Final memoir details heart of critical journalist

September 10, 1994|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Staff Writer

In the first three decades of the 20th century, H. L. Mencken was a literary critic of the first magnitude. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Theodore Dreiser were among the writers he championed, and they in turn sought his counsel and friendship. "The philistines will never run us out as long as life do last," Dreiser wrote Mencken in 1914.

He also was among the most widely read social critics of his time, admired by many for his forthrightness and hated by many more. "Democracy," he wrote in one typical invective, "is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard."

But despite his position as America's leading man of letters, the Baltimore-born author and editor remained at heart a journalist. That is evident in "Thirty-Five Years of Newspaper Work," the last batch of memoirs released since his death in 1956, published this week by Johns Hopkins University Press.

"Nothing enthralled him as much as the sweaty, contentious world of daily journalism that he inhabited, with two interruptions, for nearly fifty years," editors Fred Hobson, Bradford Jacobs and Vincent Fitzpatrick note in their introduction.

H. L. Mencken wrote his first newspaper story in 1899 at age 18, reporting a theft in Baltimore County for the old Baltimore Morning Herald. His last newspaper piece, a column decrying racial segregation on the tennis courts of Druid Hill Park, appeared in The Evening Sun in November 1948. Two weeks later he suffered a stroke that silenced his typewriter for the eight years until his death in January 1956.

During his career, he wrote millions of words for newspapers, mostly for The Sun and The Evening Sun, but also for such publications as the New York Evening Mail and the Chicago Tribune. He covered many of the biggest stories of his day -- the great Baltimore fire of 1904, national political conventions, the Scopes "monkey trial" -- and his columns were read around the country.

It is fitting, then, that his memoir about life as a newspaperman is the last of the autobiographical material he left to the Enoch Pratt Library to be published. "Thirty-Five Years" was unsealed in 1991, following his directive, along with the manuscript for "My Life as Author and Editor," published in book form last year.

In "Thirty-Five Years," which covers the period from 1906 to 1941, Mencken details his career with The Sun and The Evening Sun, along the way ruminating on city politics, gangster Al Capone's treatment for syphilis at a Baltimore hospital and Mencken's melancholy trip to Germany before World War II. He also takes some very nasty shots at his newspaper colleagues.

Dr. Hobson, a professor of English at the University of North Carolina and author of "Mencken: A Life," a well-received biography that came out in May, says Mencken's inclination to define himself as a newspaperman was "a strategy or sorts.

"From a very early age, he wanted to identify himself as a writer, but when he was young, being a writer was considered a rather effeminate thing," Dr. Hobson explains. "So if he could write as a newspaperman, he could separate himself from college professors. A journalist had a tough, masculine, image."

Mr. Jacobs, who retired as editor of The Evening Sun in 1985 after 40 years with the Sunpapers, recalls covering the national political conventions with Mencken in 1948. Mencken was 68, and would suffer his stroke only a few months later.

But, as Mr. Jacobs remembers, "He wore everybody else out. He never stopped. He watched everything with those big blue eyes of his. At night, we would go back to our hotel suite and he would talk about the convention all night long. I was just this young reporter and he was this great man-mountain, so intense. I was absolutely overwhelmed."

Indeed, Mencken's energy, and his versatility, separated him from nearly every other journalist. He filled a staggering variety of positions in his newspaper career. During his tenure at the Herald from 1899 to 1906, he was a reporter, drama critic, Sunday editor, city editor and managing editor.

When the paper folded, he went to the old Evening News for two months, then took a position as Sunday editor of The Sun. He was not yet 26 and already had published "Ventures Into Verse," a collection of poems, and the critical study "George Bernard Shaw: His Plays."

That this son of a West Baltimore cigar-maker, only a few years out of Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, would rise so quickly is remarkable -- and he continued that ascent. Given a free hand by Sun publisher Paul Patterson and Harry C. Black, a member of the paper's board, Mencken held a number of jobs at The Sun and Evening Sun.

He was primarily an editorial writer, reporter and columnist, but he also had several editing stints, including a short one as Evening Sun editor in 1938 (highlighted by an anti-Franklin Roosevelt editorial he wrote that took up an entire page).

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