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H. L. Mencken
H l mencken.jpg
Born Henry Louis Mencken
September 12, 1880(1880-09-12)
Baltimore, Maryland
Died January 29, 1956 (aged 75)
Baltimore, Maryland
Occupation Journalist, satirist
Family August Mencken, Sr.
Father
Spouse(s) Sara Haardt
Notable relatives August Mencken, Jr
Brother
Ethnicity German American
Religious belief(s) Agnostic
Notable credit(s) The Baltimore Sun

Henry Louis "H. L." Mencken (September 12, 1880 – January 29, 1956), was an American journalist, essayist, magazine editor, satirist, acerbic critic of American life and culture, and a student of American English. Mencken, known as the "Sage of Baltimore", is regarded as one of the most influential American writers and prose stylists of the first half of the 20th century.

Mencken is known for writing The American Language, a multi-volume study of how the English language is spoken in the United States, and for his satirical reporting on the Scopes trial, which he named the "Monkey" trial.

Contents

Early life

Mencken was the son of August Mencken, Sr., a cigar factory owner of German extraction. When Henry was three, his family moved into a new home at 1524 Hollins Street,[1] in the Union Square neighborhood of Baltimore. Apart from five years of married life, Mencken was to live in that house for the rest of his days.

Mencken's parents insisted that his high school education favor the practical over the intellectual, and very early on he took a night class in how to write copy for newspapers and business. This was to be all of Mencken's formal education in journalism, or indeed in any other subject, as he never attended college.

Career

Mencken became a reporter for the Baltimore Morning Herald in 1899, then moved to The Baltimore Sun in 1906. He continued to contribute to the Sun full time until 1948, when he ceased to write.

Mencken began writing the editorials and opinion pieces that made his name. On the side, he wrote short stories, a novel, and even poetry – which he later reviled. In 1908, he became a literary critic for the magazine The Smart Set, and in 1924, he and George Jean Nathan founded and edited The American Mercury, published by Alfred A. Knopf. It soon developed a national circulation and became highly influential on college campuses across America. In 1933, Mencken resigned as editor.

Personal life

In 1930, Mencken married Sara Haardt, a professor of English at Goucher College in Baltimore and an author who was 18 years his junior. Haardt had led efforts in Alabama to ratify the 19th Amendment.[2] The two had met in 1923 after Mencken delivered a lecture at Goucher; a seven-year courtship ensued. The marriage made national headlines, and many were surprised that Mencken, who once called marriage "the end of hope" and who was well known for mocking relations between the sexes, had gone to the altar. "The Holy Spirit informed and inspired me," Mencken said. "Like all other infidels, I am superstitious and always follow hunches: this one seemed to be a superb one."[3] Even more startling, he was marrying an Alabama native despite his having written scathing essays about the American South. Haardt was in poor health from tuberculosis[4] throughout their marriage and died in 1935 of meningitis, leaving Mencken grief-stricken. He had always supported her writing, and after her death had a collection of her short stories published under the title Southern Album.

During the Great Depression, Mencken did not support the New Deal. This cost him popularity, as did his strong reservations regarding the United States' participation in World War II, and his overt contempt for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He ceased writing for the Baltimore Sun for several years, focusing on his memoirs and other projects as editor, while serving as an advisor for the paper that had been his home for nearly his entire career. In 1948, he briefly returned to the political scene, covering the presidential election in which President Harry S. Truman faced Republican Thomas Dewey and Henry A. Wallace of the Progressive Party. After the election, Mencken suffered a stroke that left him aware and fully conscious but unable to read, write, or speak. Besides his last political campaign, his later work consisted of humorous, anecdotal, and nostalgic essays, first published in The New Yorker, then collected in the books Happy Days, Newspaper Days, and Heathen Days.

After his stroke, Mencken enjoyed listening to European classical music and, apparently after some recovery of his ability to speak, talking with friends, but he sometimes referred to himself in the past tense as if already dead. Preoccupied as he was with how he would be perceived after his death, he organized his papers, letters, newspaper clippings and columns, even grade school report cards, despite being unable to read. These materials were made available to scholars in stages, in 1971, 1981, and 1991, and include hundreds of thousands of letters sent and received - the only omissions were strictly personal letters received from women.

Mencken died on January 29, 1956.[5] He was interred in Baltimore's Loudon Park Cemetery[6]. During his Smart Set days Mencken wrote a joking epitaph for himself:

If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl.[7]

Although this famous quote is not on his tombstone,[8] it is widely reported on the Internet as being inscribed on a plaque in the lobby of the Baltimore Sun.

The "man of ideas"

In his capacity as editor and "man of ideas," Mencken became close friends with the leading literary figures of his time, including Theodore Dreiser who introduced him to Charles Fort and the Fortean Society, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Anita Loos, Ben Hecht, Sinclair Lewis, James Branch Cabell, and Alfred Knopf, as well as a mentor to several young reporters, including Alistair Cooke. He also championed artists whose works he considered worthy. For example, he asserted that books such as Caught Short! A Saga of Wailing Wall Street (1929), by Eddie Cantor (ghost written by David Freedman) did more to pull America out of the Great Depression than all government measures combined. He also mentored John Fante. In a July 1934 letter, Ayn Rand, (A Z Rosenbaum), addressed Mencken as "the greatest representative of a philosophy" to which she wanted to dedicate her life, and, in later years, listed him as her favorite columnist.

Mencken frankly admired Friedrich Nietzsche—he was the first writer in English to provide a scholarly analysis of Nietzsche's writings and philosophy—and Joseph Conrad. His humor and satire owe much to Ambrose Bierce and Mark Twain. He did much to defend Theodore Dreiser, despite freely admitting his faults, including stating forthrightly that Dreiser often wrote badly and was a gullible man. Mencken also expressed his appreciation for William Graham Sumner in a 1941 collection of Sumner's essays, and regretted never having known Sumner personally.

Mencken is fictionalized in the play Inherit the Wind as the cynical sarcastic atheist E. K. Hornbeck (right), seen here as played by Gene Kelly in the Hollywood film version. On the left is Henry Drummond, based on Clarence Darrow and portrayed by Spencer Tracy.

For Mencken, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was the finest work of American literature. Much of that book relates how gullible and ignorant country "boobs" (as Mencken referred to them) are swindled by confidence men like the (deliberately) pathetic "Duke" and "Dauphin" roustabouts with whom Huck and Jim travel down the Mississippi River. These scam-artists swindle by posing as enlightened speakers on temperance (to obtain the funds to get roaring drunk), as pious "saved" men seeking funds for far off evangelistic missions (to pirates on the high seas, no less), and as learned doctors of phrenology (who can barely spell). Mencken read the novel as a story of America's hilarious dark side, a place where democracy, as defined by Mencken, is "...the worship of Jackals by Jackasses."

