The Baltimorean at 125

September 10, 2005

MONDAY MARKS the 125th birthday of Henry Louis Mencken, and it's time the citizens of Baltimore gave its native son his due. Oh, some have embraced him. Certainly he's remembered here on Calvert Street for his years as an editor and columnist at "the Sunpapers." Today is Mencken Day at the Enoch Pratt Free Library and features guest lectures and exhibits. Baltimore's Mencken Society soldiers on as do the Friends of The H.L. Mencken House, which maintains the writer's historic home on Hollins Street with little financial support. But Baltimore's overall relationship with the irascible Mr. Mencken is complex. He's not an easy man to hug.

When first made public more than 15 years ago, the Mencken diaries suggested that there was more than a hint of racism and anti-semitism in the Sage of Baltimore. These prejudices do him no honor. But it's fair to note that the disparaging remarks written many decades ago were a small, scattered part of Mencken's entries and expressed ideas that were hardly unique in the context of the times. They are also contradicted by Mencken himself. As editor of an influential literary magazine, he published the works of African-American writers when others would not. In his column, he crusaded against lynchings and welcomed Jewish refugees.

Yet why is it not fashionable to extol Mencken's virtues? We give greater due to Babe Ruth and Edgar Allan Poe, men with prodigious flaws. Yes, H.L. could be outrageous and infuriating. Provoking people was what Mencken did best. Ultimately, he's too good a writer to ignore, and his impact on American literature too profound. He was fond of Baltimore, was a newsman to his core - and he absolutely hated Prohibition. So what's not to love?

Mencken doesn't fit today's political labels. He thought the best government was the least government. He was politically incorrect before it was cool. He had a top-flight intellect, including a vocabulary apt to send readers to their dictionaries. He could be bitingly funny with a writing style that borrowed more than a bit from Twain. He didn't just mock politicians, he mocked anyone gullible enough to believe them.

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is one of those struck by this underappreciation. Her biography, "Mencken: The American Iconoclast," is due in bookstores in November, and she's delivering the Mencken Day lecture at the Pratt at 2:30 this afternoon. She's troubled by the fact that the city-owned Mencken House is closed and his personal things in storage because there's not enough money to operate it as a museum. "Mencken helped put Baltimore on the map," says Ms. Rodgers, who has edited two books of his writings, "and Baltimore has taken him for granted."

The times cry out for a voice like Mencken's. One can only imagine how he would react to the hucksterism of the modern presidency (shiny, shallow go-getters). Imagine what he'd write about television (optical delusion), the debate over intelligent design (the congenital hatred of knowledge), and modern evangelists (the irresistable reasonableness of the nonsensical). But we don't have to imagine. Those are all direct quotes.

But let the final word come from the man himself. Eighty years ago, he wrote an Evening Sun column extolling the virtues of Baltimore and its sense of place. It was a city, he wrote, where a man's circle of friends were a part of his family.

"A Baltimorean is not merely John Doe, an isolated individual of Homo sapiens, exactly like every other John Doe. He is John Doe of a certain place - of Baltimore, of a definite home in Baltimore. It was not by accident that all the peoples of the Western world, very early in their history, began distinguishing their best men by adding of this or that place to their names."

Happy birthday, Henry Louis Mencken - of Baltimore.

- Peter Jensen

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