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.
PHILIP R. LIEBSON, M.D.
Delivered to The Chicago Literary Club
May 5, 1997
Words, Words, Words
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...
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 ½ 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.
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
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
As, for Mencken, let us start with a sketch by James Thurber, who knew
Mencken as a frequent contributor to the New Yorker magazine.
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:
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
"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
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.
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.
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
"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
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".
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.
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].
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:
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].
Porpoise - the sea hog.
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
Tory: a cant word derived, I suppose from an Irish word signifying a savage.
Lexicographer: A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge...
insect whose bite is only cured by music.
Some definitions were diamonds of
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:
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.
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'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
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
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
Our American Cousins
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,
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,
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
"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
This was supposed to be Yankee dialect. Even English critics denounced
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:
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
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
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."
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
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
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.
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.
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".
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
He noted that he was born just before the police raid 10-12 saloons. It was
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
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
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.
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