The Sage of Baltimore

“It is typical of American Kultur that it was incapable of understanding H. L. Mencken. And it was typical of H. L. Mencken that this didn’t bother him a bit; in fact, quite the contrary, for it confirmed his estimate of his fellow-countrymen.  It is no more than he would have cheerfully expected.” ~Murray N. Rothbard

It is a pleasure to read Mencken, I wish I had more time to just sit and read his work. He is said to be one of the greatest American polymaths of the 20th century. “Mencken’s gifts were singularly varied. He was surely one of the great newspapermen of his generation, and of his books probably those dealing with the American language will be longest remembered. He took on the professional philologists and beat them at their own game. He knew more about medicine and the law than any other layman who has passed my way. And he was always reading books about religion,” wrote Alfred Knopf.


H. L. Mencken lived from 1880 to 1956 which means he died just a few years after my own birth. Mencken was a journalist, essayist, magazine editor, satirist, critic of American culture, and a scholar of American English. Known as the “Sage of Baltimore“, he is regarded as one of the most influential American writers of prose. Most of his books remain in print. Mencken is known for his satirical reporting on the Tennessee “Scopes trial” which he dubbed the “Monkey Trial”. He was one of the most influential pontificators and public scolds of his time. As a newspaper columnist, first at the Baltimore Herald and later at the Baltimore Sun, he used his vast wit and biting sarcasm to skewer a host of targets. He skewered politicians, popular culture, men, women, religion, the temperance movement, bigotry, creationism, and “experts” of every sort, including chiropractors and economists.

In his newspaper columns, essays, and books he commented widely on the social scene, literature, music, prominent politicians, and government wrongdoing. He is also remembered for writing “The American Language” which was an academic study of how the English language was spoken in the United States in the early 20th century. H.L. Mencken through his wide criticism of government has had a strong impact on the liberty movement and that impact continues to this day. I have tweeted many quotes by Mencken to my friends on Twitter. They are some of the most re-tweeted quotes that I have done. Quotes like “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.

I am reading  “In Defense Of women” just now on my Kindle. In it Mencken wrote: “A man’s women folk, whatever their outward show of respect for his merit and authority, always regard him secretly as an ass, and with something akin to pity. His most gaudy sayings and doings seldom deceive them; they see the actual man within, and know him for a shallow and pathetic fellow. In this fact, perhaps, lies one of the best proofs of feminine intelligence, or, as the common phrase makes it, feminine intuition. The mark of that so-called intuition is simply a sharp and accurate perception of reality, an habitual immunity to emotional enchantment, a relentless capacity for distinguishing clearly between the appearance and the substance. The appearance, in the normal family circle, is a hero, magnifico, a demigod. The substance is a poor mountebank.” I fear that Mencken was on to the very secret of life with that one.

One of my favorite quotes of his is, “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.” I am not sure why that one always comes to mind out of the hundreds or more than I have read and liked. I guess that says something about me, but I don’t know what. A close second might be, “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.”

H. L. Mencken was many things and his legacy would take several books to tell but nothing sums up the Mencken phenomenon better than his credo:

“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 that the democratic form is as bad as any of the other forms.

I believe in 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.

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 to be ignorant.”

There are many books by H.L. Mencken and I think you could do a lot worse with your time than to sit down and read one. He was always very entertaining. I think one of the best of his books to start with might be “A Mencken Chrestomathy: His Own Selection of His Choicest Writing“.

1 thought on “The Sage of Baltimore

  1. Pingback: RLM News Show Blog - 2013-03-07 | Real Liberty Media

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