NEAR BEER
by
PHILIP R. LIEBSON, M.D.

Delivered to The Chicago Literary Club
May 5, 1997

Words, Words, Words

There was a time in my adolescence when I thought of becoming a journalist. I was working on the high school newspaper, the Beacon. The name referred to the prominent cylinder atop the sprawling brick school building. It was said that the school's swimming pool was in the beacon, because when the building was planned there were funds either for the tower or the pool.

The faculty adviser for the newspaper was Mr. Kernan, who also taught my journalism course. Most of the course was an exposition of the great writing in the New Yorker with special emphasis on AJ Liebling, the Wayward Pressman and Joseph Mitchell, among others. As one cultivates a taste for olives, or beer, I cultivated a taste for words. Mr. Kernan implored us to take a blank sheet of paper, write words, words, words on top of it, and then list the most interesting words we heard - names or objects. He was interested in the sounds of the English language.Words that reverberated.

He emphasized the difficulty of imparting realistic conversations to paper, and the difficulties in using dialect and slang in serious writing. On several occasions, he mentioned the critical faculties of some American critics and journalists, and particularly used HL Mencken as an example.

Years later I came across a volume of Mencken's The American Language, one of several sprawling volumes devoted to the evidence that British and American English were diverging like the continents they occupied. Here, indeed, were words, words, words, every conceivable category. Fascinated, I devoted most of a two day stay in a New England bungalow to reading the volume. Here was detailed the early "alarums" among the English literati of the divergence of the language by the heathen Americans. Foremost in this group of alarm sounders was Samuel Johnson. In the American Language, Mencken frequently quotes or mentions Johnson, mostly in an informational context, but occasionally quite critically.

As I read further into the lives, thoughts, and works of Johnson and Mencken, I sensed a competition over time, two men of different centuries, each creating an enormous impact on language and criticism.

In this Corner...

Samuel Johnson and Henry Louis Mencken were much different in appearance and attitudes but had many intriguing similarities. Each lived 75 years and several months- within 1 months of each other. Mencken was born on September 12, 1880, Johnson on September 7th or 18th, 1709, depending on whether the old or new calendar was used- averaging the two it was also September 12th. Both were the centers of any conversation they held, both were vigorous club joiners, both enjoyed the ambience of the tavern or saloon if you will, had strong prejudices and both contributed pivotal works of scholarship which influenced greatly subsequent scholarly activity into philology. With Johnson it was the Dictionary, published first in 1755 and going through 7 editions, the last edition one year after his death in 1784. With Mencken, the American Language ran through 4 editions between 1919 and 1936, and two supplements in 1945 and 1948.

Mencken had been called by writers, especially in the 1920's, the American Johnson. Some of these writers aspired to be the American Johnson's Boswell, without success. Mencken needed a Boswell as much as Barnum needed a press agent.

Now a few brush strokes of portraiture. Before embarking upon my studies of Sam Johnsons's life and times, I pictured him as an aristocratic pipe smoking, bewigged, neatly attired, smug tory at the head of a table in a tavern, with a roaring fire behind him, a pint of ale in front of him, and Boswell sitting on a footstool by his side taking copious notes of Sam's epigrams. Phrases by others include dear old Dr. Johnson... the great clubman... the literary dictator...the tory.

Boswell, in fact, having studied law reluctantly at the behest of his father, left his native Edinburgh and first encountered Johnson when Sam was 53 and Boswell in his early 20's, after Sam had published his Dictionary. Boswell had recently moved to London to seek the exciting life. He spent no more than 300 days in Johnson's company, overall, which included a three month jaunt to the antipodes of Scotland. His first encounter with Johnson left a clear impression which was somewhat different than what I had pictured:

Boswell encountered "a man of most dreadful appearance. He is a very big man, is troubled with sore eyes, the palsy, and the king's evil. He is very slovenly in his dress. His suit of clothes looked rusty, he had on a little old shriveled unpowdered wig, which was too small for his head; his shirt-neck and knees of his breeches were loose; and he had a pair of unbuckled shoes by way of slippers, and speaks with a most uncouth voice. yet his great knowledge and strength of expression command vast respect." Boswell looked forward to this meeting with some trepidation because he was a Scotsman, and knowing the Johnson had a strong prejudice against the Scots. However, Boswell did admit that he came from Scotland, but apologized that he could not help it. Johnson retorted: "That Sir, is what a very great many of your countryman cannot help". Nevertheless, the meeting progressed favorably. They had a good supper followed by two flasks of port and talked into the night.

Johnson's casualness of dress was well known. However, he once visited the writer Oliver Goldsmith in a new suit of clothes and a well-powdered wig, perfectly attired. Sam's dinner partner inquired about this uncharacteristic attire. Johnson replied:

" I hear that Goldsmith, who is a very great sloven, justifies his disregard for cleanliness and decency by quoting my practice, and I am desirous this might show him a better example".

