H.L Mencken was many things, but never a degree holder from the University of Maryland. In 1952, the famed author and journalist was offered an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters from President H.C. Byrd and the Board of Regents, but curiously declined. Just like today, the University would often honor prominent citizens at commencement, and over the years there have been many famous and important people who have received honorary degrees from Maryland. Mencken lived in Maryland his entire life and was incredibly influential, making him an ideal candidate for this honor.
Mencken was a prolific writer, journalist, and critic of American life and culture. The Baltimore native was born in 1880, and by the early 1900s was well known throughout Maryland and the rest of the country. He is probably most famous for his role in reporting on the Scopes Trial in 1925, or for his 1919 book, The American Language in which he studied the ways that the English is spoken in the United States. In a career that lasted nearly fifty years, Mencken became a prominent intellectual and had a lasting impact on American political and scientific thought.
Perhaps even more impressive was the fact that Mencken became such a prolific writer and thinker despite not having much training in writing or journalism. He graduated a class valedictorian from the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute in 1896, and almost immediately began writing for the Baltimore Morning Herald. Aside from a short writing class at a correspondence school, he was never formally educated in writing or anything else beyond high school.
An honorary degree would be “in recognition of your great contributions to the State and country in this field,” President Byrd wrote to Mencken, hoping that he would be one of the two recipients of honorary degrees at the June 1952 commencement. Oftentimes the University of Maryland gave honorary degrees to local leaders and figures, but it wasn’t every year that a nationally renowned figure like Mencken was honored in this way.
Unfortunately, Mencken had been in poor health ever since suffering a stroke four years earlier. By 1952, he was unable to read or write, and his brother August was forced to take care of his correspondence. In a letter back to Byrd, August reported that Henry appreciated the generosity of the Board of Regents in offering the degree but that he had never accepted honorary degrees in the past and felt compelled to refuse the title of Doctor of Letters from Maryland.
But the 1952 commencement was not the first time Mencken had come into contact with Byrd and the University of Maryland. In the spring of 1937, he wrote a series of 18 articles for The Baltimore Sun about the school and its history. The Sun, always a fierce critic of the university and President Byrd, sent Mencken to investigate the university and its president, and report any ‘dirt’ that he could find on them. Byrd had “a reputation as a burglar of the State treasury,” according to Mencken, and had been criticized in the past for pressuring the state legislature into appropriating huge sums of money for the University. During the Great Depression, Maryland was costing Maryland taxpayers over one million dollars annually, and Byrd’s frequent requests for extra cash for new buildings and other large projects were not welcomed. Mencken, a seasoned reporter at this time and a vociferous critic of many public figures, seemed like the perfect man for the job.
It was surprising, then, when Mencken ended up writing a series of articles giving high praise to Byrd and Maryland. In his last article summing up his experiences at Maryland, the journalist even suggested that other universities in the state, like Johns Hopkins and Goucher College, would be better off under the leadership of President Byrd. “The thing to do with a man of such talents is not to cuss him for doing his job so well,” Mencken wrote in response to critics at The Sun who bashed the president at every opportunity, “it is much wiser, so long as hanging him is unlawful, to give him a bigger and better one.”
But the 1952 Commencement exercises at Maryland were still an exciting affair without Mencken, with speeches and addresses from the mayor of Baltimore, Thomas D’Alesandro, Jr., and Governor Theodore McKeldin. President Byrd presented honorary doctoral degrees in Laws and Commercial Science to Thomas Duckett and Alexander Sheff, both prominent men from Maryland who had made important contributions to the state.
Although it has been over 70 years since he last visited, you can still find a part of H.L. Mencken on campus, today, the University of Maryland Libraries hold many books on Mencken and some of his own writings, including some early editions of The American Language and other books that he wrote throughout his lifetime. Special Collections and University Archives in Hornbake Library also holds microfilm of the Baltimore News-Post, and some other papers that Mencken wrote throughout his career and is the home of the Arthur J. Gutman Collection of Menckeniana.
To see August Mencken’s Letter to President Byrd, click the link below: