Scholars anxious to see memoirs


January 28, 1991|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Book Editor

*TC H.L. Mencken always seemed to get in the last word -- even from the grave, as the publication of "The Diary of H. L. Mencken" in December 1989 showed. But tomorrow, what are thought to be the truly last unpublished words written by this amazingly prolific Baltimore-born author will be unsealed.

Seven long-awaited volumes of Mencken's memoirs will be opened at 10:30 a.m. in the Poe Room of the Enoch Pratt Free Library before a private gathering of Pratt officials, Mencken scholars and aficionados, and other guests. It will be the first look at the four-volume "My Life as Author and Editor" and the three-volume "Thirty-Five Years of Newspaper Work," which, at Mencken's directive, were not to be opened until 35 years after his death on Jan. 29, 1956.

Some Mencken scholars expect the memoirs to be at least as important as the sometimes controversial "Diary" -- particularly the material contained in "My Life as Author and Editor."

"It seems to me that we are getting documents of unparalleled importance," said Terry Teachout, an editorial writer for the New York Daily News who is writing a biography of Mencken. "I am tremendously excited to see them."

"I anticipate a great deal of historical and literary interest -- he wasso associated with the leading literary figures of that time," said Charles A. Fecher of Baltimore, who edited "The Diary of H. L. Mencken" and is editor of the quarterly magazine Menckeniana. "He truly knew almost everyone -- Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald and many others."

The newly opened works should close out a literary career of staggering achievement and proportions. He was a writer and editor with The Sun and The Evening Sun for more than 35 years, and edited The Smart Set and American Mercury when they were hugely influential magazines in the 1920s. Millions of words flowed from the battered old Remington Corona that he used at his home at 1524 Hollins St. in the form of many books, including the massive and frequently revised "Dictionary of American Language" and the acclaimed "Days" trilogy of memoirs; hundreds of magazine articles; and thousands of newspaper columns for The Sun and The Evening Sun.

Mencken's obsession with chronicling all that he had seen and felt was particularly evident when the manuscript of the "Diary" was unsealed at the Pratt on Jan. 29, 1981. In the crate that held the manuscript, he included only the 2,100 pages of the "Diary" (between 500,000 and 600,000 words, Mr. Fecher estimated) but also an unexpected treat: corrections and additions to "Heathen Days," "Happy Days" and "Newspaper Days."

Mencken obviously was a man who needed no convincing as to his own worth, and he felt these memoirs to be of import as well. He referred often to them in the "Diary," and in the entry of Sept. 12, 1945, he wrote, with almost certain accuracy: "There is, indeed, probably no trace in history of a writer who left more careful accounts of himself and his contemporaries."

And in April 29, 1946: "I knew so many American and English authors during the 1914-1930 period that my account of them should be of interest and use to future historians of the national literature."

Mencken, in fact, was so obsessed with his legacy that he bequeathed copies of these new memoirs to two other institutions as well: Dartmouth College's Baker Library, which also will hold a small ceremony at 10:30 a.m. tomorrow to open its papers, and the New York Public Library, which has not announced when it will unseal its copy.

"He was always diligent in what he wrote," said Vincent Fitzpatrick, assistant curator of the Mencken collection at the Pratt Library. "But the older Mencken had a real concern for posterity and was a very orderly man. Still, he had a concern for people who were living and this is what led to the material being placed under time lock."

In his diary, Mencken detailed his efforts to write "Thirty-Five Years" and "My Life as Author and Editor" -- usually while he was churning out any number of works for public consumption. He frequently would stop working on one or both to concentrate on another project, or because he had trouble ferreting out the appropriate details. In Feb. 5, 1942, he wrote:

"I have been at work on my Sun notes since July, 1941, but I have got only as far as the beginning of 1937, and a number of very busyyears lie ahead, for example, 1938. The whole record, if it is ever finished, will probably run to nearly 350,000 words. My recollections of my magazine days will be shorter, if only because there are fewer documents available, but even so they will go beyond 150,000.

"There will be very little about my private life, and next to nothing about women. Such things, it seems to me, are nobody's business -- and I must always remember that what I write may be read by others after I am gone."

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