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Thus Spake Henry

Mencken: A Life

by Fred Hobson
Johns Hopkins University Press, 672 pp., $21.95 (paper)

Before The Baltimore Sun turned into a branch of The Chicago Tribune and the Baltimore Orioles turned into a bush league ball team, Baltimoreans were a proud race of hometown chauvinists with many gods to adore. Among them were the enlightened capitalists Enoch Pratt and Johns Hopkins, Johnny Unitas, who was to professional football quarterbacking what Einstein was to the atomic bomb, the great civil rights champion and Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, and Edgar Allan Poe. Typically, for Baltimoreans are still highly civilized as American urban people go nowadays, their football team is named the Ravens in homage to Poe’s famous poem. Though Baltimore’s rights to Poe are far from indisputable, as a former student at the Edgar Allan Poe Junior High School situated beside his grave in the middle of town, I am myself physical evidence of the insistence with which the city asserts its claim.

Of all its human monuments, however, the two most cherished have long been Babe Ruth and Henry Louis Mencken. Babe Ruth was one of those rare American men of the people—Al Capone was another—whose name resounded beyond the oceans. During World War II, Japanese soldiers seeking to demoralize American Marines shouted, “To hell with Babe Ruth!” Baltimore took pride in having begot him.

And yet its heart belonged to Mencken. This was probably because Mencken never left Baltimore. Babe Ruth went to New York and didn’t come back. Deep down, he was a cosmopolitan, at home wherever the beer was good and the women compliant. He was from Baltimore but not of it. By contrast, Mencken went to New York too, but never let it turn his head. Mencken was a hometown booster as hard-core middle-class as any prairie Rotarian extolling the wonders of his native ground.

In The Skeptic, Terry Teachout calls him a “bourgeois,” which may put too high-toned a gloss on matters. The reality verges on satire. In certain respects Mencken was one of the most extraordinary men in America; in others he was so ordinary that he might have been an easy target for ridicule by that other Mencken, who turned into the monstrous Assassin of the Booboisie when he sat down at the typewriter.

One of his lifelong joys was the beery Saturday night out with the boys. At the age of sixty-four he complained to his diary that “the Saturday Night Club missed its usual post-music beer-party for the first time in forty years” because saloons and restaurants all closed in sorrow for the death of President Roosevelt. Being music lovers, not bowlers or hot-rodders, the group passed forty years of Saturday nights playing Beethoven, Brahms, and such when not hoisting glasses. Mencken played piano.

As for sexual ethics, young Henry allowed himself romantic fornication but suffered the middle-class moralist’s revulsion upon learning that his married friend Theodore Dreiser sometimes committed up to three adulteries per day.

In family life he was material fit for a Hallmark Mother’s Day greeting, practicing absolute devotion to home and mother. When newsroom duty kept him up late into the night, Teachout says, Henry could count on his mother having sandwiches waiting for him at home. After infancy, except for five years of marriage, he lived all his life in the Hollins Street house his father had bought in the 1880s.

Offered a well-paying magazine job in his twenties, he declined because, he told a friend, “I couldn’t leave my mother in Baltimore.” Unlikely though it seems, writes Teachout, “the sharpest, cruelest, most self-assured wit in the history of American letters, the fearless scourge of puritanism in all its forms, was a mama’s boy.”

His attitude toward his father may make modern adolescents goggle and snort. On finishing high school he wanted to become a newspaper reporter; his father wanted him to go into the family cigar business. He went into the cigar business. He might have grown old in it had his father not died before Mencken turned nineteen.

He later confessed that while running to fetch a doctor the night his father collapsed, “I kept saying to myself that if my father died I’d be free at last.” His father was buried on a Sunday. “On the Monday evening immediately following,” Mencken wrote in his memoirs,

having shaved with care and put on my best suit of clothes, I presented myself in the city-room of the old Baltimore Morning Herald, and applied to Max Ways, the city editor, for a job on his staff.

The rest is oft-told history. Before he was thirty he had triumphed at the Herald, switched to the Sun, where he quickly became its star writer, and was lured to Manhattan to edit the magazine Smart Set. He was soon the most respected book critic in America. Manhattan was a place for enlarging reputation and enjoying bachelor sports, and he did both, but he refused to be transplanted. Finishing his magazine chores, he left hedonism behind and headed for Penn Station and the family nest on Hollins Street.

As Teachout suggests, the middle-class solidity of his personal character would have seemed bizarre to his legions of admirers in the century’s early years. To a generation that came of age between 1900 and the stock market crash and fancied itself enlightened, he was the fool killer smiting the “imbecilities” of a dying past with the most gloriously devastating language ever sent to battle against ignorance. Yet if the fact was known at all, it was universally overlooked that an old-fashioned homebody lay purring behind all that ferocious prose.

