Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Happy birthday, H.L. Mencken

H.L. Mencken
It is the birthday of writer H.L. Mencken (1880), who wrote a syndicated column for The Baltimore Sun for more than four decades, in which he voiced opinions on bigotry, Fundamentalist Christianity, creationism, anti-intellectualism, organized religion, and more. His most enduring book is The American Language (1919), a study of English as it is spoken by ordinary people in the United States.

Mencken covered the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925 in Tennessee in which a small town school teacher was on trial for teaching evolution. Mencken's satirical columns were read throughout the country. Orator William Jennings Bryan spoke for the prosecution. Famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow defended the teacher. The trial was immortalized in the Broadway play (1955) and Hollywood movie (1960) Inherit the Wind. In the movie, Gene Kelly portrayed the Mencken character.

Mencken was a lifelong contrarian. He was sympathetic to the Germans during World War I and afterward and was skeptical about the British propaganda. He did, however, overcome his bias and call Hitler and his minions "ignorant thugs."

Mencken was a fierce critic of fakery, Christian radicalism and religious belief in general. He was a self-described agnostic, whose view colored his writing. Still, he left the door open in case he was wrong. "In every unbeliever's heart there is an uneasy feeling that, after all, he may awake after death and find himself immortal. This is his punishment for his unbelief. This is the agnostic's Hell," he wrote.

Mencken could also be an energetic advocate. He lavished praise on Ayn Rand's first novel, We the Living (1936). He championed James Branch Cabell, Theodore Dreiser, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ben Hecht, Alfred Knopf, and Sinclair Lewis, among others. He was a big fan of the writing of Friedrich Nietzsche, Ambrose Bierce, and Mark Twain.

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