6. H.L. Mencken on Americana, agnosticism, and propaganda

A masterful wordsmith and literary critic, Henry Louis (H.L.) Mencken (1880-1956) was widely regarded in his time as one of America's most talented writers. In 2002, the Atlantic's Jonathan Yardley called Mencken "the greatest of all American journalists," adding: 

"No matter where his writing appeared, it was quoted widely, his pungently outspoken ideas debated hotly. Nobody else could make so many people so angry, or make so many others laugh so hard."

In 1948, Donald Howe Kirkley Sr., a reporter and editor with the Baltimore Sun, interviewed a cigar-chomping Mencken at the behest of the Library of Congress:


The only known recording of H.L. Mencken's voice, this exchange provides a glimpse into the mind of Mencken. From the outset, Mencken's razor-sharp wit is on full display. When Kirkley asks Mencken for his impression of the street they followed to the sound studio in which the interview took place, Mencken calls it "a disgrace to humanity ... because it represents the American lust for the hideous, the delight for ugliness for its own sake, and very appropriately, it leads to the capital of the United States."

H.L. MenckenMencken recounts the story of having seen Jack Dempsey fight Georges Carpentier in 1921. Dempsey won the fight, but it was widely reported that Carpentier had staggered Dempsey, nearly knocking him out. Mencken disputed the claim. Eventually, someone decided to ask the boxers themselves if the claim was true. Both fighters denied it, with Carpentier saying he didn't think he'd made any impression on Dempsey whatsoever. From this experience, Mencken sagely concluded, "People believe what they want to believe ... So-called 'experts' are just ordinary men at bottom. You can't trust their judgment in an emotional situation any more than you can trust anybody else's."

Starting at 46:10, Mencken discusses his agnosticism and his advocacy of free speech "up to the last limits of the endurable," as well as his belief that "the whole country is full of propagandists who are bothering everybody all the time." He later bemoans the consolidation of media outlets that was then unfolding with the rise of television, comments presaging a trend that continues to this day.

If you admire Mencken's work, or wish to learn a bit more about the "Sage of Baltimore," this interview is a delight. The Wry Guys celebrate the humor and courage Mencken exhibited throughout his career of speaking 'truth to power,' and several of our products feature Mencken quotes. So snap up a Tee today and make the world wry!


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