Writer gets to the heart of the private Mencken

May 06, 1994|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Book Editor

Fred Hobson jokes that he's precisely the sort of guy that H. L. Mencken wouldn't have liked: He's a Southerner, an academic and a liberal Democrat. Now there's another reason. He knows who Mencken slept with.

And much, much more: who the Baltimore-born writer fought with, why he was relieved when his father died (so he didn't have to work in the family tobacco store and could be a newspaperman), and how alone he felt even while at the height of his popularity as a literary and social critic in the 1920s. Mencken, a notoriously private man, would have shuddered at the thought that one person could know him so well.

Dr. Hobson, a professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has been studying and writing about Mencken (1880-1956) for 25 years, since he was a graduate student. He did his doctoral dissertation on Mencken; it developed into his first book, "Serpent in Eden: H. L. Mencken and the South." His latest work on the Sage of Baltimore, the 650-page biography "Mencken: A Life," has just been published by Random House. It's a thorough study of a man whom Dr. Hobson first was attracted to because of his outrageous writings but whom he now admires for his less flashy, more human side. He writes:

"His story, at its conclusion, presents us with an even more compelling version of tragedy, one nearly Greek in its implications: the immensely gifted and self-sufficient man who denied the gods and rose to the loftiest of positions through the power of words, only to be felled by a blow [a stroke] that robbed him of the ability to use words meaningfully but left him alive another seven years."

"I came to have a larger sympathy for him," Dr. Hobson, 51, says in an interview during a recent stopover in Baltimore. "I saw him as a brave and rather valiant man. There was his dealing with a stroke [in 1948]. He tried to maintain a rather good sense of humor about it. And there was his long-time devotion to his family -- his mother, [brothers] Charlie and August, friends who were in trouble. I find that admirable."

Kind words, indeed. But how would the prudish and quite Victorian Mencken feel about a book that details his love affairs?

"I'm sure if Mencken came into this room, I'd have to flee," Dr. Hobson answers quickly, smiling as he raises his hands as if to fend off blows from the outraged Sage himself.

"Mencken," the first detailed biography of the former Sun columnist and editor in 25 years, makes good use of a mountain of posthumously released Mencken papers: the additions to his "Days" trilogy in 1971, his now-notorious diary in 1981, the four-volume "Thirty-Five Years of Newspaper Work" and the three-volume "My Life as Author and Editor."

All had been kept at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, Mencken's literary executor, with the instructions that they be released at prescribed intervals after his death. "My Life as Author and Editor" was published last year, with Jonathan Yardley, the Washington Post book critic and Baltimore resident, serving as editor. "Thirty-Five Years of Newspaper Work" will be published this fall by the Johns Hopkins University Press, with Dr. Hobson and Vincent Fitzpatrick the co-editors.

Mencken saw these papers as a way to influence what would be written about him. "There is, indeed, probably no trace in history of a writer who left more careful accounts of himself and his contemporaries," he wrote in his diary in September 1945. But, as Dr. Hobson and other Mencken scholars have discovered, while Mencken wrote a great deal about himself, believing it all is another matter.

"In one sense, you had no problem at all, because he was the clearest writer who ever lived," says Charles Fecher of Baltimore, who edited "The Diary of H. L. Mencken," published in 1989. "He wrote exactly what he thought. At the same time, you have to distinguish between Menckenian exaggeration and what he really thought. He might call someone a mountebank or charlatan or fraud, but that doesn't mean he hated the guy. He might have actually liked him -- it was just the way he expressed himself."

And, as Dr. Hobson discovered of Mencken, "I thought the silences [in his papers] spoke volumes."

Those silences included his long love affair with Marion Bloom, a young Carroll County woman whom Mencken met in 1914 and stayed close to until their estrangement in 1923. Mencken mentions hundreds of friends, acquaintances and literary figures his posthumously released papers, but Dr. Hobson found only one mention of Bloom.

That's where Mencken's letters came in handy. Mr. Fecher has estimated that Mencken, in addition to writing dozens of books and thousands of newspaper and magazine articles, also wrote about 100,000 letters.

"I think I must have gone through just about all of them," Dr. Hobson said. "But they really helped fill the gaps. The letters show his private side deeper than the diary -- he writes about his relationship with his father, for instance."

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