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MenckenThe American Iconoclast$

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers

Print publication date: 2006

Print ISBN-13: 9780195072389

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2007

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195072389.001.0001

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Marion Elizabeth Rodgers

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter chronicles Mencken's rebellion against his father; he plot to his escape from working at the family cigar factory to become a newspaperman. Unable to do so, Mencken retreats into the world of books. He is influenced by the works of iconoclasts such as Thomas Henry Huxley, James Huneker, and Percival Pollard. During this period of despair, he never guessed that some of these same men would later become his friends. The death of August Mencken in 1899 left Henry Louis Mencken finally free to pursue journalism, “the maddest, gladdest, damndest existence ever enjoyed by mortal youth”.

Keywords:   cigars, Thomas Henry Huxley, Percival Pollard, James Huneker, The Criterion, suicide, Anna Mencken

W HEN HENRY MENCKEN BEGAN WORKING at his father's cigar factory in the summer of 1896, the street sprinklers had commenced their obligatory ritual, shooting jets of water over the cobblestones day and night, settling hot dust from the sultry air. From the window, he was able to watch the horses and the water barrels rumble down Greene and Pratt streets. Soon the sun would soak up any moisture that lay in the hollows of what he called “the merciless cobbles,” whose very sound was “a ballad of Baltimore.”

It was a dismal scene that he could watch from that same window for another three summers. With each successive year, he grew increasingly bitter at the fate that had brought him to this pass. The years he spent at his father's cigar factory were so unhappy that they went unrecorded in his memoirs. Quite simply, they were “the hardest years of my life.”1

Immediately upon graduation from the Polytechnic, he was put to work in the factory in the same way as had his father: at the bench, learning the manual art of selecting the leaf fillers, trimming the binder, smoothing the wrapper, and pressing the finished edge of a cigar into shape. At the same time, at the suggestion of August—who reasoned that since Henry was going to spend the rest of his life in the tobacco business, he should learn to appreciate the product—he began to smoke. Henry rolled his own, dipping into the cellar for fragrant quantities of coffee-brown Havana leaf (“My father, of course, assumed I was using far less expensive material”).

Days took on a predictable routine. The smell of burnt toast along with the sound of the hired girl scraping it in the kitchen signaled breakfast. Then August (p.42)

                      AUGUST MENCKEN & BRO.

“The hardest years of my life.” August Mencken & Bro. H. L. Mencken Collection, Enoch Pratt Free Library.

would put on his hat; by eight o'clock father and son would be at the factory. On a normal morning, all of the finished cigars were waiting for August's inspection, arranged in long rows. “If he found a bad one,” his son recalled, “he would take the sick cigar upstairs, holding it at arms length as if it had smallpox,” and would reprimand the offending cigar's maker. The cigar would then be dropped into a drawer that supplied complimentary smokes to visitors. The rest of the morning was spent in calculations of rows of tiny numbers. Job complete, this was the last anyone, even the bookkeeper, saw of August's figures. Before one o'clock, August would go to lunch, usually at home, then fall asleep on the lounge in the dining room. After thirty minutes of loud snoring, he would awake with a start, look about him wildly, and race back to the office. Once there, he calmly spent the afternoon reading Tobacco Leaf or the Sporting Times for baseball news. At five thirty he went home.2

August was a shrewd buyer and a competent manager. Most of the cigar-makers he hired were German; August would not permit any women in his factory. He greatly enjoyed bargaining and had negotiations with wrapper salesmen lasting for days; when he completed a deal, they sealed it with a drink. The principal brands from his factory were La Cubana, Havana Rose, and Daisy, which, along with La Mencken Panatela, were considered repeaters in the field. He was a hard trader, paid cash for everything, and never borrowed money. In the field, he advised his team of salesmen to obtain as much information as they could about their customers, and to reject an order if a customer's financial standing was not sound.

(p.43) Since Henry Mencken's conversation with his father some months before, August Mencken had not given further consideration to his son's desire to become a newspaper reporter. “My father hoped and believed that I would succeed him in the business,” Mencken wrote. The drive home from the factory to Mount Washington those summer afternoons was devoted to lectures on the mysteries of tobacco and credit. This monologue was mercifully interrupted when they came to a flat stretch on Falls Road, when Henry gave a touch of the whip to their trotter, and off they went, outrunning all the other buggies in their path.3

At first, the tobacco business was not disagreeable to Henry Mencken. He found it romantic to inhale the heady smells, to handle the long, pointy leaves that came from lands far beyond the horizon of the Baltimore harbor. That first summer he ran errands and helped as janitor. Drawing on his love of chemistry, he tried to invent a method in which cheaper Pennsylvania leaf could be moistened with wine to give the aroma of genuine Havana, and to his delight, his prescription was followed. One of his odd jobs was the monotonous pasting up of containers, done by hand, but he failed to successfully design a machine to do the job. He even tried growing his own tobacco leaf in the garden at home (result: tasteless).

