H.L. Mencken, pioneer journalist

Sun Staff

The Sun has christened its new type fontMencken, in honor of its columnist, editorand occasional torturer.

Henry Louis Mencken was born 125 years ago onSept. 12, 1880, in a little West Lexington Street rowhouse.He was the son of a cigar-making fatherwho traded near the stage door of today'sHippodrome theater.

Mencken was seven years old in 1887 when hisfather presented him with a small printing pressand font of type on Christmas morning. Like aproud parent who wants to demonstrate athoughtful gift, he attempted to get the pressgoing.

"Before he gave it up as a bad job all the ink thatcame with the outfit had been had been smearedor slathered away, and at least half the type hadbeen plugged with it or broken," Mencken wrote inhis 1936 autobiography, Happy Days 1880-1892.

The printing set was a great hit, and the youngMencken took an additional $2 in Christmasmoney and bought more supplies to print businesscards. He was short on letters (his father hadsmashed the lower-case R's on Christmas morning),and Mencken, who had written his nameHenry L. or Harry, settled on H.L. Mencken. Itstayed for life.

"I had to cut my coat to fit my cloth," he confessedin his own account of his life.

Mencken remained a connoisseur of fine typefronts and uncluttered book and newspaperdesign. All his many books reflected this passionfor a printed page that was chaste, clean and crisp.After graduating from the Polytechnic Institute,Mencken obediently worked in the cigar businessfor his father, who died in early 1899. Within aweek, Mencken "invaded" the city room of the oldBaltimore Morning Herald to face down the city editorand ask for a job.

"What I had heard of city editors made me fearthat, at the least, I'd have to dodge a couple ofpaper-weights," he later wrote in an Evening Sunarticle.

There were no jobs that day, but Mencken, persistent,returned daily for two weeks. "Finally Iwas sent out on a small assignment -- it was a stablerobbery at Govans -- and a few days later I wason the staff," he wrote.

From 1899 until a stroke in 1948, Mencken wroteand became one of this country's best-knownnewspaper figures and columnists.

"He was a humorist by instinct and a superbcraftsman by temperament [with] a style flexible,fancy-free, ribald, and always beautifully lucid: anative product unlike any other style in the language,"said commentator Alistair Cooke in hispreface to The Vintage Mencken.

By 1906 the Herald folded and Mencken went toThe Sun as its Sunday editor, became an editorialwriter, 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 knowbetter," he wrote in 1911.

He would become known for an 18-year stretchof Monday Evening Sun columns written in his signaturestyle.

"That libido for the ugly which seems to beinstinctive in the American people shows itselfbrilliantly in the sidewalks of Baltimore. Fortyyears ago they were all of flat paving brick, speciallymade for that purpose -- they were all atleast harmonious with the red brick houses of thattime. But the old red bricks are now rapidly givingway to cement and concrete -- glaring when thesun shines, slippery when there is any snow, andhideous all the year 'round," he wrote in a March1927 column.

He loved covering political conventions. His lastwas in 1948, the year his stroke took him out of thebusiness.

In addition to writing a delightful, three-volumeautobiography, he also made a scholarly study ofwords and usage, published as The AmericanLanguage.

"It is possible that The American Language willprovide his strongestclaim to immortality.This work was among thefirst to recognize thatlanguage as distinct andhaving its own merits. Itis not only a work ofintensive, extensive, andadmirable scholarship, it is writing of sustainedexcellence," a Pratt Library tribute said.

Mencken also spent several days a week in NewYork, but steadfastly remained a Baltimorean.Except for his relatively brief marriage, when hemoved to Cathedral Street with a wife who soonsuccumbed to spinal tuberculosis, he lived at hischildhood family home on Hollins Street until hisdeath in 1956.

New York gave Mencken necessary literary andpublishing contacts. He hammered out pithy bookreviews for many publications and was literarycritic of The Smart Set from 1908 until 1914, whenhe became the publication's co-editor, with theatercritic George Jean Nathan.

In 1924 he set up his own high-toned monthlymagazine, The American Mercury and ran it foranother decade, all the while visiting The Sun'soffice several days a week.

"He was to the first part of the twentieth centurywhat Mark Twain was to the last part of the nineteenth-- the quintessential voice of American letters,"said one of his biographers, Terry Teachoutin his 2002 Mencken biography. "Perhaps even asage, of sorts, too, though an altogether Americanone, not calm and reflective but noisy as a tornado;witty and abrasive, self-confident and self-contradictory,sometimes maddening, often engaging,always inimitable.

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