How many words did H.L. Mencken write?

Media criticism.
Jan. 1 2006 4:36 PM

Mencken's Millions

Exactly how many words did the Sage of Baltimore write?

Today's New York Times reports that H.L. Mencken was "among the most prolific" American writers and social critics.

"In a career of almost 50 years, Mencken wrote more than 70 million words—many intended to expose hypocrisy, debunk received wisdom and take on all manner of sacred cows," writes Thomas Vinciguerra.

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But not even Mencken could have produced that many words! Composing copy at that rate would have required him to pound out more than 1.4 million words a year—or about 3,835 words a day. That's the equivalent of a midsize New Yorker feature on a daily basis, and would have left little time to eat, drink, bathe, shave, sleep, edit, get laid, and play music, all of which Mencken was known to do.

So if 70 million words exaggerates Mencken's output, how many words did he write? Nexis and Google searches collect a range of estimates, none of which approaches 70 million.

The nearest figure to 70 million is attributed to Mencken scholar Vincent Fitzpatrick, by Brennen Jensen in the Jan. 26, 2000, Baltimore City Paper. The piece posits a conservative estimate of Mencken's printed output at about 15 million words.

Mencken biographer Fred Hobson supports a 10 million-plus figure in 1994's Mencken: A Life. Hobson writes, "In his collection at the Pratt [library] he placed schoolboy grades, commencement accounts, bank statements, records of earnings, medical histories (including an exhaustive hay fever diary), and much else. All this is, of course, in addition to the more than ten million words in print, including journalism, which in 1940 he estimated he had produced and the more than one hundred thousand letters he wrote in his lifetime."

Writing in the Feb. 2, 1990, Jerusalem Post, Peter Schertz attributes this circa 1940 quotation to Mencken: "I have probably written 10,000,000 words of English and continue to this day to pour out more and more."

On the Mercer University Press Web site in 2004, the aforementioned Vincent Fitzpatrick writes, "Over a career that spanned half of a century, Henry Louis Mencken published more than 10 millionwords." Christopher Tyner puts the number at "an estimated 10 million words of criticism, fiction and journalism," in a May 15, 2000, Investor's Business Daily piece, and historian C. Vann Woodward writes of "more than 10 million words in print," in the June 27, 1994, New Republic. He sources the number to "Mencken himself."

Historian Shalom Goldman further whittled down the word count in a Nov. 24, 1991, Newsday book review of a collection of Mencken's newspaper writing. "Mencken wrote so well, and so much (according to his own calculations he published over five million words!), that the very task of anthologizing him is a daunting one," Goldman writes in Newsday.

How many words did Mencken publish? Perhaps the best estimate belongs to Terry Teachout, who quotes the man himself in his 2002 book, The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken.

"What the total of my published writings comes to I don't know precisely," Mencken said in 1948, "but certainly it must run well beyond 5,000,000 words." While he liked to throw around numbers with lots of zeroes, this one seems more plausible than most. …

If the 5 million figure is accurate, Mencken averaged 100,000 words a year for 50 years, or about 2,000 words a week.

Is 100,000 words a year anything to brag about? Many journalists write more than 100,000 words a year, including me in 2005. (Note to Nexis jockeys: For reasons beyond my control, Nexis doesn't include all of my Slate columns from last year. I also took a month of paternity leave.)

What makes Mencken's accomplishment memorable is not that he averaged 2,000 words a week, or even that he did it for 50 years, but that he produced brilliant copy in nearly every outing. His final word count would surely have been greater—if not 70 million—had he not also simultaneously edited publications for several decades.

******

Nobody who wrote better than Mencken wrote faster, and nobody who wrote faster wrote better. Except for maybe A.J. Liebling. Write well and write fast to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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