Mencken, misspelled but not forgotten Then and now: For some, the Sage of Baltimore's legend may be fading

for many, it never will.

September 13, 1997|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

So on the great man's birthday, when you call the Alfred A. Knopf publishing company to check which of H. L. Mencken's books are in print, the voice on the phone replies: "Is that Winnie the Pooh?"

Well, no. H. L. Mencken was perhaps the finest American prose stylist of this waning 20th century, and certainly one of its most vituperative. The author of "The House at Pooh Corner," a work of art which Dorothy Parker reviewed with the immortal words "Tonstant Weader Fwowed Up," was A.A. Milne.

Such a mix-up surely set several people spinning in their graves, including Alfred Knopf, who began publishing Mencken about 1917; and maybe even Mencken himself, out there in Loudon Park Cemetery, where he's lodged now along with his parents and grandparents and his beloved wife, Sara Haardt.

Then again, Mencken, whose 117th birthday is being celebrated in Baltimore this weekend, might have been amused. "No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public," he said.

Which may account for the fact that for bibliophiles, the most valuable Mencken work is "Ventures Into Verse," his first book, published in 1903 when he was 22. Rare-book dealer Teresa Johanson, co-owner of the Kelmscott Book Shop, says copies can be worth $12,000.

Deutsch-Amerikanes, the Baltimore German newspaper, called the Germanophile Mencken a "genius" and compared him "advisedly" with the great German poets, although the verse was Kiplingesque.

But when the mature Mencken was the nation's ruling literary critic, he was said to have been so distressed by his youthful poesy that he tried to buy up all 100 copies. He always denied that, but Johanson thinks Mencken would be "mortified" to know that people were paying that much money for that book.

Knopf, in fact, still publishes "A Mencken Chrestomathy," "A Second Mencken Chrestomathy," "A New Dictionary of Quotations" and the splendid "Vintage Mencken," writings first "gathered" by Alistair Cooke in 1995 -- at least according to an order clerk, who wants to know: "How do you spell Mencken?"

People who do know how to spell Mencken gather today at the Enoch Pratt Free Library and the Hamilton Street Club to pay homage to the iconoclastic Sage of Baltimore.

The Pratt brings in Paul Fussell, the author of the extraordinary "The Great War and Modern Memory," to deliver the annual Mencken Day address at 3 p.m. A vigorous prose stylist in his own right, Fussell is a sufficiently curmudgeonly skeptic to have earned the 1991 Free Press Association's Free Press Award.

The Mencken Society holds its annual meeting a little earlier at 11 a.m. at the Pratt, with a couple whose parents used to baby-sit Mencken's sister Gertrude in attendance.

Walter and Judy Brilhart live in Choice Parcel, the Carroll County farm where Gertrude died when she was 93.

"[Walter] played piano for Mencken when he was a boy," says Arthur T. Gutman, president of the Mencken Society. "And Mencken complimented him."

Mencken's club

Mencken was a gifted music critic, leaning as in all things toward the Teutonic, and a passable pianist with the celebrated Saturday Night Club. The Mencken Society these days claims about 400 members nationwide. About 60 will gather at the 16 West Hamilton Street Club for a re-creation of Mencken's Saturday Night Club.

The original club was a kind of chamber music society devoted to good music, hearty food and boisterous fun, not necessarily in that order. Mencken played piano, it is said, with more verve than skill, but happily and with increasing volume as the evenings progressed.

Mencken's Saturday nighters often retired to one of their favorite spas at the end of their recitals to continue the hilarity with more lubrication. But contemporary Menckenites will be hard put to find any of Mencken's old haunts extant. A tour of Mencken's Baltimore is an exercise in exhausted nostalgia.

Schellhase's, a favorite Mencken cafe on Howard Street, where you could drink silvery kummel in a tubular cordial glass as elegant as a Schubert lieder, stands blankly empty after a decade as a Korean restaurant.

A parking lot has replaced the Rennert Hotel, where a famous photograph caught a jubilant Mencken toasting the repeal of Prohibition with his old editorial friend Hamilton Owens and a foaming stein of beer.

Miller Brothers raw bar, where Mencken washed down Chincoteague oysters with Weissner beer, vanished like unclaimed baggage into what became the lobby of the Omni Hotel. The bar, the oysters and the beer are all gone.

Slowly crumbling and slated for demolition is the Peabody Bookstore and Beer Stube. Mencken and his Saturday Night Club cronies drank there during Prohibition when beer was banned and the stube was a speakeasy.

At home

Even the Mencken House itself, at 1424 Hollins Street, has been closed to visitors since the City Life Museums ran into financial difficulties.

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