Love-outrage relationship between Theodore...


March 19, 1992

THE LONG love-outrage relationship between Theodore Dreiser and H. L. Mencken has recently been described in tantalizingly brief fashion by Richard Lengeman, Dreiser's biographer. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, he traces their early camaraderie, their philosophical and literary disputes and their sad mutual conclusion, never admitted directly to one another, that they never really knew one another.

Yet the fascination held from the very beginning. Describing his first meeting with Mencken, Dreiser wrote: "With the sang-froid of a Caesar or a Napoleon, he made himself comfortable. . .. and beamed on me with the confidence of a smirking fox about to devour a chicken."

The two men shared a common German heritage, and after Dreiser showed Mencken the New York Brauhaeuser, Mencken reciprocated in anticipation of a Dreiser visit to Baltimore by writing: "The breweries have been notified and extra bartenders are being recruited."

These amenities were overtaken by quarrels, according to Mr. Lengeman, over such matters as the efficacy of prayer (Dreiser believed; Mencken snorted) and even more over promiscuity (Dreiser believed in that, too) as opposed to Mencken's self-confessed "prudery."

The Bard of Baltimore advocated self-censorship to bypass the Comstocks, provoking Dreiser to suggest Mencken was becoming one of them.

A terrible charge, that.

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