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.