500 join Pratt in honoring Mencken's gift of humor

September 12, 1993|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Staff Writer

In honor of H. L. Mencken's birth 113 years ago today in Baltimore, author Russell Baker returned to his own hometown to tell of the time he met the great Henry Mencken.

"Back in those days, The Sun gave you your pay in a small brown envelope. It was a very small envelope," said Mr. Baker, who began his newspaper career with the Sunpapers in 1948, about the time Mencken was ending his.

"I was going to the cashier's office to get my pay, the elevator door was held open, I turned around and here comes Mencken.

"I was paralyzed," Mr. Baker said. "He got in the elevator and looked right through me. I just stood there, catatonic. He turned his back and, thank God, he didn't speak to me. We rode up together, I got off the elevator and never saw him again."

Mr. Baker, who won Pulitzer Prizes as a New York Times columnist and for a best-selling book about his childhood, delivered the annual address at the Enoch Pratt Free Library's Mencken Day Celebration yesterday.

The Pratt, which maintains a room devoted to Mencken's life and work, and receives $7,000 to $45,000 a year in royalties from his books, invites the public to come and remember the Sage of Baltimore each September.

Yesterday, more than 500 people showed up -- the biggest crowd since the 1980 Mencken centennial.

"I know exactly what Mencken would say if he saw this crowd: 'I ain't worth it,' " said Jacob Hornstein of Baltimore.

Some in the throng came to browse through the Mencken Room; most wanted to hear Mr. Baker.

"I didn't know about [Mr. Baker] until two months ago when I read one of his books, and now I'm in love with him. He has such insight, and he makes me laugh," said Shirley Foy, 65, of Bolton Hill.

Before Mr. Baker's talk, a 1964 film called "Mencken's America" was shown in the library's Wheeler Auditorium. Segments that quoted Mencken verbatim -- such as the time he said the public grows "more sniveling every day" -- had the audience howling.

Whether describing politicians, preachers or professors -- the latter of which he once said might do American education some good if they committed suicide -- the remarks of Henry Louis Mencken were a laugh riot.

And that, more than anything, said Mr. Baker, is why H. L. Mencken has endured.

His gift of humor, not his work as a reporter, editor, literary champion, social critic or political analyst, allows "Mencken to still speak to us" 37 years after his death, he said.

"He is perhaps the most naturally blessed humorist produced in this country since Mark Twain," Mr. Baker said. "It's no wonder he loved Huck Finn, the darkest vision of American society . . . a book with a real American landscape swarming with monsters.

"It is as a great American humorist that Mencken remains vital," said Mr. Baker, pointing out that in old age, both Twain and Mencken turned sour after too many years of life "in a house of horrors from which no one escapes alive."

Mr. Baker said the public "is always eager to forgive the humorist and forgive Mencken even when he was at his worst, as he was in the diaries," which showed Mencken to be a man intolerant of races other than his own.

"Only the king's fool is permitted to speak the unspeakable," he said, "and the humorist is able to pierce to the truth in a way that makes us laugh even when the joke is on us."

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