A contemporary account of his eating habits suggested a more fastidious nature: Johnson's notions of eating were nothing less than delicate - a leg of pork boiled till it dropped from the bone: with regard to drink, his liking was for the strongest, as it was not the flavor, but the effect he sought for, and professed to desire."



Johnson had some idiosyncrasies noted by Boswell. "Going along a street in which there were posts, he would carefully lay his hand on each one as he passed, and would go back a considerable distance if he missed one. He also made a ritual of entering a door by taking a number of steps to reach a certain point. If he missed the right number, he would go back and start again."

Johnson was an epigrammist: "A woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on its hinder-legs","Hell is paved with good intentions", and a description of a noted parlimentarian as one with a "mind as narrow as the neck of a vinegar cruet"

As, for Mencken, let us start with a sketch by James Thurber, who knew Mencken as a frequent contributor to the New Yorker magazine.

"Mencken aim[ed] his binoculars and his bung starter at those well-known and badly battered objects of his eloquent scorn and ridicule, the booboisie, the bible belt, the professor doctors, the lunatics of the political area, and the imbeciles infesting literature". Booboisie and bible belt were Mencken neologisms, and lunatics and imbeciles two of his favorite collective descriptors.

He was described by the editor of his recently published letters as:

"...a stubby fellow, shaped like a Michelob keg, with narrow shoulders and a slight stoop. His face was cherubic and his brown hair was parted strictly in the middle. He had bright blue eyes, and a rakish cigar. He dominated every conversation he entered". As you peruse his letters, there is certainly a charming way and an old world manner in some of his phrases, especially to women. As he wrote to a budding flame in the spring of 1915:

"Spring, a decent meal, near beer and a pretty girl - what more had Caesar, Caligula, King Edward....."



He could be, in fact, courtly and reserved, thought of himself as an upper middle class conservative, and sought the company of friendly patricians throughout the East Coast, with a certain noted exception. Unlike Sam Johnson, he was almost always immaculately dressed in public.

Sam and the Restoration

Sam Johnson was born in interesting times. The Glorious revolution had been settled 20 years before, in 1689. Two years before his birth, England and Scotland had united, but Scottish tribal rebellions developed in 1715 and 1745. Eighteenth century England boasted many individuals of energy and genius, Marlborough, Swift, the Pitts, Berkeley, Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke... some were colleagues and clubmen of Johnson's.

He was born and grew up in Lichfield, in the Midlands, of a family of modest circumstances. Despite that, he managed to spend one year at Oxford, in Pembroke College, before his modest financial circumstances forced him to leave. He breakfasted in his room on ale and crust, in an Oxford which, according to Trevelyan was aslumber. There were practically no examinations, the teaching was deplorable, and the number of students had decreased by half as much as in early Stuart times. Even twenty years after Sam's time, less than 200 freshman students matriculated at Oxford in 1750. Sam was one of a number of poor scholars, many of whom were seeking to enter the church. Sam spent 13 months at Oxford reading omniverously. He did find the time to translate Pope's Messiah into Latin verse. He was all of 19 years old.

Another Oxford supplied him with a further opportunity for omniovorous reading a little over a decade later, when he was still struggling to earn a living and a literary reputation. The Earl of Oxford had to sell his enormous library of 40,000 volumes. It was finally sold to Thomas Osborne, a publisher, who had previously hired Sam to assist with the development of a Medicinal Dictionary. Osborne was aware of Sam's scholarly capabilities as he was aware of his need for money, and hired him to catalog the collection. This required at least a short description of the contents of each of the volumes. However, Sam had the time and found it difficult to lay a book down. He must have read at least part of most if not all of the 40,000 volumes in over 3 years. Osborne grew impatient and once scolded Johnson for wasting time. Words came to blows, at least on Johnson's part, and he felled Osborne, who subsequently related this event to others. Many versions of this event subsequently evolved, none to Osborbne's credit. As Sam later accounted:

"He was a blockhead and told of it, which I should never have done; so the blows have been multiplying...I have beat many a fellow, but the rest had the wit to hold their tongues".

Some further years later, when his Dictionary was about to be published and he had finally gained the stature of a literary persona, Sam revisited Pembroke College. Expecting to be greeted with some interest, he was received coldly by the master of the College, who did not even talk with him about the Dictionary, let alone order a copy, never asked Johnson to dine with him, nor even visit him during his stay. Sam commented later to his host at Oxford: "There lives a man, who lives by the revenues of literature, and will not lift a finger to support it." Nonetheless, in recognition of his sevices to literature,Johnson was accorded the honorary M.A. from Oxford, in time for it to appear after his name on the Dictionary.

Johnson started on his Dictionary in 1746 and it took nine years to complete. The monumental scope of this task may be demonstrated by comparison with similar French and Italian dictionaries of the time, which were written by as many as 40 academics. The French dictionary took 40 years to compile.

