House or no house, H. L. Mencken remains worthy of a moment’s reflection while visiting Baltimore.


The newspaperman, polemicist, linguist and all-around controversialist H. L. Mencken has been perhaps the single greatest influence on me in terms of writing style, and as we conclude a brief getaway to Baltimore, let it be known that the city and the man are virtually inseparable.

H. L. Mencken House (National Park Service)

 … A curmudgeon with an acidic writing style, Mencken gained national recognition as one of the most influential critics of American culture, politics, education and life, coining the word “booboisie” to describe the American public. His influence was unmistakable as the foremost authority on the American language through his multi-volumed The American Language.

During my very first visit to Baltimore in 1996, I walked from the Inner Harbor to Mencken’s house, just shy of two miles each way, in order to take a photo; the house wasn’t open that particular day, and now it is closed to the public.

I can’t find the photo.

Memory fails me, but it’s safe to assume I was at the Wharf Rat shortly after concluding this trek, draining cask-conditioned ale and recalling the choicest words of the Sage of Baltimore, as here, the first section of an article written amid Mencken’s coverage of the Scope Monkey Trial.

Homo Neanderthalensis, in the Baltimore Evening Sun, June 29, 1925.

Such obscenities as the forthcoming trial of the Tennessee evolutionist, if they serve no other purpose, at least call attention dramatically to the fact that enlightenment, among mankind, is very narrowly dispersed. It is common to assume that human progress affects everyone — that even the dullest man, in these bright days, knows more than any man of, say, the Eighteenth Century, and is far more civilized. This assumption is quite erroneous. The men of the educated minority, no doubt, know more than their predecessors, and of some of them, perhaps, it may be said that they are more civilized — though I should not like to be put to giving names — but the great masses of men, even in this inspired republic, are precisely where the mob was at the dawn of history. They are ignorant, they are dishonest, they are cowardly, they are ignoble. They know little if anything that is worth knowing, and there is not the slightest sign of a natural desire among them to increase their knowledge.

Such immortal vermin, true enough, get their share of the fruits of human progress, and so they may be said, in a way, to have their part in it. The most ignorant man, when he is ill, may enjoy whatever boons and usufructs modern medicine may offer — that is, provided he is too poor to choose his own doctor. He is free, if he wants to, to take a bath. The literature of the world is at his disposal in public libraries. He may look at works of art. He may hear good music. He has at hand a thousand devices for making life less wearisome and more tolerable: the telephone, railroads, bichloride tablets, newspapers, sewers, correspondence schools, delicatessen. But he had no more to do with bringing these things into the world than the horned cattle in the fields, and he does no more to increase them today than the birds of the air.

On the contrary, he is generally against them, and sometimes with immense violence. Every step in human progress, from the first feeble stirrings in the abyss of time, has been opposed by the great majority of men. Every valuable thing that has been added to the store of man’s possessions has been derided by them when it was new, and destroyed by them when they had the power. They have fought every new truth ever heard of, and they have killed every truth-seeker who got into their hands.

Although to this very day, I’ve no idea why Mencken pops into my head so often as I’m strolling around Nawbany.


THE BEER BEAT: This humble plinth could be the spot where we memorialize the myriad victims of Prohibition.

SHANE’S EXCELLENT NEW WORDS: The genuine meaning of ersatz, with a bonus Mencken digression.

SHANE’S EXCELLENT NEW WORDS: For H. L. Mencken, tippling iconoclasts safeguarded us against pecksniffian teetotalers.