Photograph of writer H. L. Mencken (1928).
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antecedent / culture

The Strange Decline of H.L. Mencken

No American writer has wielded such influence. So why is he so little known today?
Seventy years ago, one of the most influential American journalists and critics was silenced forever. H.L. Mencken suffered a massive stroke in 1948 that left him unable to write, the thing he did best and that defined his life. He lived eight more years but could no longer write with any degree of facility and could read only with difficulty. It was a savage fate for a man who literally lived to put his ideas on paper. Today Mencken is largely forgotten. That wasn’t always the case.

From the end of World War I until the Great Depression, Mencken reached an audience unmatched by any other political or cultural figure in American history. Walter Lippman, James Reston, George Will—none of them came close to Mencken’s impact on the world of letters. During that decade and half, the years of “wonderful nonsense” that we call the Jazz Age, Mencken turned his scathing wit and rhetoric of ridicule on the political elite of American society with a sense of humor missing from today’s political journalism. President Wilson was “the archangel Woodrow,” Harding “that numskull Gamaliel,” Hoover “Lord Hoover.” William Jennings Bryan was “a charlatan, a mountebank, a zany with no sense of dignity. His career brought him into contact with the first men of his time; he preferred the company of rustic ignoramuses.” Electing Calvin Coolidge, he wrote, was like being presented with a sumptuous banquet and “staying your stomach by plucking flies out of the air.” When once asked why if he despised politics so much he wasted his time writing about it, Mencken answer was simple: “why do people go to zoos.”

Mencken’s influence extended beyond the world of politics into the larger literary scene, again something no present journalist approaches. He had a keen, if idiosyncratic, eye for good literature. Early in the 20th century, he wrote a keen appreciation of George Bernard Shaw’s dramas, and championed Theodore Dreiser when the literary establishment had no time for the crude realism that characterized his best works, Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy. He published the young F. Scott Fitzgerald in the literary journal The Smart Set, which he and his friend George Jean Nathan edited. He was, however, dubious about Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, believing it well written but trivial. Mencken was an early booster of Joseph Conrad in America, published a couple of short stories by James Joyce, and helped launch the career of Sinclair Lewis with an enthusiastic review of Main Street in the pages of Smart Set. Not a bad record.
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