There had been previous English dictionaries published in the 17th and early 18th centuries, far inferior to French and Italian dictionaries of the period . What distinguished this work was that it was the first one which could be considered a standard dictionary of English, all its predecessors being merely lists of words. It combined for the first time in one work the various functions we now demand in a dictionary. In an English dictionary, for the first time, word-meanings were illustrated by selections from the writings of selected authorities, and full definitions were used, clearly illustrating the multiple meanings of a word.

At the beginning of his labors on the Dictionary, the language was a wasteland. According to Sam:

"When I took the first survey of my undertaking, I found our speech copious without order, and energetic without rules: wherever I turned my view, there was perplexity to be disentangled, and confusion to be regulated".

The Dictionary began with a short overview, or scheme, then elaborated into a more detailed plan, and finally the work began. Over the course of these years, Sam took many words partly from previous dictionaries. He used a room fitted like a counting house for the purpose of compiling the dictionary, and employed six copyists. Johnson marked the passages of word usages by his selected authorities from books and the copyists recorded these on large sheets of paper placed next to the words on a large board.

Boswell noted that "he quoted no author whose writings had a tendency to hurt sound religion and morality".In fact, Sam was quite selective. The scope of writers quoted began as late as 1580 and ended before his contemporaries, with a few exceptions including Chaucer occasionally, his friends, and a few of his own works, although he did not use his own name.

In the course of his labors, Sam found himself almost destitute, and applied to the booksellers for an augmentation of his stipend; that was not only refused but a suit was threatened to compel him to proceed under the original contract. However, Sam showed disdain for these threats, and they finally acceded to his wishes.

The Dictionary was published in 1755 in two large folio volumes, each the size of a lectern bible. Its title provides a sense of its scope:

A DICTIONARY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE: In Which The Words are Deduced from their Originals, and Illustrated in their Different Significations By Examples from the best Writers. To Which Are Prefixed, A History of the Language, And An English Grammar. For your information, a first edition can now be purchased for $16,000. There were 2300 pages of definitions, including 134 definitions of the infinitive "to take". In the first volume alone (A through K), there were 14,000 quotations from the English poets, 8,500 from Shakespeare, over 5,600 from Dryden, 10,000 from philosophers, including 1600 from John Locke. Overall, the two volumes contained over 116,000 quotations. There is at least one person who has admitted to reading the whole Dictionary, Robert Browning, according to one of his biographers.

Here are some selections from the Dictionary. It shows the variability of background, sometimes the simplicity of definition, sometimes a ponderousness, frequently an indication of his biases:

Etch: A country word, of which I know not the meaning.

Excise: A hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of properties, but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid. [Johnson's father had troubles with these tax collectors].

Pension: An allowance made to anyone without an equivalent. In England it is generally understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country. [Pensions were not awarded purely on literary merit until Johnson received his, giving him 300 pounds per annum, a gift of King George. Sam did not decline it.]

Oats: A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.

Ale: Its illustration: A merry meeting used in country places, and all the neighborhood, from old records of antick proverbs drawn from Whitson lords, And their authorities at wakes and ALES, with country precedents, and old wives tales. (Ben Jonson)

Alehouse: It is distinguished from a tavern, where they sell wine.. and its illustration:

One would think it no easy matter to bring any man of sense in love with an ALEHOUSE; indeed of so much sense, as seeing and smelling amounts to; there being strong encounters of both, as would quickly send him packing, did not the love of good fellowship reconcile to these nusances [SIC]. (South)

Porpoise - the sea hog. Illustration: Parch'd withe the unextinguih'd thirst small beer I guzzle till I burst and then I drag the bloated corpus Swell'd with a dropsy like a porpus[SIC] (Swift)

Almonds of the throat: tonsils. Tory: a cant word derived, I suppose from an Irish word signifying a savage.

Lexicographer: A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge...

Tarantula: An insect whose bite is only cured by music.

Some definitions were diamonds of ponderousness:

Network: Any thing reticulated, or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.

Cough: A disease affecting the lungs, vellicated by some sharp serosity.

Some were minimalist:

Boy: a male child, not a girl.

Runner: One that runs. Words, words, words, which never resounded in my journalism class:

Assapanick: a little animal of Virginia, which is said to fly by stretching out its shoulders and skin.

Crambo: a play at which one gives a word, to which another finds a rhyme.

Grig: A merry creature. She laughs to see me pale; and merry as a grig is grown, and brisk as bottle-ale (Swift)

Grubstreet: Originally the name of a street in Moorfields in London, much inhabited by writers of small historic dictionaries and temporary poems whence any mean production is called grubstreet. To his city of birth and his parents' memory.

Lich: A dead carcass. Lichfield, the field of the dead, a city in Staffordshire, so named from martyred Christians. Salve magna parens. Madefaction: The act of making wet.

Moidered: Crazed.[NB - Used in another context in a certain East Coast city until the Brooklyn Dodgers left].

Moon-eyed - Having eyes affected by the revolutions of the moon.

Myropolist - one who sells unguents.