As a nationally syndicated columnist and book author, he notably attacked ignorance, intolerance, "frauds," fundamentalist Christianity, osteopathy, chiropractic,[9][10][11] and the "Booboisie," his word for the ignorant middle classes. In 1926, he deliberately had himself arrested for selling an issue of The American Mercury that was banned in Boston under the Comstock laws.[12] Mencken heaped scorn not only on the public officials he disliked, but also on the contemporary state of American democracy itself: in 1931, the Arkansas legislature passed a motion to pray for Mencken's soul after he had called the state the "apex of moronia."[citation needed]

Rivalry with Heinrich E. Buchholz

Mencken had a great interest in music. He joined a local Baltimore club known as the Saturday Night Club, a gathering of local men who got together once a week and played music. It was there he met a fellow writer, Heinrich Ewald Buchholz. Buchholz was a writer for The Baltimore Sun and published a number of books on education and democracy. Though he lacked musical talent, Buchholz served as secretary for the Club, often miscategorizing sheet music.[13]

Mencken and Buchholz soon formed a close friendship, which in time, turned to a friendly rivalry. The two writers intellectually challenged one another on many occasions, and Buchholz soon began to regard Mencken as his literary hero.[14] Mencken and Buchholz's intellectual feud added stimulation and intelligence to their conversations. For almost 40 years, the two men carried on these battles, which was seen chiefly as an expression of their deep friendship. One of Buchholz's major writings, Of What Use Are the Common People, was reviewed by Mencken. Although Mencken was harsh, Buchholz considered it an honor. The two men continued their friendly rivalry until Buchholz's sudden illness and death.

Positions

Elitism

Instead of arguing that one race or group was superior to another, Mencken believed that every community — whether the community of train porters, blacks, newspapermen, or artists — produced a few people of clear superiority. He considered groupings on a par with hierarchies, which led to a kind of natural elitism and natural aristocracy. "Superior" individuals, in Mencken's view, were those wrongly oppressed and disdained by their own communities, but nevertheless distinguished by their will and personal achievement — not by race or birth. Based on his achievement and work ethic, Mencken considered himself a member of this group.

In 1989, per his instructions, Alfred A. Knopf published Mencken's "secret diary" as The Diary of H. L. Mencken. According to an item in the South Bay (California) Daily Breeze [15] on December 5, 1989, titled "Mencken's Secret Diary Shows Racist Leanings," Mencken's views shocked even the "sympathetic scholar who edited it," Charles A. Fecher of Baltimore. There was a club in Baltimore called the Maryland Club which had one Jewish member, and that member died. Mencken said "There is no other Jew in Baltimore who seems suitable," according to the article. And the diary quoted him as saying of blacks, in 1943, "...it is impossible to talk anything resembling discretion or judgment to a colored woman..." However, violence against blacks outraged Mencken. For example, he had this to say about a Maryland lynching:

Not a single bigwig came forward in the emergency, though the whole town knew what was afoot. Any one of a score of such bigwigs might have halted the crime, if only by threatening to denounce its perpetrators, but none spoke. So Williams was duly hanged, burned and mutilated.

Democracy

Rather than dismissing democracy as a popular fallacy or treating it with open contempt, Mencken's response to it was a publicized sense of amusement. His feelings on this subject (like his casual feelings on many other such subjects) are sprinkled throughout his writings over the years, very occasionally taking center-stage with the full force of Mencken's prose:

[D]emocracy gives [the beatification of mediocrity] a certain appearance of objective and demonstrable truth. The mob man, functioning as citizen, gets a feeling that he is really important to the world—that he is genuinely running things. Out of his maudlin herding after rogues and mountebanks there comes to him a sense of vast and mysterious power—which is what makes archbishops, police sergeants, the grand goblins of the Ku Klux and other such magnificoes happy. And out of it there comes, too, a conviction that he is somehow wise, that his views are taken seriously by his betters — which is what makes United States Senators, fortune tellers and Young Intellectuals happy. Finally, there comes out of it a glowing consciousness of a high duty triumphantly done which is what makes hangmen and husbands happy.

This sentiment[16] is, of course, fairly consistent with Mencken's distaste for common notions and the philosophical outlook he unabashedly set down throughout his life as a writer (drawing on Friedrich Nietzsche and Herbert Spencer, among others).

Mencken wrote as follows about the difficulties of good men reaching national office when such campaigns must necessarily be conducted remotely:

The larger the mob, the harder the test. In small areas, before small electorates, a first-rate man occasionally fights his way through, carrying even the mob with him by force of his personality. But when the field is nationwide, and the fight must be waged chiefly at second and third hand, and the force of personality cannot so readily make itself felt, then all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most easily adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum.


The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.[17]

Jews

Mencken occasionally made anti-semitic statements. In his introduction to Friedrich Nietzsche's The Antichrist:

On the Continent, the day is saved by the fact that the plutocracy tends to become more and more Jewish. Here the intellectual cynicism of the Jew almost counterbalances his social unpleasantness. If he is destined to lead the plutocracy of the world out of Little Bethel he will fail, of course, to turn it into an aristocracy — i.e., a caste of gentlemen —, but he will at least make it clever, and hence worthy of consideration. The case against the Jews is long and damning; it would justify ten thousand times as many pogroms as now go on in the world.[18]

Nevertheless, Mencken had a favorable attitude toward the "Judaized" plutocracy as compared to the "Christianized" democrats and proletarians, whom he held in bitter contempt:

But whenever you find a Davidsbündlerschaft making practise against the Philistines, there you will find a Jew laying on. Maybe it was this fact that caused Nietzsche to speak up for the children of Israel quite as often as he spoke against them. He was not blind to their faults, but when he set them beside Christians he could not deny their general superiority. Perhaps in America and England, as on the Continent, the increasing Jewishness of the plutocracy, while cutting it off from all chance of ever developing into an aristocracy, will yet lift it to such a dignity that it will at least deserve a certain grudging respect.[19]

Although Mencken idealized German culture and Nietzsche and may have inherited racial and antisemitic attitudes common in late 19th-century Germany, he came to view Adolf Hitler as a buffoon, and once compared him to a common Ku Klux Klan member.[20]

In Treatise on the Gods (1930), 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. They have vanity without pride, voluptuousness without taste, and learning without wisdom. Their fortitude, such as it is, is wasted upon puerile objects, and their charity is mainly a form of display.[21]

