Hopkins Press to publish latest Mencken memoirs

June 25, 1992|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,BOOK EDITOR

H. L. Mencken accomplished a great many things in his long and extraordinary life, but at heart he was always a newspaperman first. So, perhaps, it is fitting that the last of the posthumously released memoirs of the prolific "Sage of Baltimore" to be published will be his "Thirty-Five Years of Newspaper Work."

The Enoch Pratt Free Library, Mencken's literary executor, announced yesterday that Johns Hopkins University Press has been designated as publisher of a book drawn from "Thirty-Five Years," Mencken's three-volume memoir that was unsealed at the Pratt Jan. 29, 1991.

The papers -- more than 1,000 typewritten pages -- cover the period from July 1906 to the end of 1941 and deal primarily with his career as a reporter, editor and columnist with The Sun and The Evening Sun, as well as other newspapers for which Mencken wrote.

In the preface, Mencken wrote, ". . . in July, 1941, I determined to draw up a documented schedule of the rest of my life, with all names and dates checked, on the chance that I might want to do another volume or two later on. This schedule, it appered at once, would have to be divided into two roughly equal parts, as my life had been -- the one dealing with my activities as a newspaper man, and the other with my doings as a writer for magazines, an editor thereof, and an author of books. It is the first, or newspaper part that here follows."

The book will be edited by Fred Hobson Jr., professor of English at the University of North Carolina and author of a forthcoming Mencken biography, and Vincent Fitzpatrick, assistant curator of the Pratt's Mencken collection. Bradford Jacobs, former editorial page editor of The Evening Sun, will be associate editor or consultant.

The publication date for the book has been set for the fall of next year, said Robert Brugger, history editor at Hopkins press.

"This is an important document," said Mr. Fitzpatrick, 42, author of the 1989 study, "H. L. Mencken," and a recognized authority on the Baltimore-born writer. "I'm not sure if these papers will lead to any revisionist thinking, but they have a lot of information, and all of it is beautifully written.

"He has some very candid comments on the people he worked with at The Sun, and a lot of commentary about politicians in Baltimore and Maryland. The prose is so marvelous -- it's as polished and funny as anything I've ever read of his."

"Thirty-Five Years" is among several manuscripts Mencken (1880-1956) left to the Pratt with the directive that they should not be opened until after his death. The best-known of those works was his diary, unsealed in 1981 and published in book form in December 1989. "The Diary of H. L. Mencken" showed a brooding, melancholic side of the writer that made some of his fans uncomfortable, and stirred considerable controversy for its derogatory remarks about blacks, Jews and colleagues at The Sun.

"Thirty-Five Years" was unsealed in January 1991 along with the four-volume memoir "My Life as Author and Editor," which detailed Mencken's work as an influential magazine editor in the early part of this century. That manuscript is being edited by Jonathan Yardley, the book critic for the Washington Post and a Baltimore resident, and will be published in book form next January, Ashbel Green, a senior editor at Alfred A. Knopf, said yesterday.

Among the many books Mencken wrote was the 1941 memoir "Newspaper Days," which covered at length his early career as a newspaperman in Baltimore. But "Newspaper Days" took him only up to the first decade of this century.

According to his diary, Mencken began working on "Thirty-Five Years" in July 1941, shortly after finishing "Newspaper Days." His diary entry for Dec. 29, 1941, included this observation: "During the past 40 years I have seen both American newspapers and American magazines from the inside. If history is worth anything at all, then maybe this history that I have had a hand in will be worth setting down. But whether it is or it isn't, I get some fun in my closing years out of running it down and recording it. Up to this time, so far as I know, no really honest history of a newspaper, or of a magazine, has ever been written."

In his 35 years with The Sun and The Evening Sun, Mencken performed a number of tasks. Best known for his acerbic columns and superb reportage on such momentous events as the 1925 Scopes trial, he served also as an editor, participant in labor negotiations and general watchdog. He fretted constantly over the papers' editorial policies, feeling them too pro-British, and complained regularly they were becoming too complacent.

Philip M. Wagner, a former editor of The Sun who worked alongside Mencken in the 1930s, called him "the only genius that I've ever known. When I read 'Thirty-Five Years,' I was struck by his attention to detail on everything."

Mr. Fitzpatrick said that among the highlights of "Thirty-Five Years" are more observations on the Scopes trial -- "I think there is some writing about it that he was not comfortable about printing at the time" -- and recollections of numerous foreign trips, including one he made to Germany in 1938. Mencken, of German extraction and intensely proud of it, never wrote elsewhere about that trip, prompting some scholars to speculate he was troubled by the country's Nazi regime.

On the whole, though, Mr. Fitzpatrick indicated that "Thirty-Five Years" shows none of the bitter tone that marked Mencken's diary. "It won't generate the controversy that the diary did," he said.

But the excitement Mr. Fitzpatrick feels about editing the manuscript is tempered by the knowledge that it almost surely is the last unpublished work by Mencken.

"Is there some sadness?" Mr. Fitzpatrick said, repeating a question. "In a sense, there is. You always wish for more Mencken."

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