For many summers of his childhood, H. L. Mencken roamed the woods and streams of Ellicott City, living with his family in a house called The Vineyard, on Church Road. The Sage of Baltimore, as this literary critic and newspaperman became known, wrote a book about his childhood, including his summers in Howard County, Happy Days: 1880-1892.
Mencken wrote about how he and his siblings explored the Howard County countryside: “Where the path from the house came to the brook there were the ruins of an old grist-mill, dating back to the first years of the century and maybe even beyond,but with its dam and the better part of its wooden wheel still surviving. Under the wheel there was a little pool that seemed infinitely deep to my brother and me … [the other boys] preferred a swimming-hole in the Patapsco itself, at the foot of the long hill stretching down from our house. They reported it to be full of bottomless pits and treacherous undertows, and refused loftily to let my brother and me come along.”
The happy curiosity of childhood represented in that excerpt evolved into his trademark style, hard-bitten reporting cynical about economics, politics, and religion. The remaining volumes of his three-volume memoir were published later, titled Newspaper Days, 1899–1906 (1941) and Heathen Days, 1890–1936 (1943).
Mencken, who wasn’t shy about writing his bigoted views,is mostly remembered for his zingers at The Baltimore Morning Herald and the Baltimore Sun, such as “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public” and “The men the American people admire most extravagantly are the most daring liars; the men they detest most violently are those who try to tell them the truth.”
But Mencken also wrote a multi-volume study of how English is spoken in the U.S., The American Language, and he wrote poetry as well, showing his slightly more idealistic, romantic side, with love poems, a cautionary ode to eating soup, and a balladeto Rudyard Kipling, as well as this snide verse about politicians’ aversion to truth-telling.
A Rondeau of Statesmanship
by H. L. Mencken
In politics it’s funny how
A man may tell you one thing now
And say tomorrow that he meant
To voice a different sentiment
And vow a very different vow.
The writ and spoken laws allow
Each individual to endow
His words with underground intent
Thus he who leads in verbal prow-
Ness sports the laurel on his brow—
So if you wish to represent
The acme of the eminent,
Learning lying ere you make your bow
“A Rondeau of Statesmanship” was published in 1903 in Mencken’s Ventures into Verse. This poem is in the public domain.