The progressive writer Gore Vidal defended Mencken:

Far from being an anti-Semite, Mencken was one of the first journalists to denounce the persecution of the Jews in Germany at a time when the New York Times, say, was notoriously reticent. On November 27, 1938, Mencken writes (Baltimore Sun), "It is to be hoped that the poor Jews now being robbed and mauled in Germany will not take too seriously the plans of various politicians to rescue them." He then reviews the various schemes to "rescue" the Jews from the Nazis, who had not yet announced their own final solution.[22]

As Hitler gradually conquered Europe, Mencken attacked President Franklin D. Roosevelt for refusing to admit Jewish refugees into the United States:

There is only one way to help the fugitives, and that is to find places for them in a country in which they can really live. Why shouldn't the United States take in a couple hundred thousand of them, or even all of them?[23]

Memorials

House

Mencken's home at 1524 Hollins Street, where he lived for 67 years before his death in 1956, in Baltimore's Union Square neighborhood was bequeathed to the University of Maryland, Baltimore on the death of Mencken's younger brother August in 1967. The City of Baltimore acquired the property in 1983 and the "H. L. Mencken House" became part of the City Life Museums. The house has been closed to general admission since 1997, but is opened for special events and group visits by arrangement.

Library

Shortly after World War II, Mencken expressed his intention of bequeathing his books and papers to Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library. At the time of his death in 1956, the Library was in possession of most of the present large collection. As a result, Mencken's papers as well as much of his library, which includes many books inscribed by major authors, are held in the Central branch of the Pratt Library on Cathedral Street in Baltimore. The original H. L. Mencken Room and Collection, on the third floor, housing this collection, was dedicated on April 17, 1956. The new Mencken Room, on the first floor of the Library's Annex, was opened in November 2003.

The collection contains Mencken's typescripts, his newspaper and magazine contributions, his published books, family documents and memorabilia, clipping books, a large collection of presentation volumes, a file of correspondence with prominent Marylanders, and the extensive material he collected while preparing The American Language.

Other collections of Menckenia are at Dartmouth College, Harvard University, Princeton University, and Yale University. The Sara Haardt Mencken collection is at Goucher College. Some of Mencken's vast literary correspondence is held at the New York Public Library.

Works

  • George Bernard Shaw: His Plays (1905)
  • The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (1907)
  • The Artist: A Drama Without Words (1912)
  • A Book of Burlesques (1916)
  • A Little Book in C Major (1916)
  • The Creed of a Novelist (1916)
  • Pistols for Two (1917)
  • A Book of Prefaces (1917)
  • In Defense of Women (1917)
  • Damn! A Book of Calumny (1918)
  • The American Language (1919)
  • Prejudices (1919–27)
    • First Series (1919)
    • Second Series (1920)
    • Third Series (1922)
    • Fourth Series (1924)
    • Fifth Series (1926)
    • Sixth Series (1927)
    • Selected Prejudices (1927)
  • The Hills of Zion (1925)
  • Notes on Democracy (1926)
  • Libido for the Ugly (1927)
  • Menckeneana: A Schimpflexikon (ed) (1928)
  • On Politics: A Carnival of Buncombe (1920–1936)
  • Treatise on the Gods (1930)
  • Making a President (1932)
  • Treatise on Right and Wrong (1934)
  • Happy Days, 1880–1892 (1940)
  • Newspaper Days, 1899–1906 (1941)
  • Heathen Days, 1890–1936 (1943)
  • 1948. A Mencken Chrestomathy.
  • 1956. Minority Report.
  • 1965. The American Scene (Huntington Cairns, ed).
  • 1991. The Impossible H. L. Mencken: A Selection Of His Best Newspaper Stories (Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, ed).
  • 1992. My Life As Author and Editor (Jonathan Yardley, ed).
  • 1994. A Second Chrestomathy.
  • 2006. A Religious Orgy in Tennessee A Reporter's Account of the Scopes Monkey Trial (Melville House Publishing).

Miscellaneous

  • When a stripteaser asked him to coin a "more dignified" term for her profession, Mencken (who loved night life) proposed 'ecdysiast,' meaning 'one who sheds'.[24]
  • In the autobiography Black Boy by Richard Wright, Richard reads Prejudices by Mencken.
  • In 2008, The Library of America selected Mencken's essay "More and Better Psychopaths" for inclusion in its two-century retrospective of True Crime: An American Anthology.

See also

References

Notes

  1. ^ Detailed description of Mencken's home in Baltimore
  2. ^ Short biographical sketch of Sara Haardt
  3. ^ Mencken bio at menckenhouse.org
  4. ^ al.com, the Real South: Famous People–Literary Figures: Sally Haardt
  5. ^ "H. L. Mencken, 75, Dies in Baltimore". New York Times. January 30, 1956. http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F40F14FF3C58157B93C2AA178AD85F428585F9. Retrieved 2008-06-15. "H.L. Mencken was found dead in bed early today. The 75-year-old author, editor, critic and newspaper man had lived in retirement since suffering a cerebral hemorrhage in 1948." 
  6. ^ http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=706
  7. ^ Epitaph, Smart Set, 1921-12-03, p. 33"
  8. ^ http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=pv&GRid=706&PIpi=76414
  9. ^ Joseph Keating Jr., PhD. Because We Know Chiropractic Works ... (sarcastic article). Dynamic Chiropractic, July 16, 1993, Vol. 11, Issue 15
  10. ^ H. L. Mencken. Prejudices: A Selection. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006 ISBN 0801885353, 9780801885358, 288 pages.
  11. ^ James C. Whorton. Nature Cures: The History of Alternative Medicine in America. Oxford University Press US, 2004, ISBN 0195171624, 9780195171624, 384 pages
  12. ^ http://www.massmoments.org/moment.cfm?mid=104
  13. ^ "H.E. Buchholz, 76, Author, is Dead," The Baltimore Sun, July 26, 1955.
  14. ^ "Obituary of H. E. Buchholz," The Evening Sun, July 26, 1955.
  15. ^ http://www.dailybreeze.com
  16. ^ Mencken's essay "Last Words" on the illusory merits of democracy.
  17. ^ Mencken, Baltimore Evening Sun, July 26, 1920
  18. ^ Nietzsche, F. The Antichrist. Trans. and edited by H L Mencken. From the editor's introduction.
  19. ^ Ibid.
  20. ^ In an open letter to Upton Sinclair published in The American Mercury in June 1936: "You protest, and with justice, each time Hitler jails an opponent; but you forget that Stalin and company have jailed and murdered a thousand times as many. It seems to me, and indeed the evidence is plain, that compared to the Moscow brigands and assassins, Hitler is hardly more than a common Ku Kluxer and Mussolini almost a philanthropist."
  21. ^ Quoted by Heywood Broun and George Britt in Christians Only: A Study in Prejudice New York: Vanguard Press, 1931.
  22. ^ Gore Vidal, foreword to Mary Elizabeth Rodgers The Impossible H.L. Mencken
  23. ^ Help for the Jews, 1938, in The Impossible H.L. Mencken, Anchor Books, 1991
  24. ^ Harkins, Ernest Wylie (2004), Fathers I Have Known: H.L. Mencken, H. Allen Smith, Xlibris Corporation (published 2004-08-12), ISBN 978-1-4134-6075-9, http://www.adamapubs.com/Self_Help/Father_s_I_Have_Known/Microsoft_Word_-_mencken-f.pdf, retrieved 2008-04-19 

