A primer on the 'Sage of Baltimore'

Monday Book Review

January 23, 1995|By John Goodspeed

MENCKEN: A LIFE. By Fred Hobson. Random House. Illustrated. 652 pages. $35.

FRED C. HOBSON, a the University of North Carolina English professor and veteran southern writer and editor, really shows us something in this biography of the South's harshest critic, H. L. Mencken (1880-1956). Mr. Hobson's book is the first full-dress biography of the Sage of Baltimore since the 1969 "Mencken" written by the late Carl Bode -- and the best written, I think, since the 1950 biography of the same subject, "Disturber of the Peace," by William Manchester.

Mr. Hobson, author of five previous books, including one about Mencken called "Serpent in Eden: H. L. Mencken and the South," has now produced the most complete and carefully critical analysis of the work and thought and behavior of Maryland's most celebrated native writer. "Mencken: a Life" is a definite must read for friend and foe alike.

Mr. Hobson had access that previous biographers did not to the confidential notes, manuscripts and other papers that were sealed by Mencken's order at the Enoch Pratt Library with instructions not to make them public until up to 35 years after his death. Those documents, along with some newly published Mencken letters and interviews with people who knew him, provide quite a lot of new information and insights about the great man, by no means all flattering.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Mencken comes off here as somewhat more bigoted and hypocritical than many thought.

Which, however, is not to say that this new biography destroys his reputation as a great American writer. Mr. Hobson calls Mencken's prose style "dazzling," which it certainly is; it's unmatched by any except that of Mark Twain, S. J. Perelman, Evelyn Waugh and a very few others. Mr. Hobson is impressed, too, as many of us have been for years, by the staggering volume of Mencken's output -- millions of words published in The Sun, The Evening Sun and other newspapers, in Smart Set, American Mercury and other magazines, and in his numerous books: "Prejudices," "In Defense of Women," "Happy Days," "The American Language," etc. Plus there were articles published in other publications and thousands of personal letters the "Sage" is known to have written or received.

Mr. Hobson has apparently gone over more of Mencken's work '' than anyone alive. So what are his new insights and information? Here are a few aspects of Mencken, most of them already controversial, that Mr. Hobson enlightens us about:

* Was Mencken anti-Semitic? While he had good Jewish friends, he occasionally referred to them using a derogatory term. However, Mr. Hobson reports that Mencken helped a few relatives of a dead Jewish friend escape Hitler's Germany in the late 1930s by sponsoring their immigration. On the negative side: Mencken also wrote that Jews were "the most intolerant people on earth," that Jews had "never been fully civilized" and that the ++ old Jewish ghetto in East Baltimore was "indescribably filthy." While Mr. Hobson notes that Mencken eventually called Hitler an idiot, Mencken never wrote about the Holocaust, looking the other way after it was documented. Conclusion: Yes, he was anti-Semitic; No, he wasn't totally anti-Semitic. A typical bigoted view of white American men of Mencken's generation.

* Did Mencken drink too much? Obviously not enough to dampen his creative drive. However, he did praise alcohol and damn Prohibition in much of his writing. But we already figured that out. Mr. Hobson reports, however, that Mencken did not really approve of heavy drinking in other people, especially writers. Somewhat hypocritically, it seems to me, he condemned Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis and F. Scott Fitzgerald for drunken behavior.

* Was Mencken really as anti-democratic as he said he was? Yes, according to Mr. Hobson. Mencken was descended (although not directly) from a scholar or two in 18th century Germany and concluded he was therefore upper class, even though the figure he cut, like that of his father, a West Baltimore cigar-maker, was the very model of a rotund German burgher. H. L. Mencken was a genius, to be sure, but bourgeois to the core. He detested the lower orders, especially poor whites from the South. But he was never accepted by the WASP plutocrats who ran Maryland in his time -- possibly excepting Harry Black, a board member of The Sun.

* Was Mencken really as pro-African American as we thought? Yes, he encouraged and published more African-American writers than any white American editor of his time -- as we knew. But Mr. Hobson offers, without social comment, a possible reason why: Mencken had relatives on his mother's side who were mulattoes in Jamaica.

* How pro-German was Mencken? Very much so. He favored the Germans in both world wars, wanted them to defeat the British and the French and thought the United States was "dishonorable" for fighting on their side.

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