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Mencken's world and mine

Locked in a metal filing cabinet in The Sun's library is a sheaf of manila folders packed with typed pages, copies of paste-up sheets and loops of pink, punched tapes — artifacts of H. L. Mencken's coverage of what he dubbed "the Scopes monkey trial."

Mencken was in poor health by the time The Sun's offices moved to this brick building on Calvert Street. But more than a half-century after his death, his presence remains strongly felt here.

His face, waggish and clutching a cigar between his lips, gazes down on those who pass through The Sun's lobby. His words — irascible, irreverent and always precise — help shape our views of history, society and our profession.

Mencken has figured in my life as long as I can remember, a sardonic uncle sipping a Scotch in the corner. My teachers listed his accomplishments as an editor and columnist for the Sunpapers among our state's treasures, along with the "Star-Spangled Banner," clipper ships and Black-Eyed Susans. My mother, a writer and English professor, spoke of snapping to attention when Mencken passed by as she and her cousins played in Union Square in the late '40s.

When I became a reporter for The Sun six years ago, my father gave me a set of Mencken's memoirs. After chasing my first stories — such as tales of the man who caught crayfish in a trash-choked city stream or the one whose gritty awnings workshop was surrounded by skyscrapers — I would read Mencken's recollections of reporting along the same streets.

Mencken summons the sounds, scents and moods of a growing, pulsing city. Cartwheels rattled along the paving stones by the Mencken family home on Hollins Street. Roosters squawked the city awake at dawn. The Back Basin — the more elegant title of the "Inner Harbor" had not yet been bestowed upon it — seethed with foul odors in summer.

Although much had changed in the 100 or so years from Mencken's birth until mine, the bones of the city, and the fundamental drives of its inhabitants, had not. Baltimoreans in Mencken's day felt strongly, if irrationally, that their city was superior to Washington. They downed soft crabs and oysters. The throaty calls of arabbers floated out over the streets. And when Mencken, three years after graduating from Poly at age 16, began to work for a newspaper, he explored the same neighborhoods, passed the same brick rowhomes and spoke to the same sorts of uniquely Baltimorean characters that I did.

When I began covering City Hall, I realized the true depth of Mencken's gift to journalism — and to our culture. He called it as he saw it, whether describing the wisdom of society — "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public" — or criticizing such burnished institutions as democracy and religion — "Giving every man a vote has no more made men wise and free than Christianity has made them good."

Mencken took both to task in his coverage for The Evening Sun of the Scopes trial — in which a Tennessee teacher was charged with teaching evolution in a public school — and changed the way many people viewed evolution in the process.

I draw strength from Mencken's fearlessness when I challenge politicians to answer tough questions or grapple with screaming spokespersons. Uncovering and revealing the truth is not always pleasant, but it can be exhilarating work.

Next to Mencken's photograph in The Sun's lobby hangs this quotation: "As I look back over a misspent life, I find myself more and more convinced that I had more fun doing news reporting than in any other enterprise. It really is the life of kings."

Reporters get to poke around in old buildings and get the first tours of new ones. We slip behind police tape, dig through records and get so close to fires that our cheeks burn for hours. We confront those in power and give voice to the powerless. At The Sun, we tell Baltimore the story of itself, as we have for 175 years. It is truly the life of kings.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

twitter.com/juliemore

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