Naulage - the freight of passengers in a ship.

Stingo - old beer.

Sublapsary - Done after the fall of man. Johnson recognized English as a mixed language, with limited inflections, inconstant syntax, and vague use of many words. The Dictionary did much to correct, improve, and ascertain the language. There were no pronunction marks so that the sounds of English were not affected. Of English syntax, he had almost nothing to say. Of spelling, he was responsible for formalizing the -our as in honour, the final k in publick and frolick, and double letters as in waggon that differentiate British from American spelling. Johnson understood that the language would evolve. He stated though that "the one great end of this undertaking is to fix the English language". Indeed he did, and perhaps was significantly responsible for the resemblance of 18th century English to the contemporary language, much more so than the 16th century language was to Johnson.

Johnson's Dictionary had a profound influence on English letters, of course, but the reverberations on this side of the Atlantic were somewhat muted. Our own classic lexicographer, Noah Webster, gave it a mixed review. Webster indicated that Sam's writings in philology had the effects of Newton's discoveries had in mathematics, but unfortunately led to an interruption in the thread of progress by others of this branch of learning because of its rapid leap.

In the body of the Dictionary, Webster found fault with every department of the work, from the word list on. He felt that some "cant words" used were "too low to deserve notice". Cant words are sometimes defined as the private language of the underworld, and not necessarily slang, which was a word not yet used in Johnson's time. Webster continued - "Had a native of the United States introduced such vulgar words and offensive ribaldry into a similar work, what columns of abuse would have issued from the Johnsonian presses...!" Webster's American dictionary of 1806 made a sweep of words in which the vowel is not pronounced (- using -or for -our, or double letters (wagon, for waggon), also lopping off the final k in publick and frolick.

Johnson indeed used "cant" words in the Dictionary, but felt it important to include them for completeness, although he indicated clearly those words which he felt would sully the English language. Such words (for Johnson), included bamboozle (a later favorite of Mencken), barbarous, fib, fun, stingy. Sam read the death warrant for words such as glee, jeopardy, to smoulder. Americans, largely separated from his influence, went on cherishing these words.

Our American Cousins

We have implied that Johnson hated all things or persons American, although he admitted an American born author, Charlotte Lennox, to his Dictionary with the word talent. Not talented, though. This was a vile and intolerable Americanism. According to Mencken, Johnson used tomahawk in the Idler, a London periodical, but disguised it as tom-ax.

Sam sneered in a review about the "mixture of American dialect"in a series of essays published in Philadelphia around the time the Dictionary was first published. He called the essays "a tract of corruption". Such words which a later literary critic felt he objected to included portage, statehouse, creek, gap, spur, branch, uplands.

Several centuries later, Winston Churchill, uninfluenced by this list, used the last word in of one his most remarkable speeches at he time of the fall of France in 1940:(6/18/40): " ...the life of the world may move forward into broad sunlit, uplands".

Of the misuse of American dialect, some of the worst inventions were by the British. An example from Dickens' Mugsby Junction, as cited by Mencken in The American Language:

"And if I hain't found the eighth wonder of monarchial Creation, as finding Yew, and Yewer young ladies, and Yewre fixin's solid and liquid, all as aforsaid, established in a country where the people air not absolute Loonatocks, I am Extra Double Darned with a Nip and a Frizzle to the innermost grit. Wheerfur - Theer' - I la'af. I Dew, ma'arm, I la'af".

This was supposed to be Yankee dialect. Even English critics denounced it.

For comparison, here is the real thing, from Ring Lardner's Busher's Letters Home, circa 1915. A rookie pitcher (busher) is in Charlie Comiskey's office. Comiskey is, of course, the White Sox President. The busher is relating the events:

"He says Young Man will you have a drink? But I was too smart and wouldn't take nothing. He says You with Terre Haute? I says Yes I was. He says Well do you want to sign? I says Oh no I got good control. He asks What is my figure and I says three thousand dollars per annum. He says Don't you want the office furniture too? Then he says I thought you was a ball-player and I didn't know you wanted to buy my park".

When the American settlers raised the cry of no taxation without representation, Johnson pointed out that if this principle held good for taxation it should apply to every kind of law. Should this also be the attitude of the party defeated at the polls?

At a dinner, he expounded further on the Americans." [They] are a race of convicts and ought to be thankful for anything we allow them short of hanging". He was willing to love all mankind " except an American". He had several American friendships. These included Benjamin Franklin and another Samuel Johnson, a Yale graduate and the first President of Columbia University, called King's College in those days. The College was founded the year before the Dictionary was published, indicating that 1754-1755 was notable for Samuel Johnsons on both sides of the Atlantic.

Johnson saw America as a large empty country in which" a tiny handful of planters were growing rich by lashing the backs of slaves... Why is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes?" In addition to impassioned denunciation of slavery, Johnson also took to task the harshness of criminal law and imprisonment for debt.

