Henry Louis Mencken was born 125 years ago on Sept. 12, 1880, in a little West Lexington Street rowhouse. He was the son of a cigar-making father who traded near the stage door of today's Hippodrome theater.
"Before he gave it up as a bad job all the ink that came with the outfit had been had been smeared or slathered away, and at least half the type had been plugged with it or broken," Mencken wrote in his 1936 autobiography, Happy Days 1880-1892.
The printing set was a great hit, and the young Mencken took an additional $2 in Christmas money and bought more supplies to print business cards. He was short on letters (his father had smashed the lower-case R's on Christmas morning), and Mencken, who had written his name Henry L. or Harry, settled on H.L. Mencken. It stayed for life.
"I had to cut my coat to fit my cloth," he confessed in his own account of his life.
Mencken remained a connoisseur of fine type fronts and uncluttered book and newspaper design. All his many books reflected this passion for a printed page that was chaste, clean and crisp. After graduating from the Polytechnic Institute, Mencken obediently worked in the cigar business for his father, who died in early 1899. Within a week, Mencken "invaded" the city room of the old Baltimore Morning Herald to face down the city editor and ask for a job.
"What I had heard of city editors made me fear that, at the least, I'd have to dodge a couple of paper-weights," he later wrote in an Evening Sun article.
There were no jobs that day, but Mencken, persistent, returned daily for two weeks. "Finally I was sent out on a small assignment -- it was a stable robbery at Govans -- and a few days later I was on the staff," he wrote.
From 1899 until a stroke in 1948, Mencken wrote and became one of this country's best-known newspaper figures and columnists.
"He was a humorist by instinct and a superb craftsman by temperament [with] a style flexible, fancy-free, ribald, and always beautifully lucid: a native product unlike any other style in the language," said commentator Alistair Cooke in his preface to The Vintage Mencken.
By 1906 the Herald folded and Mencken went to The Sun as its Sunday editor, became an editorial writer, and in 1911 started writing his own column, the Free Lance, which appeared in The Evening Sun:
"All Baltimoreans may be divided into two classes -- those who think that the Emerson Tower [Bromo Seltzer] is beautiful, and those who know better," he wrote in 1911.
He would become known for an 18-year stretch of Monday Evening Sun columns written in his signature style.
"That libido for the ugly which seems to be instinctive in the American people shows itself brilliantly in the sidewalks of Baltimore. Forty years ago they were all of flat paving brick, specially made for that purpose -- they were all at least harmonious with the red brick houses of that time. But the old red bricks are now rapidly giving way to cement and concrete -- glaring when the sun shines, slippery when there is any snow, and hideous all the year 'round," he wrote in a March 1927 column.
He loved covering political conventions. His last was in 1948, the year his stroke took him out of the business.
In addition to writing a delightful, three-volume autobiography, he also made a scholarly study of words and usage, published as The American Language.
"It is possible that The American Language will provide his strongest claim to immortality. This work was among the first to recognize that language as distinct and having its own merits. It is not only a work of intensive, extensive, and admirable scholarship, it is writing of sustained excellence," a Pratt Library tribute said.
Mencken also spent several days a week in New York, but steadfastly remained a Baltimorean. Except for his relatively brief marriage, when he moved to Cathedral Street with a wife who soon succumbed to spinal tuberculosis, he lived at his childhood family home on Hollins Street until his death in 1956.
New York gave Mencken necessary literary and publishing contacts. He hammered out pithy book reviews for many publications and was literary critic of The Smart Set from 1908 until 1914, when he became the publication's co-editor, with theater critic George Jean Nathan.
In 1924 he set up his own high-toned monthly magazine, The American Mercury and ran it for another decade, all the while visiting The Sun's office several days a week.
"He was to the first part of the twentieth century what Mark Twain was to the last part of the nineteenth -- the quintessential voice of American letters," said one of his biographers, Terry Teachout in his 2002 Mencken biography. "Perhaps even a sage, of sorts, too, though an altogether American one, not calm and reflective but noisy as a tornado; witty and abrasive, self-confident and self-contradictory, sometimes maddening, often engaging, always inimitable.