Mr. Mencken: super hack


Journalism, wrote HL Mencken towards the end of his career, ‘is a fleeting thing, and the man who devotes his life to it writes his history in water’. When he died, almost exactly 50 years ago, he left instructions to colleagues on the Baltimore Sun: no biographical sketches, no pictures, no editorial hymning of achievements, please – just a terse death announcement. The most resonant name in American newspapers wished (metaphorically) to put on his coat one final time, close the office door and steal away, collar turned high against excessive eulogy.

They didn’t obey him, of course. Mencken was given an obituary and feted in excelsis, as he still is. And now a walloping, meticulously scholarly biography adds perhaps the last few hundred thousand words to a reputation he would surely have shrugged away. For, at heart, this gruff, iconoclastic guy was right about himself and his trade. There’s a hole in your bucket, dear Henry, and the water of history pours through it.

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