Knopf plans '93 publication of Mencken papers about his life as author and editor

July 30, 1991|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Book Editor

An article in Tuesday's Today section incorrectly stated th role of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in the publication of the recently unsealed H. L. Mencken papers, "My Life as Author and Editor." Although the papers will be published by Alfred A. Knopf Inc., Mencken's longtime publisher, as stated in the article, the decision to have them published was made not by Knopf but by the library -- as literary executor of the Mencken estate -- following a recommendation by its board of directors. The Pratt then offered the rights to publish to Knopf.

Also, the Pratt has not attempted to find a publisher for the other recently unsealed papers, "Thirty-Five Years of Newspaper Work," as was implied in the story.

The Sun regrets the errors.

The literary output of one of this century's most prolific authors will be increased even more by the decision of Alfred A. Knopf, the long-time publisher of H. L. Mencken, to publish a collection of the Baltimore writer's recently unsealed papers.

Ashbel Green, a senior editor at Knopf, said the publishing house expects to choose an editor in a few weeks for the four-volume collection of papers, titled "My Life as Author and Editor." That selection is expected to be announced Sept. 14, during Mencken Day observances at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, according to library spokeswoman Averil Kadis. (The Pratt Library is the financial and literary executor of the Mencken estate.)

"I see 'My Life' as a very worthwhile, publishable book," Mr. Green said. "My guess is that we'll publish sometime in 1993."

"My Life as Author and Editor" and a three-volume memoir, "Thirty-Five Years of Newspaper Work," were unsealed at the Pratt Jan. 29 -- 35 years after the writer's death -- as he had instructed in a memorandum to the library. They are thought to be the last unpublished papers by "the Sage of Baltimore" and thus could have particular literary import, considering Mencken's status as probably the pre-eminent American literary critic and editor in the first three decades of the 20th century.

Mencken himself thought so. "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," he wrote in an April 1946 entry in "The Diary of H. L. Mencken," published by Knopf in 1989.

As co-editor of the influential magazine Smart Set from 1914-1923, he published such authors as Aldous Huxley, Somerset Maugham, James Joyce, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Willa Cather and F. Scott Fitzgerald. As a critic, Mencken championed such authors as Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis when it was not popular to do so.

Mr. Green said that of the four crates of papers that comprise "My Life," "two represented his text and two were appendices." He added: "The body as a whole runs over 2,000 pages. A lot of appendix material is not of particular interest."

He said the time frame "ends sometime in the 1920s." As for the contents, not surprisingly, "There's some very pungent commentary."

Only a handful of people have seen the papers. They were read by a four-person committee at the Pratt before it voted to offer the papers to Knopf, and only a few scholars will be permitted to view them at the library before their publication, Ms. Kadis said.

No publisher has been found for "Thirty-Five Years of Newspaper Work," which covers much of Mencken's career as writer and editor with The Sun and The Evening Sun. Mr. Green said those papers were not offered by the library to Knopf. Ms. Kadis said that the library hopes to find a publisher by the end of the year.

The path to publication of "My Life" should be considerably smoother than that of "The Diary of H. L. Mencken." The Mencken diary was unsealed at the Pratt in January 1981, but was not published for more than eight years because of questions about whether Mencken intended its contents to be made public.

That issue was resolved by a ruling in October 1985 by Stephen Sachs -- then Maryland's attorney general -- that the diary could be published. The book drew considerable controversy for several racist and anti-Semitic passages.

"The diary was much more personal than 'My Life' -- it was introspective, written primarily for himself," Ms. Kadis said. "In this book, he was making judgments that he wanted others to see."

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