Backstory: H.L. Mencken, 'The Sage of Baltimore,' had a zing bloggers can't touch
The most widely quoted American writer expected it, and even planned it, to be so.
BALTIMORE — There's still time in this semicentenary year of H.L. Mencken's passing to review his contributions to American letters and ponder why – even amid the modern effluvia of our hydra-headed media – he remains the most widely quoted American writer.
Why does this curmudgeon, with a wit like a poniard, who dealt in the ephemeral currency of the news, and whose heyday had ended by the middle of the last century, still claim attention?
Any doubters should visit the Mencken Room in the Enoch Pratt Free Library here, which holds artifacts left by the Sage of Baltimore: his Corona typewriter, the desk he occupied at the Baltimore Evening Sun, his books, and nearly every scrap that holds the estimated 15 million words he put on paper during his life – not to mention a lavishly romantic portrait of the great man resting his head against his palm, in bright red suspenders given him by Rudolf Valentino.
Mencken had doughy features that made his face amenable to the skills of a deft artist. His center-parted hair made him look boyish beyond his youth. But there was nothing of the center about him, nor middle of the road. All his reflexes were of the conservative, untraveled provincial, combined with the arrogance of the autodidact. (He never went to college.) He was also a total libertarian with regard to free speech, a genius with words, driven by an inclination to impale the lords of the political ascendancy – people like Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose death drew forth this: "He had every quality that morons esteem in their heroes"; and William Jennings Bryan, for his "vague, unpleasant manginess."
"I was born in the larva of the comfortable and complacent bourgeoisie," Mencken wrote of his pillowed life, "encapsulated in affection, and kept fat, saucy and contented. Thus I got through my nonage without acquiring an inferiority complex."
He absorbed the standard prejudices of the early 20th century – toward blacks, Jews, immigrants. He even had "a prejudice against poverty.... The blame [for it] so far as my experience runs, always lies within." In other words, it's their own fault.
Mencken was a skeptic, and a life-long social Darwinian. Psychologically he was, in the words of an admirer, "an incredible egotist."
The Mencken Room is a cynosure for the many devoted to his life and work. Closed, except to scholars and journalists, the room opens to the public each September, on Mencken Day, and a living luminary comes to say nice things about him. This year contrarian Christopher Hitchens said he preferred "to think of Mencken as a misanthrope rather than a bigot or racist." He also confirmed what the faithful in the auditorium already knew: Mencken and Mark Twain were "the two who discovered the American language," as something different from Hitchens's own, the English language.
Vincent Fitzpatrick, curator of the Mencken Room, guards proof of Mencken's continuing popularity: 152 scrapbooks started by Mencken. At 23, confident of future fame, he hired a clipping service to gather every word, good or bad, about himself in print. That's continued for 103 years. Dr. Fitzpatrick says he fills 1,000 pages annually of new clippings – comments, quotations of Mencken aphorisms, and epigrams, such as, "Bachelors know more about women than married men do. If they didn't, they'd be married, too."
Funny, but, in a way, revealing about the man. Russell Baker, the former New York Times columnist and constant admirer of Mencken, describes his relations with women as "strange."
"He had a long relationship with Marion Bloom," he says, "but never took her home to his mother." That's because, writes biographer Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, "he was a high born German and had it in him to desire a wife to make a fine showing before his world." In other words, he was a snob.
Mencken may or may not have been a misogynist, but he was hardly a misanthrope. He loved the camaraderie he had over beer, cigars, and German music he made with his friends in the Saturday Night Club as intensely as he despised Prohibition, religion, censorship, altruism, bureaucrats, and politicians.
For Fitzpatrick, the clippings prove that Mencken is "the most frequently quoted American writer, even today." Only Mark Twain is in his league. Fitzpatrick credits it to his writing: "He's one of the greatest prose stylists that has lived in America." Others agree.
"He is the only American journalist of his generation whose work is still read – who is, indeed, a genuinely popular writer," says Terry Teachout, author of "The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken."
"Mencken survives because he remains contemporary with a style that resounds regardless of time or individuals," says S.L. Harrison, editor of Menckeniana, the journal that publishes articles about the man. "The things he wrote apply to the present day."
Things like, "Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under." This quote could have fallen from Mencken's lips at any time during his career, starting with America's entry into World War I and the subsequent harassment of German-Americans during Woodrow Wilson's administration, which countenanced laws prohibiting Americans from insulting their government. To the degree that he could, Mencken spoke out. Later, he even more vehemently attacked FDR's administration, and every one between the two.
Most agree that Mencken's durability represents a triumph of style – a style so thunderous and powerful, explosively funny, withering in its skepticism, rigorous in its commitment to honesty, logic, and truth as he saw it, that even now it's capable of winning the attention of serious people, while raising hackles among the other sort.
But Fitzpatrick garners other reasons beyond this for Mencken's durability. As the editor of The Smart Set and the American Mercury, he advanced the work of many writers: Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, Joseph Conrad, Willa Cather. His three memoirs – "Happy Days," "Newspaper Days," "Heathen Days" – remain popular. His monumental study of the American vernacular, "The American Language," says Mr. Harrison, "might have constituted the life's work of a lesser man."
Mencken repeatedly eluded obscurity. In 1933, for instance, having stepped down as editor of the American Mercury, he continued successfully with his newspaper commentary until about 1935, when he found himself at odds with current thinking: The New Deal and the Depression. Out of favor, he unveiled his greatest literary achievement, the Days books. To Fitzpatrick, "It was Mencken at the top of his game."
Mencken, who once declared that "Hope is a pathological belief in the occurrence of the impossible," disregarded that observation near his end. The man who described the tombstone as "an ugly reminder of one who has been forgotten," and life as "a dead-end street," sought to disprove these axioms, and in a way succeeded. He arranged for the graduated release of his papers through time-lock agreements that have had the effect of stimulating public attention for decades.
He died in 1956. In 1971, the New York Public Library released a spray of his letters. (He wrote over 100,000.) Scholars, biographers, commentators brought forth books, articles, monographs. In 1981, the Pratt released his diary, which incited allegations of anti-Semitism, racism. In 1991, more new material put him before the public eye.
All this confirms Fitzpatrick's famous line: "Mencken had carefully managed his career from the grave."