Biographies

  • Hobson, Fred (1994) Mencken: A Life. Random House. ISBN 0-8018-5238-2. Also published in paper back by The Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Rodgers, Marion Elizabeth (2005) Mencken: The American Iconoclast. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-507238-3
  • Scruggs, Charles (1984) The Sage in Harlem.
  • Teachout, Terry. (2002) The Skeptic : A Life of H. L. Mencken. Harper Collins Publishers. ISBN 0-06-050528-1

External links


Quotes

Up to date as of January 14, 2010
(Redirected to H. L. Mencken article)

From Wikiquote

The most dangerous man to any government is the man who is able to think things out for himself, without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos.

Henry Louis Mencken (12 September 188029 January 1956), better known as H. L. Mencken, was a twentieth-century journalist, satirist, social critic, cynic, and freethinker, known as the "Sage of Baltimore" and the "American Nietzsche". He is often regarded as one of the most influential American writers of the early 20th century.

Contents

Sourced

  • Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.
    • A Book of Burlesques (1916)
  • Of all escape mechanisms, death is the most efficient.
    • A Book of Burlesques (1916)
  • Progress: The process whereby the human race has got rid of whiskers, the vermiform appendix and God.
    • A Book of Burlesques (1916)
  • Truth would quickly cease to be stranger than fiction, once we got as used to it.
    • A Little Book in C Major (1916)
  • Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.
    • A Little Book in C major (1916) ; later published in A Mencken Crestomathy (1949).
  • Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.
    • "The Divine Afflatus" in New York Evening Mail (16 November 1917); later published in Prejudices: Second Series (1920) and A Mencken Chrestomathy (1949)
  • Civilization, in fact, grows more and more maudlin and hysterical; especially under democracy it tends to degenerate into a mere combat of crazes; the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.
    • In Defense of Women (1918)
  • It was morality that burned the books of the ancient sages, and morality that halted the free inquiry of the Golden Age and substituted for it the credulous imbecility of the Age of Faith. It was a fixed moral code and a fixed theology which robbed the human race of a thousand years by wasting them upon alchemy, heretic-burning, witchcraft and sacerdotalism.
    • The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (1913)
  • School teachers, taking them by and large, are probably the most ignorant and stupid class of men in the whole group of mental workers.
    • The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (1908), pg. 217
  • All government, in its essence, is a conspiracy against the superior man: its one permanent object is to oppress him and cripple him. If it be aristocratic in organization, then it seeks to protect the man who is superior only in law against the man who is superior in fact; if it be democratic, then it seeks to protect the man who is inferior in every way against both. One of its primary functions is to regiment men by force, to make them as much alike as possible and as dependent upon one another as possible, to search out and combat originality among them. All it can see in an original idea is potential change, and hence an invasion of its prerogatives. The most dangerous man to any government is the man who is able to think things out for himself, without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost inevitably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane and intolerable, and so, if he is romantic, he tries to change it. And even if he is not romantic personally he is very apt to spread discontent among those who are.
    • Smart Set (December 1919)
  • Off goes the head of the king, and tyranny gives way to freedom. The change seems abysmal. Then, bit by bit, the face of freedom hardens, and by and by it is the old face of tyranny. Then another cycle, and another. But under the play of all these opposites there is something fundamental and permanent — the basic delusion that men may be governed and yet be free.
    • Preface to the first edition of The American Credo : A Contribution Toward the Interpretation of the National Mind (1920)
  • It is the dull man who is always sure, and the sure man who is always dull.
    • Prejudices, Second Series (1920) Ch. 1
  • When a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is the fact that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any save the most elemental — men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand. So confronted, the candidate must either bark with the pack or be lost... All the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum. The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.
    • Baltimore Sun (26 July 1920)
  • The only good bureaucrat is one with a pistol at his head. Put it in his hand and it's good-bye to the Bill of Rights.
    • On Politics: A Carnival of Buncombe (1920-1936), p. 279
  • To sum up: 1. The cosmos is a gigantic fly-wheel making 10,000 revolutions a minute. 2. Man is a sick fly taking a dizzy ride on it. 3. Religion is the theory that the wheel was designed and set spinning to give him the ride.
    • "Coda" from Smart Set (December 1920)
  • If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl.
    • "Epitaph" from Smart Set (December 1921)
  • To be happy one must be (a) well fed, unhounded by sordid cares, at ease in Zion, (b) full of a comfortable feeling of superiority to the masses of one's fellow men, and (c) delicately and unceasingly amused according to one's taste. It is my contention that, if this definition be accepted, there is no country in the world wherein a man constituted as I am — a man of my peculiar weakness, vanities, appetites, and aversions — can be so happy as he can be in the United States.
    • On Being An American (1922)
  • The fact is that the average man's love of liberty is nine-tenths imaginary, exactly like his love of sense, justice and truth. He is not actually happy when free; he is uncomfortable, a bit alarmed, and intolerably lonely. Liberty is not a thing for the great masses of men. It is the exclusive possession of a small and disreputable minority, like knowledge, courage and honor. It takes a special sort of man to understand and enjoy liberty — and he is usually an outlaw in democratic societies.
    • Baltimore Evening Sun (12 February 1923)
  • The difference between a moral man and a man of honor is that the latter regrets a discreditable act, even when it has worked and he has not been caught.
    • Prejudices, Fourth Series, ch. 11 (1924)
  • The liberation of the human mind has never been furthered by such learned dunderheads; it has been furthered by gay fellows who heaved dead cats into sanctuaries and then went roistering down the highways of the world, proving to all men that doubt, after all, was safe — that the god in the sanctuary was finite in his power, and hence a fraud. One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms. It is not only more effective; it is also vastly more intelligent.
    • Prejudices, Fourth Series (1924)
The basic fact about human existence is not that it is a tragedy, but that it is a bore. It is not so much a war as an endless standing in line...
