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The Curious Correspondence of HL Mencken

HL-Mencken

Journalist, satirist, academic, and critic Henry Louis “HL” Mencken was renowned for both his controversial opinions and his excellent scholarship. Mencken earned the epithet of “the Sage of Baltimore” thanks to his astute observations on American life and his landmark work The American Language, a multi-volume study of how the English language was spoken in the United States. But Mencken is equally known for his witty and concise correspondence, which consistently delighted recipients–and resulted in some interesting ephemera!

Early Years

Mencken was born in Baltimore. His family moved to 1524 Hollis Street, overlooking Union Square Park, when he was three years old, and he would live there for most of the rest of his life. Mencken described his childhood as “placid, secure, uneventful, and happy.” When he was nine years old, he read Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, which he called “the most stupendous event in [his] life.” His encounter with the novel sparked a lifelong passion for reading and inspired him to become a writer. Mencken would go on to devour eighteenth-century legends like Addison, Swift, and Johnson, followed by the works of Shakespeare. He became an ardent fan of both Rudyard Kipling and Thomas Huxley.

When Mencken was 15, he graduated from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute as the valedictorian. He immediately went to work in his father’s cigar factory. But he hated the work and resolved to pursue a career as a writer. In 1898, Mencken signed up for a correspondence course in writing through Cosmopolitan University. It would be his only formal education in writing or any other subject. Mencken’s father died later that year and the business passed to Mencken’s uncle, so Mencken was free to fulfill his own aspirations.

A Diverse Authorial Career

By June 1899 Mencken was a full-time reporter with The Morning Herald. He worked there for six years, until shifts in ownership resulted in his reassignment to The Baltimore Sun. Mencken would continue writing for the Sun and its sister publications till he suffered a stroke in 1948. While writing the editorials and opinion pieces that made him famous, Mencken also authored short stories, a novel, and even poetry on the side.

In 1924, Mencken became founder and editor of The American Mercury with George Jean Nathan. The journal, published by Alfred A Knopf, became quite influential, especially on college campuses. Meanwhile, Mencken also befriended numerous luminaries of the era, including F Scott Fitzgerald, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, and Anita Loos.

A Man of (Unpopular) Ideas

Mencken’s celebrity was heightened by his willingness to express unpopular ideas. During World War I, Mencken was sympathetic to Germany and expressed distrust for British propaganda. Mencken would go on to vociferously decry the New Deal. He argued that it was not Roosevelt’s programs and policy that had ended the Great Depression, but rather books like Eddie Cantor’s Caught Short! A Saga of Wailing Wall Street (1929).

An open admirer of Nietzche, Mencken didn’t believe in representative democracy, arguing that it was a system by which inferior individuals came to control their superiors. He also recommended Ayn Rand’s first novel, We the Living, for publication and called it a “really excellent piece of work.” Rand responded with admiration for Mencken, once referring to him as the “greatest representative” of the philosophy of individualism.

Quirky Correspondence

Mencken approached his correspondence with discipline, answering every letter he received. Over his lifetime, that added up to over 100,000 letters! He was famous for including satirical items with his letters. These often included religious brochures, wine labels, and other ephemera. In some cases, Mencken even went so far as to print his own items. For example, he printed flyers for the spurious Tobacco-Chewer’s Protective and Educational League of America. He also created business cards for an imaginary organization called Friends of the Saloon.

HL-Mencken-Chinese-RestaurantOur favorite of these were the business cards that Mencken made for Ming Aaron’s Kosher Chinese Restaurant. The card exhorts its recipient to “Try our Celebrated Gefullte Fisch Sandwich, a Banquet in Itself” and advertises its kosher chop suey as the perfect way to “Surprise Your Wife!”

Meanwhile, ill friends would receive letters packed with medical brochures and advice to fire the doctor, drink three glasses of Gluhwein, and sleep on a stolen Bible. Two days later, a Bible would actually arrive in the mail, usually labeled “Property of the Hotel Astor” on the cover. Mencken would include an inscription, “With Compliments of the Author.” He estimates that he stole at least 75 Bibles for that purpose.

An author’s correspondence and associated items are often highly sought after among collectors because they’re so personal and tend to be more rare than commercially published works. In the case of Mencken, the ephemera enclosed with his mail illustrate his multifaceted character as an intellectual, friend, and prankster.

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One comment on “The Curious Correspondence of HL Mencken

  1. gnatseyeview
    July 17, 2013

    I can’t help but love Mencken and that whole era of clacking typewriters, ink stains, cognac, and cigar smoke. Mencken was the best of the lot.

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