Collection of Newspaper Pieces Helps Restore Mencken's Luster

November 10, 1991|By TIM WARREN | TIM WARREN,Tim Warren is book editor of The Sun.

When the Ku Klux Klan marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington in August 1925, H. L. Mencken was stationed at the Treasury Building, taking notes with the rest of the press.

Before them unfolded a remarkable sight: thousands of Klan members and their families, many from the North, filling the most important street in Washington from the Capitol to the White House. It was a defiant and chilling exhibition of power; this was, after all, a time when hundreds of public officials on the local, state and even national levels were elected with known Klan sympathies -- or even, in some cases, were unabashed members.

The implications of the Klan's swaggering about the nation's capital were not lost on Mencken, a long-time and outspoken opponent of the organization. Yet this is what he wrote in his story for The Evening Sun:

"Pennsylvania led the van, and, in fact, dominated the whole parade. After two hours its host were still passing. They marched proudly, and showed a lurid fancy in their investiture. The men of Sam D. Rich, of Pittsburgh, were clothed in robes faced with scarlet, and wore mitres of the sort affected by patriarchs of the Greek rite. They had their wives with them -- fat, amiable gals mainly, with their make-ups dripping from the ends of their noses. The men of Johnstown wore trench hats; those of Holidaysburg bore muskets. Altoona was led by a Klan intellectual in horn-rimmed spectacles. . . .

"So they marched past, rank after rank -- the beauty and chivalry of Kutztown, Kunkletown, Kratzerville, Kleinfeltersville, Schwenkville, Houtzdale and Hamburg. The Klan gown was only the beginning of their attire. Over it some wore the cloaks of Spanish grandees of the sixteenth century and some the robes of Shinto high priests. One platoon was in green baldrics emblazoned with vermilion crosses; another wore huge special shakers bespattered with gilt stars. The example of the Moose has not gone for naught in the mining towns. There is a rising taste for elegance there, and it showed itself brilliantly in today's parade."

On and on Mencken wrote in like manner, disemboweling the Klan with controlled derision and sharp detail. Perhaps some journalists presented their distaste for the parade in a straightforward and outraged tone (and understandably so), but not Mencken, who saw the Klan members for what they were: petty and cowardly and abysmally ignorant. One of the parade's leaders was an "imperial profligate" whose uniform "was a mass of glittering gems, the love-offering, no doubt, of his lieges sweating on foot behind him. He acknowledged the huzzahs of the rabble with graceful sweeps of the left hand. A regal fellow, and much happier in patriotic work, you may be sure, than he ever was in the lime and cement business."

This excerpt, from the recently published "The Impossible Mencken: a Selection of His Best Newspaper Stories" (edited by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers; Doubleday, 707 pages, $27.50), shows Mencken at the top of his game: incisive, brave, capturing even the tiniest nuance, exposing sham and hypocrisy as only he could do. One recalls the observation of Joseph Conrad: "Mencken's vigor is astonishing. It is like an electric current. In all he writes there is a crack of blue sparks . . . that give you a sense of enormous power."

Taken from the approximately 3,000 newspaper stories that Mencken wrote -- primarily for The Evening Sun and The Sun, but also the New York Evening Mail and the Chicago Sunday Tribune -- the 200 or so that make up "The Impossible Mencken" remind us again of the extraordinary vitality of his writing.

Though some pieces focus on the arts, or such matters on the best way to prepare crabs and oysters, most show Mencken centering in on the biggest issues of the day. Be it political conventions (a favorite subject), Prohibition, the Scopes trial, lynchings on the Eastern Shore or overzealous traffic policing in Baltimore, Mencken boldly strode into the fray. In her introduction, Ms. Rodgers cites an appropriate comment from Mencken: "The two main ideas that run through all my writing, whether it be literary criticism or political polemic, are these: I am strongly in favor of liberty and I hate fraud."

Upon reading the opening pages of "The Impossible Mencken," one reaction quickly sprang to mind: what a contrast to, and welcome relief from, the last book we saw about the Sage of Baltimore, "The Diary of H. L. Mencken."

That gloomy, frequently bitter book came out two years ago and, in the eyes of even some fans of the Sage of Baltimore, put some tarnish on his reputation. Here was Mencken railing against Jews, blacks and poor white workers who came to Baltimore during World War II ("lintheads," he called them); some colleagues and supposed old friends got rough treatment as well. Mencken even allowed, in an especially saddening entry, ,, that it probably was a mistake that his ancestors had immigrated from Germany, and that he had never really felt at home in the United States.

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