By His Own Rules
H. L. Mencken, a cigar always in hand, was the most influential commentator of his time.
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Then one summer afternoon, as if to console his son, August quit lecturing and confided his own story. His dream, as it turned out, was to be an engineer. It began with an early interest in mathematics. At 20, August had realized that engineering required long and laborious preparation and quietly gave up the notion. In the end, business had always been a sort of engineering for him: long before graphs and efficiency experts, he could make elaborate statistical analysis of his own business. That summer was the last of August's life. There was a sadness to the confidence: the fate of a man who had been successful in all his endeavors, save the one secreted in his heart. Bitterly unhappy, Henry Mencken remained the dutiful son and chose not to rebel for the time being, yet he anxiously dreaded the moment when he would have to do so.
That moment, however, never arrived. For the next two weeks following his collapse on New Year's Eve, August languished in bed, drifting in and out of a coma. Mencken could scarcely recognize his father: the husky, formidable man had lost 20 pounds and become a gaunt, helpless figure. Often he had tremendous convulsions, and it was up to Mencken and his brother to hold their father down before he collapsed feebly on the pillows, his eyes glazed and unseeing. It seemed incongruous: the man who, in his son's eyes had never lost his capacity to resolve any difficulty, was now struggling vainly against death. The exhausted family took turns watching him. Finally, on January 13, August Mencken died.
As he lay sleeping in next room, Mencken's uncle awoke him with the news. The boy climbed the stairs, lay on his bed and thought about the man whom he had resented and yet admired. On Monday afternoon, a black ribbon wreathed the door of 1524 Hollins Street. Inside family, friends and Freemasons gathered, and then proceeded to the cemetary. As the coffin was lowered into the ground, Henry Louis Mencken, now head of the household, stood by his family, grieved but determined to enter "the maddest, gladdest existence ever enjoyed by mortal youth."
He lost no time in clearing out of August Mencken & Bro. His father and uncle had an agreement whereby in case of the death of either, the survivor would have the right to buy out the dead partner's heirs at once. This was done. Almost immediately, H. L. Mencken applied for a job at the Baltimore Herald, and eventually plunged into the job at $7 a week, heedless of his Aunt Pauline's warnings that all newspapermen were enormous boozers and that large numbers of them died in the gutter.
Much to Mencken's surprise, his mother supported his decision. For some time, she quietly told him, she had been well aware of his unhappiness at the factory and his fervent wish to become a journalist. She also had not relished the prospect of seeing her son associated as the partner of Uncle Harry, for whose business talents she had a very low opinion. With her son's advice, she sold her shares of the stocks to her brother-in-law, who mismanaged the factory until its collapse in 1927. When his uncle and a cousin unceremoniously dumped the ledgers with notebooks full of careful figures into a trash heap in an alley, it was H. L. Mencken who dusted them off and had them carefully bound in blue Moroccan leather, a permanent record of his father's monument and his own unhappy adolescence.
So it was in his eighteenth year that H. L. Mencken sailed forth from the portals of his father's cigar factory into the world beyond. Until his own death in 1956, Mencken listed himself in editions of Who's Who as "Journalist," but it was followed by: "Son of Cigarmaker, August Mencken, of August Mencken & Bro."
Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the editor of The Impossible H. L. Mencken: a Selection of His Best Newspaper Stories (Doubleday/Anchor, 1991), Mencken & Sara: A Life in Letters (Doubleday/Anchor, 1992). She currently is working on a biography about Mencken to be published by Oxford University Press.