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H.L. Mencken on the Writing Life

"One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms"


H.L. Mencken on the Writing Life

H.L. Mencken (1880-1956)

In Chapter 13 of his autobiography, Black Boy, novelist Richard Wright recalls his first encounter with H. L. Mencken's powerful prose:

I opened A Book of Prejudices and began to read. I was jarred and shocked by the style, the clear, clean, sweeping sentences. Why did he write like that? And how did one write like that? I pictured the man as a raging demon, slashing with his pen. I read on and what amazed me was not what he said, but how on earth anybody had the courage to say it. . . . I identified myself with that book.
Editor, social critic, and longtime journalist with The Baltimore Sun, Mencken inspired many young writers in the 1920s. And though he died ("deoxidized," he would say) half a century ago, his rip-roaring style--witty, combative, yet graceful--continues to "stir up the animals" and attract fresh admirers.

A serious student of language (see his ground-breaking work, The American Language), Mencken was keenly aware of its limitations. "Words are veils," he wrote in a letter to critic Fanny Butcher. "It is hard enough to put into them what one thinks; it is a sheer impossibility to put into them what one feels." Such skepticism, however, never kept him from trying.

Here, in passages drawn from articles and reviews written between 1910 and 1950, are some of Mencken's observations on the writing trade--and some invigorating lessons on how not to be a dull writer.

The Loneliness of Writing

The writing profession is reeking with this loneliness. All our lives we spend in discoursing with ourselves. . . . The loneliest people in the world we writers are. Except that, while we are conversing and laughing with ourselves, we manage to shed our loneliness . . . to scatter it as we go along.
("What a Life!" 1928; quoted by Fred Hobson in Mencken: A Life, Random House, 1994)

The Author's Vanity

Why, then, do rational men and women engage in so barbarous and exhausting a vocation? What keeps them from deserting it for trades that are less onerous, and, in the public eye, more respectable? The answer, it seems to me, is as plain as mud. An author is simply a man in whom the normal vanity of all men is so vastly exaggerated that he finds it a sheer impossibility to hold it in. His overpowering impulse is to gyrate before his fellow men, flapping his wings and emitting his defiant yells. This being forbidden by the Polizei of all civilized countries, he takes it out by putting his yells on paper. Such is the thing called self-expression.
("On Literary Gents," The Chicago Sunday Tribune, June 20, 1926)

Prose and Poetry

Prose is simply a form of writing in which the author intends that his statements shall be accepted as conceivably true, even when they are about imaginary persons and events; its appeal is to the fully conscious and alert reasoning man. Poetry is a form of writing in which the author attempts to disarm reason and evoke emotion, partly by presenting images that awaken a powerful response in the subconscious and partly by the mere sough and blubber of words.
("The Poet and His Art," Smart Set, June 1920)

The Mencken Style

My style of writing is chiefly grounded upon an early enthusiasm for [Thomas Henry] Huxley, the greatest of all masters of orderly exposition. He taught me the importance of giving to every argument a simple structure. As for the fancy work on the surface, it comes chiefly from an anonymous editorial writer in the New York Sun, circa 1900. He taught me the value of apt phrases. My vocabulary is pretty large; it probably runs to 25,000 words. It represents much labor. I am constantly expanding it. I believe that a good phrase is better than a Great Truth--which is usually buncombe. I delight in argument. not because I want to convince, but because argument itself is an end.
(Letter to Burton Rascoe, summer 1920. Reprinted in The American Scene: A Reader, Knopf, 1965)

The Iconoclast

The iconoclast proves enough when he proves by his blasphemy that this or that idol is defectively convincing--that at least one visitor to the shrine is left full of doubts. The liberation of the human mind has been best furthered by gay fellows who heaved dead cats into sanctuaries and then went roistering down the highways of the world, proving to all men that doubt, after all, was safe--that the god in the sanctuary was a fraud. One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms.
("The Iconoclast," reprinted in A Mencken Chrestomathy)

The Rhetoric of William Jennings Bryan

I heard all the famous rhetoricians of his generation, from Chauncey M. Depew to W. Bourke Cockran, and it is my sober judgment, standing on the brink of eternity, that he was the greatest of them all. His voice had something of the caressing richness of Julia Marlowe's, and he could think upon his feet much better than at a desk. The average impromptu speech, taken down by a stenographer, is found to be a bedlam of puerile cliches, thumping non sequiturs and limping, unfinished sentences. But Jennings emitted English that was clear, flowing, and sometimes not a little elegant, in the best sense of the word. Every sentence had a beginning, a middle and an end. The argument, three times out of four, was idiotic, but it at least hung together.
("Beaters of Breasts," from Heathen Days, Knopf, 1943)

On Journalism

I edited both newspapers and magazines, some of them successes and some of them not, and got a close, confidential view of the manner in which opinion is formulated and merchanted on this earth. My own contributions to the mess ran to millions of words, and I came to know intimately many of its most revered confectioners. More than once I have staggered out of editorial conferences dripping cold sweat, and wondering dizzily how God got along for so many years without the New Republic and the Manchester Guardian. And at other times I have marveled that the human race did not revolt against the imposture, dig up the carcass of Johann Gutenberg, and heave it to the buzzards and hyenas in some convenient zoo.
(Preface to Newspaper Days, Knopf, 1941)

Concluded on page two.

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