John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, and now at

Saturday, September 12, 2009


On this date in 1880, Henry Louis Mencken was born. By the time of the stroke in 1948 that robbed him of the ability to read and write, he had produced an imposing oeuvre of reportage, essays, criticism, memoir, and linguistic research, and he had bestowed upon The Baltimore Sun a fame whose afterglow has not completely faded.

Quoting him is irresistible: “An idealist is one who, on noticing that a rose smells better than a cabbage, concludes that it will also make better soup.”

Writing on Warren Harding’s inaugural address, he said that the president “writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up to the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.”

He denounced chiropractic as quackery and then affected to worry that it might actually work, failing to “suck in the botched, and help them on to bliss eternal.” Ever the stout libertarian, he continued: “If a man, being ill of a pus appendix, resorts to a shaved and fumigated longshoreman to have it disposed of, and submits willingly to a treatment involving balancing him on McBurney’s spot and playing on his vertebrae as on a concertina, then I am willing, for one, to believe that he is badly wanted in Heaven.”

In a letter to William Saroyan, he wrote: “I note what you say about your aspiration to edit a magazine. I am sending you by this mail a six-chambered revolver. Load it and fire every one into your head. You will thank me after you get to Hell and learn from other editors how dreadful their job was on earth.”

In Newspaper Days, his memoir of the no-holds-barred journalism in Baltimore in the early years of the 20th century, he describes how he and two other reporters, assigned to cover the docks of South Baltimore, increased their efficiency by repairing to a saloon and agreeing on invented details for the stories they would file. Their managing editors, monitoring the competition closely, noted the correspondences and praised the three for their accuracy. Thus, he said, he “took in the massive fact that journalism is not an exact science.”

It still isn’t.

Today is his birthday, and if you get a chance, lift a glass of pilsner to his shade.


  1. I like Mencken, but I think any report about him should point out his dark side too: He was a nasty anti-Semite.

  2. There is no doubt that Mencken had a dark side, particularly in his embitterment after the death of his wife and the change of the political climate under Franklin Roosevelt, whom he despised. The posthumous publication of his diaries caused a minor sensation with revelation of truly nasty remarks about Jews, blacks, and (my people) Appalachians.

    But he was a more complicated personality than the labels "nasty anti-Semite" or "racist" would suggest. One of his closest friends was Alfred Knopf, the publisher. He fostered the careers of black writers, and one of his last published works before his stroke was a condemnation of a lynching on Maryland's Eastern Shore. For a balanced treatment of his character, Marion Rodgers's Mencken: The American Iconoclast is a good starting point.

    And please do feel free to append your name to future comments.

  3. Curious, would you have ever hired anyone for the Sun copy desk with this statement on his public record?

    "The Jews could be put down very plausibly as the most unpleasant race ever heard of. As commonly encountered, they lack many of the qualities that mark the civilized man: courage, dignity, incorruptibility, ease, confidence. They have vanity without pride, voluptuousness without taste, and learning without wisdom. Their fortitude, such as it is, is wasted upon puerile objects, and their charity is mainly a form of display."

  4. On many subjects, such as Nazi Germany and the New Deal, Mencken was a brilliant man dead wrong. Life would be so much more entertaining if the people dead wrong today could write and speak one tenth as eloquently as Mencken snored.

    This paragraph isn't for publication, but near the end of your piece you wrote "reporting" when you surely meant "reporters." The opportunity to copy edit a copy editor is golden.

  5. No, Anonymous, I would not have hired someone who had published anti-Semitic remarks. Neither would I have hired someone who had said that black people and white people could not live together in America, which would have done for Abraham Lincoln's application.

    Mencken's views, reprehensible as they were at the time, and even more so in the ghastly light of the Holocaust, were commonplace in a Baltimore with neighborhoods like Roland Park that were restricted. Like the rest of us, he was a mixture of qualities, some admirable and some deplorable. I don't mean to try to excuse the deplorable views, but I also don't think that our understanding of him is enhanced by projecting the political attitudes of the early 21st century onto a man of the first third of the 20th.

  6. This is true. You can't judge the past by the standards of the present. And it's not like Mencken was the last to say such things.

