Strong dose of Mencken prescribed for our times

September 10, 1995|By John A. Morris | John A. Morris,Sun Staff Writer

The late H. L. Mencken, the so-called sage of Baltimore, would be a refreshing foil to "political correctness" and the "Disneyfication of America," historian C. Vann Woodward said yesterday.

Delivering the 1995 Mencken Memorial Lecture at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, Mr. Woodward, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and a professor emeritus of history at Yale University, recalled the Baltimore scribe's sardonic commentaries on American society through the early 20th century.

"I wonder if we don't need a doctor with the same medicine today -- only in stronger doses," said Mr. Woodward before the capacity crowd of about 100 in the library's Wheeler Auditorium.

The library, which houses Mencken's manuscripts, letters and personal collection of first editions, celebrated his 115th birthday with a day of festivities.

Mencken, the son of a West Baltimore cigar maker, was born Sept. 12, 1880, and died in 1956. He was a reporter, editor and columnist for The Sun and The Evening Sun and covered many high-profile events, including the Scopes Monkey Trial.

Among the day's events, the library received four letters for its Mencken collection -- two by the newspaperman-author written in the early 1940s to Leonard Weinberg, and two from Mencken's secretary from 1950.

Averil J. Kadis, public relations director for the library, said the latter two are important because they confirm that Mencken autographed several books two years after he had a series of debilitating strokes.

Mr. Woodward, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University from 1947 to 1962, said Mencken was his "boyhood hero." The editor of the American Mercury, a literary magazine, Mencken exerted tremendous influence over his generation, the "rebellious youth" of the 1920s, he said.

"I remember how we raced each other to the shelf for the latest issue . . . so we would know what to think until the next one came out," said Mr. Woodward.

He recalled his favorite Menckenisms. Among them:

* "All government is a conspiracy against superior men."

* "History is cheaply written by third-rate men."

* "I've never met a thoroughly moral man who is entirely honorable."

Without a doubt, Mr. Mencken's views would not be politically correct by today's standards, Mr. Woodward said. He was anti-Semitic, though he surrounded himself with Jewish friends and associates. And he was anti-feminist.

"He was a man of his times, not ours," Mr. Woodward said in defense of Mencken's occasional use of racial epithets and other offensive language. "He would never be regarded as politically correct by the prevailing standards."

But, he said, Mencken challenged the accepted norms and provoked thought.

"Admittedly, we have some non-conformists but they tend to be paranoid nuts," Mr. Woodward said.

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