H.L. Mencken Essays

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Mencken suffered a massive stroke in 1948 that left him unable to write, the thing he did best and that defined his life.

It was a savage fate for a man who literally lived to put his ideas on paper. Walter Lippman, James Reston, George Will—none of them came close to Mencken’s impact on the world of letters.

Roosevelt and the New Deal as he had been about President Herbert Hoover and Prohibition.

Similarly, when the German culture that he had enjoyed was marred by Adolf Hitler and Nazism, Mencken was slower than some of his public to recognize it and to take the fact seriously., an attempt to bring together examples of American, rather than English, expressions and idioms. It grew with each reissue through the years, and in 19 Mencken published substantial supplements.

It may be true that, as he wrote, the “cynics are right nine times out of ten,” but that doesn’t make them likable or even tolerable.

Also the topics and issues he wrote about with so much gusto during the 1920s no longer seemed relevant or important afterwards.That’s too bad because he was a brilliant stylist and changed American journalism much in the way that Hemingway transformed American fiction.For all his flaws, Mencken had a keen insight into the American political scene.Early in the 20 century, he wrote a keen appreciation of George Bernard Shaw’s dramas, and championed Theodore Dreiser when the literary establishment had no time for the crude realism that characterized his best works, , believing it well written but trivial.Mencken was an early booster of Joseph Conrad in America, published a couple of short stories by James Joyce, and helped launch the career of Sinclair Lewis with an enthusiastic review of while running some of the most influential literary-cultural figures of the time that have since been largely forgotten: Max Eastman, Sherwood Anderson, and Joseph Wood Krutch, among others.His career brought him into contact with the first men of his time; he preferred the company of rustic ignoramuses.” Electing Calvin Coolidge, he wrote, was like being presented with a sumptuous banquet and “staying your stomach by plucking flies out of the air.” When once asked why if he despised politics so much he wasted his time writing about it, Mencken answer was simple: “why do people go to zoos.”Mencken’s influence extended beyond the world of politics into the larger literary scene, again something no present journalist approaches.He had a keen, if idiosyncratic, eye for good literature.The publications of Mencken’s diaries—he was an inveterate record keeper who, according to his best biographer Terry Teachout, wrote over 100,000 words a year—didn’t help his reputation.They revealed that his humorous blasts hid anti-Semitic and racist views.By the time of his death, he was perhaps the leading authority on the language of his country.Seventy years ago, one of the most influential American journalists and critics was silenced forever. He lived eight more years but could no longer write with any degree of facility and could read only with difficulty. From the end of World War I until the Great Depression, Mencken reached an audience unmatched by any other political or cultural figure in American history.


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