H.L. Mencken

On this date in 1880, H.L. (Henry Louis) Mencken, atheist and journalist, was born in Baltimore. Although his father was agnostic, his Lutheran mother sent him to Sunday school, which he later defined as "a prison in which children do penance for the evil conscience of their parents." (A Mencken Chrestomathy,1949.) The cigar-chomping, iconoclastic journalist worked most of his life at the Baltimore Sun, where he began his trademark column, "The Free Lance," in 1911.

Mencken also co-edited Smart Set magazine (1914-23) and edited The American Mercury magazine (1925-33). His lifetime production of 28 books included a six-volume collection of his essays, Prejudices (1919-27), In Defense of Women (1917), Treatise of the Gods (1930) and an autobiographical trilogy, ending with Heathen Days, published as one volume in 1947.

A sardonic critic of the "booboisie," he coined the term "Boobus americanus" and was famed for his coverage of the 1925 Scopes trial in Dayton, Tenn. Mencken's many epigrams include: "Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable." (The New York Times Magazine, Sept. 11, 1955). "The chief contribution of Protestantism to human thought is its massive proof that God is a bore." (Minority Report, 1956.) "No one in this world, so far as I know ... has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people." ("Notes on Journalism," Chicago Tribune, Sept. 19 1926.) "Puritanism — the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy." (A Mencken Chrestomathy, 1949.)

In 1930, after a seven-year courtship, he married Sara Haardt, a professor of English at Goucher College in Baltimore and an author 18 years his junior. Haardt had led efforts in Alabama to ratify the 19th Amendment. Mencken, famous for mocking relations between the sexes, quipped that "the Holy Spirit informed and inspired me" to wed Haardt. "Like all other infidels, I am superstitious and always follow hunches: this one seemed to be a superb one." Haardt was in poor health from tuberculosis and died in 1935 of meningitis.

Racist, elitist and anti-Semitic views held by Mencken came to light in 1989 when excerpts from a diary he kept from 1930-48 were published. Colored women, he wrote, "are all essentially child-like, and even hard experience does not teach them anything." Mencken scholar Charles Fecher, who edited the published diary, said it revealed his "deeply ingrained conviction that black people were by their very nature inferior to white." In the 1930 edition of his book Treatise on the Gods, Mencken wrote: "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." That passage was removed from later editions at his direction.

Mencken admirer Chaz Bufe called such views "odious" but wrote that Mencken often made over-the-top denunciations of many groups. In his 1923 essay "The Anglo-Saxon," he wrote:  "The normal American of the 'pure-blooded' majority goes to rest every night with an uneasy feeling that there is a burglar under the bed and he gets up every morning with a sickening fear that his underwear has been stolen." Gore Vidal defended him in 1991 by noting that Mencken publicly called for the wholesale admission of Jews to the U.S. from Nazi Germany.

Mencken suffered a stroke in 1948, which left him aware and fully conscious but nearly unable to read or write and able to speak only with difficulty. He died in his sleep at age 75. D. 1956.

"I believe that religion, generally speaking, has been a curse to mankind — that its modest and greatly overestimated services on the ethical side have been more than overcome by the damage it has done to clear and honest thinking."

"I believe that the evidence for immortality is no better than the evidence of witches, and deserves no more respect."

"Sunday School: A prison in which children do penance for the evil conscience of their parents."

—"Mencken's Creed," cited by George Seldes, ed., "The Great Thoughts" (1985). THIRD QUOTE: "A Mencken Chrestomathy" (1949).

Annie Laurie Gaylor and Bill Dunn

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