Mencken's fakery

Carl Bode

January 31, 1991|By Carl Bode

TUESDAY at the Enoch Pratt Library, an interesting ritual was observed. The final batch of Mencken papers was exposed to public view.

Present were scholars, librarians, editors and other Mencken buffs. The papers were composed of two sets of typescript volumes. One was reminiscences of Mencken's newspaper experiences, "Thirty-Five Years of Newspaper Work," in three volumes; the other was his experiences with writers and critics, "My Life as Author and Editor," in four volumes.

In one corner of the room some thought they saw the shade of Mencken puffing a long, mean cigar under a No Smoking sign. Was he chuckling -- and with good reason? Was he watching the beginning of what he hoped would be his greatest hoax?

Throughout his career, Mencken was a dedicated hoaxer. As he remarked in "Newspaper Days," he had "a talent for faking." He loved to improve on reality. He once remarked that his influence on American culture would have been much greater if he had pretended to be the seventh son of a Mississippi sharecropper. He lamented the sheer ordinariness of his origins in a Baltimore bourgeois household.

Early in his career, as a fledgling city editor of the Baltimore Herald, he decided to spice up the traditionally dull week end news with a touch of sensationalism. He invented the "Wild Man of North Baltimore," whose antics enlivened the paper for weeks.

He also engaged in another type of deception in writing under a rich variety of pseudonyms. In the second decade of this century, he began to write for and co-edit a sleazy New York magazine called The Smart Set. He sometimes helped to fill half of its shoddy pages under one pen name or another. His favorite alias was "George Weems Peregoy."

As the years went along, Mencken's hoaxes increased in subtlety, though they probably diminished slightly in number. A Chicago newspaper man, Robert McHugh, gathered a bouquet of them which he published under the title "The Bathtub Hoax and Other Blasts & Bravos."

It should be a matter of historical interest that the spirit of Mencken hoaxes lived on -- even into our time. During Jimmy Carter's presidency, Calvin Trillin of the New Yorker published a pungent portrait of the redneck family of a president of the United States with a deep bow to brother Billy. According to Trillin, the passage had somehow found its way from the unpublished works of Mencken to his own typewriter.

When it came to the works of Mencken that he allowed to be printed after his death, some inevitably proved to be better sources than others. His diary, which was open to readers from 1981, was characterized by a gritty realism; there were no hoaxes.

Of the two sets of typescript volumes made public Tuesday, the one about Mencken's newspaper experiences obviously offered less than a fertile field for his imagination.

But the volumes about writers and their critics surely offered him an abundance of opportunity. For example, I can see him, still exercising his talent for faking, writing graphically about the lumbering Theodore Dreiser sitting in an Oxford pub and helping Scott Fitzgerald to improve the literary style of the novel we now know as "The Great Gatsby." Further, I can envision Mencken describing Ernest Hemingway composing a sonnet sequence celebrating courtly love.

However, Mencken's masterpiece might be a description of his discovery of the novels by Jenny Sand-Painter, the Navajo author. Her novels would be hailed, if Mencken had his way, as the jewels of Native American fiction. How inspiring to read the epic of America in the works of a Native American!

Mencken's happiest hoax might be embodied in those imaginary novels by Sand-Painter. For those who went hunting for her manuscripts at the New York Public Library, there might be no sign of Jenny, but among the Mencken papers there would be a consolation prize -- Dreiser's sexual score card. Yes, nestled among the Dreiser-Mencken letters lies the proud report from Dreiser of whom he slept with -- and how and when and where.

What I've conjured up is the part but not the whole; of this I am sure. Hoaxes have a hardy life of their own. Somewhere in North Baltimore the Wild Man still frisks around frightening children -- little and big. He can often be seen clad in his shaggy furs, chuckling sardonically.

Carl Bode is professor emeritus of the University of Maryland 1/2 College Park and a biographer of Mencken.

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