  • What is any political campaign save a concerted effort to turn out a set of politicians who are admittedly bad and put in a set who are thought to be better. The former assumption, I believe is always sound; the latter is just as certainly false. For if experience teaches us anything at all it teaches us this: that a good politician, under democracy, is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar.
    • Prejudices, Fourth Series (1924)
  • Suppose two-thirds of the members of the national House of Representatives were dumped into the Washington garbage incinerator tomorrow, what would we lose to offset our gain of their salaries and the salaries of their parasites?
    • Prejudices, Fourth Series (1924)
  • I propose that it shall be no longer malum in se for a citizen to pummel, cowhide, kick, gouge, cut, wound, bruise, maim, burn, club, bastinado, flay, or even lynch a [government] jobholder, and that it shall be malum prohibitum only to the extent that the punishment exceeds the jobholder’s deserts. The amount of this excess, if any, may be determined very conveniently by a petit jury, as other questions of guilt are now determined. The flogged judge, or Congressman, or other jobholder, on being discharged from hospital — or his chief heir, in case he has perished — goes before a grand jury and makes a complaint, and, if a true bill is found, a petit jury is empaneled and all the evidence is put before it. If it decides that the jobholder deserves the punishment inflicted upon him, the citizen who inflicted it is acquitted with honor. If, on the contrary, it decides that this punishment was excessive, then the citizen is adjudged guilty of assault, mayhem, murder, or whatever it is, in a degree apportioned to the difference between what the jobholder deserved and what he got, and punishment for that excess follows in the usual course.
  • Do [English Teachers] believe that the aim of teaching English is to increase the exact and beautiful use of the language? Or that it is to inculcate and augment patriotism? Or that it is to diminish sorrow in the home? Or that it has some other end, cultural, economic, or military? [...] ...it was [English teachers'] verdict by a solemn referendum that the principal objective in teaching English was to make good spellers, and that after that came the breeding of good capitalizers. [...] ...pedagogy in the United States is fast descending to the estate of a childish necromancy, and that the worst idiots, even among pedagogues, are the teachers of English. It is positively dreadful to think that the young of the American species are exposed day in and day out to the contamination of such dark minds. What can be expected of education that is carried on in the very sewers of the intellect? How can morons teach anything that is worth knowing?
    • The Lower Depths (1925)
  • The truth, indeed, is something that mankind, for some mysterious reason, instinctively dislikes. Every man who tries to tell it is unpopular, and even when, by the sheer strength of his case, he prevails, he is put down as a scoundrel.
    • Chicago Tribune (23 May 1926)
  • The basic fact about human existence is not that it is a tragedy, but that it is a bore. It is not so much a war as an endless standing in line. The objection to it is not that it is predominantly painful, but that it is lacking in sense.
    • Baltimore Evening Sun (9 August 1926)
  • Laws are no longer made by a rational process of public discussion; they are made by a process of blackmail and intimidation, and they are executed in the same manner. The typical lawmaker of today is a man wholly devoid of principle — a mere counter in a grotesque and knavish game. If the right pressure could be applied to him, he would be cheerfully in favor of polygamy, astrology or cannibalism.
    It is the aim of the Bill of Rights, if it has any remaining aim at all, to curb such prehensile gentry. Its function is to set a limitation upon their power to harry and oppress us to their own private profit The Fathers, in framing it, did not have powerful minorities in mind; what they sought to hobble was simply the majority. But that is a detail. The important thing is that the Bill of Rights sets forth, in the plainest of plain language, the limits beyond which even legislatures may not go. The Supreme Court, in Marbury v. Madison, decided that it was bound to execute that intent, and for a hundred years that doctrine remained the corner-stone of American constitutional law.
  • 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 overborne by the damage it has done to clear and honest thinking.
    • Forum (September 1930)
  • What are the hallmarks of a competent writer of fiction? The first, it seems to me, is that he should be immensely interested in human beings, and have an eye sharp enough to see into them, and a hand clever enough to draw them as they are. The second is that he should be able to set them in imaginary situations which display the contents of their psyches effectively, and so carry his reader swiftly and pleasantly from point to point of what is called a good story.
    • The American Mercury (May 1933), p. 136
  • If he became convinced tomorrow that coming out for cannibalism would get him the votes he needs so sorely, he would begin fattening a missionary in the White House yard come Wednesday.
  • When A annoys or injures B on the pretense of saving or improving X, A is a scoundrel.
    • Newspaper Days: 1899-1906 (1941)
  • It is [a politician's] business to get and hold his job at all costs. If he can hold it by lying, he will hold it by lying; if lying peters out, he will try to hold it by embracing new truths. His ear is ever close to the ground.
    • Notes on Democracy (1926), Part II, p. 99
  • Public opinion, in its raw state, gushes out in the immemorial form of the mob's fear. It is piped into central factories, and there it is flavoured and coloured and put into cans.
    • Notes on Democracy (1926)
  • To a clergyman lying under a vow of chastity any act of sex is immoral, but his abhorrence of it naturally increases in proportion as it looks safe and is correspondingly tempting. As a prudent man, he is not much disturbed by incitations which carry their obvious and certain penalties; what shakes him is the enticement bare of any probable secular retribution. Ergo, the worst and damndest indulgence is that which goes unwhipped. So he teaches that it is no sin for a woman to bear a child to a drunken and worthless husband, even though she may believe with sound reason that it will be diseased and miserable all its life, but if she resorts to any mechanical or chemical device, however harmless, to prevent its birth, she is doomed by his penology to roast in Hell forever, along with the assassin of orphans and the scoundrel who forgets his Easter duty.
    • Treatise on the Gods (1930; 2nd Edition 1946)
  • I believe in only one thing and that thing is human liberty. If ever a man is to achieve anything like dignity, it can happen only if superior men are given absolute freedom to think what they want to think and say what they want to say. I am against any man and any organization which seeks to limit or deny that freedom. . . [and] the superior man can be sure of freedom only if it is given to all men.
    • quoted by Guy J. Forgue. ed., Letters of H. L. Mencken (New York: Knopf. 1961), p. xiii.

