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Ah, Mencken, it's time to blow out the candles


Rosslyn, Va -- In one of the small, sad ironies of the week in which The Evening Sun limped toward oblivion, the 115th birthday of H. L. Mencken went all but unnoticed in the newspaper he made famous and graced with his incandescent wit and writing.

He got a two-line notice in the Almanac on Page 2D of yesterday's editions of the hometown paper he nurtured and guided to what a Mencken scholar here called "independence, talent and mostly courage."

It fell to Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, 36, to celebrate The Bad Boy of Baltimore on his birthday yesterday and in passing mourn the demise of The Evening Sun.

"It would have dismayed him," she told 35 Mencken admirers who gathered at the Freedom Forum in Rosslyn, Va., "that the paper he helped launch is folding its tent this Friday.

"It would have dismayed him but not surprised him," Ms. Rodgers said. "I think that Mencken in his memoir 'Thirty-five years of Newspaper Work' was pretty much predicting the demise of The Evening Sun, The Sunpapers and newspapers in general.

"Honesty and courage were what made Mencken great," she said. He became disappointed in his Baltimore newspapers when they seemed to him to lack courage.

"We see across the country newspapers closing left and right," Ms. Rodgers said. "I don't think Mencken would have been surprised. He would have said the chickens have come home to roost."

Henry Louis Mencken was on hand when The Evening Sun first appeared April 18, 1910, and wrote an editorial that said: "Let us be glad we are Baltimoreans. Just suppose an unkind fate made us Pittsburghers."

He was still coming into the office when he had his debilitating stroke in 1948. He died in 1956.

He was the commanding editor of literary magazines that changed modern American writing. He was the author of 30 books, including the monumental "American Language." He influenced the Harlem Renaissance and the new Southern literature.

"But he always considered himself a newspaperman," Ms. Rodgers said. "And it was the Baltimore Evening Sun which has always closely identified itself with him. He was the paper's most visible figure."

Speaking volumes

Ms. Rodgers has spent more than a decade researching the two books she's mined out of the seemingly infinite vein of Menckeniana: "The Impossible Mencken: A Selection of His Best Newspaper Stories," published in 1991 by Anchor Books, and "Mencken & Sara: A Life in Letters" (1992) the tender and touching correspondence between Mencken and his wife, Sara Haardt. Ms. Rodgers is now at work on a new biography of Mr. Mencken to be published by Oxford University Press in 1998.

"As far as one can know a dead person through their papers and interviews," she said, "I hope in my biography I can capture a glimpse of his soul. That's my ultimate goal."

She's a Goucher College graduate, like Sara Haardt. She's been a Menckenite since 1981 when just before graduation she literally stumbled over a box containing the Haardt-Mencken letters in the rare book room at Goucher.

Ms. Rodgers delivered her talk yesterday in the dining room of the Freedom Forum, a glass, blond wood and marble chamber that the acerbic Mr. Mencken might have compared to a high-toned funeral parlor.

The Freedom Forum is a richly funded ($700 million) "nonpartisan, international foundation dedicated to free press, free speech and free spirit for all people." Its chairman is the flamboyant journalistic entrepreneur Allen H. Neuharth, former CEO of the Gannett newspaper company.

Mr. Neuharth founded USA Today, a colorful journal full of short stories and short words, of which Mencken might have approved.

Legendary bite

One of Mr. Mencken's very, very famous aphorisms proclaimed: "No one in this world . . . has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.

"My guess," he wrote, "is that in the long run, newspapers will lose their more moronic customers to radio."

"He never would have guessed television," she said. "Mencken said: 'I can only imagine very stupid people looking at it.' "

No one ever accused Mr. Mencken of being a democrat.

"Since Mencken was censored even in his day, I'm sure he could write in a modern newspaper, but it would have to be the Wall Street Journal, on their editorial page. I think it's the only place that could cradle him," Ms. Rodgers said.

The Journal's editorials are hard-hitting enough to accommodate Mencken, she said. "I think Mencken felt editorial pages . . . have to go out and ring a bell."

Ms. Rodgers recounted the tale of the young reporter who found Mr. Mencken a thoroughly disagreeable person:

"Mencken looked at him," Ms. Rodgers said, "his blue eyes widened in surprise. 'No, indeed,' he said to the young man. 'I'm soft and sentimental. Otherwise I might have been a greater success: I might have gone to Congress."

Ms. Rodgers in her book "Sara & Mencken," in fact, shows a tender, compassionate Mencken.

"Conservatives like to think of Mencken as one of their own, and he wasn't," she said. Liberals call him a Nazi and he wasn't.

"But Mencken was a libertarian. He liked to say he belonged to no party: 'I am my own party.' And I think that refreshing independence should be celebrated."

She did yesterday, down the road a piece from the Baltimore he loved.

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