Mencken's Final Works Unsealed

January 29, 1991|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Evening Sun Staff

With a crowbar, hammer, screwdriver and wire cutters, officials of the Enoch Pratt Free Library today opened the final sealed writings of H.L. Mencken.

There were seven small wooden crates, each nailed shut and bound by a steel band. Stamped on each crate were the words: "PAPERS OF HENRY L. MENCKEN DO NOT OPEN OPEN UNTIL JANUARY 29, 1991."

Mencken was a writer and editor at The Evening Sun and The Sun for more than 35 years, as well as an influential magazine editor. He died Jan. 29, 1956. He had requested that these seven volumes not be opened until 35 years after his death.

At today's ceremony in the library's Edgar Allan Poe Room -- attended by about 50 Mencken scholars and aficionados and members of the press -- Anna Curry, director of the library, declared: "We have, of course, honored that request. But I think we've waited long enough."

Then John Sondheim, chief of the central library, struggled to open the first crate, chosen at random from the seven crates placed on a table. Until this morning the boxes had been stored in the library's vault.

Inside the crates were seven volumes -- about 3,500 typewritten pages -- of Mencken memoirs. Four volumes were titled "My Life as Author and Editor," and three volumes were called "Thirty-Five Years of Newspaper Work."

Philip Wagner, retired editor of The Evening Sun and The Sun, and Ashbel Green, vice president and senior editor of Alfred A. Knopf Inc., Mencken's publishing house, each read one page of each work. They appeared to be humorous, biting narrative accounts of Mencken's life.

Green, whose company has the publishing rights, said he assumed the works will be published someday. He couldn't say when, because it will take months for library workers to catalog them, said Curry.

She said it might be a year until anyone outside the library staff reads the memoirs.

These were the third and final sealed volumes of Mencken's works that he had directed not be opened until after his death. In 1971, 15 years after he had died, volumes of his correspondence were opened.

In 1981, 25 years after he had died, his diary was unsealed, as well as notes and documents relating to the Sun papers, and additions to his autobiographical trilogy, "Heathen Days," "Happy Days" and "Newspaper Days."

Mencken's diary was published in 1989, and immediately he drew criticism for harsh remarks about Jews and blacks. No one today could know whether the new volumes contained more controversial passages.

Carl Bode, author of the biography "Mencken," published in 1969, said Mencken would be delighted by the TV cameras and the champagne toast that concluded today's ceremony.

"Here's Mencken after all these years with all this attention," Bode said. "This is a masterwork of p.r. He was shrewd, you know. He knew this is a big country, and you have to be sensational.

"Here he's been dead for decades, and he's getting another look, another read, and this may even increase his popularity."

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