Humor connects separate worlds of Baker, Mencken

September 10, 1993|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

When 11-year-old Russell Baker and his family came to West Baltimore in 1937, they were among the hundreds of poor people who moved here during the Depression. This flood of newcomers was noted by the neighborhood's most famous resident, H. L. Mencken, who would write in his diary on July 27, 1941, from his home at 1524 Hollins St.:

"The Hollins street neighborhood is slowly going downhill, and in the course of time it is bound to be a slum," wrote Mencken, the Baltimore native who, at 57, was the best-known essayist and critic of his time. "Filthy poor whites from Appalachia and the Southern tidewater are already living in the 1600 and 1700 blocks, and their foul children and dogs swarm in Union Square."

Mencken's trademark bombast and hyperbole were directed toward the "lintheads" again and again in his "Diary."

He observed bitterly in an entry in December 1945: "No such shabby, ill-fed men and filthy, slatternly women and children had ever been seen in Baltimore before."

Mr. Baker, of course, went on to become a New York Times columnist, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and one of the leading American humorists of the second half of the century -- just as Mencken was a leading humorist in the first half. And now Mr. Baker is the featured speaker for the annual Mencken Day festivities tomorrow at the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

In preparing for delivering the H. L. Mencken Memorial Lecture he couldn't help thinking about Mencken's acerbic commentary on his new neighbors, though the columnist allowed good-naturedly that he harbors no hard feelings.

"That's who he was talking about, all right," laughs Mr. Baker from his home in Leesburg, Va.

"I lived across Union Square,within a block of him."

"It's interesting to go through the diary," Mr. Baker says. "The two of us lived in the same part of town, but in two different worlds. . . . He was one of the major literary figures of the century, and we were just . . . well, go through the entries and you get the picture."

Mr. Baker, 68, says he didn't really start reading Mencken until he began working at The Sun as a police reporter in the late 1940s.

"I did, though, read the famous obituary of his of William Jennings Bryan when I was a student at Johns Hopkins," Mr. Baker says.

"The piece had an irreverence toward a man of the cloth that was very appealing to a college student."

Lately, Mr. Baker has become reacquainted with Mencken while editing an anthology of American humor that will be out this fall. Mencken is represented by four pieces.

"I really regard him as a humorist," Mr. Baker says. "And if Mencken is to endure, it will be as a humorist."

*

Besides Mr. Baker's 3 p.m. talk at the Pratt, 400 Cathedral Ave., the Mencken Day program includes the opening of the Mencken Room, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and a screening in Wheeler Auditorium of "Mencken's America," a film written by Gwinn Owens and produced by Jack Hunter for WJZ-TV. Admission to all events is free. Call (410) 396-5494.

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