A Book of Prefaces (1917)

  • The virulence of the national appetite for bogus revelation.
    • Ch. 1
  • To the man with an ear for verbal delicacies — the man who searches painfully for the perfect word, and puts the way of saying a thing above the thing said — there is in writing the constant joy of sudden discovery, of happy accident.
    • Ch. 2
  • Poverty is a soft pedal upon the branches of human activity, not excepting the spiritual.
    • Ch. 4
  • Time is the great legalizer, even in the field of morals.
    • Ch. 4

Prejudices, First Series (1919)

  • The public...demands certainties...But there are no certainties.
    • Ch. 3
  • All successful newspapers are ceaselessly querulous and bellicose. They never defend anyone or anything if they can help it; if the job is forced on them, they tackle it by denouncing someone or something else.
    • Ch. 13
  • The great artists of the world are never Puritans, and seldom even ordinarily respectable. No virtuous man — that is, virtuous in the Y.M.C.A. sense — has ever painted a picture worth looking at, or written a symphony worth hearing, or a book worth reading.
    • Ch. 16
  • To be in love is merely to be in a state of perpetual anesthesia — to mistake an ordinary young man for a Greek god or an ordinary young woman for a goddess.
    • Ch. 16

Prejudices, Third Series (1922)

  • There are no mute, inglorious Miltons, save in the hallucinations of poets. The one sound test of Milton is that he functions as a Milton.
    • Ch. 3
  • Nine times out of ten, in the arts as in life, there is actually no truth to be discovered; there is only error to be exposed.
    • Ch. 3
  • Injustice is relatively easy to bear; what stings is justice.
    • Ch. 3
  • The older I grow the more I distrust the familiar doctrine that age brings wisdom.
    • Ch. 3
  • The Gettysburg speech was at once the shortest and the most famous oration in American history... But let us not forget that it is poetry, not logic; beauty, not sense. Think of the argument in it! Put it into the cold words of everyday! The doctrine is simply this: that the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self-determination – "that government of the people, by the people, for the people," should not perish from the earth. It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue. The Union soldiers in the battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves.
    • Ch. 8
  • Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable.
    • Ch. 14 "Types of Men" - 3 : The Believer
  • A man full of faith is simply one who has lost (or never had) the capacity for clear and realistic thought. He is not a mere ass; he is actually ill. Worse, he is incurable, for disappointment, being essentially an objective phenomenon, cannot permanently affect his subjective infirmity. His faith takes on the virulence of a chronic infection. What he usually says, in substance, is this: "Let us trust in God, who has always fooled us in the past.
    • Ch. 14 "Types of Men" - 3 : The Believer
  • The professor must be an obscurantist or he is nothing; he has a special and unmatchable talent for dullness, his central aim is not to expose the truth clearly, but to exhibit his profundity, his esotericity - in brief to stagger sophomores and other professors.
    • Ch. 15 "The Dismal Science"

A Mencken Chrestomathy (1949)

  • Nature abhors a moron.
  • The most costly of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind.
  • Conscience is the inner voice that warns us somebody may be looking.
  • Immorality is the morality of those who are having a better time. You will never convince the average farmer's mare that the late Maud S. was not dreadfully immoral.
  • An idealist is one who, on noticing that roses smell better than a cabbage, concludes that it will also make better soup.
  • A celebrity is one who is known to many persons he is glad he doesn't know.
  • Platitude — An idea (a) that is admitted to be true by everyone, and (b) that is not true.
  • Remorse — Regret that one waited so long to do it.
  • Self-respect — The secure feeling that no one, as yet, is suspicious.
  • Truth — Something somehow discreditable to someone.
  • We are here and it is now: further than that, all human knowledge is moonshine.
  • Historian — An unsuccessful novelist.
  • Christian — One who is willing to serve three Gods, but draws the line at one wife.
  • The New Deal began, like the Salvation Army, by promising to save humanity. It ended, again like the Salvation Army, by running flop-houses and disturbing the peace.
  • Democracy is the art of running the circus from the monkey cage.
  • The theory seems to be that so long as a man is a failure he is one of God's chillun, but that as soon as he has any luck he owes it to the Devil.
  • Judge — A law student who marks his own examination-papers.
  • Jury — A group of twelve men who, having lied to the judge about their hearing, health and business engagements, have failed to fool him.
  • Lawyer — One who protects us against robbers by taking away the temptation.
  • Jealousy is the theory that some other fellow has just as little taste.
  • Wealth — Any income that is at least $100 more a year than the income of one's wife's sister's husband.
  • Misogynist — A man who hates women as much as women hate one another.
  • A man may be a fool and not know it — but not if he is married.
  • Bachelors know more about women than married men. If they didn't they'd be married, too.
  • Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.
  • In this world of sin and sorrow there is always something to be thankful for. As for me, I rejoice that I am not a Republican.
  • Theology — An effort to explain the unknowable by putting it into terms of the not worth knowing.
  • Creator — A comedian whose audience is afraid to laugh.
  • Sunday — A day given over by Americans to wishing that they themselves were dead and in Heaven, and that their neighbors were dead and in Hell.
  • A newspaper is a device for making the ignorant more ignorant and the crazy crazier.
  • Conscience is a mother-in-law whose visit never ends.
  • Q: If you find so much that is unworthy of reverence in the United States, then why do you live here?
    A: Why do men go to zoos?

Minority Report : H.L. Mencken's Notebooks (1956)

