H.L. Mencken

H.L. Mencken Biography

Literary Critic, Editor, Journalist, Activist (1880–1956)
Known for his wit and cynicism, journalist and editor H.L. Mencken was an influential American literary critic.


H.L. Mencken was born on September 12, 1880, in Baltimore, Maryland. He became a writer and editor at The Baltimore Sun, penning a celebrated column. Concurrent with his work for The Sun, Mencken edited The Smart Set magazine and started The American Mercury. During the 1940s, he published three memoirs. After a stroke forced his retirement in 1948, he died on January 29, 1956, in Baltimore.

Early Years

Henry Louis Mencken was born on September 12, 1880, in Baltimore, Maryland, the eldest son of a German-American family. When he was 7 years old, his father, August, gave him a printing press. In the first volume of his autobiography, Mencken claimed the gift incited his passion for the newspaper industry.

As a teenager, Mencken attended the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, graduating as class valedictorian in 1896. He had hoped to become a newspaper reporter, but instead his father gave him two choices: he could either go to college or work for the family tobacco business. Mencken chose the latter.

Journalist, Literary Critic and Author

Shortly after his father died in 1899, Menken set off to pursue his dream of becoming a reporter. He achieved that dream when, as a result of his persistence, the Baltimore Morning Herald agreed to take him on as its youngest reporter. Within four years, Mencken rose to the rank of managing editor.

When the Morning Herald folded in 1906, he joined the staff of The Baltimore Sun as the paper's Sunday editor. Before long, Mencken was promoted to editorial writer. In 1911, he was awarded his own column, "The Free Lance," which ran for 18 years in the Monday edition of The Evening Sun. Mencken's celebrated columns not only critiqued literature, but also humorously questioned popular political, social and cultural views.

Concurrent with his column writing for The Sun, Mencken co-edited The Smart Set literary magazinefrom 1914 to 1923. He also started his own monthly magazine, The American Mercury, in 1924. During the 1940s, Mencken published his autobiography in three separate volumes: Happy Days, Newspaper Days and Heathen Days.

Illness and Death

Mencken was forced to retire in 1948, after a stroke robbed him of his ability to read and write. His wife, writer Sara Haardt, had died 12 years earlier of spinal tuberculosis, after the two had moved back into Mencken's childhood home. Mencken remained at his parents' former Hollins Street home in Baltimore until his death on January 29, 1956.

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