H.L. Mencken, the lover? An unpretty story of exploitation amounting to cruelty

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Baltimore is elegantly adorned with scholarly experts on the life and works of H.L. Mencken, plus a generous tribe of well-versed Mencken chatterers. All will have something to say about "In Defense of Marion, The Love Letters of Marion Bloom & H.L. Mencken," edited by Edward A. Martin. (University of Georgia Press. 390 pages. $65).

Who was this Mencken? Born in 1880 in Baltimore, where he was debilitated by a stroke in 1948 and died in 1956, he was for 30 years or more the most famous journalist and the most provocative social, cultural and literary critic in America. Writing for The Evening Sun, for magazines and, in tota, about 20 distinct and separate books. Mencken wrote much in celebration of feminism, especially in his book "In Defense of Women," from which this volume's title is drawn.

Mencken's writings were all very consciously intended to present a persona as well as positions. There may be people who have no private sides, who live entirely in their own showcase window. This remarkable new book - far more than a collection of letters - shows powerfully that Henry Louis Mencken was not one of them.

There are only two large bodies of Mencken correspondence indisputably significant to his private or internal life: One is with Sara Haardt, whom he married ("Mencken & Sara: A Life in Letters," edited by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, from McGraw Hill, 1987). Now comes "In Defense of Marion," a superbly chosen and edited body of letters by and to Marion Bloom and her sister, Estelle, with Mencken , Theodore Dreiser and other players. It includes a brilliantly encompassing ongoing commentary by Edward A. Martin, a professor of English at Middlebury and author of "H.L. Mencken and the Debunkers."

True nature

What does it show the man to be? Brilliant, almost unimaginably original, intense, immensely energetic - and not very nice. Not very nice at all.

Mencken met Marion in 1914, when he was 34 and and she was 23, both unmarried. They soon became lovers, meeting in New York, Washington, seldom in Baltimore. Their relationship continued on one level or another until Mencken married Sara in 1930.

Mencken destroyed Marion's letters to him in 1923, expressing anger over her sudden marriage - a marriage which ended quickly. There can be little doubt Marion did it primarily to jolt Mencken. The new book has been compiled from her copies of letters and ones kept by Estelle and others.

During much of their 16 years of on-again-off-again involvement, Mencken was carrying on with other women, mainly glamorous and successful. Marion was smart, a lovely if never fully developed writer, but of very simple farm-village background. Mencken, for all his flares and originality, was basically a very doctrinaire Victorian-Edwardian citified bourgeois.

There is no question he was genuinely in love with Marion, and she with him. They obviously found each other intensely exciting, sexually and emotionally and at some levels intellectually. He was certainly attentive. Both showed delight, irony, affection. Clearly this woman was a major part of his life - and just as clearly, he walked away from her, wide awake and standing up.

Why? The best speculation as to his conscious reasoning is that he saw her as not "presentable" in the contemporary conventional manner of Mencken's personal life. Sara was presentable. But the cause was deeper.

In all, this book offers not only a fascinating and often repellent view of Mencken, but also a broad window into an enormously exciting time and collection of people through much of the first half of the 20th century.

So rich and frequent was the correspondence - lush fruit of an era of letter writing - that Mencken and both sisters examine the possibilities and evasions of marriage again and again. But perhaps Mencken's most explicit statement on not marrying Marion was in a June 7, 1921, letter to Estelle: "Like all other right-thinking gals she wants a husband... For me to marry her would be sheer insanity. The first time she began her childish nonsense about Kant, Hegel, materialism, etc., I'd walk out of the house and never come back." Marion was a Christian Scientist, which Mencken regarded as lunatic.

'Enormity of love'

Marion wrote to Estelle on Aug. 2, 1923: "You know all of my affair with M. I doubt if you do know, however, of the enormity of the love I have never been able to stamp out." In 1926, Marion wrote that she still was plotting to snare Mencken into marriage. She never succeeded. She was a deeply unhappy and unfulfilled person ever after. She died on March 10, 1975, long bitter, lonely and virtually destitute.

And what of Mencken?

While he was dangling Marion, he doing the same with several other women, dodging marriage and real connection with them all. In 1930, at 49, he finally married Sara, who was 19 years younger than he and whom he had known for many years, but only after she had had two major bouts with surgery and was known to be terminally ill. That suggests a marriage that was as close to fail-safe - to an evasion of full lifetime commitment - as marriage could be. Right on schedule, Sara died four years and nine months after their wedding.

The story is charged with immense pathos, with intricate playing out of human failings and flaws intermingled with strengths and gnawing needs and greatness. From it emerges an H.L. Mencken who for all his record of middle-class family solidarity, was close to incapable of sustaining intimacy.

His brilliance shone on. But the cost may have been an indifference to others' pain that amounted to chronic cruelty, an unfathomable loneness.

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