H. L. Mencken? Theo Lippman Jr.? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: Newspaperman H. L. Mencken is famous for his insightful and acerbic commentaries, but he also spent the early years of his career as a reporter, and he looked back upon that period with fondness. Apparently, he nostalgically described reporting as “the life of kings” and “fun”. Would you please help me to find a citation?
Quote Investigator: In 1946 Stanley Walker who had been a reporter and editor at the “New York Herald Tribune” for many years wrote a piece titled “What Makes a Good Reporter?” which included strong praise for Mencken. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
The name H. L. Mencken to most Americans doubtless means either the scholarly “Sage of Baltimore,” or the iconoclast, or the expert on the American language. Actually, whenever he has turned his hand to it, he has produced some of our finest reporting.
Walker extolled Mencken’s reportage during the Scopes Trial in 1925, and he spoke highly of several other journalists. Yet, the article ended with melancholy words about the upcoming generation of reporters:
They do not seem to have much fun, and newspaper work for them is hardly the high adventure that we used to fancy it. But maybe they are right and maybe we were wrong.
In 1946 Mencken read the article, and he sent a letter to Walker containing recollections of happiness: 2
I needn’t tell you that I was delighted by your Christian mention of me in “What Makes a Good Reporter”. As I look back over a misspent life I find myself more and more convinced that I had more fun doing news reporting than in any other enterprise. It is really the life of kings.
A tweet on August 10, 2018 from the account of “The Baltimore Sun” included an image showing the full text of the 1946 letter from Mencken to Walker. 3
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1975 a collection of Mencken’s writings was published under the title “A Gang of Pecksniffs: and Other Comments on Newspaper Publishers, Editors and Reporters”. Newsman Theo Lippman Jr. edited the book and also wrote the introduction which mentioned the letter to Walker: 4
Only a few years before he died he read an article by Stanley Walker on “What Makes a Good Reporter.” Walker mentioned Mencken as one of the best. “Dear Stanley,” Mencken wrote him, “. . . as I look back over a misspent life, I find myself more and more convinced that I had more fun doing news reporting than in any other enterprise. It is really the life of kings.”
In December 1975 a Knight Newspapers journalist reviewed “A Gang of Pecksniffs” and found Mencken’s quotation vivid enough to share with readers: 5
Toward the end of his life he wrote a friend, “. . . as I look back over a misspent life, I find myself more and more convinced that I had more fun doing news reporting than in any other enterprise. It is really the life of kings.“
In 1978 Mencken’s words were reprinted in the journal “Chronicles of Culture”: 6
Mencken never wanted to do anything else with his life. “I find myself more and more convinced,” he wrote a few years before his death, “that I had more fun doing news reporting than in any other enterprise. It is really the life of kings.“
In 2014 a newspaper in Alabama described a lecture delivered by National Public Radio media correspondent David Folkenflik which included a key phrase from Mencken: 7
He ended by quoting author and social commentator H. L. Mencken, who like Folkenflik wrote for The Baltimore Sun. Reflecting on his career in newspapers, Mencken said, “It really is the life of kings.”
In conclusion, H. L. Mencken did write with affection about his days as a reporter in a letter to fellow journalist Stanley Walker in 1946. An excerpt from the letter is presented near the beginning of this article.
Image Notes: Cropped public domain photograph of H. L. Mencken from “Theatre Magazine” in 1928 accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Logo of “The Baltimore Sun” newspaper circa 1868.
(Great thanks to journalist Christine Zhang of “The Baltimore Sun” who contacted QI while she was investigating the origin of this quotation which appeared in the lobby of the Calvert Street building that housed the “The Baltimore Sun” for many years. The newspaper is now moving to a new location in Port Covington. QI pointed to an occurrence of the quotation in “A Gang of Pecksniffs” which mentioned a letter to Walker (without a date). Zhang brilliantly determined the precise origin of the quotation in Mencken’s 1946 letter by using the resources of her newspaper together with librarians at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore and the New York Public Library. Kudos to Zhang, her colleagues, and the helpful librarians.)
- 1946 February, The American Mercury, What Makes a Good Reporter? by Stanley Walker, Start Page 207, Quote Page 209 and 213, The American Mercury, Inc., New York. (Unz) ↩
- Letter, Date: January 30, 1946, From: H. L. Mencken, To: Stanley Walker of New York Herald Tribune, New York City, Provenance: H.L. Mencken papers, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library; Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations; Courtesy of the Enoch Pratt Free Library/State Library Resource Center Mencken Collection, Image of letter was attached to a tweet, Tweet from The Baltimore Sun on August 10, 2018. (Accessed on twitter.com on August 13, 2018) link ↩
- Tweet, From: The Baltimore Sun @baltimoresun, Tweet Time: 11:19 PM, Tweet Date: August 10, 2018, Text of tweet: We’ve published Mencken’s letter, dated Jan. 30, 1946, here for the first time, to set the record straight once and for all. Just in time, as we leave Calvert Street for Sun Park in Port Covington. On to the next chapter. (Accessed on twitter.com on August 13, 2018) link ↩
- 1975, A Gang of Pecksniffs: and Other Comments on Newspaper Publishers, Editors and Reporters, by H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken), Edited by Theo Lippman Jr., Comment: Writings by Mencken selected edited and introduced with a profile of Mencken by Lippman, Quote Page 15, Arlington House Publishers, New Rochelle, New York. (Verified with scan; thanks to Christine Zhang) ↩
- 1975 December 25, The Cincinnati Enquirer, Reporters were ‘Pecksniffs’ To Menken by Jonathan Yardley (Knight Newspapers Writer), Quote Page I-11, Column 5, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1978 November, Chronicles of Culture, Ignorance, Power, and Liberty by Jeffrey St. John, (Book review of “Ignorance, Power, and Liberty On Press, by Tom Wicker), Start Page 15, Quote Page 15, Rockford College Institute, Rockford, Illinois. (Unz) ↩
- 2014 March 14, The Anniston Star, Ayers Lecture Series: Addressing new age in journalism by Daniel Gaddy, Start Page 1A, Quote Page 7A, Column 4, Anniston, Alabama. (Newspapers_com) ↩