An expanded version of H.L. Mencken's 'Days' trilogy will be released Thursday

The manuscript contains 200 pages of previously unpublished material and period photographs snapped by Mencken

September 20, 2014|By Mary Carole McCauley | The Baltimore Sun

In the spring of 1981, when Marion Rodgers was a senior at Goucher College, she nearly fell on top of a box of old papers that would change her life.

Rodgers was preparing an article for the student newspaper paper on a former author and Goucher professor named Sara Haardt — who later married the iconoclastic journalist H.L. Mencken.

"I was putting away one of her scrapbooks in the vault of the library's rare book room when I literally stumbled over a box that was lying on the floor next to a shelf," said Rodgers, now a resident of Washington, D.C. "Taped on the top of the box was a message that basically said, 'Do not open until 1981. Signed, H.L. Mencken.' "

Inside the box, Rodgers found a treasure-trove of the so-called "Sage of Baltimore's" unpublished correspondence and other papers that she has spent the past three decades excavating. This week, 200 pages of new material by the outspoken thinker will be published by the Library of America in the form of an expanded version of Mencken's "Days" trilogy, which was originally published in the 1940s.

"He had a wonderful time writing about his past," says Rodgers, who edited the expanded volume. "This is really Mencken's Valentine to Baltimore."

Mencken was the famously acerbic, witty and influential Baltimore Sun journalist best known for his coverage of the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, in which he crusaded on behalf of a Tennessee educator who was put on trial for teaching his students about evolution.

Not all of his public utterances were as admirable. Mencken's reputation has been tarnished by racist and anti-Semitic remarks he made (though at other times he championed African-Americans and Jews when they came under attack) and by his siding with Germany during and after World War I.

"Mencken was a man of his time and place," Rodgers said. "The man who emerges in the expanded trilogy is not the legendary figure, but the actual Baltimorean, with his flaws and imperfections as well as his genius."

The first book of the trilogy, "Happy Days," describes Mencken's boyhood in the city during a time when Roland Park and Mount Washington were rural and heavily wooded. "Newspaper Days" chronicles Mencken's rapid rise from cub reporter to managing editor of the old Baltimore Herald. And the happily named "Heathen Days" covers a wide range of experiences, including Mencken's adventures during the Scopes trial, his experiments in home brewing during Prohibition and his visits to brothels.

In the expanded edition, the new material is published in the form of end notes. Rodgers that she boiled down 1,200 of Mencken's pages to the most relevant 200 — frequently accompanied by period photographs that Mencken snapped himself.

The editor acknowledges that Mencken occasionally embellished the facts to make a better story.

"He says in his introduction to the books that he put in several 'stretchers,' " she said.

Mencken put the new material under varying time locks, specifying the papers were to remain sealed until 15 or 25 or 35 years after his death.

"He said that he wanted the passage of time to release all confidences, and the grave to close over all tender feelings," Rodgers said. "There was another reason as well. Mencken was always aware of posterity and masterminded his own publicity from beyond the grave."

While the notes don't contain any blockbuster revelations likely to radically alter history's perception of Mencken, Rodgers said the notes deepen and enrich the portrait of a complicated man.

"There were many sides to Mencken," Rodgers said.

"There's the American social critic and fighter for civil rights with the righteous anger that leaps off the page. There's the writer with his glittering use of vocabulary that sends one scrambling for a dictionary. I love his common sense and his humor. I've been reading Mencken for over 25 years, and he never bores me."

Mencken was so prolific that some of the material he put under time lock still has never been published. Rodgers thinks these papers will prove invaluable to generations of future scholars.

For instance, those unpublished papers include a diary that Mencken kept in 1916 and 1917 during a long visit to Berlin that could be of interest to historians of World War I.

"There's a gold mine of material in the Mencken Collection at the Enoch Pratt Free Library," Rodgers said. "Mencken always said that his papers would entertain a vast herd of nascent Ph.D.s for years to come."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

About the book

"H. L. Mencken: The Days Trilogy, Expanded Edition" will be published Thursday by the Library of America. 872 pages, $35.

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