H. L. Mencken and J. Gresham Machen were both native sons of Baltimore. Mencken was a journalist and Machen was a theologian. Mencken was a skeptic who rejected religion, while Machen was a defender of historic Christianity. Both became prominent in their fields. Both found themselves embroiled in the controversies of their day. In part, both were controversial because they unashamedly defended views that went against the times.
They were not friends or co-workers or allies. Most often, with a few exceptions, they fought for totally different causes and labored in different professions. Opposing views, different philosophies of life, and yet both men are still honored today for their labors. While a great gulf separates their lifetime causes, they both are admired today. Christian author Douglas Wilson, who agrees with Machen’s Christian theology, lists Mencken as one of the nine essential “writers to read” in his recent book of the same title. Machen biographer and proponent D. G. Hart is currently working on a biography of Mencken. There is no shortage of people who love the works of both Machen and Mencken.
Both men stood against differing cultural tidal waves of their times. Both went against the norms of tolerance, and both found themselves embroiled in controversies. Both became intellectual exiles in their day, but both are still read and given greater credence today. It is hard to imagine Mencken and Machen getting together and finding solace in their battles. It would have been more likely that Machen would have agreed to meet Mencken in a bar than that Mencken would have sat beside Machen in church.
While both were debaters, they generally waged wars with the printed word. Those words remain, and their writings are still in print. To understand the cross-cultural currents of the 1920’s–1940’s, both are essential primary sources, but their ideas still resonate with many.
Henry Louis “H. L.” Mencken was born on September 12, 1880. Mencken was the son of a cigar manufacturer in Baltimore, and for a time, he worked in the family business. But his life love and labor was writing. The book that first opened his eyes to literature was The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which he read at age nine. Of that discovery, Mencken said, “I had not gone further than the first incomparable chapter before I realized, child though I was, that I had entered a domain of new and gorgeous wonders, and thereafter I pressed on steadily to the last word.”
Having entered that domain of words, Mencken set out on an ambitious self-guided reading jaunt. In high school, he read such authors as Thackeray, Addison, Pope, Swift, Johnson, and Kipling. He read Shakespeare’s works in their entirety. His reading interests were accompanied by a love of chemistry and photography. He graduated as valedictorian from the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute when he was fifteen. In spite of his academic potential, Mencken ended his formal education and went to work at his father’s cigar business.
Still in love with words, Mencken took a correspondence class on writing. He left the cigar business and entered the field of journalism where he would spend the rest of his working days. In time, he became the editor of The Baltimore Sun, and from that vantage point, he became the most prominent journalist in his day. Mencken later said, “I have written and printed probably 10,000,000 words of English, and continue to this day to pour out more and more.
His fame was as much due to his opinions, attacks, and verbal crusades as from his reporting. He was never concerned with comforting the readers or soft-selling his views. His wit was molded after that of Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce. He was a skeptic, a cynic, a critic, and one who never concealed his barbs. Fellow journalist Walter Lippmann said of Mencken, “[T]his Holy Terror from Baltimore is splendidly and exultantly and contagiously alive. He calls you a swine, and an imbecile, and he increases your will to live.” To this day, he is recognized as one of the best wordsmiths of the English language.
He was friend to some of the key literary figures of his times, and as a reviewer and critic, he helped the careers of other writers. He introduced Joseph Conrad, Theodore Dreiser, and Sinclair Lewis to American readers. As co-founder of a literary journal called the Mercury, he published early work of Willa Cather, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and others. Even though he lashed out against the South and Southern literature, he personally befriended budding writing from the South, such as several of the Agrarians, and promoted their works. Many of Mencken’s newspaper pieces were later published as books. He started pulp magazines, wrote an autobiographical trilogy, and translated Nietsche’s Antichrist.
Many of his writings and comments were collected together in a book called A Mencken Chrestomathy. When his editor objected to the word Chrestomathy, which Mencken said meant “a collection of choice passages from an author or authors,” he responded, “I should be deterred by the fact that . . . the word would be unfamiliar to many readers. . . . Thousands of excellent nouns, verbs, and adjectives that have stood in every decent dictionary for years are still unfamiliar to such ignoramuses, and I do not solicit their patronage. Let them continue to recreate themselves with whodunits, and leave my vocabulary and me to my customers, who have all been to school.”
He was one of the best known commentators, critics, and observers of the people and issues of his day. As both reporter and commentator, Mencken wrote about such topics as men and women, religion, morals, crime, government, psychology, pedagogy, science, music, war, criminology, and European and American novelists. His autobiography consisted of three volumes. Embracing the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, Mencken mastered enough German to translate him into English.
Mencken coined the term “Bible Belt,” which he used as an insult against the South and religion. He referred to common people as the “booboisie,” and said, “The human race is incurably idiotic. It will never be happy.” Politicians received many of his verbal barbs, such as “A good politician is just as rare as an honest burglar.”
His attacks on humans in general, fellow Americans in particular, and leaders in all areas accrued him quite a few enemies. With his approval, Alfred Knopf published a book called Menckenianna: A Schimpflexicon, which was a collection of verbal insults and attacks on Mencken by other writers. One entry noted, “If Mencken only ran about on all fours, slavering his sort of hydrophobia, he would be shot by the first policeman as a public duty.” Another said, “He seems to love the putrid, the sinful, the low, and uses any occasion to air his antipathy to the customs and beliefs of the average American citizen.”
In spite of his barbed and vicious wit, Mencken’s popularity lasted until a combination of events changed the nation. Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal were particular targets of Mencken, but he was going against the nation’s recurring electoral approval of FDR and New Deal programs. It didn’t help when Mencken, in part due to his German heritage, gave nodding approval of Germany in World War II, just as he had approved of Germany in the First World War. In 1948, Mencken had a stroke which impaired his ability to read and write. Still mentally alert, he lived another eight years and died in 1956.