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Selected excerpts from 'Days'
At family's summer house in Mount Washington, in 1892, from left: Charles Edward, Anna Margareta Abhau Mencken (mother), Anna Gertrude, August, August Mencken, Sr., Henry Louis (12 years old),. (James F. Hughes / "Main" scrapbook, Handout / Baltimore Sun)

From H. L. Mencken, The Days Trilogy, Expanded Edition, edited by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers. Copyright 2014 by The Library of America, New York, N.Y. With the permission of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. All rights reserved.


Early days spent in Mount Washington

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The woods just behind our [summer] house [in Mount Washington] were largely primeval forest, and in them were all sorts of wonders —for example, a sassafras tree and several wild-grapevine swings. Down along the falls was an even wilder region, and we roved it almost every day. I was too impatient for fishing, but sometimes I set out lines at night, and now and then I found a few small fish on them in the morning. I never had any interest in botany, but I liked to collect minerals, and soon I had dozens of specimens. When the stable was built behind our house it was necessary to make room for it by cutting into the steep hillside, and this cut revealed a stratum of black, crumbly stuff that I suspected to be coal. I took a specimen to Hollins street in the Autumn and examined it in the chemical laboratory that I had set up. I was disappointed to find that it was not coal, but a kind of rock containing copper. There was copper all through the Mt. Washington region, and a mile or two up the Falls road was a mine that had been worked, off and on, since the Revolution. But I knew that the ore was poor in metal and very refractory, so there was no hope of working the vein revealed by the excavation of our stable. If it had been coal, we'd have been rich.

There were very few farms left in the Mt. Washington region in the nineties. Nearly all the country was already cut up into Summer places for city folk. But an old German named Sittig operated a small market-garden in the valley below our house and from it came our table supplies. His vegetables were of very fine quality and he grew an enormous amount of them in a small space. Beside his house was a grape-arbor, and from it, toward the end of Summer, hung huge bunches of magnificent grapes. When we boys from the hill were sent down to his place to buy tomatoes, peas or lima beans, one of us would engage him in his little field, and the rest would raid his grapes. In the intervals of his labors on his own crops he served as gardener for the city people of the vicinity.

His son, Gus, was telegraph operator in the Northern Central tower half way between Belvedere avenue and Mt. Washington station. A telegraph operator, in those days, was a hero to all boys, but Gus was of a dour disposition and did not encourage us to visit him. In his later years he took to some sort of political or theological radicalism — I forget just what it was — and used to drop in on me at the Herald office, hoping to induce me to give it publicity in the paper.

What is now Roland Park was still, in the early nineties, a wild woodland. In one part of it there was a pond belonging, as I recall, to the Dushanes, and there we boys hunted turtles and bull-frogs. We caught the frogs by baiting a fishing-line with a piece of red flannel, and then cautiously swinging it before the frog as he sat on the bank. If we managed to avoid scaring him he would leap for it, and then the hook had him. There were turtles, too, in Jones Falls, and some of them were ferocious. One day my brother Charlie and I caught one, and, boy-like, proceeded to cut off his head. When, headless, it calmly walked away, we were so alarmed that we ran all the way home. We made long and laborious efforts to dam the Falls, but never with any success. We also made rafts for navigating its occasional pools, but inasmuch as they were built of water-soaked driftwood, they were usually too heavy and clumsy to carry us.

At the northeast corner of Belvedere avenue and Falls road, in a little grove on a sharp bluff, there was, in the nineties, an old-time one-room country schoolhouse. I was never a pupil there, but some of the other boys of the neighborhood had sat under its ma'm. At the southeast corner of the two roads was another steep bluff, and on top of it was a grove of chestnut-trees. There was then no trolley-line running out the Falls road, and as a result no city boys ever came to gather the nuts. We thus had them all to ourselves. All along Falls road were clusters of blackberries and raspberries, and more were along the edge of the woods which runs along the western border of what is now the Baltimore Country Club golf links. We gathered many large buckets of the berries, and had the hired girl stew them, and serve them on slabs of home-made bread. They stained our teeth beautifully, and we liked to exhibit ourselves with smears all over our faces. There were also huckleberries in the woods, and these were stewed and devoured in the same way. On the bank above the railroad just north of the Belvedere avenue bridge there were wild strawberries, but getting them was a laborious and even dangerous job. Once, while I was at work upon them, a long freight train lumbered past and I came near losing my hold on the steep bank.

The Roland avenue trolley line opened on April 23, 1893, and on July 2 it was extended to Lake Roland, but the Falls road line was not opened until October 17, 1897. During the interval we boys often went to town by the Roland Park trolley. This involved a walk of a mile or so through the woods. I recall how lovely they were on Summer mornings. The Roland Park spring had already been covered in, and we always stopped at it for a drink of its cool water, which bubbled up through a layer of large white gravel.