But when August Mencken promoted his son from factory hand to office boy, Henry became intensely unhappy. On his first day, he promptly broke the letter press (a cumbersome contraption used to make copies of correspondence on damp tissue paper for the file), but then managed to repair it neatly in the machine shop of his old alma mater. August also insisted on keeping Henry involved in the irksome task of selling cigars to tobacco and grocery stores. “The very idea of selling revolted me,” Henry wrote. “I never got over my loathing…. I hated to shine up to people and argue with them.” The numbers showed it. There were salesmen in the factory who managed to sell as much as $1,000 worth of cigars in four weeks; in the first six months, Mencken squeezed out only $171 in business. During the entire month of August 1896, he made only one sale, for the grand total of $3.50. “In the end,” he wrote, “it became apparent, even to my father, that I was hopeless as a salesman.”

The episode was only one in a string of dismal failures. At the office, the mystifying tasks of running a business made Henry aware of his incompetence. When he went to the bank to make deposits, he made mistakes; when he made out the bills, he made even more glaring ones. Moreover, he was still required to sell cigars. The winner of the Polytechnic Alumni Medal with the highest grade point average in the history of the school began to sink into self-pity.4

His evenings, however, were his own. At the Monumental Theater, Henry paid his 25 cents to sit in the burlesque show gallery. The spectacle of the vaudeville acts and costumed girls came long before the days of the striptease. Here, free from the searching and suspicious eye of his father, Henry could smoke the cigars he had rolled himself and join the newsboys and bootblacks in whistling the chorus of every song, each in itself a history of American language, (p.44) manners, and absurdities that kept pace with the spirit of the time. Looking back, he recalled that “the chief favorite at that time was ‘My Gal's a High-Born Lady.’” It was one of the many popular tunes white Americans used to call “coon songs,” and it had taken the entire country by storm:

My Gal is a high-born lady,

She's black but none too shady,

Feathered like a peacock, just as gay,

She is not colored, she was born that way.

I'm proud of my black Venus, no coon can come between us,

'Long the line, they can't out-shine, this

High-born gal of mine!5

On Sundays, Henry took his bicycle and, accompanied by his friend David Orem—the factory bookkeeper, a decent soul who helped prevent him from committing more inept horrors in the factory books—rode up and down Park Heights Avenue, then known as Pimlico Road. The bicycle craze had swept America, and the tortuous country pike had been widened so that wheelmen could race on their favorite speedway in the spacious open air. “On hot summer nights the lights of the bicycle lamps danced upon it like swarms of fireflies,” Henry remembered from those evenings. “Standing at the bend just above the park, one could sometimes see fully a thousand of them along the easy grade.”

Few boys aspired to much more. Henry did. He had abandoned many other hopes to cling with increasing tenacity to one dominant ambition: to become a writer of distinction. With every day that passed within the confines of his father's factory, he was depressingly aware of what was denied him: the rhythmic clickety-clack of the linotype, the aroma of hot molten lead, the bloodcurdling stories of the latest police reports, the rush to meet deadlines, and then sharing the day's work with fellow newspapermen in the cordial air of the saloon. It was a front-row seat at the greatest show on earth. The biggest news that might break after several months in the office of August Mencken & Bro. was which salesman had sold the most boxes of La Cubana.

But Henry was determined that even if his days were choked in tedium, he could at least begin to take some steps toward that career. The Baltimore Orioles were playing again, and on his father's typewriter he tapped out a satirical poem: “Ode to the Pennant on the Centerfield Pole.” He submitted it to the American, and to his great thrill actually saw his poem in print in the newspaper. It was an awkward effort—it seemed dismal to him years later—but it was his first published work. No one in the Mencken family ever knew of it, for Henry made sure to conceal his achievement.

Much less is known of his relationship with a certain blonde neighbor, except that from 1896 through the following year his poetry hinted that not all was well beneath the stars on either Hollins Street or Mount Washington that summer.6 Throughout his life, Mencken would take great pains to suppress all references to (p.45) love affairs—precisely to avoid the “happy hunting ground to quack psychologists” he so despised. The few collected poems he did choose to keep for posterity were full of laments of a lovesick sixteen-year-old. One poem, entitled “A Song of Advice,” warned against marriage; another described love's sorrow: “Ah, it be a bitter payne!”

Behind a swarm of inflamed, agitated poetry was a mixture of romance and an ignorance of sex. Years later, when Mencken stumbled across The Awakening of Spring by Frank Wedekind, he pronounced it to be the one book that best described his own adolescence. Its descriptions of a son's arguments with his father and of the yearning to write at a newspaper all struck a chord. Like the hero, he, too, could search Chambers Encyclopaedia from A to Z and find nothing but words. The anatomy course at the Polytechnic had taught something; but it could also leave a boy ashamed with qualms of conscience when he dreamed of legs in light blue tights, waking him startled as if by lightning.

