Skip to main content

Today in History - September 12

H. L. Mencken, Critic of the American “Booboisie”

Writer, editor, philologist, social critic, and Baltimore native H. L. Mencken was born on September 12, 1880. Mencken, who generated a strong literary following in Baltimore during the 1920s and 1930s, was best known for his scathing social commentary, critical support of emerging writers, and for his scholarly understanding of American usage of the English language.

Portrait of H. L. Mencken. Carl Van Vechten, photographer, July 1932. Van Vechten Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

Mencken first reported for the Baltimore Herald, of which he eventually became editor-in-chief, and later for the Baltimore Sun. While with the Sun, he was given his own column, The Free Lance, with which he began to make his name as a writer, cultural critic, and provocateur. He also was hired to write book reviews for a New York monthly magazine, The Smart Set: A Magazine of Cleverness, of which he ultimately became the co-editor, with the drama critic George Jean Nathan from 1914 to 1923. Mencken left The Smart Set with Nathan to establish the American Mercury in 1924.

Mt. Vernon Place, Baltimore, Md. William Henry Jackson, photographer, c1903. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division

Literary criticism enjoyed something of a heyday during the first half of the twentieth century, and Mencken was one of its most forceful practitioners. As a literary critic, he lent critical support to the fiction of Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, James Joyce, and others.

Mencken’s popularity waned in the 1930s, during the Great Depression and resulting New Deal efforts to salvage the U.S. economy, although he remained an active, irreverent, and prolific writer. His reputation recovered somewhat in the 1940s, with the publication of a series of memoirs. Thirty-five years after Mencken’s death in 1956, in accordance with the terms of his will, a number of the author’s unpublished works were published, bringing him back to contemporary notice.

In 1919, Mencken published the first edition of his major contribution to philology, The American Language [view a copy of the 1921 ed.], in which he attempted to analyze the words and phrases, expressions, idioms, and peculiarities of pronunciation and spelling that might be termed “Americanisms” – manifestations of the English language that were uniquely “American.” Mencken revised this seminal work several times throughout his lifetime. This scholarly study, enlivened by Mencken’s particular wit, remains a classic in its field. Mencken coined the term “booboisie” —a combination of the words boob and bourgeoisie–by which he meant the ignorant and uncultured middle class.

Learn More

Saint-Mihiel Offensive

On September 12, 1918, the American Expeditionary Forces under commander in chief General John J. Pershing launched its first major offensive in Europe as an independent army. The U.S.-led attack occurred in the Saint-Mihiel salient, a triangular area of land between Verdun and Nancy occupied by the German army since the fall of 1914. The Saint-Mihiel salient was strategically important as it hindered rail communications between Paris and the eastern sections of the front—eliminating the salient was necessary before the final Allied offensive of the war could begin.

The town square of St. Mihiel, France. Schutz Group Photographers, 1918. Panoramic Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division

Fortunately for the American forces, the Germans had begun pulling out of the salient two days before the offensive was launched. After an early morning artillery bombardment, U.S. infantry and tanks began the attack on September 12. Resistance was relatively light, and by September 16, this area of France was liberated from German occupation.

“Over the top”; American soldiers answering the bugle call to “charge”. Meadville, Pa.: Keystone View Company, March 25, 1918. Stereograph Cards. Prints & Photographs Division

On the afternoon of the first day of the Saint-Mihiel offensive, a chance meeting took place on the battlefield between George S. Patton and Douglas MacArthur, two young officers who would go on to achieve greater fame in World War II.

Just Like Washington Crossed the Delaware, General Pershing Will Cross the Rhine. Howard Johnson, words, George W. Meyer, music; NY: Leo Feist, 1918. Historic Sheet Music Collection, 1800 to 1922. Music Division

Following the successful purging of the Saint-Mihiel salient, the American forces shifted to a new front to participate in the Meuse-Argonne offensive. The combined Allied offensive successfully forced the Germans to retreat. By October, the defeat of the German army was certain. World War I came to an end with the signing of the Armistice on November 11, 1918.

Tank ploughing its way through a trench and starting toward the German line, during World War I, near Saint Michel, France. 1918. National Photo Company Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

The Americans who participated in the liberation of France were deeply shocked to see the devastation suffered by the French civilians, who had lost their homes, their livelihood, and their lives during the war. The compassion of the soldiers of the American Expeditionary Forces for the French people generated many popular songs such as the example shown below, “The Tale the Church Bell Told.”

In the shattered part of France, In the very heart of France, A soldier from a Yankee shore, Lay dreaming by an old church door, From the belfry in the sky, He thought he heard the old bell sigh:

I was lonely in the steeple, How I missed the birds of spring, Looking down upon my people, It just broke my heart to ring, Through the din of cannon thunder, I could hear the cries of young and old, Someone will answer for this violence, Answer for my silence, That’s the tale the church bell tolled.

The Tale the Church Bell Told; Someone Will Answer For My Silence. Bert Grant, music; Joe Young and Sam M. Lewis, words; NY: Waterson-Berlin & Snyder, 1918. World War I Sheet Music. Music Division
Fresnes-en-Woevre, in the St. Mihiel sector where terrific fighting took place. Schutz Group Photographers, 1918. Panoramic Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division

Learn More