Some words are injurious . . . Some cause a raging storm

December 05, 1990|By Neil A. Grauer

If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl.

-- H.L. Mencken, 1921.

A YEAR AGO this week, the pundits and populi pleased H.L. Mencken's ghost far more than they would have had they merely winked their collective eye at a host of homely women. Instead, they got into a fight over him.

Mencken's defenders and detractors went at each other with hammer, tongs -- and pens -- when The Evening Sun broke the story that the contents of Mencken's previously secret diary had shocked even such sympathetic Mencken scholars as the book's editor, who declared "clearly and unequivocally" that Baltimore's sage had been an anti-Semite and generally viewed blacks as inferior people.

According to Vincent Fitzpatrick, assistant curator of the Enoch Pratt Free Library's Mencken Room, the original story spawned "a staggering amount of copy in all forms" from every corner of the country, including book reviews, feature stories, editorials, political cartoons and letters to the editor. Major commentators such as Russell Baker, Garry Wills and Edwin Yoder offered their views on the controversy, as did Mencken biographers William Manchester and Carl Bode. Time and Newsweek weighed in with reports, as did CBS, the Cable News Network, C-Span, National Public Radio and (believe it or not) Howard Cossell on ABC Radio. The National Press Club in Washington considered, and rejected, a proposal to change the name of its H.L. Mencken Library.

Locally, letters to the editor initially came in a torrent, then kept popping up for more than five months; commentary, as well as an occasional poem, continued to appear on op-ed pages and in perspective sections more than 10 months after that first story. Charles A. Fecher, editor of the diary, reported in last spring's Menckeniana, the quarterly published by the Pratt, that he had received some "hate mail" and "a couple of abusive phone calls." As the author of the original article, I was delighted -- as no doubt Mencken would have been -- when an outraged reader urged that I "be consigned to a subterranean sewer" for my "gangrenous gutter-sniping of the indomitable Mencken" -- as though I had written the diary. At a huge meeting of the Mencken Society last January, an astonished, German-born lady said she had just visited her homeland and even in East Germany, then still euphoric over the break in the Berlin Wall, the one question put to her everywhere was: "Who is this Mencken?"

The reactions and arguments tended to fall into distinct categories. One crowd said, "How dare you!? Mencken was infallible!" Another: "We never liked him anyhow, and now you know why." Still another: "How could he ignore World War II and the Holocaust?" Then there were the "Well, he-was-having-little-strokes-all-the-time" diagnosticians and those who maintained Mencken "did (or did not) reflect 'his times' because everyone did (or did not) use racial and ethnic epithets in the '30s and '40s." There also was the "He-was-great-but-flawed" contingent, which probably is the largest group. Mencken himself would have belonged to it. He wrote to a friend in 1920, "I am often wrong. My prejudices are innumerable, and often idiotic."

Has the diary tarnished Mencken's reputation permanently? Possibly. Herbert Mitgang observed in the New York Times that while Mencken's "outrageous comments about Jews and blacks make up only a small part . . . of the diary . . ., even a few drops of midnight poison are enough to damage Mencken's reputation seriously." Then again, who knows what the next installments of Mencken's heretofore sealed memoirs may do to enhance or diminish his standing when they are opened next month, per his instructions, 35 years after his death? Surely the debate will continue, and most likely few minds will be changed.

Why all this interest in the after-hours ruminations of a dead newspaperman? Because he was, flaws aside, one of the liveliest, most engaging American writers ever to grace the printed page, and perhaps the most quotable. He was a fierce advocate of free expression for every race and creed, and during the 1920s, "He was a tremendous liberating force in American culture, and should be so celebrated and remembered," in the view of Louis Auchincloss, Ralph Ellison, John Kenneth Galbraith, John Hersey, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., William Styron and Kurt Vonnegut, an awesome collection of advocates who sent a letter with that and other encomiums to the New York Review of Books last March.

As Robert Ward noted in his excellent review of the diary in the New York Times, there was Mencken the Good and Mencken the Bad. It is not necessary to ignore or excuse the latter in order to acknowledge and praise the former.

All it requires is what Mencken also asked those who would please his ghost to do: Forgive a sinner.

Neil A. Grauer is a Baltimore writer and caricaturist.

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