    --I think Truman said something like "God threw all the races up in the air, and the ones that landed in the dirt were the mud races." He also called New York "kike town."

    --Ike, on school integration, said something like you gotta understand why a white girl would be unnerved by sitting next to a "young buck."

    --LBJ said, "Son, when I appoint a nigger to the court, I want everyone to know he's a nigger." So he chose the well-known Thurgood Marshall over a lesser-known black judge.

    --Nixon told Ehrlichmann that blacks are inferior to whites.

    --And according to state troopers, both Clintons were unreluctant to use epithets like "nigger" and "Jew bastard."

    Churchill said some nasty things back in the day too, I think.

    You know, come to think about it, I guess everybody was racist back then.

  7. Surely "a rose" rather than "roses"? Mencken isn't likely to have committed such an error in agreement.

    It's been noticed that despite his defense of the vernacular, he never employs it himself, religiously sticking to the shall/will distinction like, well, like an Englishman, and a particularly posh and out-of-date Englishman at that.

    I loved Mencken when I was younger, but nowadays I chafe at his anti-democracy, well expressed by Mark Rosenfelder:

    A genteel subcategory of hierarchs is the antidemocrat-- generally a cultivated man of leisure, who does not scruple to disparage the "mass-man" and lament that he can vote. [George] Wills's book [A Necessary Evil, 1999] provides a brief tour, highlighting Thoreau, H.L. Mencken, and Albert Jay Nock, an early inspiration for William F. Buckley (and thus an influence on American conservativism).

    It's hard not to smile at the educated misanthrope, so toad-fatuous in his own self-congratulation, so gleefully vicious toward his fellow humans. One smiles less at (say) Nock's expressions of sympathy for the Final Solution ("Thinking over Hitler's antisemitism, one is forced to admit... that the Nazis could not have carried their program through... without clearing the Jews out of Germany."), or at Mencken's insistence that "the Negro, no matter how much he is educated, must remain, as a race, in a condition of subservience [to] the stronger and more intelligent white man". What keeps these people from real evil is not much more than fastidiousness: they don't like to dirty themselves with mere politics.

    Nonetheless, they're some of the few people [...] who can mount a substantial and consistent, if unattractive, case against liberalism. The usual [conservative] has to argue against liberal solutions on liberal grounds: e.g. affirmative action is bad because it doesn't treat all races equally; gays are really demanding "special rights". The antidemocrat can argue more directly: he doesn't believe in equality.

  8. And particularly, if you look at Robert Caro's monumental biography of Lyndon Johnson, you can see a deeply flawed human being who rose on occasion above his own limitations to provide an uncommon measure of justice and dignity to people who had been denied it for centuries. The limitations do not cancel out the achievements.

  9. Mr. Cowan, thanks for the correction about the quotation.

    As to Mencken as an anti-democrat, yes, though perhaps better understood as an extreme libertarian, and his political writings, those of a parlor Nietzsche, are not his most compelling work.

    But don't you have friends whom you regard with affection and esteem, even if some of their views and beliefs grate on you? I can't disregard his mighty blows aginst the narrowness and censorship of American culture in the 1920s, or his thoroughness and regard for the American language in the work he continued for decades. or the sheer power and delight of his writing when he was at his best. He was a liberating figure for me, an 18-year-old in rual Kentucky when I first encountered his work, and I have to honor him for that.

  10. When I was leaving the newspaper business to become a journalism educator in 1975, one of my colleagues, closing in on retirement (it was mandatory then) gave me her copy of The American Language (4th edition), which I recall was a textbook for her when she was in graduate school in the early 50s. I've downsized several times in the interim, but Mencken remains with me until death do us part.

  11. This reminds me of the Wagner/anti Wagner argument. At some point, you have to try to separate the man from the work, and you certainly have to put him and his work in the appropriate context. There aren't any writers today who are a patch on Mencken: there are, however, writers who are vicious and nasty. I vote for H.L., warts and all.

  12. re Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson

    Yes, Lyndon Johnson, like the rest of us, was a flawed human being.

    But Caro's biography is a venemous screed. Caro strains to find an ulterior, and despicable, motive for everything Johnson did, even when he acted admirably and generously.

  13. Is 'screed' the new past tense of 'screwed,' or is it still 'scrod?'