Mencken, Liberalism and The Sun

January 30, 1991

Though he passed away in 1956, H. L. Mencken is still making headlines. Last year it was his diary. Now it is "Thirty-Five Years of Newspaper Work" plus the other set of volumes unsealed yesterday, "My Life as Author and Editor." (A page from the manuscript on newspapering appears on the Opinion * Commentary page.)

One reason for these long-fused time bombs is that the author, wanting to be as candid as possible, preferred for the objects of his usually scathing criticism to have joined him in Heaven before the works were published.

Another reason is that, as Michael Kelly of the board of the Enoch Pratt Free Library said in toasting him at yesterday's unsealing, Mencken is "the greatest and most relentless posthumous self-promoter in the history of the arts."

The manuscript page the Pratt made public was chosen at random. The "report and recommendations" he referred to -- concerning improvements to The Sun's editorial page -- were made public some years ago. Mencken criticized the editorial page of his day as "too cautious. . . too judicial. . . excess of politeness." He summed up his editorial page philosophy this way:

"Most men are convinced, not by appeals to their reason, but by appeals to their emotions and prejudices. Such emotions and prejudices are not necessarily ignoble. It is just as creditable to hate injustice and dishonesty as it is to love the truth. One of the chief purposes of The Sun, as I understand it, is to stir up such useful hatreds."

Editorial Page Editor John Owens, replied:

"Mr. Mencken wants the kind of vigor which proceeds from single-minded partisanship. This paper has set itself up as liberal. . . If liberalism means anything, it means the kind of intellectual honesty which opens the door to all facts. It is true, of course, that liberalism in politics and journalism is identified with the advocacy of certain causes and policies. But if liberalism is anything more than pretense, such advocacy results from a fair survey of all that is pertinent, and the striking of a balance in favor of a given course."

That view prevailed here then, and it does now.

We look forward to the publication of these volumes. We urge the Pratt, Mencken's literary executor, not to dawdle for nearly 10 years, as it did in the case of the diary. Even when he was wrong in his criticism and comments about newspapers (and about literature), H. L. Mencken was a delight to read, and he often was right.

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