Garrison Keillor’s “The Writers’ Almanac” notes the birthday of journalist-humorist-cynic H. L. Mencken. I always think of his reference to the “booboisee.” I would love to see him and Molly Ivins writing today, as our national politics have hit a nadir.

It’s the birthday of German-American satirist, cultural critic, and journalist H.L. Mencken (1880) (books by this author), born Henry Louis Mencken in Baltimore, Maryland, where he lived his entire life. Mencken was sometimes called the “Sage of Baltimore” or the “Bard of Baltimore” for his acerbic, pungent critiques of American life and politics.

Mencken’s father owned a cigar factory, and the family lived in an attractive row house in Union Square. Except for five years of married life, Mencken lived in that house until the day he died. When he was seven, his father gave him a printing press, which Mencken later said was one of the things that inspired him to become a journalist. His other inspiration was Mark Twain. He discovered Huckleberry Finn at nine and called it “the most stupendous event in my life.” After high school, his father gave him two choices: he could go to college or he could work in the cigar factory. Mencken chose the factory, which he hated, but he also took one of the very first correspondence courses ever offered: a class in writing from Cosmopolitan University. He later joked it was his sole journalism training.

After his father died of a stroke, Mencken began hounding the offices of the Morning Herald, finally talking himself into a job. Within two years, he was the drama critic. Within three years, he was the city editor. A year later, he was the managing editor. Mencken once said, “I believe that a young journalist, turned loose in a large city, had more fun than any other man.”

Mencken’s column, “The Free Lance,” which ran in the Baltimore Sun for 18 years, was nationally syndicated and made him quite famous for his caustic views on politics, culture, and science. In 1931, he referred to the state of Arkansas as “an apex of moronia,” and the legislature there passed a motion to pray for his soul. About Isaac Newton, he said: “[Isaac Newton] was a mathematician, which is mostly hogwash, too. Imagine measuring infinity! That’s a laugh.”

In 1925, Mencken traveled all the way to Tennessee to cover the famous trial of John Thomas Scopes, a high school teacher who’d been arrested for daring to teach evolutionary theory. It was Mencken who gave the trial its infamous name: the “Monkey Trial,” and who convinced famous defense attorney Clarence Darrow to offer his services to John Scopes. In the play Inherit the Wind (1955), which was based on the Scopes trial, the character of E.K. Hornbeck, a blustering, cynical atheist, was based on Mencken. Mencken was also an editor of The Smart Set, a witty literary magazine that published many up-and-coming authors, like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Mencken was a prolific letter writer, often penning more than 60 letters a day, which turned out to be more than 100,000 letters during his lifetime. In between writing his columns, he published more than 30 books, including the memoir trilogy Happy Days (1940), Newspaper Days (1941), and Heathen Days (1943). He also wrote The American Language, a multivolume study of how English language is spoken in the United States, which is now considered a classic. Until he was 50 years old, Mencken was called “America’s Best Known Bachelor,” having published numerous screeds against marriage in his columns. But he’d fallen in love, and he got married, and one newspaper quipped, “Bachelors of the nation are aghast, and sore afraid, like a sheep without a leader.” Mencken responded: “The Holy Spirit informed and inspired me. Like all other infidels, I am superstitious and always follow hunches: this one seemed to be a superb one.”

Mencken’s wife died five years after they married. He was heartbroken. He criticized President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and didn’t support the New Deal, and his popularity waned. He never fully recovered from a stroke (1948) and died in 1956.

H.L. Mencken said, “The two main ideas that run through all of my writing, whether it be literary criticism or political polemic are these: I am strong in favor of liberty and I hate fraud.”