Mencken has been the subject of so many biographies, memoirs, and studies over the past half-century that one wonders how Teachout finds the heart to issue another. One of the earliest is William Manchester’s elegant Disturber of the Peace, published in 1951. Manchester, who knew the elderly Mencken well, captured a sense of gaiety that eludes later biographers. In 1956, for readers who like the warts-aplenty treatment, Charles Angoff, who had worked for Mencken at American Mercury, produced H.L. Mencken: A Portrait from Memory. For years the most thorough job was Carl Bode’s 1969 Mencken, but Fred Hobson’s exhaustive Mencken: A Life, published in 1994, now provides a lot of additional material that was unavailable when Bode wrote.

No one, however, wrote more exhaustively about Mencken’s life than Mencken himself. At his death he had put under seal at Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Library perhaps 800,000 unpublished words in a diary and other biographical manuscripts not to be opened until he had been long dead. These provided a great deal of fresh fodder for Menckenians, some of it with scandal value, especially the revelation that he had a streak of blue-stocking anti-Semitism. The disclosure produced despairing cries of pained disappointment, as it was bound to in an age no longer indifferent to the dangers of such prejudice.

Nowhere was the disappointment more painful than in Baltimore. Anti-Semitism of Mencken’s sort was so shockingly drab, so ordinary, such a shamefully shabby imperfection. A man of Mencken’s stature should have only magnificent defects. In mythologizing him, Baltimore had come to think of him as superior to the common country-club bigot. And now here was this indisputable diary evidence. Carl Schoettler, an Evening Sun staff writer, captured the sense of disgusted disappointment in three deadly adjectives: “His prejudices are commonplace, casual and banal.” No one said, “Say it ain’t so, Henry.” Everybody thought it, though.

New scholarship kept unearthing other astonishments small and large. The depth of Mencken’s long love affair with Marion Bloom was widely unknown until the 1996 publication of letters which Marion and her sister Estelle had deposited with the Pratt and New York Public Libraries. Edited by Edward A. Martin in a book titled In Defense of Marion, they disclosed a frisky Mencken starting a casual affair with a country girl from rural Maryland, then discovering that it was more than casual, and finally being torn between the idea of marriage and fear that it would ruin his reputation.

It’s damn silly your saying I was too chivalrous to grab Mencken,” Marion wrote her sister when it had ended. “What can you do when someone stands weak-eyed and weak-kneed before you begging for mercy? With the pull of vanity that the world knew him as a misogynist, and he was ashamed to be caught getting married like a regular human.” This was a Mencken utterly alien to the conventional image—a “dignified, Edwardian gentleman, striving to be proper,” as Martin put it.

It is still shocking to think of Marion calling him “Hank.” They had known each other fourteen years when Marion, having seen Nikol Schattenstein’s recent portrait of Mencken tieless, in shirtsleeves and suspenders, wearing red pants and holding a cigar, wrote her sister:

Old Hank’s portrait is a blight on his escutcheon…. It’s disgusting. I can’t make Hank out. Surely you remember the days when he believed that a man of dignity could not afford to fraternize with every one—and now a painting resembling a cub studying art! Really he surprises me.

The letters describe the kind of long-term love affair that sometimes begins as an apparently absurd mismatch and ends in a long successful marriage. Hobson’s 1994 biography has a theory about why this one did not, and it brings us back to Mencken’s compulsive middle-class instincts:

A great part of the truth was that…quite simply, he believed Marion was not fine enough for him. She was not sufficiently well bred, not well educated, well dressed, financially well off: she was not sufficiently successful…. It came down, whether he admitted it or not, to a matter of class.

Teachout, noting that Mencken still lived with his mother, suggests he judged Marion “not quite respectable enough to bring home to Hollins Street.”

Someone called him “the sage of Baltimore,” and the name stuck, possibly because it was mindless fun to say, just as it was mindless fun to call Babe Ruth “the Sultan of Swat.” It pleased Baltimoreans to think they had begot a “sage,” though it was not sagacity or wisdom or intellectual brilliance that distinguished him, but his unique power to wield the American language. Here he is, for example, in a 1926 newspaper piece explaining why Aimee Semple McPherson, the evangelist who had been caught in a “love nest” that year, needed Los Angeles to succeed in her holy calling:

…[Los Angeles] was a pasture foreordained for evangelists, and she was the first comer to give it anything low enough for its taste and comprehension.

The osteopaths, chiropractors and other such quacks had long marked and occupied it. It swarmed with swamis, spiritualists, Christian Scientists, crystal-gazers and the allied necromancers. It offered brilliant pickings for real estate speculators, oil-stock brokers, wire- tappers and so on. But the town pastors were not up to its opportunities. They ranged from melancholy High Church Episcopalians, laboriously trying to interest retired Iowa alfalfa kings in ritualism, down to struggling Methodists and Baptists, as earnestly seeking to inflame the wives of the same monarchs with the crimes of the Pope. All this was over the heads of the trade. The Iowans longed for something they could get their teeth into. They wanted magic and noise. They wanted an excuse to whoop.

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