The cream of the crop, in our own estimation

Accolades: Starting today, honoring some who made Maryland and beyond better.

Marylanders of the Century

June 20, 1999

AS THE 20th century draws to its conclusion, the time arrives to honor those whose efforts made life better not just for those around them but for multitudes unknown to them.

How contemporary it would be to claim that this is an objective, computer-compiled list of measurable contributions with quantifiable benefits. Sorry. Can't be done. This is a subjective list, argued and re-argued by The Sun's editorial board. It was compiled by a process not unlike election endorsements or choice of Marylander of the Year -- equally scientific, no more and no less. What follows, in short, is this newspaper's opinion.

Arriving at it has been fun and a learning experience. Anyone can play. The Sun's complete list won't be known until the end of the millennium approaches. But readers may join in with suggestions, refutations and revisions of the selections appearing weekly in this column.

To qualify, honorees must be Marylanders. That prompts the question: Maryland-bred or late-comers, people who began here or who ended here? To which the answer can only be, "Yes."

The contributions must be positive. There is a place for people who were famous merely for being famous, whose misbehavior defined an era or whose ouevre symbolized the Age of Anxiety. But not here. These Marylanders of the Century have done good. Some did it early in the century; a few are still at it.

Each is unique in contribution, not a representative of a class. Each is substantial in contribution. Some are household names, some more obscure. Some are relatively provincial, their contribution felt most strongly in a region of the state. Others gave to the nation and the world. Many of our selections blur that distinction.

All will have made contributions that last and will be remembered, even a century from now. Here, fittingly, is the first:

H.L. Mencken, bard of Baltimore; Journalist: No Maryland writer in this century has matched his power and influence.

H.L. MENCKEN was a cultural and intellect- ual phenomenon who transcended his roots to become a fearsome critic of national affairs -- yet he remained a fiercely devoted Baltimorean.

Newspaper columnist, magazine editor, prolific author, nurturer of writing talent and celebrity, he always chose Union Square over Broadway.

"Coming back to Baltimore [from New York] is like coming out of a football crowd into quiet communion with a fair one," he wrote.

Along with blue crabs, marble steps and Johns Hopkins Hospital, Mencken put Baltimore on the map in the early decades of the century. If the city had produced a Mencken, it could hardly be as boring as its tedious blocks of rowhouses some-times suggested.

A prodigy who had no formal education after Polytechnic High School, Henry Louis Mencken turned into the master essayist of his time -- as well as a men- tor, admirer or friend to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, James T. Farrell, Theodore Dreiser and other American writers.

Walter Lippmann called him "the most powerful influence on a whole generation of educated Americans."

"The third most fascinating man in the world," according to one poll in the 1920s. Most fascinating, according to another. Movie stars loved his attention as much as politicians loathed it.

As driven as he was masterful, Mencken took his craft to a pinnacle of focused and hilarious acerbity. Columnists since have seldom had his bite or wit or daring.

Mencken, a resident of the 1500 block of Hollins St. for most of his 75 years, endured a brief apprenticeship at his father's cigar factory before presenting himself at the old Baltimore Morning Herald -- night after night until he landed a job.

About seven years later, at the age of 25, he became the Herald's editor in chief. He left the Herald to work briefly for the News American and then for The Sun and Evening Sun, where he remained for 40 years.

He was an extraordinary writer of satire and polemic. The owners of The Sun saw him as welcome antidote to the "flatulence" of newspaper writing.

As a critic, his subjects were literature, society and ideas. He wrote books on the German philosopher Nietzsche; on democracy; on the American language; the playwright George Bernard Shaw, whose outsider viewpoints he adopted; and his own life and times.

He became editor of two literary journals that ruled the intellectual roost in the 1920s and 1930s: Smart Set and American Mercury.

He suspected politicians, scorned reformers and found little to recommend the South. His commentary from the Scopes monkey trial is still cited as a prime example of searing social criticism.

Forty-three years after his death, Mencken is still quoted prominently -- even during the impeachment trial of President Clinton.

He was skewered for use of derogatory terms for Jews and African-Americans, but his writing suggests he used them in an arch way -- in jest or as commentary on the masses who used them derisively.

Many of his friends were Jewish. Black writers have found in Mencken's iconoclasm a model for their own critiques of American society.

Decades before discrimination and bigotry were widely decried, Mencken was taking Maryland and Baltimore to task for appalling attitudes toward and treatment of blacks.

Blemishes and all, he was a leading figure of 20th-century Maryland. His writing career, his enormous influence on American journalism and literature and his loyalty to Baltimore are unparalleled.

Perhaps, as he said, many Baltimoreans "regard Douglas Fairbanks a greater man than Beethoven." But what was that against an atmosphere conducive to long friendships and comfortable, sustaining habits -- lunch at Marconi's, dinner at Schellhase's and meetings in the old Rennert Hotel?

His office was in New York, he pointed out repeatedly, but his "being" was in Baltimore.

Pub Date: 06/20/99

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