- Mencken, H. L. (Henry Louis), 1880-1956
- Call number
- MssCol 1962
- Physical description
- 48 linear feet (120 boxes and 7 slipcases); 69 microfilm reels
- Materials in English
- Preferred Citation
H.L. Mencken papers, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library
- Manuscripts and Archives Division
- Access to materials
- Advance notice required. Request access to this collection.
H.L. Mencken (1880-1956), journalist, author and critic, worked as a reporter and drama critic for the Baltimore Morning Herald from 1899 to 1906. From 1906 to the end of his working career he was at the Baltimore Evening Sun where he wrote the column "Free Lance" in which he expressed his views on literature, politics and society. He was book review editor for the magazine Smart Set from 1908 to 1924 when he started a new magazine, American Mercury, a journal of sociology and politics. He retired from American Mercury in 1933 and concentrated on writing for the Baltimore Sun and encouraging young literary talent. He also wrote books and articles including his classic, The American Language, which he first published in 1918 and continued revising until 1948. The bulk of the collection is Mencken's correspondence with a wide range of prominent people in the literary, artistic and political world of his time. Remaining papers are literary manuscripts by Mencken and others. Correspondence consists of about 30,000 letters, notes, postcards, and memoranda to and from Mencken. His correspondents include authors, journalists, editors, publishers, politicians, critics, and educators, as well as contributors to The American Language, Smart Set and American Mercury. He also exchanged letters with acquaintances, readers and members of his family. Manuscripts consist of poems and stories written by contemporary authors and two of Mencken's autobiographical works: My Life As Author and Editor, and Thirty-Five Years of Newspaper Work.
Henry Louis Mencken was born on September 12, 1880. Both of his grandfathers had come to the United States from Germany in 1848 searching for economic opportunity. Burkhardt Ludwig Mencken founded the family cigar business in Baltimore. Henry's father, August, was completely devoted to the firm. He was a typical late nineteenth century businessman, both socially and politically conservative.
Henry Mencken was a product of this German - American, middle class ethos. He learned to value hard work, intellectual achievement, and upward mobility. He attended the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and in 1896 graduated valedictorian. He, however, came to prefer literature and journalism to science. His father sought to discourage his interest in newspaper work failing to do so; he forced Henry to work in the family cigar business.
After the elder Mencken died on January 13, 1899, Henry got a job as a cub reporter for the Baltimore Morning Herald. He enjoyed his work immensely showing a talent for dramatic criticism; he was soon given his own column. When that succeeded he was named managing editor. Soon after this appointment was made, the Morning Herald folded, but Mencken's reputation was untarnished and he was asked to join the staff of the Baltmore Evening Sun. Mencken was to maintain this association for the rest of his life, writing the column "Free Lance" in which he expressed his views on literature, politics and society.
During the period before the First World War, Mencken laid the basis for his national reputation as a literary critic. In 1908, he became book review editor for The Smart Set. Here, he met George Jean Nathan, a young drama critic who was to become his close friend and editorial partner. Mencken and Nathan devoted themselves to the task of upgrading American literature. They sought to make young American authors more aware of the currents of European fiction, particularly the realistic novels of Thomas Mann and Marcel Proust. By and large, they were convinced that American culture, with its emphasis on materialism, hampered good writing. Theodore Dreiser was one of the few American authors whom they respected. When his novel, The Genius was banned in 1916, they took the lead in the campaign against censorship.
After the First World War, The Smart Set faced a series of reverses. Small budgets and a growing problem with censorship led Mencken to abandon the magazine. He now wanted to write for a journal that was free from the vagaries of the literary marketplace. In 1924, he convinced the publisher Alfred A. Knopf to take a chance on launching a new magazine, The American Mercury. In this journal of sociology and politics, Mencken satirized the business civilization and corrupt politicians who dominated America of the 1920s. For a while he was one of America's most highly acclaimed social critics. During the thirties, however, he began to lose his following as he directed his acerbic sarcasm at Franklin B. Roosevelt and the New Deal. Mencken realized that he was breasting currents too strong for him, so he retired from The American Mercury in 1933.
Mencken spent the latter part of his life writing for the Baltimore Sun and encouraging young literary talent. He was constantly revising his classic American Language which was first published in 1918, but whose final supplement was not completed until 1948. That year, Mencken suffered a stroke and was virtually disabled until his death in 1956.
Source of acquisition
As indicated in the introduction, Henry L. Mencken gave most of his literary correspondence to the New York Public Library in 1956. Through various gifts and purchases the library has added to this collection:
- Boyd, Ernest Augustus, 1887-1946
- Bradish, C.R
- De Casseres, Benjamin, 1873-1945
- Dreiser, Theodore, 1871-1945
- Dudek, J.B., 1890-1963
- Hanes, Elizabeth Peck
- Hergesheimer, Joseph, 1880-1954
- Keller, Albert Galloway, 1874-1956
- Knopf, Alfred A., 1892-1984
- Lewis, Sinclair, 1885-1951
- Masters, Edgar Lee, 1868-1950
- McClure, John, 1949-
- Mencken, H. L. (Henry Louis), 1880-1956
- Nathan, George Jean, 1882-1958
- Pearl, Raymond F
- Seamen, H.W
- Sterling, George, 1869-1926
- Arts -- Press coverage
- Arts and society
- Journalism -- Editing
- Journalism -- United States
- Language and languages
- Periodicals -- United States
- Reporters and reporting
- United States -- Politics and government -- 1901-1953
- United States -- Social life and customs -- 20th century
Using the collection
LocationManuscripts and Archives Division
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building
Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street, New York, NY 10018-2788
Brooke Russell Astor Reading Room, Third Floor, Room 328
Access to materialsAdvance notice required. Request access to this collection.
Conditions Governing Use
Literary rights belong to the Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore, Maryland
Alternative form available
Collection available on microfilm; New York Public Library
Selected correspondence available on microfilm; New York Public Library
J.B. Dudek correspondence, 1923-1956, available on microfilm; New York Public Library