Opening of Mencken's papers 25 years after his death

He had instructed the Pratt to unveil his diary, other materials in 1981

January 21, 2012|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

It was H. L. Mencken's last party, and the invitation had been written more than 25 years earlier.

I was among the invited guests at the Enoch Pratt Free Library on Cathedral Street to witness the opening of Mencken's final papers, which his will stipulated be opened exactly a quarter-century after his death, which occurred Jan. 29, 1956.

The group that assembled at the Pratt on that January day in 1981, buzzing with anticipation, included, as best I can recall after all these years, Pratt officials, a cadre from The Sunpapers, Mencken scholars — including Charley Fecher, who died last week at 94 — Mencken Society members and reporters.

The five-volume diary, materials relating to the history of The Sunpapers, and "corrections and additions" to his autobiographical "Days" books had rested undisturbed in 12 plain wooden boxes bound by heavy steel metal bands in the library's second-floor vault.

At 10:08 a.m., the heavy steel door of the vault was opened, followed by the opening of a second inner door that caused a tinkling of warning bells. The 12 boxes were removed, placed aboard a cart and taken to the nearby Board of Trustees room.

"Somehow, I thought they'd be heavier," Ernest Siegel, who was then the library's director, told a reporter from The Baltimore Sun.

Charles F. Porrovicchio, the Pratt's building superintendent, cut the blue-black steel bands and then, wielding a crowbar and hammer, wrenched out the nails.

Porrovicchio handed the volumes to Siegel and John S. Burgan, chief of the Pratt's Central Library.

The contents of the first book were revealed at 10:11 a.m., when the wrapping paper was removed from a blue bound book that read "Letters and Documents Relating to the Baltimore Sunpapers, 1892-1941."

There was one surprise lurking in the crates: the three-volume set of "Additions and Corrections," which library officials were unaware of.

There was one elephant in the room, and in time, it would prove to be quite a large one: the diary.

I remember Ed Castagna, former Pratt director, succumbing to temptation as he went to the box containing the diary, brought to the surface a volume and removed a page.

Suddenly, the chatter filling the room came to a stop, and someone asked Castagna what "The Sage of Baltimore" had written in the entry he was holding in his hand.

Then calls came for him to read the page, which was dated Dec. 31, 1930.

"Edgar Lee Masters [the American poet and novelist who was the author of "Spoon River Anthology"] and his wife were here to lunch on Dec. 14, passing through on their way to Washington. Masters was once a law partner of Clarence Darrow in Chicago, and apparently has small love for him," read Castagna.

The entry ended with Mencken acknowledging that he shared a habit with Darrow.

"Masters said that he got the most genuine joy out of taking a chew of tobacco on rising in the morning and stepping under a shower-bath. This is also my own favorite vice." And then Castagna carefully returned the page to its proper place in the bound volume.

I recall that we had all hoped for some typical Mencken fire and brimstone, perhaps ripping an American president, an ardent Prohibitionist, a censor or a member of the booboise.

That would come eventually, but not that day.

I was fortunate again to be one of the readers selected after copies were made of the diaries.

The Pratt decreed they could be read only by scholars or others approved by the library. Readers had to agree that they would not quote, paraphrase or refer to the unpublished material in any manner.

That did little to extinguish whispering among the readers who connected and were aghast at what Mencken had written. Such angry and petty emanations didn't seem possible from a man who was the darling of the intellectuals and who had waged battles against everything he found offensive in American life and culture.

When set against the backdrop of Mencken's life, the diary did record a troublesome time for the noted writer.

He had stepped down in 1933 as editor of the American Mercury; his wife, Sara Haardt Mencken, the novelist, died in 1935; and the intellectual audience that had revered him in the 1920s abandoned him in the 1930s as he ranted against Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal.

My old friend Vince Fitzpatrick, himself a Mencken scholar of note who has been curator of the Mencken Room at Pratt for almost 30 years, was also one of the readers.

Mencken himself extinguished the notion that there would be any keyhole peeping when he wrote in a Feb. 5, 1942, entry:

"There will be very little about my private life, and next to nothing about women. Such things, it seems to me, are nobody's business — and I must always remember that what I write may be read by others after I am gone."

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