Along the edge of the Roland Park woods, on the Falls road side, was a long row of the most beautiful morning-glories I have ever seen. When the Falls road trolley line was built the rock for its ballast was taken from the southeast corner of the road and Belvedere avenue, and the blasting gradually gnawed into the grove of chestnuts that I have mentioned. One day, while four or five of us boys were watching the workmen getting out rock, a blast failed to go off, and the Italian foreman of the dynamite crew got down on his hands and knees to find out what was wrong. Suddenly the charge of dynamite exploded, and we saw him hurled in air. He bled freely and seemed to be badly hurt. His fellow workmen loaded him on a common dirt-cart and hauled him up Belvedere avenue to Roland avenue, where they transferred him to a trolley-car and took him to hospital. Two weeks later, to our astonishment, he was back at work.

The loss of a father and the start of a career

The story of my father's last illness well illustrates the state of medicine in Baltimore at the turn of the century. He was taken ill after dinner on New Year's Eve, 1898. He and my mother were in the downstairs sitting-room in Hollins street, reading. She was in her chair at the table and he was stretched out, as usual, on the old walnut lounge in the room. She spoke to him casually and he replied incoherently, but she thought nothing of it, for she assumed that he was falling asleep. A little while later he began to breathe heavily, and almost at once had a brief convulsion and lost consciousness. I was in bed upstairs at the time, floored by influenza, but when she called to me I ran downstairs at once, and could see at a glance that he was seriously ill. I thereupon started out on foot to summon Dr. Z.K. Wiley, the family doctor, whose office was at 724 north Carey street, eleven blocks away. It was a cold and blustery night and I got thoroughly chilled, but Wiley was non est. I left word for him, and trudged home. When I got there I found that my mother had appealed for help to the Scherers, who lived at 1522 Hollins street, and that she had found that Dr. James Bosley, later the health commissioner of Baltimore, was visiting them.

Bosley was examining my father when I reached home. It was obvious that he was stumped: all he could say was that the situation seemed to be very serious. We put my father to bed, and after an hour or two Wiley showed up. He was far gone in liquor, but he seemed to be functioning more or less, and he soon dispatched me to Pilson's drug-store, in Baltimore street near Carey, for a prescription. When I got back with it, he had drawn a lounge to the foot of my father's bed, and there he spent the rest of the night, with one eye upon his patient. Wiley was then 55 years old, but he seemed almost ancient to me. He was suffering from a severe dermatitis of the scalp, and I recall how obscene he looked lying on the sofa, with his closely-cropped gray head covered with huge white patches. But my mother and I had confidence in him, and preferred him as he was to any other doctor in West Baltimore.

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The Johns Hopkins Hospital's training school for nurses had turned out several classes before 1898, but it was still very unusual in Baltimore for a nurse to be employed in a private house, and no one suggested getting one for my father. He was nursed by his wife, his children and a few volunteer relatives and friends. My brother Charlie and I took turns watching him, and my mother was busy day and night. He recovered somewhat after a couple of days, and was quite rational, but after that his mind began to cloud again. Wiley made an apparently accurate diagnosis: acute nephritis. After a week or so, he decided to try an application of leeches over the kidneys. He came to this decision rather late one night, and I had to go down to Greene street and wake up a German barber who was a grower of leeches. They apparently did some good, for the next morning my father was clear in mind and showed other signs of recovery. Unhappily, he soon turned the other way, and Wiley asked for a consultation.

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The consultant he chose was Dr. Samuel C. Chew, then one of the bigwigs of the University of Maryland — a stately old man in a round beard. But Chew had nothing to suggest, and all I remember of him is that his consultation fee was $5. My Uncle Henry paid it as he left the house. My father by that time was unconscious again, and there began a series of formidable convulsions. Charlie and I held him in bed during one of them, listening to his ravings. They were in large part incoherent. This nursing wore us out, and as the end of the second week approached the whole family was more or less disabled. I was asleep in the next room when he died. My mother's brother, William C. Abhau, finally woke me and told me that it was all over. My father was buried by the Freemasons, and they put on a considerable show. Just before their march into the house, a bugler at the corner of Hollins and Gilmor streets let go with a fanfare. What the meaning of this fanfare was I don't know.

I remember well how, as I was trotting to Wiley's house on that first night, I kept saying to myself that if my father died I'd be free at last. I was then eighteen years old. I had got along with him very well, but I detested business and was frantic to go into newspaper work. He knew this and he made no formal protest, but neither did he give his formal consent, and I feared that there would be a considerable family debate before I could be set free. My influenza somehow passed over during his illness, but it left me with a cough that persisted for years.

I had been working in my father's office during the last Summer vacation before my graduation from the Polytechnic in 1896, and immediately after I had my diploma I went to work there regularly. My starting wages were $3 a week. My duties, for a while, were vague and general. I helped Daniel T. Orem the bookkeeper, I ran errands, and I was janitor of the lower floor of the building. My father had brought me into the business in the hope that I would stay in it and follow him, for he had no confidence in his brother. I had not smoked as a boy, but when I went to work he suggested that I had better begin, for I could not learn anything about tobacco if I didn't. I soon developed a taste for its better and more expensive varieties, and used to sneak into the cellar, abstract a few leaves from an Havana bale, and make myself some smokes.

