If H.L. Mencken were alive (and, as ever, kicking) today, would anybody publish him?

September 29, 1996|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Today, 40 years after his death, 48 years after a stroke stilled his voice and pen forever, 116 years after his birth, Henry Louis Mencken endures as the most quoted of all American writers. I can't imagine anything that could donate more joy to his afterlife than the fact that he continues to enrage at least as many people as he pleases.

Since he ridiculed the very idea of afterlife, there would be a doubling of pleasure in this. (Henry, if you're up - or down - there, please call the office.)

Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library, the institution most central to Mencken's evolution and heritage, has just celebrated the man again. The festivities included the annual Mencken Memorial Lecture. It was delivered by Lewis H. Lapham, editor of Harper's Magazine and himself a provocative essayist. He titled it: "If Only Mencken Were Still Alive ..."

Unsurprisingly, Lapham said flat out: "I cannot imagine that anyone would publish [Mencken's] work if he were writing it today." Pressed to the wall, Lapham said he "hoped" that Harper's would be the exception. He made no promises.

Why such fear and loathing?

Mencken has been written off as middle-brow and muddle-minded, as a racist or an anti-Semite, as - may the saints rise collectively to preserve us! - a Dead White American Male. Though he held far short of many, many others of his era, I believe there's no doubt of his anti-Semitism, which I find abominable, but the more general charge of racism dims quickly in the light of accepted contemporaneous usages and idiom.

Time for burial?

That's only a small part of it. Ray Jenkins, long an esteemed companion of mine in noble battles for free and open expression, and former editorial page editor of The Evening Sun, speaks eloquently for Mencken's critics. Six months ago he wrote in this newspaper that it is "time to bury Mencken, not to praise him," because except for his "The American Language," "the great body of [Mencken's] work remains fraught with error and contains little of lasting value other than, as he might put it, bile, bombast and buncombe."

What's more, little claim can be made for ol' Henry's lovableness. The most recently published Mencken volume is "In Defense of Marion: The Love Letters of Marion Bloom & H.L. Mencken," edited by Edward A. Martin. (University of Georgia Press. 390 pages. $65), from which bits were read dramatically at the Pratt celebration. That book reveals Mencken as an exploitative womanizer in full flight from genuine intimacy, a mean and, on balance, considerably miserable man.

Joseph R. L. Sterne, The Sun's editorial page editor, is in essential agreement with Lapham. "If the material Mencken wrote for The Sun and elsewhere came in over the transom as column proposals today," Sterne told me, "there is little chance they would be published, especially his vilifying clergy and other individuals and institutions."

Mencken was born in Baltimore to a staunchly bourgeois German-American cigar-making family and was educated at F. Knapp's Institute and the Polytechnic, but never went to college. He had a card from the Pratt before he turned 9 years old, and used it voraciously. He went to work for the Baltimore Morning Herald in 1899, at 18, and from 1906 until 1941, with one break, worked for The Sunpapers, as Sunday editor, editorial writer, and - mainly - as a columnist.

Which makes Sterne's estimation particularly on point.

"Mencken grew into a position of national prominence and thus became untouchable at The Sun," Sterne pointed out. "Today, maybe if the most firmly established writer on our staff, who over many years had accumulated a huge national reputation and standing, who had become a literary figure, wrote his kind of slash-and-burn copy, then maybe we would publish it."

And then Sterne found a provocative parallel:

"Mencken was in a very real way the Rush Limbaugh of his time - though many will find the parallel unfair. He broke the bounds of criticism, of dialogue." His voluminous papers are beautifully maintained in the Mencken Room at the Pratt, whose regular resources include all Mencken's works: During his lifetime, about 30 books plus significant contributions to about 20 others. Since then, some 10 more books of his work or containing it have been published.

Towering attention

Mencken started keeping clippings about himself in 1903, and the unbroken accumulation is a major treasure of the Mencken Room. Vincent Fitzpatrick, curator of the Mencken Collection, tells me the newspaper and magazine articles that flow in from a regular commercial clipping service fill a 400-page scrapbook every six months, a monumental tower of public attention.

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