Final memoir details heart of critical journalist


In the first three decades of the 20th century, H. L. Mencken was a literary critic of the first magnitude. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Theodore Dreiser were among the writers he championed, and they in turn sought his counsel and friendship. "The philistines will never run us out as long as life do last," Dreiser wrote Mencken in 1914.

He also was among the most widely read social critics of his time, admired by many for his forthrightness and hated by many more. "Democracy," he wrote in one typical invective, "is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard."

But despite his position as America's leading man of letters, the Baltimore-born author and editor remained at heart a journalist. That is evident in "Thirty-Five Years of Newspaper Work," the last batch of memoirs released since his death in 1956, published this week by Johns Hopkins University Press.

"Nothing enthralled him as much as the sweaty, contentious world of daily journalism that he inhabited, with two interruptions, for nearly fifty years," editors Fred Hobson, Bradford Jacobs and Vincent Fitzpatrick note in their introduction.

H. L. Mencken wrote his first newspaper story in 1899 at age 18, reporting a theft in Baltimore County for the old Baltimore Morning Herald. His last newspaper piece, a column decrying racial segregation on the tennis courts of Druid Hill Park, appeared in The Evening Sun in November 1948. Two weeks later he suffered a stroke that silenced his typewriter for the eight years until his death in January 1956.

During his career, he wrote millions of words for newspapers, mostly for The Sun and The Evening Sun, but also for such publications as the New York Evening Mail and the Chicago Tribune. He covered many of the biggest stories of his day -- the great Baltimore fire of 1904, national political conventions, the Scopes "monkey trial" -- and his columns were read around the country.

It is fitting, then, that his memoir about life as a newspaperman is the last of the autobiographical material he left to the Enoch Pratt Library to be published. "Thirty-Five Years" was unsealed in 1991, following his directive, along with the manuscript for "My Life as Author and Editor," published in book form last year.

In "Thirty-Five Years," which covers the period from 1906 to 1941, Mencken details his career with The Sun and The Evening Sun, along the way ruminating on city politics, gangster Al Capone's treatment for syphilis at a Baltimore hospital and Mencken's melancholy trip to Germany before World War II. He also takes some very nasty shots at his newspaper colleagues.

Dr. Hobson, a professor of English at the University of North Carolina and author of "Mencken: A Life," a well-received biography that came out in May, says Mencken's inclination to define himself as a newspaperman was "a strategy or sorts.

"From a very early age, he wanted to identify himself as a writer, but when he was young, being a writer was considered a rather effeminate thing," Dr. Hobson explains. "So if he could write as a newspaperman, he could separate himself from college professors. A journalist had a tough, masculine, image."

Mr. Jacobs, who retired as editor of The Evening Sun in 1985 after 40 years with the Sunpapers, recalls covering the national political conventions with Mencken in 1948. Mencken was 68, and would suffer his stroke only a few months later.

But, as Mr. Jacobs remembers, "He wore everybody else out. He never stopped. He watched everything with those big blue eyes of his. At night, we would go back to our hotel suite and he would talk about the convention all night long. I was just this young reporter and he was this great man-mountain, so intense. I was absolutely overwhelmed."

Indeed, Mencken's energy, and his versatility, separated him from nearly every other journalist. He filled a staggering variety of positions in his newspaper career. During his tenure at the Herald from 1899 to 1906, he was a reporter, drama critic, Sunday editor, city editor and managing editor.

When the paper folded, he went to the old Evening News for two months, then took a position as Sunday editor of The Sun. He was not yet 26 and already had published "Ventures Into Verse," a collection of poems, and the critical study "George Bernard Shaw: His Plays."

That this son of a West Baltimore cigar-maker, only a few years out of Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, would rise so quickly is remarkable -- and he continued that ascent. Given a free hand by Sun publisher Paul Patterson and Harry C. Black, a member of the paper's board, Mencken held a number of jobs at The Sun and Evening Sun.

He was primarily an editorial writer, reporter and columnist, but he also had several editing stints, including a short one as Evening Sun editor in 1938 (highlighted by an anti-Franklin Roosevelt editorial he wrote that took up an entire page).

He also served on the board of The Sun and helped negotiate labor contracts. Through it all, he prodded and scolded The Sun, hoping it would become, as he writes in his preface to "Thirty-Five Years," "a really independent, courageous and forthright newspaper, with no predisposition save for the truth and making no compromise with imposture in any form."

But by the late 1930s, when he was writing "Thirty-Five Years" -- originally as a way to help him with the writing of his 1941 memoir "Newspaper Days" -- he had soured on The Sun, mostly because of disagreements he had had over the years with its editorial policies. Mencken stopped writing for the paper from 1941 to 1948 because of his opposition to the paper's support of Roosevelt, whom he detested, as well as his own controversial views on U.S. involvement in World War II.

