Even death cannot restrain reincarnation-prone H. L. Mencken

May 01, 1994|By Christopher Corbett

In an age in which, if we trust Time magazine, most Americans believe in angels and The Sun has carried news of people who've had sex with extraterrestrials, there remains a need for the powerful antidote to quackery offered by H. L. Mencken.

But the City That Reads doesn't read "the Attila of critics," and so the publication of the first biography of the great iconoclast in a quarter of a century -- Fred Hobson's comprehensive "Mencken" -- is less of an event than a new John Waters movie or the resuscitation of TV's "Homicide," which brings so much honor to Charm City. In the Baltimore of today, Sally Thorner of Channel 2 enjoys considerably greater name recognition as a journalist than Henry Louis Mencken.

The city Mencken knew is just about gone. Old John C. Brooks, who greeted many a trencherman at Marconi's, went to meet the angels, as Mencken would have put it, a few weeks ago -- joining the Peabody Book Shop and Bier Stube, the Schellhase and the Owl Bar.

But Baltimore is still haunted by Mencken. The Sun's Dan Rodricks -- the same one who wrote the book "Mencken Doesn't Live Here Anymore" -- cited the sagely one in his column. Another Sun dispatch, this on two famed Baltimore architects, makes the inevitable point that, yes, they once worked for H. L. Mencken. When Loudon Park Cemetery was sold two years ago, The Sun dutifully noted that yes, it was the burial place of H. L. Mencken. Each week, the City Paper carries a wild ad for Mencken's Cultured Pearl, a Hollins Street watering hole, replete with garish photo of Mencken in sombrero or some other get-up. No better man to promote Pilsener.

H. L. Mencken (1880-1956), the journalist, editor, and literary and social critic, makes an awkward heirloom for his hometown. The city is plainly uncomfortable with its most famous son. Long dead, Mencken was revered (if not much read) as a charming and irascible curmudgeon. Citizens who knew nothing of Mencken thought of him chiefly as an aphorist -- the father of the one- liner. He had become enshrined in the city's memory.

Unfortunately, the sage would not remain safely dead. Through his own handiwork -- a lifelong attention to public relations and his legacy, which Dr. Hobson explores -- Mencken rose from the dead about five years ago when his long-sealed diary was published.

Dr. Hobson writes:

"Although it is true of almost any writer of note that his story hardly ends with his death -- that posthumous publication of manuscripts, changes in critical tastes and political sensibilities, and any number of other factors affect the fluctuations of his stock in the literary market -- such a condition is particularly the case with H. L. Mencken."

The greatest challenge facing Dr. Hobson -- assessing Mencken in light of a vast amount of new information available -- is that Mencken has already upstaged his own life's story. This biography -- any book about him -- is almost anticlimactic. What could possibly top the diary controversy of five years ago?

Dr. Hobson notes that "not since Mark Twain, perhaps, has an American writer had a more notable, some would say notorious, posthumous career." Much of it was Mencken's doing.

The sage did not believe in God but he did have a strong faith in the afterlife, his own afterlife and the eternal preservation (and management) of his reputation. To that end, he decreed that various caches of his papers be released at timed intervals, the ++ better to serve his memory. Thus, in 1991 -- 10 years after the diaries were unsealed -- seven volumes of his memoirs were unsealed. The three volumes that made up "My Life as Author and Editor" were published in an edited form last year, and the four volumes that comprise "Thirty-Five Years of Newspaper Work" will be published in book form by Johns Hopkins University Press later this year. (Dr. Hobson, a professor of English at the University of North Carolina, is a co-editor.)

Alas, Mencken could not have anticipated the doctrine of PC (although he shrewdly never underestimated his countrymen's ferocious appetite for humbug).

In 1980, Mencken's centennial was observed here in a grand manner. Many enthusiasts came forward to speak fondly of their friendships with the great man (some of these may have been recovered memories?). If Mencken had had so many friends, the Saturday Night Club -- an evening of bock, Bach and Beethoven -- would have been held at the Fifth Regiment Armory instead of the Schellhase. But what harm of it . . . Mencken's memory was sweet.

A decade later, this was not the case. The publication of his diary revealed the sage with feet of clay, as one headline put it. He was an anti-Semite, a bigot, a racist; he loathed his colleagues and hated dogs and children, too.

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