Mencken’s Life As Told Through His Own Writing

H.L Mencken, himself, is so controversial – people either love him or hate him. Mencken, similarly, had this view on so many topics. He is remembered for being outspoken and daring for voicing opinions that nobody else would. Yet, the man behind all of the incredible, thought-provoking, emotion evoking writing is just as interesting. For this exhibition, I will focus on Mencken’s life as told through his own writing. It will be interesting to see how a man who is opinionated about everything could illustrate his own life.

In class, we learned about how much he wanted his writing to live on after he did. He released a new part of his Days series one year at a time during his lifetime. Then, by planning some of his works to be published after his death, he was able to keep the anticipation for his new works to live on. I was especially intrigued to know about the life he led. He sounds so cynical – how happy could Happy Days truly be? Would his journals show any vulnerabilities he had or provide a glimpse into his more personal life? Or would he still have a persona created for an audience who expects biting writing?

Two of the objects I have chosen for my exhibition are Happy Days and Thirty-Five Years of Newspaper Work. With Happy Days, Heathen Days, Newspaper Days and Thirty-Five Years of Newspaper Work, the majority of his life is covered in different installments. I am curious about how the works flow together, and how they would individually offer insight into his life. Additionally, each of the works was written at a different period of his life – I want to explore if the time when he wrote the memoir affects his view on his own life.

Happy Days, 1942, War Edition, Cover
H.L Mencken, Happy Days: 1880-1892, New York : Armed Services Editions, [1944], ©1940. Cover. Photo by Astha Berry
H.L. Mencken ; edited by Fred Hobson, Vincent Fitzpatrick, Bradford McE. Jacobs, Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, ©1994. Cover. Photo by Astha Berry

I am drawn to an exhibition focusing on his diaries and autobiographies because I love to journal. When I journal or write in my diary, I am usually not thinking about how other people will perceive what I write about. It is usually an account of my day so I can look back on it later and remember how I felt about a certain issue or a general outpouring of feelings. Mencken did not use it in this therapeutic manner; rather he wanted his legacy to live on. By allowing accounts of different time periods of his life to be released after his death, he had an audience in mind as he created his memoir. He also knew that he could voice his radical opinions after his death to continue to shock people without rebuke. The quality of his work could be appreciated if the reader cared for his outspoken ideas, but the quantity of his works is irrefutablely amazing. Very few writers have written as extensively and broadly as Mencken – the fact that he took time out to document his own life on top of all of the writing and editing he already did is awe-inspiring to me.

Link to Happy Days:

Link to Thirty-Five Years of Newspaper Work:


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