Mount Washington and the girls of the surrounding countryside offered better opportunities for dalliance. Unlike city girls, who held strict codes of conduct, these young women, Mencken found, were looser. There was no effective policing, whether public or parental, for there was too much space, with too many dark spots. He had an introduction to carnality with an older girl at one of the neighboring mill towns: it was best left forgotten, swallowed up in the morass of memory. One day he promised to Tell All. “It is a sad thing, but true, that nearly every man's first taste of pure and refined love is with a slavey,” he observed, joking to a friend he should write a book about such things, and with it a chapter called “The Approach to the Servant Girl.” To another he confided that although the lady had been a servant, to Mencken “she was really a princess in disguise.” When, during the 1930s, he was asked about the morals of the day's flaming youth, he compared his own memories to “the young flappers and sheiks of today.”

Certainly necking is not a new invention. I practiced it in 1895, and on girls who are highly respectable matrons today, and full of horror over the banal deviltries of their daughters. So did every other enterprising young buck of my time…. The young of today simply do openly what their elders did furtively…. Today they moan over their daughters. Whenever I hear any moaning of unusual horsepower I draw my own quiet conclusions…. Here, as in other fields, moral indignation is almost invariably the sign of bad conscience.7

THE HOT SUMMER MONTHS dragged on. Street lamps were littered with the shiny corpses of June bugs; at Union Square, dead moths floated in the fountain. After Henry's dreary days at the factory, he kept his bitterness in check by retreating into books. The discovery of Thackeray had completely reorganized his view of literature. The greatest literary influence of them all for him, however, was Thomas Henry Huxley. In clear, lucid prose, the essays gave order and coherence to Henry's own vague ideas of the cosmos. Social Darwinism, as explained by Huxley, revolutionized his own thinking, converting him into a violent agnostic. (p.46) Writing of Huxley on the centennial of his birth in 1925, Mencken evoked his own youthful ardor of a quarter-century earlier:

All of us owe a vast debt to Huxley…. All his life long he flung himself upon authority—when it was stupid, ignorant, and tyrannical. He attacked it with every weapon in his rich arsenal—wit, scorn, and above all, superior knowledge. To it he opposed a single thing: the truth as it could be discovered and established—the plain truth that sets men free.8

Henry's sense of duty to his father did not deter him from reading all he could lay his hands on about how to become a newspaperman. So, as in the case with photography and chemistry, he visited the Enoch Pratt Free Library to see what he could find on the subject. The most useful resource was Edwin L. Shuman's slim brown volume, Steps into Journalism: Helps and Hints for Young Writers. Shuman, then an editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune, had written his book “for those only who have the divine call”—“the thousands of young men and women who are trying heroically at home to write for newspapers and magazines and who cannot understand why their manuscripts are rejected with such painful regularity.”

Shuman's words encouraged Mencken, who found the book full of useful tips he would use for the rest of his life. The best start for a newspaper career, Shuman advised, was not with formal study—“No school or college can ever teach it”—but to begin at one of the smaller hometown papers: “The boy who dispenses with the college and goes directly to reporting gets far ahead.”

It must have seemed to Mencken by 1897, if it had not already been obvious to every workman in the factory, that he simply had no natural ability at August Mencken & Bro. That summer Henry made a renewed effort to explain to August his yearning for a journalistic career. Looking back to that day many years later, Mencken said in characteristic understatement that the discussion between father and son caused such unhappiness on all fronts that he was left with no other recourse but to retreat. While Mencken never believed seriously that he would stick to business, August was determined that any thoughts his son harbored for a newspaper career would have to be postponed, if not abandoned.

The thought of escaping from Baltimore simply did not occur to him. For two weeks, one of his cousins tried to induce him to an expedition to North Dakota to fight Indians. On the block where he lived, at least six boys had run off at one time or another, but nothing came of the trip. “Life to a boy in his teens is certainly not pleasant,” Mencken wrote of the incident. “He is always policed, and most of the things he is asked to do are disagreeable to him.”

The prospect of continued years at August Mencken & Bro. seemed unendurable. Gloom, pain, sad, dead, mourn—these words are repeated throughout his verses. “How it feels to kill a man. Afterward killed himself” he jotted as an idea for a future poem in one note. He might have wondered what alternative lay open to him. With the weight of various disappointments pressing upon him, 1898 was, for him, a particularly horrible year. In one of his dark moments of real despair, he wrote later, “I contemplated suicide.”9

(p.47) THROUGHOUT 1898, Mencken continued his systematic reading of English literature. When the biographical editions of Thackeray's works, edited by the author's daughter, began to appear that year, Anna gave him each new volume as it was issued. But increasingly Thackeray was replaced by something else. He became aware that around him pulsated the undercurrents of a new literary age, what he later defined as “the mild and pianissimo revolt of the middle 90s.” The fossil literature he had been taught at the Polytechnic began to give way to the grand sweep of literary currents in the smaller, avant-garde magazines that looked to the Continent, not just England, for inspiration.