"The attempt to make a great newspaper of the Sun was an adventure that I enjoyed thoroughly, and there were times when it almost took on to me the proportions, considering my generally unsentimental view of things, of a great romance," he writes in "Thirty-Five Years." "That it failed is no argument, by my philosophy, against the men who, as I think, were responsible for that failure. Within the limits of their capacities and their imagination they did their level damndest, and angels could have done no more."

Still, Mencken's assessments of his colleagues can be disturbingly brutal, much as they were in his diary, which was unsealed in 1981 and published in 1989. In the diary, for instance, he referred to Hamilton Owens, former editor of The Sun and The Evening Sun and a person who considered Mencken a close friend, as "a time server with no more principles than a privy rat."

Gerald W. Johnson was considered by many to be a gifted writer and reporter at The Sun (he also wrote more than 40 books). He, too, thought Mencken was a good friend, says Dr. Hobson, who interviewed Johnson in the early 1970s (Johnson died in 1980). But Mencken writes in "Thirty-Five Years" that Johnson "was completely hopeless, and I actually began to suspect that he might be infested by hookworms or stricken by pellagra. . . . I found at once that it was simply impossible to get an idea into his head."

Longtime Evening Sun editorial writer R. P. Harriss, Mencken writes, "turned out to be almost useless."

"I was surprised at how bitter he was at his best friends," says Mr. Jacobs. "He had this curious dualism. He'd have lunch and a few drinks with them, then he'd go home and write something very bitter. I think the man was old and tired and disheartened."

Mencken's likening his relationship with The Sun to a romance was not fanciful, the editors of "Thirty-Five Years" contend.

"He never needed the paper financially," says Mr. Fitzpatrick, assistant curator of the Mencken Collection at the Pratt and an English teacher at Loyola High School. "Mencken could have made it elsewhere, but he felt very comfortable with The Sun and The Sun's readership. He knew he had his freedom. He knew the editors and he knew the parameters. He was offered a number of syndicated columns elsewhere, but he felt he would not have had the same audience and freedom.

"Also, he had a very strong sense of loyalty to The Sun. Mencken was instrumental in establishing The Evening Sun in 1910, and he always looked upon The Evening Sun in particular as a project in which he had had a hand."

Though much of the content of "Thirty-Five Years" originally appeared in "Newspaper Days," the new memoir differs in several ways, especially in tone. In "Newspaper Days," he wrote in its preface, "this book is mainly true, but with occasional stretchers."

"In 'Newspaper Days,' Mencken was telling tall tales, truth made funny," says Mr. Fitzpatrick. "It was the old man looking back and having a good time. As a scholar, you can't take it seriously. But in this book he was trying to be objective in a way he was not earlier."

He also filled in a lot of blanks he had left in the first memoir. In "Newspaper Days," Mencken mentions a crusading anti-vice minister in Baltimore in the early 1900s who was found in a compromising position with a young man in a room at the YMCA. He notes the irony but does not give the minister's name, nor does he dwell upon the subject.

In "Thirty-Five Years," Mencken names the minister -- Kenneth D. Murray -- though he adds, "I made no reference to the Murray case in The Evening Sun. The whole town knew about it, and magnanimity seemed to be the proper prescription." Mencken's Victorian values may explain why he chose to remain silent on such a story, but Mencken still could appreciate its absurdity. Of Murray, he wrote:

"His greatest stroke for God and virtue was delivered by reading from his pulpit a full list of the bawdy-houses in his neighborhood, giving streets and numbers. He announced this reading in advance, and as a result his church packed -- chiefly by young men looking for reliable information."

This was Mencken at his wittiest and most incisive. But even with "Thirty-Five Years," a question remains. Though Mencken was, by many estimations, the most accomplished journalist of his day, could he thrive in the newspapers of the 1990s, which are less free-wheeling and more profit-driven? If by the 1920s Mencken already was lamenting the decline of American newspapers, what would he make of newspapers whose main mission is to keep from offending anyone?

"A reporter today comes out from college, and Mencken, who was a high school graduate, saw the streets of Baltimore as his Harvard and Yale," Dr. Hobson says. "And it's probably not as possible to have as much fun in journalism now. Mencken always said his early newspaper days were the best time of his life, and I think he meant it.

"Would he make it as a journalist today? Sure. Somebody, somewhere would give him a column and just let him loose. Imagine Mencken writing about the O. J. Simpson case, for instance. There will always be a place for someone like Mencken."

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