The Case of the Missing Mencken Manuscript

January 29, 1995|By Terry Teachout | Terry Teachout,Special to The Sun

Not counting restaurants, my favorite room in Baltimore is on the top floor of the downtown branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. It doesn't look like much from the outside -- just a nondescript blue metal door with "Mencken Room" painted on it -- but I love it anyway. The Mencken Room is the place where I unearthed the long-forgotten manuscript of an unpublished book America's greatest journalist.

On the inside, the Mencken Room looks like the library of a slightly seedy men's club: book-lined walls, aging chandeliers, reasonably comfortable chairs. But you don't have to dig very deep to realize that appearances are deceiving. The books, for example, are from H. L. Mencken's personal collection. Some are first editions effusively inscribed by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser and a dozen other now-legendary American authors of the '20s. Others are the original manuscripts of Mencken's own books: "Prejudices," "The American Language," "Treatise on the Gods," "Newspaper Days." All were left to the Pratt by Mencken on his death in 1956, along with the battered portable typewriter on which he rapped out many of them.

The Mencken Room is a magnet for anyone interested in the life and work of Baltimore's favorite son: scholars, buffs, sworn enemies. There has never been a more complete collection of the private papers of a major American author. Even the closet is full of surprises. A cross between the Smithsonian Institution and the archives of Fibber McGee, the closet of the Mencken Room houses such unlikely-sounding items as the schoolbooks Mencken used as a child and a boxful of letters sent to him by insane women after he became famous. The top shelf, appropriately enough, is where I found the manuscript of "A Second Mencken Chrestomathy."

The story of "A Second Mencken Chrestomathy" begins in 1943, when H. L. Mencken first discussed with Alfred Knopf, his friend and publisher, the possibility of bringing out "a sort of Mencken ,, Encyclopedia, made up of extracts from my writings over many years, arranged by subject and probably with additions." Four years later, Mencken went to work in earnest on the book that ultimately became "A Mencken Chrestomathy," a jumbo anthology containing his endlessly quotable thoughts on everything from the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (good) to the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (bad).

From the title (a Greek-derived word meaning "a collection of choice passages from an author or authors") to the salty author's notes that introduced each selection, "A Mencken Chrestomathy" showed off the Sage of Baltimore at his best and most typical: witty and abrasive, self-confident and self-contradictory, sometimes maddening, often engaging, always inimitable. Not surprisingly, the "Chrestomathy" made the best-seller lists as soon as it was published in 1949. It's been in print ever since, a permanent monument to the lasting relevance and readability of its author.

The success of "A Mencken Chrestomathy" is a matter of record. What didn't get into the record is that Mencken planned from the outset to publish a sequel. Though a few scholars were aware that the manuscript materials for "A Second Mencken Chrestomathy" were left by Mencken to the Pratt as part of his huge collection of private papers, it was universally assumed that they were too disorganized to salvage. Two months after delivering the first "Chrestomathy" to Knopf in the fall of 1948, Mencken suffered a stroke that left him unable to read or write for the rest of his life. How could he possibly have made any headway on a second volume?

This is where I came in. Shortly before starting work on a biography of Mencken, I read his diaries (unsealed in 1981 and published eight years later), which contain numerous references the editing of the first "Chrestomathy" and to Mencken's plans for a sequel. These references suggested that Mencken might well have gotten farther along in his work on the "Second Chrestomathy" than was commonly supposed. I filed this bit of information in the back of my head for future reference.

In the spring of 1992, I unlocked the closet of the Mencken Room, unfolded a stepladder and started hunting for buried treasure.

It was a daunting task. The contents of the closet are fully catalogued, but nothing is easy to find. The closely packed shelves go all the way up to the ceiling, and the only light is an ancient bulb that could have come out of the refrigerator of a dollhouse.

I figured I might as well start with the top shelf and work my way down. Perched unsteadily on the highest rung of the stepladder, I spotted five fat letter files whose typewritten labels were barely readable by the feeble glow of the closet light: "Material Collected by H.L.M. for a proposed second volume of A Mencken Chrestomathy."

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