One of the liveliest of these was the Criterion, a short-lived magazine that was almost as large as a tabloid newspaper. The magazine, a potpourri of dissimilar views and tastes, printed a jumble of articles that ranged from anti-Jewish and anti-black (these appeared with alarming frequency) to reviews of Ibsen and the latest works of Stephen Crane. Across its pages were hints that were to gather into the movements of the 1920s: an iconoclastic reevaluation of American literary heritage. Some librarians refused to stock it on their shelves, so Henry bought a subscription.

“How, as a youngster, I used to lie in wait for The Criterion every week,” Mencken recalled. Once it was delivered, he was able to exult in its slogan, printed in thick black angular letters: “The New and the Bold,” and devour a bohemian world of revolt. Theater and book reviews on not only Ibsen, but also Oscar Wilde and Ambrose Bierce, and even impressionistic reporting of such events as Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show were written by a critic named Percival Pollard. “He knew everything that was going on,” Mencken exulted. Oscillating between New York and Paris, London and Berlin, he was “bringing valuable knowledge and enthusiasms to the developing American literature of his time.”10

One other critic on the Criterion stood above the others: he conveyed delight in mocking sacred institutions, combined with what Mencken later called the contagious and inflammatory enthusiasm into the aesthetic values in the arts. This was James Gibbons Huneker. Whether he was writing about music or literature, to Mencken it seemed that “Huneker makes a joyous story of it.” Long considered one of America's most authoritative critics, Huneker was being praised on both sides of the Atlantic by those who admired his vivid prose and European outlook that was aimed toward an intelligent minority.

Huneker's influence on Henry Mencken would be profound. It was he who introduced the magic names of George Bernard Shaw and Joseph Conrad, who led the fight for Henrik Ibsen, and steered Mencken toward Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche. In sum, Mencken wrote, Huneker “gave some semblance of reality in the United States, after other men had tried and failed, to that great but ill-starred revolt against Victorian pedantry, formalism and sentimentality which began in the early 90s.”

The 1890s, Percival Pollard had said, “was a battle for new life in our art.” It was a view embraced by our young man in Baltimore. Here were adults who captured the artistic ferment he felt within himself. Pollard's and Huneker's style (p.48) of writing, he later said, highlighted “the difference between the bombastic half-knowledge of a school teacher,” full of “ponderous nothings,” and “the discrete and complete knowledge of a man of culture.”

Henry Mencken unwittingly was getting closer and closer to this goal. What he could not guess, at this period of loneliness and despair, was that these same men who guided him toward the approaching century on the printed pages of the Criterion would, in years to come, be among his friends in real life.11

NO DOUBT WITH A MOTHER'S INSTINCT, Anna Mencken noticed her son's unhappiness. The little free time Henry had from the factory was being spent in solitary reading. It had been ages since Henry had played the piano in the parlor. More and more, he turned toward that observant, patient woman as she sat quietly in her chair, unburdening his despair. She may have confided Henry's helpless yearning to her brother, because in 1898, Charles Abhau, who was a subscriber to the Cosmopolitan, called his nephew's attention to a correspondence school it had organized.

By May Henry had enrolled, and for the next months he mailed his lessons and got them back covered with red ink. His second exercise, a description of an excursion boat in Baltimore, received this chilling admonition: “You seem to have cared more about what you said than how you said it; your description is interesting, but the style is careless…. Make it your aim to use simple and direct language.” More red marks on the manuscript reinforced the advice: “This sentence might be more concise,” “Language is not simple enough,” “stilted,” “bookish.”

By September his writing had improved. “An Alley Case” (later retitled “The Outcast”), about a young man living in Honduras with a rare disease, was submitted on September 4, 1898. The teacher returned it, with this praise: as “excellent a work as we often receive.” Its style was far superior to the mawkish, Victorian love stories he had been writing earlier. Buoyed by the critique, Henry began writing day and night.

About the time he turned nineteen, he focused his attention on a new correspondence school, the Associated Newspaper Bureau School of Journalism in New York. On its application sheet, he carefully listed his attainments. When it came to the question, “Do you expect or hope to make journalism or literary work your means of livelihood, or make it a means of general culture?” With fierce determination Mencken answered: “Expect to begin as a reporter & after that trust to hard work and luck for something better.”12

In the fall of 1898, newspapers burst with reports that Theodore Roosevelt's First U.S. Volunteer Army—soon to be known as Roosevelt's Rough Riders—had made its way up San Juan Hill. For the cigar industry, the problems the conflict presented made business difficult and stressful. August was faced with an inconstant supply of the desirable Cuban tobacco leaf (a problem exacerbated by the inferiority of the local American crop, ruined by a drought) and an increase of taxation and price.

