Wednesday 23 Apr 2014

H.L. Mencken

The “Sage of Baltimore,” Henry Louis Mencken lived for most of his life in the same home at 1524 Hollins Street.

Mencken was a journalist, editor, critic, publisher and an influential intellectual voice of the early 20th Century. With a sharp satirical wit, Mencken took aim at politics, government, religion, small-mindedness, the “Booboisie” and buncombe in any form.

He and his brother, August, were the sons of a comfortable middle-class cigar-maker. When Henry was three years old, the family moved into the Hollins Street House on Union Square, which he shared with August until his death in 1956.

Beginning his writing career at the Baltimore Morning Herald in 1899, in 1906 Mencken moved over to the Baltimore Sun, where he worked for 42 years. During this time, the Evening Sun had a national reputation as a newspaper of record, much like the status often bestowed upon the New York Times and the Washington Post in more recent years.

Mencken’s involvement and reportage of the 1925 Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tenn., helped propel it to a national story. He is credited with naming it the “Monkey trial.” In the film Inherit the Wind, Mencken is represented as the cynical atheist by Gene Kelly’s character, E.K. Hornbeck.

Mencken produced more than 30 books, including the seminal The American Language and an autobiography in three volumes – Happy Days (1940), Newspaper Days (1941) and Heathen Days (1943).

He was close friends with leading literary figures of the era, including Theodore Dreiser, George Jean Nathan, Alfred Knopf, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis. As editor of the magazines Smart Set and The American Mercury, Mencken was instrumental in publishing the early works of Fitzgerald, Eugene O’Neil, and Dorothy Parker.

During the 1930s, Mencken produced a monthly pulp magazine that published the early work of then-unknown Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Mencken also introduced Friedrich Nitzsche and George Bernard Shaw to American audiences.

In 1917, Mencken wanted to create an amusing trifle to distract people weary from World War I. On Dec. 29, the New York Evening Mail published “A Neglected Anniversary,” which purported to be a history of the bathtub. The article claimed, among other things, that the bathtub had been introduced into the U.S. until 1842, and did not gain widespread acceptance until President Millard Fillmore had a bathtub installed in the White House in 1850. Much of Mencken’s whimsy persists as historical “facts” despite his repeated insistence that the piece was a hoax.

Mencken married Sara Haardt, a professor of English at Goucher College, in 1930. During this time, the couple lived in the Mount Vernon neighborhood at 704 Cathedral Street. Haardt, who had tuberculosis and was in poor health, died in 1935.

In 1948, Mencken suffered a stroke that cruelly left him with semantic aphasia – unable to read, write or understand language. He spent his remaining years enjoying music, working on his papers, and visiting with friends.

Mencken’s house was bequeathed to the University of Maryland upon August’s death in 1967. The City of Baltimore acquired the property in 1983, and it became part of the City Life Museums. The house has been closed since 1997, but low-key efforts are under way to restore the home to a Mencken museum.

MORE INFO:
Wikipedia: H.L. Mencken
Wikipedia: The Bathtub Hoax
The Baltimore Literary Heritage Project: H.L. Mencken
Friends of the H. L. Mencken House

Visiting Mencken’s Grave
Mencken is buried in a family plot at Loudon Park Cemetery, 3620 Wilkens Ave.

GPS: N 39° 16.693′, W 076° 40.683′.


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