He had a choice comment on the Scots as well:" It is not so much to be lamented that old England is lost, as that the Scotch have found it."

Sam also thought poorly of the Irish. He told Boswell that Ireland was "the last place where I should wish to travel." "Is not the Giant's Causeway worth seeing? " "Worth seeing? Yes. But not worth going to see."

Sam further remarked that "The Irish are not in a conspiracy to cheat the world by false representation of the merits of their country. No sir, the Irish are a fair people - they never speak well of one another". Wakes and Ales Johnson and Mencken were both clubmen, but their attitudes toward alcohol, the composition of the clubs and the thrust of conversation was different. Johnson's clubmembers were predominantly of the new middle class. However of his aptly named Literary Club, 19 of the 44 members had some title by the end of their lives, 12 on merit. Johnson felt that the Club could constitute a university, with Boswell, a lawyer, teaching civil and scotch law, Garrick, the art of public speaking, Oliver Goldsmith, poetry and ancient history, Joshua Reynolds painting, and Sam himself logic, metaphysics and scholastic divinity. There is some truth to the possibility that his club members may have rivaled Oxford or Cambridge of that period in their knowledge and productivity. One evening, subjects ranged from marble sculpture, to the triumph of man's contrivances, to the challenges of emigration, to parliamentary oratory, to philology, to travel. Johnson once remarked,"as soon as I enter the door of a tavern, I experience the oblivion of care and a freedom from solicitude".

Although at age 23, Johnson had passed out one evening with one of his hard-drinking relatives, there was only one other time that Johnson was claimed to be drunk in public, attested by fellow clubmember Sir Joshua Reynolds. He saw Johnson drink three bottles of wine at dinner and appeared so drunk that : he was unable to articulate a hard word which occurred in the course of his conversation". This was hardly a condition of severe intoxication. Johnson abstained from wine and spirits for long periods, especially after the death of his wife Tetty, who was 20 years his elder, and who frequently drank in her bedroom while Sam was out at his club. He could not drink in moderation " for what ferments the spirits may also derange the intellect, and the means employed to counteract dejection may hasten the approach of madness".

Sam however considered himself a hardened and shameless tea drinker, whose kettle has scarely time to cool.." Tea was a "liquor not proper to the lower classes of people".

His associates, however, were not reluctant to imbibe in his presence. This occurred frequently at his clubs and also at the large dinners tended by Henry Thrale, a rich brewer with a thriving business , who frequently entertained Sam and his friends. Once at dinner, David Garrick, the actor and impressario, asked Johnson what was the greatest pleasure in life. Johnson gave the obvious first answer and said that drinking was second. He also wondered why there were not more drunkards, for all could drink but not all were successful with the dynamics of the first pleasure.

Johnson once proposed to members of his Club that they should celebrate the first novel of a woman acquaintance. The clubmembers met that evening at the Devil Tavern - a famous haunt of literary men. Johnson was going through one of his periods of abstinence, but he was going on lemonade so buoyantly that at 5 am, when most of the company was groggy and buckling, his face, according to Boswell, "shown with meridional spendour", and he called for a fresh supply of coffee to revive the fallen. Unfortunately the waiters had to be awakened to respond.

On his long sojourn in Scotland with Boswell, he touched not a drop until, after several weeks of traveling, they came to an inn after getting soaked during a torrential rain. He sat in his wet clothes, called for a gill of whiskey, and remarked to Boswell. "Come, let us know what it is to make a Scotchman happy".

He rarely censured a man for drinking too much but " I would not keep company with a fellow who lies as long as he is sober, and whom you must make drink before you can get a word of truth out of him".

From his experiences with the Medicinal Dictionary, he occasionally assisted indisposed friends with remedies. For a woman of his acquaintance who was ill with indigestion, he advise an ounce of dried orange peel, finely powdered, in a glass of hot red port. "It is a medicine not disgusting, not costly, easily tried".

Hester Thrale, the brewer's wife, was a close friend of Sam's and when his wife Tetty, whom he married when he was 25 and she 45, passed away, in 1752, when Sam was in his early 40's, he became closer friends of the Thrales and traveled with them to the continent on several occasions. Thrale died in 1781, when Johnson himself was in his early 70's and left Johnson one of 4 executors of his estate. This included the brewery which Sam was opposed to having Hester sell, but she need the money. The brewery had almost been burned to the ground a few months before Thrale's death when a mob, rioting throughout London, invaded the grounds with torches. The mob had been stopped only when the quick thinking brewery manager regaled the crowd with beer and food until the troops arrived

Over the next several years Sam and Hester drifted apart. Soon after Hester finally left him, Sam suffered a paralytic stroke leaving him temporarily speechless. In order to rouse his vocal chords he took two drams of wine because "wine has been celebrated for the production of eloquence", and repeated it, to no avail.

At the end of his life, Sam returned to his earlier habit of drinking wine regularly, usually alone. He liked full bodied, sweet wines. "Claret is liquor for boys, port for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy".

