Crowbar, hammer, cutters open final Mencken papers

January 30, 1991|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Evening Sun Staff

H.L. Mencken did it again. He orchestrated an event with T cameras and champagne and words of praise in his honor -- 35 years after his death.

"He was shrewd, you know," said Carl Bode, author of the biography "Mencken," published in 1969. "He knew this is a big country, and you have to be sensational."

It was rather a sensational event in the Edgar Allan Poe Room at the Enoch Pratt Free Library yesterday, as library officials struggled with a crowbar, hammer, screwdriver and wire cutters to open the final sealed writings of H.L. Mencken.

TV cameras lit up the room, and champagne cooled in buckets of ice. About 50 Mencken scholars and aficionados and members of the press crowded around a table that held the seven small wooden crates, each nailed shut and bound by a metal band.

The crates contained 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."

Mencken was the most influential literary critic and iconoclastic journalist of his time. Not only was he a writer and editor at The Sun and The Evening Sun for more than 35 years, but he also edited the literary and opinion magazines The Smart Set and American Mercury from 1914 to 1933.

The seven volumes were the third and final works of Mencken that he had ordered sealed for varying lengths of time after his death. He died Jan. 29, 1956.

In 1971, 15 years after his death, volumes of his correspondence were opened. In 1981, 25 years after his death, 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."

Each ceremonial opening brought a burst of publicity and renewed interest in Mencken. Publication of "The Diary of H.L. Mencken" in 1989 also brought him a great deal of controversy for his harsh remarks about Jews and blacks.

No one knows what Mencken wrote in the memoirs opened yesterday, but they appeared to be humorous, biting, straightforward accounts of Mencken's life.

Philip Wagner, retired editor of The Sun and The Evening Sun and a friend of Mencken, and Ashbel Green, vice president and senior editor of Alfred A. Knopf Inc., Mencken's publishing house, each read one page, selected at random, from the works.

Green, whose company has the publishing rights, said he

assumed the works would be published. He couldn't say when, because it may be up to one year before anyone outside the library can read them, said Anna Curry, director of the library.

It may take that long to catalog and copy them and decide who gets permission to read them, she said.

"It's hard to tell from one excerpt, but I really do believe these are significant volumes," said Vincent Fitzpatrick, assistant curator of the Mencken collection at the Pratt Library. "Mencken knew everybody. As an editor he published a number of distinguished authors, both foreign and domestic."

Mencken published Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Theodore Dreiser and William Faulkner.

"For everybody interested in American literature," Fitzpatrick said, "I think these papers will be very interesting."

Charles A. Fecher, who edited "The Diary of H.L. Mencken," said the new writings will be interesting for another reason as well: No more sealed volumes await opening.

"This is the end of the road," he said. "There's nothing else."

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