The Baltimore Literary Heritage Project

Henry Louis Mencken
Henry Louis Mencken pic
Henry Louis Mencken, article title
I have lived in one house in Baltimore for nearly 45 years. It has changed in that time, as I have — but somehow it still remains the same. It is as much a part of me as my two hands. If I had to leave it, I'd be as certainly crippled as if I had lost a leg.

H.L. Mencken's father bought the Italianate-style brick row house on Hollins St. in Union Square when Mencken was two. Mencken only lived away from this address during the five years he was married to Goucher College English professor Sara Haardt. When she died of tuberculosis, Mencken, then 55, moved back to his familiar birth home, where he lived the rest of his life with his brother August.

An avid reader, Mencken had a library card before he was nine. By the time he reached high school, he claimed to be "one of the most assiduous customers that the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore has had in its whole history." Mencken gave much of his library—and other household ephemera—to the Pratt and in his later years stopped by the library regularly to make sure that they were cataloguing it to his liking, sometimes even taking over the job.

Often referred to as "The Voltaire of his time," Mencken spoke of Baltimore as "a perfect lady." According to many, it was one of the few nice things he said about anything. He coined the term "booboisie" to describe the American public. He wrote a popular, though caustic, column about local issues in The Baltimore Sun and published numerous books of in-depth studies and commentaries on various aspects of American lifestyle, including religion, democracy, women, and prejudices. His wit and humor earned him frequent comparison with Mark Twain. His diatribes against American culture prompted Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II to send him an autographed photo. Journalist Walter Lippmann declared him "the most powerful personal influence" in America.

Seeking truth and fighting censorship, Mencken used his influence to promote new writers—Sinclair Lewis, Joseph Conrad, Theodore Dreiser, James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, and Upton Sinclair among them. He also recommended the works of African-American writers to his publisher, Alfred Knopf. Mencken's influence was so great that he is said to have convinced Clarence Darrow to defend John Scopes in the famous "Scopes Monkey Trial" that debated the teaching of evolution.

He loved his home and garden. Saturday nights usually found Mencken at home, hosting a group of friends who played music, drank beer, and engaged in philosophical debates. According to an apocryphal story, frequently after these parties, Mencken and his friends would walk the several blocks to the old Westminster Burying Ground, where they'd urinate on Edgar Allan Poe's grave as a sign of respect. Years later, writer Theodore Dreiser said to Mencken in a letter, "And whether you choose to slam me right or left, as is your wont in the future, ...I will love you until the hour of my death. And don't pull any Edgar Allan Poe stuff in connection with my forgotten grave either. Do you hear me? or, I'll come back and fix you."

When he was a boy, Mencken and his brother kept their pony, Frank, in a stable in the back yard. Years later, he reminisced about Frank putting his head through the dining room window to eat a bowl of homemade ice cream. As an adult, Mencken converted the yard to a garden containing a pergola and a sundial, surrounded by a brick wall in which he embedded a death mask of Ludwig van Beethoven.

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