In 1783, 74 years old, he returned to London and formed his last club, which met in a tavern still flourishing today, the Essex Head. Illness and the ravages of age descended upon him over the next year. On December 13, 1784, he died quietly.

The Second Most Famous Son of Baltimore

He lived in the same house most of his life, 1524 Hollins Street, from the age of three, except for the five years during the 1930's when he was married to a woman with severe tuberculosis, where they lived in an apartment several miles away. He was reputed to have the best private linguistics library in America. His wife Sara Haardt, died in 1935, a year before the fourth edition of the American language was printed. Sam Johnson experienced a similar sense of loss when his Tetty died several years before the Dictionary was published.

Henry Louis Mencken had his champions. Walter Lippman called him " the most powerful personal influence on this whole generation of educated people".Edmund Wilson considered him the "unmistakable product of Puritan training and environment", who emerged, however, as a prime foe of Puritanism. Unlike Johnson, the church meant little to Mencken. Wilson remarked further that "nobody but a man steeped in Puritanism could have so much to say about love yet never convey any idea of its beauties and delights". He was compared to Samuel Johnson by one litterateur. "The closest embodiment of the Johnsonian type of literary dictatorship the United states has ever known". Other American editors and writers were equally impressed" The nearest thing to Voltaire that America has produced". "The most civilized man in America"and " The Ghengis Khan of the campus".His first biographer, in 1925, was praised as "Mencken's Boswell". Mencken's Boswell considered the Mercury editor the dominant intellectual force in his time. All these encomiums erupted in the 1920's, when Mencken peaked in popularity.

Indeed, Mencken had his loves, before Sara, whom he married when he was almost 50. He had numerous woman friends who found him charming and attractive. A characteristic comment in his letters to them was " I kiss your hand".

Unlike Sam Johnson, he achieved success at an early age, and was a featured columnist for the Baltimore Sun in his 20's, a co-editor of Smart Set, a literary magazine in his 30's, and sole editor if the American Mercury, a magazine of considerable influence, in his forties.

Like Johnson, Mencken could make some polemical statements which, taken at face value, would misinterpret his true feelings. :" I have lived in the United States all my life without becoming, in any deep sense, an American". This from a third generation American who was born on Defender's day, September 12, 1880, the anniversary of the siege of Baltimore during the War of 1812.

Mencken first saw his work in print when he was 16, in the Baltimore American. It was a poem, "Ode to the Pennant on the Centerfield Pole". This referred to the pennant won by the Baltimore Orioles Baseball team, which had won the National league Pennant the previous year. The last two lines of the poem , curiously , predicted the last quarter of his life:

For though thy head full high may raise, We know thou hast seen better days. His interest in baseball, or in all sports, for that matter, was transient. He was a music lover, particularly German music, and his Saturday Night Club abounded with these gemutlich airs, with Mencken at the piano. Members were Baltimore friends with musical skills and an appetite for beer. He was very conscious of his German heritage. A distant great cousin, Johan Burkhard Mencke, the n was added later, took his PhD at the University of Leipzig at 20, traveled to London, and became a member of the Royal Society at 24, in 1698, eleven years before Sam Johnson was born. He later edited the Acta Eritorum, considered the first learned journal in Germany. Johann died the year George Washington was born and the year Sam Johnson was first seen publicly drunk.

Mencken's interest in language stemmed from his vast reading in the Enoch Pratt Free Library during his teenage years (in those days the word meant wild shrubbery and was pronounced teenage). This amounted to an average of three books a week over five years. Mencken himself felt that his fascination with American speech may have had its origins in the early boyhood trips he took to Washington,DC, with his father, who owned a cigar factory and dealt in tobacco. During these trips, they visited neighborhood saloons, where he was charmed by the "argot of the colored waiters" and a " great deal of [other] philological interest". He was particularly interested in slang, cant, the private language of the underworld, and argot, a secret and idiomatic vocabulary of a group. Mencken had some strong opinions about Sam Johnson. He was "the first rotarian", not a compliment from Mencken," the Theodore Roosevelt of the 18th century", a writer "who left such wounds upon English prose it was a century recovering from them".

He considered that no eminent lexicographer was more ignorant of speechways than Sam Johnson, with his thunderous abuse of many words recognized in Mencken's time and now as sound English. "Under the influence of Johnson and his nineteenth century apes , the standard Southern dialect of English has been arrested in its growth and burdened with irrational affectations". From Johnson, it was a short step to the American pedagogues of Mencken's time, who "teach pronunciation quite foreign to this country and inculcate grammatical niceties that was concocted when English grammar was assumed to be a type of Latin grammar". All, Mencken believed, due to Samuel Johnson's influence on the American public schools. This was a bit unfair to Johnson, who in no way emphasized grammar, either in his Dictionary, or in any other works.

