1956), S. Mayfield (1968), C. Bode (1969), F. C. Hobson, Jr. (1994), and T. Teachout (2002); studies by D. C. Stenerson (1971), F. C. Hobson, Jr. (1974), C. Scruggs (1984), and E. A. Martin (1984); A. Bulsterbaum, H. L. Mencken: A Research Guide (1988).

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Mencken, H. L. (Henry Louis)

(1880–1956) editor, writer; born in Baltimore, Md. He left school after his father's death (1899) to become a reporter for the Baltimore Morning Herald, later serving as drama critic, city editor, and then managing editor of the Baltimore Evening Herald. Soon after the Herald folded in 1906, he joined the Baltimore Sun; he remained associated with the Sun as editor, columnist, or contributor for most of his career, but he also wrote for many other publications. Early on, Mencken published studies of George Bernard Shaw (1905) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1908), both of whom he admired. From 1914 to 1923, with George Jean Nathan he coedited a satirical magazine, The Smart Set; in 1924 he and Nathan cofounded the American Mercury, a cultural magazine for "a civilized minority," which he coedited for nine years. Social rebels admired Mencken's clever, iconoclastic attacks on the middle-class "booboisie," prudery, and organized religion and politics. As a reviewer and critic he lambasted second-rate authors and championed such writers as Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, and Joseph Conrad. Many of his essays and reviews were collected in six volumes of Prejudices (1919–27). In a different vein, his detailed study, The American Language (1919), traced the developments of a distinctive American idiom. During the 1930s, Mencken's cynicism and his antipathy to the New Deal appeared less in tune with the times, and he turned more toward the past, writing three volumes of memoirs, beginning with Happy Days (1940). He also added two supplements to his American Language (1945, 1946). A stroke in 1948 left him incapacitated during his last years.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.