Editor honors Mencken on 118th birthday

September 13, 1998|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

Les Payne, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and columnist, credits H. L. Mencken -- along with Aretha Franklin, I. F. Stone and the Holy Scriptures -- with getting him through the Vietnam War emotionally intact.

Payne, now an assistant managing editor at Newsday of Long Island, N.Y., recalled his introduction to the razor-sharp prose of the Sage of Baltimore at the annual meeting yesterday of the Mencken Society at the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

He addressed about 150 members of the national group, which met yesterday on the 118th anniversary of Mencken's birth.

"It has been well-documented how Mencken's style can turn a college sophomore on to the joys of writing," Payne told society members. "It can also bring a sweet, wild sense of the reckless joy of writing to a black Ranger captain whiling away his days as an Army officer on the staff of General [William] Westmoreland."

Payne described yesterday how he and two other military information officers used to spend evenings on the roof of the Saigon officers' club comparing their favorite writers. Mencken was the choice of a Navy lieutenant named Bill Nack. Payne asked his wife, Violet, back in Texas, to send him some of Mencken's books. She did, and Payne was hooked.

Acknowledging that Mencken has been reviled by some African-Americans, Payne spent much of his 40-minute speech pointing to Mencken's support of black writers in the early years of the century, and his contribution to the Harlem Renaissance.

Mencken, he said, promoted and published in the American Mercury the work of outsiders like himself, many foreign-born and some of them black: Joseph Conrad, Sinclair Lewis, James Joyce, James Weldon Johnson, George Schuyler and W. E. B. Dubois.

Mencken remains relevant, Payne concluded.

"I think that the evidence of his intelligence and his massive body of work suggest that he still has something to teach us,'' he said.

Pub Date: 9/13/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.