Mencken, in fact, "venerated the England of old", but felt that contemporary Britain was a contrast of "puerile, moralizing and silly pettifogging...mobocracy". It would not be an exaggeration to say that Mencken could see some justification for the German side in both World Wars in regard to perfidious Albion.

With HL Mencken, extreme language was a common approach. For another example, "the vast region south of the Potomac is as large as Europe... And yet it is as sterile, artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert." His favorite name for the South was the Sahara of the Bozarts. As for America in general , he felt that its citizens constituted "the most timorous, sniveling, poltroonish, ignominious mobs of serfs ever gathered under one flag in Christendom since the middle ages". As for its leaders, George Washington "would be under indictment by every grand jury south of the Potomac". Lincoln was "a tammany Nietzsche", Harding's English " a string of wet sponges".Coolidge - "a cheap and trashy fellow". Hoover - " where his character ought to be is almost a blank". Roosevelt II and Truman were, for him, beyond description.

English vs. English

The American Language was the nearest thing to a scholarly work that Mencken ever produced. It began with articles he had written for the Baltimore Morning Herald in 1902, at the age of 21, on the language of vaudeville, racetrack, and popular songs. By 1910, he had moved to the Evening Sun, where he discussed at length the "Two Englishes", noting the major differences in vocabulary and idiom of British and American English.

The first volumes of The American Language were published in 1919, and came about when Mencken had to tone down his strong opinions about America's participation in the Great War, and led him to the relatively neutral territory of language. Although Churchill later "marshalled the English language and sent it into battle", Mencken saw himself as neither a teacher, prophet nor reformer, but merely an inquirer who attempted to make the first sketch of the living speech of the United states.

The American Language led to the systematic investigation of American English. Mencken considerably influenced professional scholars and laymen interested in the nature and origins of language. So popular was the American Language that three editions were published between 1919 and 1923. At that time, the Linguistic Society of America was founded, various scientific linguistic journals, and two influential references, the Dictionary of American English and the English Language in America. Mencken, meanwhile, went on to social criticism during most of the 1920's and early 30's and finally produced the fourth edition only after he had left the editorship of the American Mercury.

The thesis of the work changed between the first and fourth editions, from the divergence of American and British English, to the evidence that British English was becoming a dialect of American.

The work consisted of discussions and numerous word examples of the two streams of English, beginnings of the American language and period of growth, the language today, the pronunciation of American, contrasts of current English and American, American spelling, the common speech, proper names in America, slang, cant, and argot, and the future of the language. He had planned to discuss the language of gesture, children, cattle brands and animal calls but never got around to it.

In the one volume abridged edition, published in 1963, seven years after Mencken's death, there were listed 200 differences between American and English terms. Examples included American beer v. English lager, American ale v. English bitter, American highball v. English whiskey and soda, American saloonkeeper (now outmoded) with English publican. Reading the section on Surviving Differences, one learns that the English employ no bartender , the barmaid does the work, with maybe a cellarman or barman to help. Beer is generic in Britain, the cheapest being bitter, brews consisting normally of light ale, brown ale, dark ale and stout. Elsewhere, one may learn how O.K. came into the language [probably in the early 1830's during a summer when it was a fashion to use initials and misspellings [for Ol'Korrect]. That this has become an accepted part of the language is evidenced by the large OK space that I must click on my computer to authorize my electronic signature on my echocardiography reports.

The footnotes indicate a considerable and diverse research. Mencken from earliest adulthood subscribed to a newspaper clipping service, and had at his fingertips many citations. Aside from newspaper clippings, he freely used references from the American Journal of Philology, Dictionary of American English, Oxford English Dictionary, among others, and of course, Noah Webster's dictionary from 1806.Many of the citations are from Samuel Johnson.

The Abridged Edition closes not with a neat summary or a remonstrance but with the vision of an English poet, Samuel Daniel, at the close of the 16th century. The last lines are

"What worlds in the' yet unformed Occident may come refin'd with th'accentes that are ours?" The gestation period of some of the later supplements of The American Language was difficult, as can be illustrated by Mencken's diaries from 1942-1948.

1943: Another crazy woman has been badgering me... This nuisance afflicts me at a time when I am up to my ears in the supplement to "The American Language" and am feeling extremely rocky physically... This country is swarming with such lunatics.

1944: If I had been able to keep up the pace I set when the supplement...was begun... I'd be near the end of it now...But the number of days on which I am incapacitated increases steadily.. [I have] a persistent pain in the solar plexus... and all day I have felt full in the head....

1944: Tonight... I finished the first volume of the Supplement...I have just gotten through a [bad] attack of hay fever.

1944. I have finished the typescript to volume I...I Have... a dry cough, there is a sore spot on my lower lip that refused to heal, and my sleep is more or less disturbed.

1947: After finishing the revision of the second supplement...there have been frequent symptoms of arterial disturbances- flashes of light before the eyes, a full feeling in the head, a dull ache in the occipital region, a numbness of the lips.