  • We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.
    • 1
  • I have often argued that a poet more than thirty years old is simply an overgrown child. I begin to suspect that there may be some truth in it.
    • 13
  • My guess is that well over eighty per cent of the human race goes through life without ever having a single original thought. That is to say, they never think anything that has not been thought before, and by thousands.
    A society made up of individuals who were all capable of original thought would probably be unendurable. The pressure of ideas would simply drive it frantic. The normal human society is very little troubled by them. Whenever a new one appears the average man displays signs of dismay and resentment, The only way he can take in such a new idea is by translating it crudely into terms of more familiar ideas. That translation is one of the chief functions of politicians, not to mention journalists. They devote themselves largely to debasing the ideas launched by their betters. This debasement is intellectually reprehensible, but probably necessary to carry on the business of the world.
    • 13
  • Human life is basically a comedy. Even its tragedies often seem comic to the spectator, and not infrequently they actually have comic touches to the victim. Happiness probably consists largely in the capacity to detect and relish them. A man who can laugh, if only at himself, is never really miserable.
    • 15
  • No government is ever really in favor of so-called civil rights. It always tries to whittle them down. They are preserved under all governments, insofar as they survive at all, by special classes of fanatics, often highly dubious.
    • 33
  • God is the immemorial refuge of the incompetent, the helpless, the miserable. They find not only sanctuary in His arms, but also a kind of superiority, soothing to their macerated egos: He will set them above their betters.
    • 35
  • Equality before the law is probably forever inattainable. It is a noble ideal, but it can never be realized, for what men value in this world is not rights but privileges.
    • 36
  • There are people who read too much: the bibliobibuli. I know some who are constantly drunk on books, as other men are drunk on whiskey or religion. They wander through this most diverting and stimulating of worlds in a haze, seeing nothing and hearing nothing.
    • 71
  • It is impossible to imagine the universe run by a wise, just and omnipotent God, but it is quite easy to imagine it run by a board of gods. If such a board actually exists it operates precisely like the board of a corporation that is losing money.
    • 79
  • Government, like any other organism, refuses to acquiesce in its own extinction. This refusal, of course, involves the resistance to any effort to diminish its powers and prerogatives. There has been no organized effort to keep government down since Jefferson's day. Ever since then the American people have been bolstering up its powers and giving it more and more jurisdiction over their affairs. They pay for that folly in increased taxes and diminished liberties. No government as such is ever in favor of the freedom of the individual. It invariably seeks to limit that freedom, if not by overt denial, then by seeking constantly to widen its own functions.
    • 197
  • Mankind has failed miserably in its effort to devise a rational system of government. [...] The art of government is the exclusive possession of quacks and frauds. It has been so since the earliest days, and it will probably remain so until the end of time.
    • 201
  • The main thing that every political campaign in the United States demonstrates is that the politicians of all parties, despite their superficial enmities, are really members of one great brotherhood. Their principal, and indeed their sole, object is to collar public office, with all the privileges and profits that go therewith. They achieve this collaring by buying votes with other people's money. No professional politician is ever actually in favor of public economy. It is his implacable enemy, and he knows it. All professional politicians are dedicated wholeheartedly to waste and corruption. They are the enemies of every decent man.
    • 204
  • The more noisy Negro leaders, by depicting all whites as natural and implacable enemies to their race, have done it a great disservice. Large numbers of whites who were formerly very friendly to it, and willing to go to great lengths to help it, are now resentful and suspicious.
    • 213
  • The only guarantee of the Bill of Rights which continues to have any force and effect is the one prohibiting quartering troops on citizens in time of peace. All the rest have been disposed of by judicial interpretation and legislative whittling. Probably the worst thing that has happened in America in my time is the decay of confidence in the courts. No one can be sure any more that in a given case they will uphold the plainest mandate of the Constitution. On the contrary, everyone begins to be more or less convinced in advance that they won't. Judges are chosen not because they know the Constitution and are in favor of it, but precisely because they appear to be against it.
    • 241
  • Why assume so glibly that the God who presumably created the universe is still running it? It is certainly perfectly conceivable that He may have finished it and then turned it over to lesser gods to operate. In the same way many human institutions are turned over to grossly inferior men. This is true, for example, of most universities, and of all great newspapers.
    • 298
  • My old suggestion that public offices be filled by drawing lots, as a jury box is filled, was probably more intelligent than I suspected. It has been criticized on the ground that selecting a man at random would probably produce some extremely bad State governors. [...] But I incline to believe that it would be best to choose members of the Legislature quite at random. No matter how stupid they were, they could not be more stupid than the average legislator under the present system. Certainly, they'd be measurably more honest, taking one with another. Finally, there would be the great advantage that all of them had got their jobs unwillingly, and were eager, not to spin out their sessions endlessly, but to get home as soon as possible.
    • 329
  • The highfalutin aims of democracy, whether real or imaginary, are always assumed to be identical with its achievements. This, of course, is sheer hallucination. Not one of those aims, not even the aim of giving every adult a vote, has been realized. It has no more made men wise and free than Christianity has made them good.
    • 394
  • The chief difference between free capitalism and State socialism seems to be this: that under the former a man pursues his own advantage openly, frankly and honestly, whereas under the latter he does so hypocritically and under false pretenses.
    • 397
  • Science, at bottom, is really anti-intellectual. It always distrusts pure reason, and demands the production of objective fact.
    • 412
  • Moral certainty is always a sign of cultural inferiority. The more uncivilized the man, the surer he is that he knows precisely what is right and what is wrong. All human progress, even in morals, has been the work of men who have doubted the current moral values, not of men who have whooped them up and tried to enforce them. The truly civilized man is always skeptical and tolerant, in this field as in all others. His culture is based on "I am not too sure."
    • 418

Unsourced

Mencken is one of those major iconic figures to whom many statements become attributed; unsourced attributions to him should usually be treated with some skepticism, and often a great deal of it.
  • A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin.
  • A politician is an animal which can sit on a fence and yet keep both ears to the ground.
  • A professor must have a theory as a dog must have fleas.
  • Mencken's [very widely attributed, as yet unsourced] pat response to all angry letters:
Dear Sir (or Madame),
You may be right.
Sincerely yours, HL Mencken
  • A professional politician is a professionally dishonorable man. In order to get anywhere near high office he has to make so many compromises and submit to so many humiliations that he becomes indistinguishable from a streetwalker.
  • A sandwich made up of two thick and tasteless chunks of Kriegsbrot with a couple of excellent sardines between.
  • After all, all he did was string together a lot of old, well-known quotations.
  • Capitalism undoubtedly has certain boils and blotches upon it, but has it as many as government? Has it as many as marriage? Has it as many as religion? I doubt it. It is the only basic institution of modern man that shows any genuine health and vigor.
  • Demagogue: One who preaches doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he knows to be idiots.
  • Democracy is also a form of worship. It is the worship of Jackals by Jackasses.
  • Democracy is the pathetic belief in the wisdom of collective ignorance.
  • Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit upon his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.
  • Firmness in decision is often merely a form of stupidity. It indicates an inability to think the same thing out twice.
  • Hanging one scoundrel, it appears, does not deter the next. Well, what of it? The first one is at least disposed of.
  • I detest converts almost as much as I do missionaries.
  • If a politician found he had cannibals among his constituents, he would promise them missionaries for dinner.
  • Imagine the Creator as a low comedian, and at once the world becomes explicable.
  • It is hard to believe that a man is telling the truth when you know that you would lie if you were in his place.
  • It is inaccurate to say I hate everything. I am strongly in favor of common sense, common honesty, and common decency. This makes me forever ineligible for public office.
  • It is often argued that religion is valuable because it makes men good, but even if this were true it would not be a proof that religion is true. That would be an extension of pragmatism beyond endurance. Santa Claus makes children good in precisely the same way, and yet no one would argue seriously that the fact proves his existence. The defense of religion is full of such logical imbecilities.
  • It is the fundamental theory of all the more recent American law...that the average citizen is half-witted, and hence not to be trusted to either his own devices or his own thoughts.
  • Liberals have many tails and chase them all.
  • Life may not be exactly pleasant, but it is at least not dull. Heave yourself into Hell today, and you may miss, tomorrow or next day, another Scopes trial, or another War to End War, or perchance a rich and buxom widow with all her first husband's clothes. There are always more Hardings hatching. I advocate hanging on as long as possible.
  • Life without sex might be safer but it would be unbearably dull.
  • Love is the delusion that one woman differs from another.
  • Love is the triumph of imagination over intelligence.
  • Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who would want to live in an institution.
  • Men become civilized, not in proportion to their willingness to believe, but in proportion to their readiness to doubt.
  • No government, of its own motion, will increase its own weakness, for that would mean to acquiesce in its own destruction ... governments, whatever their pretensions otherwise, try to preserve themselves by holding the individual down ... Government itself, indeed, may be reasonably defined as a conspiracy against him. Its one permanent aim, whatever its form, is to hobble him sufficiently to maintain itself.
  • No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.
  • No one in this world, so far as I know — and I have researched the records for years, and employed agents to help me — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.

