I discovered Henry Mencken when I was in grade school. It was the late forties and I came across an article about him in Life Magazine. His health was failing and reading had become a struggle for him. The article commented how sad it was that someone who so loved to read was losing the capability. Mencken was a journalist and a few of his comments were quoted. I don’t remember what they were, but they had me laughing out loud.
I must have mentioned the article to my mom. My parents both wanted me to discover the pleasures that come from reading, and they were quick to respond by delivering a copy of A Mencken Chrestomathy. It might have been a Christmas present. I don’t know. But if they’d been familiar with the book they would never have let me near it. I loved it. I developed a passion for Mencken which has never gone away.
He mocked elements of our society that he considered silly. Like getting into World War I. He didn’t care for politics, thought marriage was a bad idea, rejected religion, couldn’t understand why anyone favored prohibition, and so on. He did extensive literary criticism. And he was connected with most of the American literary figures of the first half of the 20th century.
I’ve added other Mencken books to the Chrestomathy. (Don’t ask me what the word means.
I’ve always assumed he made it up.) I’ve loved them all. I discovered another one recently that I’d forgotten we had: Sara Mayfield’s biography The Constant Circle. Sara was a friend of his, and grew up with Sara Haardt, who became Mencken’s wife. (And yes, he was hard on marriage but he apparently was just kidding.) Other girls close to her included Zelda Sayre, who would be the famous future wife of Scott Fitzgerald, and Tallulah Bankhead.
They were an interesting crowd.
I liked Mencken so much that back when I’d read the story in Life, I remember thinking how much I’d enjoy meeting the guy. Decades later, I found myself writing about Gregory MacAllister, a journalist who became a friend of Priscilla Hutchins. I may not have been aware at the time, but MacAllister was based on Henry.