In his 1940s reminiscences, Mencken revealed himself as a relic of the '20s

January 10, 1993|By Kenneth S. Lynn

H. L. MENCKEN: MY LIFE

AS AUTHOR AND EDITOR.

Edited by Jonathan Yardley.

Knopf.

428 pages. $27.50.

Among the various memoirs undertaken by H. L. Mencken in his final years of literary activity was a recollection of the magazines he had edited and of the friends and acquaintances he had made at the time. Dictation of the book to his secretary began in November 1942, when he was 62. By the time he suffered a permanently incapacitating stroke six years later, he had accumulated a manuscript of more than a thousand pages. Unfortunately, the narrative had not quite reached 1924, the year in which Mencken established, in collaboration with George Jean Nathan and Alfred A. Knopf, the American Mercury, through whose pages he would exercise an incalculable influence on American habits of mind for the rest of the decade.

Yet even the truncated manuscript was very much worth publishing, and only Mencken's instruction that it not be made available to anyone until either Jan. 1, 1980, or 35 years after his death, whichever was later, kept it under sealed deposit at the Pratt Library until Jan. 29, 1991. Judiciously pruned by Jonathan Yardley, who has also supplied a most helpful introduction, "My Life as Author and Editor" now offers us, in Mencken's speaking voice, a colorful slant on the years when he and Nathan were editing the Smart Set and he was spending time with Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

There were also several dozen other men of letters whose names no longer command the recognition they once did, as well as an assortment of women ranging from Willa Cather to Anita Loos to Ethel Barrymore to a cadaverous, 6-foot harlot-cum-chorus girl named Kay Laurell, with whom Mencken more than once lay in bed "without having the slightest impulse to use . . . carnally."

But if the memoir is filled with vivid portraits of other people, it is also a portrait of Mencken himself -- of his limitless and omnivorous appetite for American books, of the considerable self-interest (which he frankly acknowledges) that entered into his famous defense of Dreiser against the Anglophile custodians of the genteel tradition, of his love of pungent language, and of his Rabelaisian taste for the racy gossip of such accomplished story-tellers as the music critic and Nietzschean iconoclast, James Huneker.

One afternoon at Luchow's in lower Manhattan, Mencken relates, Huneker enchanted him and a few other Pilsener-quaffing cronies with a tale about Lillian Russell's marriage, in 1894, to her third husband. The wedding was scheduled for the evening, so the full-figured soprano preceded it with a series of farewell parties for four of her other admirers, beginning at 10 in the morning. When the first of them had had his fill of her favors by noon, his place in her bed was taken by the second, and so on, until they all were served. Huneker, it seems, was a member of the quartet.

Of the important novelists whom Mencken summons up, he speaks most respectfully of Willa Cather. His opinion of her abilities was high, and he makes clear that she did not squander them. Nor was she, he says, a facile writer; indeed, he heard from Knopf -- who became her publisher in 1920 -- that she sometimes took as long as a week to perfect a few paragraphs.

His portrait of Dreiser, by contrast, is etched with the acid of a sardonic humor. When Dreiser had cohabited with his wife, he had led a thoroughly bourgeois life, according to Mencken; but when he took up with the arty and highly sexed young Kirah Markham, from Greenwich Village by way of the Little Theater in Chicago, he became converted into "a grotesque burlesque of the Rudolph of 'La Vie de Boheme' to the mirth of the gods and the embarrassment of his friends. It was, indeed, hard to refrain from laughing at a Rudolph built like a longshoreman or a farm-hand, with clumsiness in his every gesture, huge teeth, and a cast in one of his eyes."

Ridicule is also meted out to Dorothy Thompson, the excessively cocksure foreign correspondent who became Sinclair Lewis' second wife and whose eventual success as a syndicated political columnist hastened the downfall of her far more talented but habitually drunken husband. Most of Mencken's recollections of Lewis himself, however, are too harrowing to allow for humor of any sort. "Sometimes drink reduced him to quick insensibility and he lay asleep for hours and even days, but more often it stimulated him to activity and he roved the fields and woods [surrounding his and Dorothy's farm in Barnard, Vt.], getting into mischief. . . . Every time he went to Woodstock he returned with several bottles of whiskey, gin or rum, and the better part of another one inside." Before Lewis was 50, Mencken concludes, he was an old and worn-out man, no longer capable of interesting or even believable writing.

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