1947: I have felt wretched of late...It felt like influenza accompanied... by pains in the legs..Maybe I actually had an infection...I have put in my time ... reading proof on Supplement II.

1948: Save for the galley-proofs.. no more remains..I feel singularly at ease [with] a feeling of physical well -being, This, of course, won't last.

On November 23, 1948, he developed a massive cerebral thrombosis which temporarily left him speechless. The stroke permanently damaged certain brain areas which left him without the ability to read or write, and effectively ended his literary career.

Near Beer

Mencken, like Johnson, had his peculiarities, Mencken's being the number 13 or its reverse, considered a bad omen. His mother, Anna Mencken, died on December 13th. His father died on Friday the 13th. His wife died on May 31st (13 backwards). But it was a Friday. His sisterinlaw died on the 13th. He just missed the 13th of September by 3 hours when he was born. He almost added another page when he noticed that his volume Newspaper Days was 313 pages( 13 both ways, he pointed out). Following this, on examining his earlier published companion volume, Happy Days,he was further alarmed to notice that it was also 313 pages in length. However, Happy Days had sold well and for once Mencken saw this as a good omen. Once, he came down from New York to Baltimore on Friday the 13th leaving on an 11: 30 train, in seat 13 on Pullman 231 (again,13 reversed). He fully expected the train to roll off the track.

Not to belabor this too much, this may even reach out to Sam Johnson, who spent 13 months at Oxford and died on the 13th of December.

In Mencken's diaries and letters, there is a peculiar emphasis on drinking and beer especially. This is a strong thread throughout his life, almost an obsession, from observation of his edited writings.

To wit:

He noted that he was born just before the police raid 10-12 saloons. It was a Sunday.



1919- at the beginning of Prohibition:"My wine cellar absorbs all my thoughts, time, money and prayers". He had sold his Studebaker for $300. "The two hind wheels of my automobile went for Rioja - a prime Spanish claret".

1919 - My cook lately stole all my whiskey and rum, but she left me a lot of good wine and about 350 bottles of Piel's beer.

1925 - Dayton, Tennessee during the Scopes trial:" I expected to be poisoned by corn liquor, but I have had to drink only one drink..out of politeness to the local Russell Sage. He is a frantic prohibitionist, but usually half stewed."

1931 - At a Bach Festival in Pennsylvania with one of his friends. Mencken rapped at the door and asked the bartender for some beer."Who are you? Two poor musicians. He seemed dubious. Mencken held up a score of Bach's B Minor Mass. His beer turned out to be excellent, and he got five glasses of it and a ham sandwich for 65 cents.

1931 - After the concert... we went to [the] Knopf apartment [Alfred Knopf was his publisher]...I had got down one drink...Dashiell Hammett... came in drunk...William Faulkner.. who came late, also got drunk... Unfortunately all the speakeasies in the neighborhood were closed, so that they had to haul him to the hotel.

1934- Recalling a trip to Germany in 1917, just before the US entry into the War, I should add. "...[The] Bayernhof was my favorite refuge during the war. every now and then the daily beer train from Munich failed to arrive and so the boozers had to drink that dreadful German wine. I have seen strong men shake with sobs when the head waiter arose and announced that no beer had come..."

1939 - All the while I have been here [a patient at Johns Hopkins Hospital], the gentlemen of the staff have been hotly debating the question whether mint-juleps should be made with rye or with bourbon.

1942 - At the beginning of prohibition I taught Max Brodel [an anatomic artist at Johns Hopkins and a club member of Mencken's] how to brew beer... Once...he got a couple of empty bottles of Labatt's famous ale across the border from Canada, and when he reached Baltimore cultivated yeast from the sludge still in them. From this yeast he made an ale that was identical with Labatt's. [He entertained his colleagues from the Johns Hopkins Hospital].More than once, I have seen medical men of the highest eminence far gone at the table.

1945 - I was awakened at 1.30 on the morning with the worst heart upset so far...I begin to suspect that Scotch whiskey may be bad for me.

1945 - All the saloons and major restaurants of Baltimore were closed last night as a mark of respect to the dead Roosevelt... As a result, the Saturday night club missed its usual post-music beer party for the first time in forty years..." Mencken came home, had a couple of high-balls, and went to bed.

1946 ... Whether or not we will have German beer [in Baltimore] again remains to be seen; maybe not, since most of the German and Bohemian breweries seem to have been destroyed in the war, and the imbeciles in Washington may be trusted to lay prohibitive duties on the beer of those who survive.

After his stroke, Mencken lingered for eight years. He died in his sleep on January 29, 1956, missing the 31st (13 reversed) by two days.

Sam Johnson lies entombed in Westminster Abbey and Mencken's ashes reside in the family plot at the Louden Park Cemetery in Baltimore. The New York Times Sunday Travel section on April 27, 1997 had a feature on the history and revival of Baltimore. Babe Ruth, it's most famous son, was mentioned. There was no mention of Henry Louis Mencken.

Return to PAPERS
Return to Main Menu