(p.49) August was additionally confronted with the painful reminder that his son's ambition to become a newspaper writer had not abated in the past year; if anything, it had become more pronounced. During 1898 Henry braced himself for the inevitable. He did not look forward to yet another scene with his father. Disappointing August's long-cherished plans was disturbing, but the alternative was terrifying. One afternoon, when the day had simply been too much, he stormed into his father's office. If Henry was expecting him to flare up in anger, he was surprised to find that he did not protest. Instead, August listened: it was obvious to his son that “he was naturally pretty well dashed.”

They resumed their conversation in the buggy ride to their summer home that evening. This time August sought to find a solution to Henry's unhappiness by suggesting various alternatives to a newspaper career. Suppose Henry was to matriculate at the University of Maryland Law School? The knowledge would be useful for whatever career he undertook. The Johns Hopkins undergraduate school could prepare him for further study in Germany. He, too, could join the youths in Heidelberg, sipping their pilsner in the Schloss gardens and toting their books, the very picture of students in A Tramp Abroad, by their mutual favorite author, Mark Twain.

A melancholy sympathy now overtook the boy as he listened to his father's groping for alternatives. Even then the boy sensed August was making all of these proposals only, as he noted, “half-heartedly.” More than once he had overheard his father discussing with his mother plans to ease Uncle Henry out of the family firm. “Those plans, I gathered, were based on the assumption that I would be ready, soon or later, to take his place.”

With each bend in the road, August confided more to his son that summer afternoon. He, too, knew the pains of thwarted ambition. There had been a time, he told Henry, when his love of mathematics had made him aspire to another career, as an engineer. But the realities of life had interceded, a more practical activity chosen: he, too, had had a dream, and the dream had to be abandoned.

Under the overhanging branches of Falls Road, father and son had reached an understanding. No more would be said about newspapers, at least for not another year.13

MENCKEN'S MISERY LASTED until New Year's Eve. Upstairs, he was lying in bed with influenza, observing the close of the year with the composition of a new poem: “My wants are simpler,—all I ask is Rest.” Anna was in the parlor, quietly reading. The gaslight cast a warm glow on August, stretched out on the divan for his usual after-dinner nap. Hearing her husband mumble incoherently, Anna glanced over at him, then continued to read. Outside, a strong wind brushed snow against the window panes and in the distance, the muffled strains of music being played indoors by neighboring revelers may have been heard.

The next time Anna looked over at August, his head had sunk unnaturally on the pillow, his face strangely pale under his closed eyelids. He began to breathe (p.50) heavily, and almost at once had a brief convulsion and lost consciousness. Alarmed, Anna shouted up the stairs. Racing down to the living room, Henry took one look at his father; that one look confirmed their fears.

There was no telephone in the house, and the family doctor lived eleven blocks up the hill on Carey Street, so Henry had to fetch him by foot. The raw wind hit Henry with a sharp gust as he pushed forward, running past homes where happier families would soon be sending out the old year with joyous blasts on their tin horns.

Shivering outside Dr. Z. K. Wiley's basement office, Henry pulled on the bell and heard it jangle for a minute or two inside. It grew colder. He tried again, rousing the family upstairs. No one knew where the doctor was or when he would return. There was nothing to do but leave a note. Then it was off to the home of Pilson, an eccentric druggist, whose store was on the south side of Baltimore Street, east of Calhoun. “I recall waking up Pilson in the middle of the night…. I shivered outside until he came down.” Crunching his way back home through drifts of snow, Mencken came to the sudden realization of what his father's illness meant to his future. With each step toward Hollins Street that night, he confessed later, he kept repeating to himself: “If my father dies, I will be free at last…. If my father dies, I will be free at last.”

Steamboats in the harbor were getting ready to blow their whistles and church bells to chime in the New Year. At Union Square the boozy bellowing of merrymakers disturbed the air, as they prepared to drape themselves out of windows, waving flares, ringing cowbells, and, in Baltimore tradition, shooting guns into the air. But at 1524 Hollins Street, Anna and Henry Mencken stood apprehensively at August's bedside. Dr. Wiley, who had finally come to their aid with the whiff of liquor about him and with one eye on his patient, decided to stretch out on a nearby lounge chair. Even in Henry's stunned state, the sharp eyes of the future newspaperman noticed the huge white patches of dandruff on Dr. Wiley's closely cropped head as it lay on the armrest, and “how obscene he looked,” in comparison to his own father—handsome, feverish, pale, lying on his bed, gripped with an illness no one could yet identify.14

In such agony the Mencken household greeted 1899.

WITHOUT THE TREATMENT of today's modern drugs that would have cured his kidney infection, August languished, drifting in and out of consciousness. “The story of my father's last illness illustrates the state of medicine in Baltimore at the turn of the century,” Mencken later observed. As it was, no one knew what to do. So wife, children, friends, and relations took turns watching August as his body became wracked by a formidable series of convulsions over the next twelve days and nights.

