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 …

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