Henry Louis Mencken (September 12, 1880 – January 29, 1956) was an American journalist, essayist, satirist, cultural critic and scholar of American English. He commented widely on the social scene, literature, music, prominent politicians and contemporary movements. His satirical reporting on the Scopes Trial, which he dubbed the “Monkey Trial,” also gained him attention.
As a scholar, Mencken is known for The American Language, a multi-volume study of how the English language is spoken in the United States. As an admirer of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, he was an outspoken opponent of organized religion, theism, populism, and representative democracy, the latter of which he viewed as systems in which inferior men dominated their superiors. Mencken was a supporter of scientific progress, and was critical of osteopathic and chiropractic medicine. He was also an ardent critic of economics.
Mencken opposed the American entry into both World War I and World War II. Some of the terminology in his private diary entries has been described by some researchers as racist and antisemitic, although this characterisation has been disputed. His attitude to African-Americans reflected the conservative paternalism of his era and “the kind of anti-Semitism that appears in Mencken’s private diary may be found elsewhere: for example, in the early letters of Eleanor Roosevelt and Adlai Stevenson.” He seemed to show a genuine enthusiasm for militarism, though never in its American form. “War is a good thing,” he once wrote, “because it is honest, it admits the central fact of human nature … A nation too long at peace becomes a sort of gigantic old maid.”
His longtime home in the Union Square neighborhood of West Baltimore was turned into a city museum, the H. L. Mencken House. His papers were distributed among various city and university libraries, with the largest collection held in the Mencken Room at the central branch of Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library.
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