Only Anna could keep up the strain of watching him around the clock. As she nursed her husband nonstop, days and nights blended together. Twenty years earlier, August had wooed her with his clowning and exuberant gaiety. The (p.51) family recalled how “he struck her as a kind of comic character and [she] laughed at him for some time afterward.” Her beauty and femininity had appealed to his protective, masculine nature. To their children, their marriage had been “a love match.” Now, her love was not enough to keep her husband alive.15

Friday the thirteenth dawned, rainy and bleak. A brisk northeast wind shook the leaves on the trees outside Union Square; the bells of St. Stephen's chimed the quarter hours. For the family, another week of the death watch had begun. Propped against the bed, August Mencken stared at them, unseeing. It seemed incongruous, that the man who had never lost his capacity to beat off any danger, now battled vainly against death. Both Henry and Charlie restrained their father against the fever that repeatedly shook his body before it surrendered, exhausted, into the pillows; the struggle had already lost August twenty pounds.

When the end came at 10:45 that evening, he was in the midst of another convulsion, with the complication of hypostatic pneumonia. Henry had collapsed with exhaustion in an adjacent room and was unaware of his father's agony during his last moments; his uncle's gentle shake broke the news. Years later, when one of his own friends lost his own father, he remarked: “You are lucky to have had your father with you for so long.” For years Henry grieved: “I missed him sorely after he was gone.”

But there still remained the memory of their struggle and of his first thoughts of liberation when the realization of August's approaching death had first struck him. “If he had lived,” Henry reflected afterward to the poet Edgar Lee Masters, “I'd have stuck on in the tobacco business for at least a few years longer, probably to my permanent damage.”

In maturity, Henry was able to overcome his feelings of rebellion and objectively credit his own agnosticism, business acumen—indeed, an entire body of ideas—to traits he had inherited from his father. Purged from those adolescent years of brooding resentment at the factory, a nostalgic portrait of August Mencken surfaced throughout Henry's memoirs. Forty-seven years later, long after he had successfully attained his own ambition, Mencken was able to reflect on what his father had actually achieved:

If he were alive today he would be a member of that class of reactionaries which is execrated by all right-thinking Americans. He worked diligently at his business, kept his family in comfort, and laid by enough to maintain his wife and children indefinitely. I was already 18 … and in a little while I was self-sustaining, but Charlie was but 16, Gertie was but 13, and August was but 10. The yield from his estate enabled my mother to bring them all up, and her life was secure and comfortable until she died…. The old family home at 1524 Hollins Street, which he bought in 1883, is still in good condition, and August and I still live in it. Such men are not much esteemed these days, but I remain of the conviction that they were good citizens, just as they were good husbands and fathers.16

On Monday afternoon, January 16, 1899, a special meeting of the King David Lodge of the Masonic Temple was called to order as the officers recorded (p.52) in rounded script into their ledger the death of one of its youngest members. Eight carriages from the Masonic Temple slowly clattered to a halt in front of 1524 Hollins Street. Before the funeral could proceed, a bugler on the corner of Hollins and Gilmore tilted his instrument to the sky and trumpeted a fanfare to the heavens.

Shortly after 2:30 p.m. the procession began its long ride up the hill toward Loudon Park Cemetery, where the coffin holding August Mencken was lowered into the ground, facing west toward the setting sun. Family, relatives, and Masons gathered side by side at the top of the small incline. Beyond, toward the east, in the direction of sunrise, lay Baltimore and farther still, the Chesapeake Bay, as Henry Mencken, head of the house, stood facing the city that would be so closely identified with him by an entire generation during the next century.17

WHEN MENCKEN CAME TO WRITE his trilogy of memoirs, Happy Days, he spoke exuberantly of “a normal, happy childhood,” but told his publisher, Alfred Knopf, there would be little public interest in their publishing a book on his adolescence, filled with “the green sickness of youth.” Only two or three letters, and then only to the slightest of acquaintances, have survived to testify to the bitterness of those particular years; only one gives a glimpse of the suppressed anger he felt. Sometime before his death, his son wrote, August Mencken employed an artist to paint a florid pastel of him. No sooner had the mourning family returned from August's burial when Henry decisively removed the grotesque portrait of his father from its frame, took it into the yard, and set it afire.

Three decades later, Henry admitted that burning the portrait had been “a foul deed.” At the time, Anna made only a brief protest and then withdrew. She seemed to understand her son's anguish even better than he did himself. In the days that followed, when he again broached to her his vow to become a newspaperman, he braced himself for yet another battle of wills. To his amazement, she said she had been well aware of his unhappiness at August Mencken & Bro. Besides, she confided, she had not relished the idea of seeing her son involved with Uncle Henry, of whose business talents she had a very low opinion.