Once, when I had one of them going, my father got a whiff of it, and gave me a suspicious and searching look, and after that I had to be more careful. He put me to the bench to learn cigar-making, for he believed that it was necessary to begin at the bottom, as he had done himself. My bench, however, was not in the shop upstairs, but at a window on the first floor of the factory at Pratt and Greene streets, looking into Greene street. There I began on cheroots and was then promoted to mold-made cigars. I never became adept enough to be put on handmade cigars, though I made many of them for my own use. After I got to the bench I was paid the regular piece-work rate for apprentices, and my income soon shot up to $7 a week. In 1897 my father tried to launch me as a city salesman, but I hated the job and made a failure at it. I was by this time fully determined to leave the cigar business for newspaper work, but I knew that it would be difficult to break away, and I can recall a despairing moment when I contemplated suicide.

Soon afterward I revealed my desire to my mother, and was heartened by her approval, though she was well aware that my father's plans for the future were all grounded on the assumption that I would remain with him. Her support emboldened me to open the subject to my father himself. This must have been toward the end of the Summer of 1898. He was naturally pretty well dashed, but he did not protest with any rancor, and it was understood between us that we were to resume the discussion in a year or so. His unexpected death early in 1899 saved me from what must have been a painful unpleasantness, for even if he had consented to my leaving it would have been at the cost of his long-cherished plans. Looking back, indeed, I am convinced that his death was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me, though we were on good terms and I missed him sorely after he was gone.

He had told me, between 1896 and the end of 1898, a great deal about the tobacco business and about his own experiences in it. As we drove home to Mt. Washington on Summer afternoons he would launch into long lectures on the characteristics of different kinds of cigar tobacco, the management of labor, the vagaries of drummers, the elements of credit, and other such pertinent matters. To this day I remember a good deal of his teaching, though it has never been of any use to me. Moreover, he instilled into me something of his general view of the cosmos, and I still subscribe to his Chinese moral system.

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There was never a time in my youth when I succumbed to the Socialist sentimentalities that so often fetch the young of the bourgeoisie. My attitude toward the world and its people is and always has been that of the self-sustaining and solvent class. It requires a conscious effort for me to pump up any genuine sympathy for the downtrodden, and in the end I usually conclude that they have their own follies and incapacities to thank for their troubles. I don't think it would be fair to call me heartless, but my feelings for others are certainly concentrated upon my own class, and I am a good deal less moved by the woes of other classes. In brief, my attitude in the latter case is substantially analogous to that of a Christian toward the sufferings of Jews, or that of an Englishman toward those of Germans, or that of a German toward those of Russians.

This is the common human way, but there is a hypocritical tendency to deny it. When I am aware of such prejudices I never deny them. In the present case my attitude has colored and conditioned my whole life. In so far as I have been free to choose my everyday associates I have chosen only men who knew how to do what seemed to me to be some useful thing in a workmanlike manner, and who got a respectable living out of it. Among newspaper men I have always dismissed the poor fish as mere ciphers, and among writers I have never had anything to do with the failures.

Newspaperman on the job, and Gum-shoe Steiner

When I became a newspaper reporter in 1899 the Central Y.M.C.A. was one of my regular assignments, and I often dropped in to look through the magazines in its reading-room. Now and then I had to cover one of its Sunday afternoon religious meetings. They were always dull and gloomy. Once, I recall, the speaker was Dr. Bernard C. Steiner, librarian of the Enoch Pratt Library — a solemn, humorless, intensely pious fellow who, because of his shambling way of walking, was known to the reporters of the time as Gum-shoe Steiner. He delivered an harangue so inconceivably stupid and uninteresting that I remember it clearly to this day. Until he died in 1926 the main building of the Pratt Library, then in Mulberry street, west of Cathedral, was a morgue, and getting out a book was a tedious process. There was no card-index, but only a series of printed books with typewritten addenda, and the female attendants, mainly sour old maids, were far from helpful. Nevertheless, I patronized it assiduously, and whatever education I may be said to have came out of it. I used Branch No. 2, at Hollins and Calhoun streets, until 1894 or thereabout, but by that time I had pretty well exhausted its somewhat meagre stock of books, and after that I resorted to the main library. I had two cards — one a regular card, and the other what was called a student's card — and I kept both of them working steadily. In addition, I dropped into the reading-room at least twice a week.

In 1903 or thereabout, after I had become dramatic editor of the Herald, I went to the central library one day to draw out one of the plays of Pinero. I found that it was starred in the catalogue, which meant that it seemed lewd and lascivious to Gum-shoe Steiner and could be issued only with the express permission of a member of the staff. I applied for that permission, and was directed to one of the younger members. In fact, she was a girl who seemed to be no more than eighteen or nineteen years old. There was I, a grown man and a professional dramatic critic, and there, across the desk, was that preposterous flapper, eyeing me critically and giving me a sharp examination. In the end she decided that I could be trusted to read the book without being seduced to sin, and it was accordingly handed to me, and I took it home. It turned out, when I read it, to be completely innocuous. Gum-shoe, I suppose, had picked up the notion, at the time of the uproar over The Second Mrs. Tanqueray in the nineties, that Pinero was an indecent dramatist, and so starred all of his plays. Gum-shoe himself never went to the theatre. His only recreation was Christian Endeavor.

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