[That Mencken quote originally appeared in an article entitled "Notes On Journalism" printed in the September 19, 1926 issue of "The Chicago Tribune". It can be found also on page 121 of "A Gang of Pecksniffs".]

  • Of all the classes of men, I dislike most those who make their livings by talking — actors, clergymen, politicians, pedagogues, and so on. All of them participate in the shallow false pretenses of the actor who is their archetype. It is almost impossible to imagine a talker who sticks to the facts. Carried away by the sound of his own voice and the applause of the groundlings, he makes inevitably the jump from logic to mere rhetoric.
  • One seldom discovers a true believer that is worth knowing.
  • Philosophy consists very largely of one philosopher arguing that all other philosophers are jackasses. He usually proves it, and I should add that he also usually proves that he is one himself.
  • Religion deserves no more respect than a pile of garbage.
  • Say what you will about the Ten Commandments, you must always come back to the pleasant fact that there are only ten of them.
  • Sunday School: A prison in which children do penance for the evil conscience of their parents.
  • Suppose two-thirds of the members of the national House of Representatives were dumped into the Washington garbage incinerator tomorrow, what would we lose to offset our gain of their salaries and the salaries of their parasites?
  • That Americans, in the mass, have anything properly described as keen wits is surely far from self-evident. On the contrary, it seems likely that, if anything, they lie below the civilised norm.
  • The argument that capital punishment degrades the state is moonshine, for if that were true then it would degrade the state to send men to war... The state, in truth, is degraded in its very nature: a few butcheries cannot do it any further damage.
  • The believing mind is externally impervious to evidence. The most that can be accomplished with it is to induce it to substitute one delusion for another. It rejects all overt evidence as wicked...
  • The Christian church, in its attitude toward science, shows the mind of a more or less enlightened man of the Thirteenth Century. It no longer believes that the earth is flat, but it is still convinced that prayer can cure after medicine fails.
  • The essence of science is that it is always willing to abandon a given idea for a better one; the essence of theology is that it holds its truths to be eternal and immutable. To be sure, theology is always yielding a little to the progress of knowledge, and only a Holy Roller in the mountains of Tennessee would dare to preach today what the popes preached in the thirteenth century.
  • The essential dilemma of education is to be found in the fact that the sort of man (or woman) who knows a given subject sufficiently well to teach it is usually unwilling to do so.
  • The extortions and oppressions of government will go on so long as such bare fraudulence deceives and disarms the victims – so long as they are ready to swallow the immemorial official theory that protesting against the stealings of the archbishop's secretary's nephew's mistress' illegitimate son is a sin against the Holy Ghost.
  • The fact that I have no remedy for all the sorrows of the world is no reason for my accepting yours. It simply supports the strong probability that yours is a fake.
  • The more a man dreams, the less he believes.
  • The trouble with Communism is the Communists, just as the trouble with Christianity is the Christians.
  • The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one's time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all.
  • The verdict of a jury is the a priori opinion of that juror who smokes the worst cigars.
  • The world always makes the assumption that the exposure of an error is identical with the discovery of the truth — that error and truth are simply opposite. They are nothing of the sort. What the world turns to, when it has been cured of one error, is usually simply another error, and maybe one worse than the first one.
  • 'Tis more blessed to give than to receive; for example, wedding presents.
  • Under democracy one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule — and both commonly succeed, and are right... The United States has never developed an aristocracy really disinterested or an intelligentsia really intelligent. Its history is simply a record of vacillations between two gangs of frauds.
  • When the government is robbed, the worst that happens is that certain rogues and loafers have less money to play with than they had before.
  • As I look back over a misspent life, I find myself more and more convinced that I had more fun doing news reporting than in any other enterprise. It is really the life of kings.
    • Attributed to the 1953 Baltimore Sun
    • Appears on the wall of the Baltimore Sun
  • I believe that it is better to tell the truth than to lie. I believe that it is better to be free than to be a slave. And I believe that it is better to know than be ignorant.
    • Reportedly cited by George Seldes (in Great Thoughts) as “Mencken's Creed”. Currently unsourced, various abridged versions exist similar to the following:
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 no discovery of fact, however trivial, can be wholly useless to the race, and that no trumpeting of falsehood, however virtuous in intent, can be anything but vicious.
I believe that all government is evil, in that all government must necessarily make war upon liberty and the democratic form is as bad as any of the other forms.
I believe that the evidence for immortality is no better than the evidence of witches, and deserves no more respect.
I believe in the complete freedom of thought and speech—alike for the humblest man and the mightiest, and in the utmost freedom of conduct that is consistent with living in organized society.
I believe in the capacity of man to conquer his world, and to find out what it is made of, and how it is run.
I believe in the reality of progress.
I — But the whole thing, after all, may be put very simply. I believe that it is better to tell the truth than to lie. I believe that it is better to be free than to be a slave. And I believe that it is better to know than be ignorant.

Misattributed

  • Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.
    • A. J. Liebling, in "Do you belong in journalism?", The New Yorker (14 May 1960); sometimes paraphrased : Freedom of press is limited to those who own one.
  • When the water reaches the upper deck, follow the rats.
    • Mencken quotes this in Newspaper Days, 1899–1906 (1941) as a maxim he learned from Al Goodman

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