Pondering the 'literary puzzle'

September 10, 1994|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Sun Staff Writer

In 1948, the year that H. L. Mencken suffered a devastating stroke that he considered his true death, a young Associated Press reporter arrived at Johns Hopkins to study fiction writing. Louis D. Rubin Jr. knew of the celebrated Baltimore newspaperman, of course, but it was not until the next summer that he began reading the trilogy of memoirs -- "Happy Days," "Newspaper Days" and "Heathen Days."

"Then, of course, I kept encountering Mencken when I taught and studied American literature," Mr. Rubin recalls in a telephone interview from his home in Chapel Hill, N.C.

"I just found him a very fascinating figure. There are just lots of reasons, the same way I enjoy Samuel Johnson. They're very much alike, you know."

The fascination never flagged. And today, when Mr. Rubin gives the annual Mencken Memorial Lecture at the Enoch Pratt Central Library, he will draw on a lifetime of reading and pondering the man he once described as a "literary puzzle."

"Compared with Mencken, our understanding of Mark Twain, say, or Henry James is monumental," he wrote in "The Mencken Mystery," an essay-review prompted by the publication of the writer's diaries in 1989. ". . . What we need now is a first-rate biography of the man, written by someone with full access to the evidence and capable of identifying and following up the clues."

This year, Fred Hobson's "excellent" biography, "Mencken: A Life," filled that void, Mr. Rubin says now, hastening to add that Mr. Hobson is a former student and colleague.

So when Mr. Rubin speaks today, he will concentrate on a different mystery: Why did Mencken choose to be a newspaperman first, and a literary figure second?

Many of the century's best-known writers -- Ernest Hemingway, Theodore Dreiser -- started as journalists, Mr. Rubin points out. But Mencken never abandoned his first love, although he had ample opportunities.

"It's rather surprising that he didn't set up headquarters in New York, rather than knocking out things for a deadline," he says. "But it was very important to him to stay in journalism, to stay in the relationship to the here and now, the everyday. Why -- that's the question. I'm not going to give away my answer ahead of time."

Although Mr. Rubin would return to journalism from time to time, he ended up choosing an academic career. In the early 1980s, he also started Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, a small publishing company notable for its critical successes. Financially, however, the company struggled and Mr. Rubin sold it to the Workman Publishing Co. in 1987.

"It's finally breaking even," he says of Algonquin, which has published such writers as Larry Brown, Clyde Edgerton, Jill McCorkle and Lewis Nordan, winner of this year's Southern Book Award for fiction.

Of course, there is a delicious irony that Mr. Rubin, a native of Charleston, S.C., who has written extensively about Southern writers and helped develop Southern writers, is to deliver this year's talk. "The Sahara of the Bozarts," a sweeping condemnation of Southern literature, remains one of Mr. Mencken's better-known essays.

But in the 1940s, when Mencken reprinted the 1917 essay in a collection of columns, the state of Southern writing had improved significantly -- and he took credit for it.

"There is reason to believe," he wrote, "that my attack had something to do with the revival of Southern letters, which followed in the middle 1920s."

MENCKEN MEMORIAL LECTURE

Who: Louis D. Rubin Jr.

When: 3 p.m. today

Where: Enoch Pratt Central Library, too Cathedral St.; book-signing at 1:15 p.m. in the library's central hall

Call: (410) 396-5430

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