Donald Elder: Fifty Great Americans –H.L. Mencken

Aug 17, 2015 by

H.L. Mencken

H.L. Mencken

An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Fifty Great Americans –H.L. Mencken

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. Some of the “great” Americans we have covered hold a coveted place in the annals of American History. Others are not so well known, but have made a great impact. One of these is H.L. Mencken- What do we know about where and when he was born and his early childhood days?

Henry Louis Mencken was born in Baltimore, Maryland on September 12, 1880. He received his primary education at a private school in Baltimore, and he earned his high school diploma (graduating as the valedictorian) from the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute at the age of 15. After graduating, he spent three years working in a cigar factory owned by his father, but he did not enjoy that occupation. He decided instead to take a correspondence course—one of the first available—from Cosmopolitan University while continuing to work by day making cigars. Presumably he would have continued this dual course of action, but upon the death of his father Mencken’s uncle took over the factory, thus relieving him of his familial duty. Mencken applied for a position with a Baltimore newspaper, and was hired on a part-time basis. In June of 1899, he became a full-time newspaper reporter, setting the stage for his life as a man of letters.

  1. What about his education- where was he educated and was his education stellar?

Like his contemporary Ernest Hemingway, Mencken was a highly regarded journalist who had almost no education beyond a high school diploma. One correspondence school course was the extent of Mencken’s post-high school education, while Hemingway went straight from high school into the work force. It is therefore apparent that an advanced education is not always essential for a successful journalist.

  1. What would you say are his greatest accomplishments to the American landscape?

After becoming a newspaper writer, Mencken began to write editorials and what we would today call op-ed pieces. His work became widely circulated, and soon he had become one of the nation’s most famous journalists. Mencken had a writing style that can be described as caustic, and he seemed to capture a sensibility held by many at the time regarding the issues confronting society. He also helped promote a number of authors and artists that might have gone unnoticed without his attention. It can definitely be said that Mencken made people think, and that is the highest praise that a journalist can receive.

  1. His later years- how were they spent?

During the 1920s, Mencken had an almost unrivaled status as a societal critic. Already well known, his stature rose even higher in the mid-1920s through his columns on The Scopes Monkey Trial and the purported kidnapping of Aimee Semple McPherson. Mencken grew out of favor with a segment of the American populace during the 1930s because of his opposition to Franklin Roosevelt, but he remained an important voice in America into the 1940s. He suffered a stroke in 1948, an affliction that effectively ended his career as a writer. He died in 1956.

  1. Looking back- what kind of impact has he made on either the average American or the average American intellect?

Mencken was a keen observer of the American experience for over 30 years. He examined the important subjects that the nation faced during that time, and never rushed to judgement on an issue. In some regards, Mencken was clearly out of step with the course that America would travel; his private diary reveals strong racial and ethnic biases, for example, and his disapproval of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal program suggests that he remained fixated on a way of life that was gone forever. Still, H.L. Mencken’s legacy is that of an individual who never spoke down to his readers, choosing instead to ask them to think critically about the events that transpired around them.

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