Today in History – September 12

Writer, editor, philologist, social critic, and Baltimore native H. L. Mencken was born on September 12, 1880. Mencken, who generated a strong literary following in Baltimore during the 1920s and 1930s, was best known for his scathing social commentary, critical support of emerging writers, and for his scholarly understanding of American usage of the English language.

Portrait of H. L. Mencken. Carl Van Vechten, photographer, July 1932. Van Vechten Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

Mencken first reported for the Baltimore Herald, of which he eventually became editor-in-chief, and later for the Baltimore Sun. While with the Sun, he was given his own column, The Free Lance, with which he began to make his name as a writer, cultural critic, and provocateur. He also was hired to write book reviews for a New York monthly magazine, The Smart Set: A Magazine of Cleverness, of which he ultimately became the co-editor, with the drama critic George Jean Nathan from 1914 to 1923. Mencken left The Smart Set with Nathan to establish the American Mercury in 1924.

Mt. Vernon Place, Baltimore, Md. William Henry Jackson, photographer, c1903. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division

Literary criticism enjoyed something of a heyday during the first half of the twentieth century, and Mencken was one of its most forceful practitioners. As a literary critic, he lent critical support to the fiction of Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, James Joyce, and others.

Mencken’s popularity waned in the 1930s during the Great Depression and resulting New Deal efforts to salvage the U.S. economy, although he remained an active, irreverent, and prolific writer. His reputation recovered somewhat in the 1940s, with the publication of a series of memoirs. Thirty-five years after Mencken’s death in 1956, in accordance with the terms of his will, a number of the author’s unpublished works were published, bringing him back to contemporary notice.

In 1919, Mencken published the first edition of his major contribution to philology, The American Language [ 1921 ed.], in which he attempted to analyze the words and phrases, expressions, idioms, and peculiarities of pronunciation and spelling that might be termed “Americanisms” – manifestations of the English language that were uniquely “American.” Mencken revised this seminal work several times throughout his lifetime. This scholarly study, enlivened by Mencken’s particular wit, remains a classic in its field. Mencken coined the term “booboisie” —a combination of the words boob and bourgeoisie–by which he meant the ignorant and uncultured middle class.