Times Past, Pausing to Remember


Mencken (1880-1956) became a reporter for the Baltimore Morning Herald and later joined the staff of the Baltimore Sun, for which he would work most of his life. Mencken was the most influential American literary critic in the 1920s, and often used literary criticism as a point of departure to jab at American weaknesses. His reviews and miscellaneous essays filled six volumes, aptly titled Prejudices (1919-27). He derided writers he regarded as fraudulently successful and promoted such outstanding newcomers as Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis. He jeered at American sham, pretension, provincialism, and prudery, and ridiculed organized religion, business, and the middle class.

In The American Language (1919), he attempted to bring together examples of American expressions and idioms. The book grew with each reissue through the years, and in 1945 and 1948 he published substantial supplements. By the time of his death, Mencken was perhaps the leading authority on the language of his country.


H.L.Mencken, in his role of reporter, covered Tennessee versus John Scopes, the so-called "monkey trial" of 1925. At the time, he was America's leading journalist, and the assignment was much to his liking. Mencken arrived in Dayton with four bottles of Scotch and his typewriter, immediately finding plenty on which to comment. After a few nights in Dayton, Mencken said, "the thing is genuinely fabulous--I have stored up enough material to last me twenty years."

Mencken earned the enmity of the people of Dayton after calling them "yokels," "primates," "morons," "half-wits," and "hillbillies", among other things. He had to be saved from an assaulting mob by the Dayton sheriff. Mencken's treatment of William Jennings Bryan, the prosecutor, was even harsher than that of the local citizenry. He called Bryan an "unmitigated ass" and said that if Bryan was sincere, then so was P. T. Barnum.

Mencken's account of the trial is a wonderful piece of writing, saying as much about the man as it does about the trial.