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H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken) Biography

(1880–1956), (Henry Louis Mencken), Baltimore Herald, George Bernard Shaw: His Plays

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American journalist, editor, and critic, born in Baltimore; he began his career in journalism in 1899 as a reporter for the Baltimore Herald group, becoming a full editor by 1906. George Bernard Shaw: His Plays (1905) and The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (1908), the first American studies of their subjects, gained Mencken the notice that led to his appointment as literary editor of The Smart Set, the self-styled ‘magazine of cleverness’, in 1908. From 1914 to 1923 he co-edited the journal with George Jean Nathan, raising it to importance among the literary forums of the day; D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, Sherwood Anderson, and Theodore Dreiser were among the contributing writers. A Book of Prefaces (1917) collects the literary criticism he was producing at the time. Mencken's association with the Baltimore Sunpapers resulted in wide circulation for ‘The Free Lance’, the column which established his reputation as an iconoclastic commentator on current affairs; as a foreign correspondent during the First World War, from 1916, his support for Germany aroused fierce controversy. With Nathan, he founded the American Mercury in 1924, of which he became sole editor in 1925; among the authors he published were F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather, and Ben Hecht, whom he regarded as exponents of an authentic modern American literature. His other publishing ventures included The Black Mask, a magazine of detective fiction begun with Nathan in 1920. The 1920s were the zenith of Mencken's fame; his devastatingly cynical and wittily opinionated articles in the American Mercury and elsewhere, collected in six volumes of Prejudices (191927), appealed to the wide-spread scepticism of the post-war era through their attacks on the pretensions he saw as intrinsic to almost every social and cultural institution. The American Language (1919, revised editions 1921, 1923, 1936; supplements 1945, 1948), was an impressive work of popular scholarship distinguishing between British and American English and defending the rich variety of the latter. The New York Times's description of him as ‘the most powerful private citizen in the United States’ was, however, no longer apt by the early 1930s, when socio-economic factors determined a graver cultural atmosphere than that in which Mencken had thrived. A Treatise on the Gods (1930) and A Treatise on Right and Wrong (1934), his respective treatments of religion and ethics, were unsuccessful and, after the demise of the American Mercury in 1933, he was principally occupied as a political journalist for the remainder of the decade. He regained a measure of his former celebrity with Happy Days (1940), Newspaper Days (1941), and Heathen Days (1942), three volumes of humorously unreliable autobiography which appeared together as The Days of H. L. Mencken in 1947. Illness prevented him from writing from 1950 onward. Among his many other works are A Book of Burlesques (1916), In Defense of Women (1918), and A Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles (1942). Selections of his shorter writings include A Mencken Crestomathy (1949), his own compilation, and The Gist of Mencken (edited by M. DuBasky, 1990). Carl Bode's Mencken (1969) is the best of several biographies. Other biographical sources include Letters of H. L. Mencken (edited by G. J. Forgue, 1961) and The Diary of H. L. Mencken (edited by C. Fecher, 1989).

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