With her son's advice, she sold her shares of stock to her brother-in-law who, with his own son, mismanaged the factory until its inevitable collapse. The cigar industry was changing; the popularity of cigarettes was driving most of the business away. When both uncle and cousin unceremoniously dumped the factory ledgers full of August's careful notations into a trash heap in an alley, Henry Mencken dusted them off and had them bound in blue moroccan leather, a permanent testimony to his father and to his own unhappy adolescence.

Sometime later, Henry crossed the threshold of the Baltimore Herald in the heart of downtown Baltimore, free at last to enter “the maddest, gladdest, damnedest existence ever enjoyed by mortal youth.”18


                      AUGUST MENCKEN & BRO.

The Baltimore Herald. Courtesy Maryland Department, Enoch Pratt Free Library.


(1.) Janvier, Baltimore in the Eighties and Nineties, p. 98; HLM, “The Cobbles: A Ballad of Baltimore, 1897,” in HLM, “Earliest Attempts at Verse and Prose Manuscripts 1895–1909,” p. 16, EPFL; John S. Spruance Jr., “Mencken, Serene at 60, Foresees Third Term,” Washington Star, Jan. 28, 1940.

(2.) HLM, “Newspaper Days: Additions …,” p. 4, EPFL; author interview with Elise Cheslock, Jan. 21, 1994, who heard the stories from Henry and August Mencken; HLM, Happy Days, pp. 248–50.

(3.) HLM, “Happy Days: Additions….,” p. 250, EPFL; “Mencken Calls for 3.6 Beer in 5C Schooners,” Chicago Tribune, Sept. 27, 1933; HLM, “Autobiographical Notes, 1925,” pp. 39–40, EPFL.

(4.) HLM, “Autobiographical Notes, 1925,” p. 47, EPFL; HLM, “Newspaper Days: Additions …,” p. 4, EPFL; HLM to William Manchester, undated, ca. 1947, EPFL; HLM, “Autobiographical Notes, 1925,” p. 81, EPFL; “August Mencken & Bro., Salesmen's Commission Books, 1887–1912,” pp. 240–43, EPFL.

(5.) HLM, My Life, p. 32, EPFL; Janvier, Baltimore Yesterdays, pp. 138–39; HLM, “Happy Days: Additions …,” p. 194, EPFL; Sigmund Spaeth, “Coon Songs,” Read 'Em and Weep: The Songs You Forgot to Remember, pp. 226–27. Another hit, from 1896, was entitled “All Coons Look Alike to Me.”

(6.) HLM, “Introduction,” to “August Mencken & Bro., Salesmen's Commission Books, 1887–1902,” p. 3, EPFL; HLM, “The Pimlico Road,” BES, June 22, 1910; HLM, Thirty-Five Years, pp. 466–67, EPFL; Fred C. Kelly, “The Great Bicycle Craze,” American Heritage, Dec. 1956, pp. 69–73; HLM, “Autobiographical Notes, 1941,” EPFL; HLM, “Happy Days: Additions….,” p. 225, EPFL. The verse on quarrelling sweethearts was written July 1896; HLM, “Earliest Attempts at Verse and Prose Manuscripts, 1895–1901,” p. 8, EPFL.

(7.) Mencken, “Heathen Days: Additions….,” p. v, EPFL; “Serenade,” written in 1897, in HLM, “Earliest Attempts at Verse and Prose Manuscripts, 1895–1901,” p. 14, EPFL; “A Song of Advice,” “Till We Meet Again,” and “Fidelis ad Urnum,” ibid., pp. 17, 24, EPFL; HLM, “The Literary Heavyweight Champion,” Smart Set, March 1910, p. 158; Wedekind, The Awakening of Spring, trans. Francis J. Ziegler, pp. 72–73, 118; HLM, Happy Days, p. 187; “Youth Unchanged, Says H. L. Mencken,” Philadelphia Public Ledger, Dec. 11, 1931; HLM to Edgar Lee Masters, June 2, 1931, HRHRC; HLM to Philip Goodman, Oct. 4, 1918, EPFL.

(8.) “7:05 PM—What They Were Doing: This Is Hollins Street,” BS, Aug. 8, 1942. August Mencken Jr. said the cast iron fountain at Union Square was always full of moths; HLM, Happy Days, p. 66; HLM, “Autobiographical Notes, 1925,” “My Reading,” p. 4, NYPL; HLM, “Autobiographical Notes, 1941,” EPFL.

(9.) Shuman, Steps Into Journalism, pp. vii–viii, 92–93; HLM, “Autobiographical Notes, 1941,” EPFL; HLM to Blanche Knopf, Aug. 4, 1937, HRHRC; HLM, “From a Notebook Begun in 1898 or Thereabouts” in HLM, “Early Newspaper and Magazine Work 1899–1905,” pp. 51–59, EPFL; HLM, “Earliest Attempts at Verse and Prose Manuscripts 1895–1901,” pp. 26–29, 58, EPFL; HLM, “Newspaper Days: Additions …,” p. 4, EPFL.

