Mencken birthday fete draws crowd Speaker reminds readers not to take author's comments too literally

September 14, 1997|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

To some, H. L. Mencken is Baltimore's sage -- his hyperbolic biting criticism are the words of pure truth. To others, he is Baltimore's scourge -- an anti-Semitic bigot and woman hater.

But Mencken really was an artist who had a love for words and a magical way of crafting them, Paul Fussell, award-winning author and University of Pennsylvania professor, told a packed room of Mencken lovers at the revered writer's 117th birthday anniversary celebration yesterday at the Enoch Pratt Free Library on Cathedral Street.

Mencken should not be remembered just for the opinions or outrageous statements he printed. Those opinions often changed, Fussell said.

A quotation often cited as one of Mencken's most memorable is: "A poet more than thirty years old is simply an overgrown child." Fussell said that days after boldly saying those words, Mencken said just as easily: "There may be some truth in [that statement]." "If we take Mencken too literally, we can't stand him," Fussell said. "He's a joker, essentially."

Fussell's emotional talk detailed how he first became entranced with the writings of Baltimore's most famous newspaperman, who wrote a column for the Evening Sun for 25 years.

Fussell -- whose new book is called "Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic" -- recalled being 19 years old in California, waiting to be placed in the infantry for World War II. His escape from his reluctant reality was the library. There he found a man who was attacking the very things that Fussell wanted to attack.

He said Mencken once wrote that "all government, in its essence, is a conspiracy against the superior man."

"You can see the appeal of this to someone going into the infantry," said Fussell, who has won two major book awards for "The Great War and Modern Memory."

Later, though, Fussell's fascination with Mencken would move from the writer's vitriolic attacks on politicians, organized religion and anything else that came across his path.

It was his style and word choice that Fussell came to revere. "He is the sage of Baltimore, but he is also the prose artist of Baltimore."

Yesterday, Arthur J. Gutman, president of the Mencken Society, said no one exists to satirize this generation as Mencken did his.

"Are we taking ourselves too seriously?" Gutman questioned. "Mencken would have had a ball with [President] Clinton. He would have had so much fun with Strom Thurmond and his young wife. He would have had a picnic with [Rush] Limbaugh."

Pub Date: 9/14/97

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