(10.) HLM, My Life, p. 41, EPFL. Criterion was not the only magazine with racist undertones. There was a very strong element of anti-Semitism in the illustrations of M'lle New York. See Rascoe, “Introduction,” The Smart Set Anthology, ed. Burton Rascoe and Groff Conklin, pp. xx; Darrell I. Drucker Jr., The Genteel Rebellion: A Study of Journalistic Impressionism in Terms of Its Audience, 1880 to 1920 (thesis, University of Mnnesota, 1956); HLM, Prejudices: First Series, p. 129; “A Critic Too Far Ahead of His Time,” Current Literature, March 1912, pp. 339–40.

(11.) HLM, “Books for the Hammock and Deck Chair,” Smart Set, June 1901, p. 153. For more information on Huneker's influence, see Sinclair Lewis, Diary 1906–1907, June 11, 1907, YALE; Maxwell Perkins to Joseph Huneker, June 4, 1929, PRIN/fire; Schwab, James Gibbons Huneker, pp. 196–97; George Kummer, Percival Pollard: Precursor of the Twenties (PhD diss., New York University, September 1946); Pollard, Their Day in Court, p. 337; HLM, “Happy Days: Additions….,” p. 192, EPFL.

(12.) Arthur M. Chase to HLM, June 16, 1898, in HLM, “Earliest Attempts at Verse and Prose Manuscripts 1895–1901” pp. 71, 73, 75, EPFL; HLM, “Childhood and Schooldays, (p.567) 1880–96,” p. 81, EPFL; HLM, My Life, pp. 38–39, EPFL; “An Alley Case,” written Sept. 4, 1898, HLM, “Earliest Attempts at Verse and Prose Manuscripts 1895–1901,” p. 79, EPFL.

(13.) “War Revenue Measure: Beer and Tobacco Will Bear The Heaviest Burdens,” BS, April 23, 1898; “Foreign Trade Relations,” BS, April 28, 1898; Willis N. Baer, The Economic Development of the Cigar Industry in the United States, p. 138; HLM, “Newspaper Days: Additions …,” p. 4, EPFL; Mark Twain, The Complete Travel Books of Mark Twain, Charles Neider, ed., p. 27; H. L. Mencken, “Happy Days: Additions …,” p. 221, EPFL.

(14.) “When the Night Cometh,” written at the end of 1898, HLM, “Earliest Attempts at Verse and Prose Manuscripts 1895–1901,” p. 27, EPFL; “Weather,” BS, December 31, 1898; HLM, “Happy Days: Additions …,” pp. 108, 122. For accompanying me during the re-creation of that uphill, eleven-block trot I am grateful to Vince Fitzpatrick, curator of the HLM Collection at the EPFL, who guided me to various sites in Baltimore. For an account of New Year's Eve celebrations in Mencken's Baltimore, see HLM, “The Free Lance,” BES, Jan. 1, 1914, and BS, Jan 1, 1937.

(15.) HLM, “Newspaper Days: Additions …,” p. 1, EPFL; “In and About Town: Almanac for Baltimore on This Day,” BS, Jan. 2, Jan. 11, 1899; “107 Year History of Union Square,” BS, Oct. 31, 1954; HLM to William Manchester, Aug. 13, 1948, EPFL; HLM, “Happy Days: Additions …,” p. vii, EPFL.

(16.) “Government Weather Report,” BS, Jan. 13, Jan. 14, 1899; HLM to William Manchester, Aug. 13, 1948, EPFL; August Mencken Obituary, BS, Jan. 14, 1899; HLM, “Newspaper Days: Additions …,” pp. 1, 4, EPFL; HLM to Edgar Lee Masters, Jan. 15, 1940, NYPL; HLM, Diary, Jan. 13, 1946, EPFL.

(17.) “Record King David's Lodge No. 68 1891–,” pp. 471, 479. For permission to examine the album I am indebted to Mr. Thomas Butterbaugh, secretary of the King David Lodge, Baltimore, who let me view it on Oct. 4, 1993; funeral notice for August Mencken Sr., BS, Jan. 16, 1899, and Baltimore American, Jan. 17, 1899. H. L. Mencken's own grave is facing east, toward the rising sun.

(18.) HLM to Miss Mullen, April 9, 1936, ALA HLM, “Preface,” Newspaper Days, p. ix. There has been some confusion as to whether Mencken went to the Herald the day after his father's funeral or two weeks later; Mencken gave conflicting versions. Mencken's first written recollection of the event, which he prepared for his biographer Isaac Goldberg in 1925, puts it at two weeks after his father's death, and it is clear to this biographer that this is the more reliable account. Mencken admitted his recollections in Newspaper Days contained “occasional stretchers.” See HLM, “Autobiographical Notes, 1925,” Isaac Goldberg Papers, NYPL/ms.