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The Lost Mencken

April 2024
6min read

One day toward the end of his life, H. L. Mencken is said to have come upon his own obituary in the files of the Baltimore Sun . He read it through and, to the intense relief of its anxious author, pronounced it satisfactory. Then he asked that one more line be added: “As he got older, he got worse.”

On the evidence of The Diary of H. L. Mencken , edited by Charles A. Fecher (Alfred A. Knopf), that seems to have been true, and it is perhaps understandable that Mencken asked that the journal he kept during his last active years be sealed until a quarter of a century after his death, and then be opened only to serious scholars. After that anniversary arrived, it took the trustees of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, to which Mencken had entrusted his papers, five more years to rule that the interests of history outweighed the author’s informally expressed wishes and decide to publish it—and then another three for Fecher, the editor of the library’s quarterly Menckeniana , to winnow out the present substantial volume from its twenty-one hundred double-spaced pages.

The diary begins in November 1930, when Mencken was fifty, and ends in November 1948, seven years before his death. The twenties had belonged to Mencken: never in our history has a single critic or journalist wielded more gleeful power than he did then, using the Baltimore Sun , The Smart Set , and The American Mercury to loose gaudy onslaughts on everything from Prohibition and fundamentalism to democracy itself—the theory that “the common people know what they want and deserve to get it, good and hard.”

“I am strongly in favor of liberty and I hate fraud,” he once told a biographer who asked for his credo, and he stubbornly believed that government best which governed least, whatever the circumstances. That view did not sit well with the generation that grew to maturity in the grip of the Great Depression, and Mencken’s reputation was still another victim of the crash and its grim aftermath. By 1933 the readership of the Mercury had so dwindled that he felt called upon to resign as its editor. The same year, FDR—the man Mencken routinely dismissed as “Roosevelt Minor” and loathed most in American political life—assumed the Presidency. By 1935 Mencken had fallen so far from favor that a Cleveland writer could caustically mention “the late H. L. Mencken,” and then add “What? You say Mencken isn’t dead? Extraordinary!”

Mencken simply didn’t seem funny any more; for better or worse, the thirties demanded reform, the very idea of which was anathema to him. “It has … been assumed on frequent occasions that I have some deep-lying reformatory purpose in me,” he confided to his diary. “That is completely nonsensical. It always distresses me to hear of a man changing his opinions, so I never seek conversions. My belief is that every really rational man preserves his major opinions unchanged from his youth onward. When he vacillates it is simply a sign that he is stupid. My one purpose in writing I have explained over and over again: it is simply to provide a kind of katharsis for my own thoughts. They worry me until they are set forth in words. This may be a kind of insanity, but at all events it is free of moral purpose.”

“Mencken sets down many true sayings but spoils his case by overemphasis …,” the novelist Hamlin Garland wrote in 1934. “I finished [a book of his essays] with a sense of being entertained as by a ‘cut-up’ at a dinner table. It is like being thumped on the head with a boy’s wind-blown bladder filled with dried peas. This comes ultimately to be a bore. The fact is, Mencken in private life is a quiet and peaceable citizen. This lessens the ferocity of his pose.”

The quiet and peaceable routine of Mencken’s daily life should not have surprised anyone. The lives of writers are rarely eventful, and Mencken was always, as the critic Carl Bode has written, “the happy prisoner of his origins.” After his wife’s death in 1935 he lived alone with his bachelor brother August in the Baltimore row house at 1524 Hollins Street in which he had spent his boyhood, resolutely tapping away for most of almost every day at his vast correspondence (nearly every letter received was answered by nightfall) or working on one or another of the several books upon which he liked to labor simultaneously—the fourth edition of The American Language (and two supplements to it), Treatise on Right and Wrong , A New Dictionary of Quotations , Happy Days , Heathen Days , Newspaper Days , A Mencken Chrestomathy , Minority Report , plus seven more autobiographical volumes (now locked away in a safe at the Pratt library, to be opened—and presumably published—in 1991). He worked so hard in part because he hoped to be rediscovered by the post-FDR generation. “On the ultimate fate of my writings I sometimes speculate idly,” he wrote in 1942. “At the moment, with the Roosevelt crusade to save humanity in full blast, my ideas are so unpopular that it is impossible … to print them. But when the New Deal imposture blows up at last, as it is sure to do soon or late, they may have a kind of revival.”

He did take time off to make his way downtown from time to time, to the offices of the Sunpapers to offer the (mostly unwanted) editorial advice for which he was still paid a salary, and he met each week with other lovers of German music at the Saturday Night Club to play the piano, devour seafood and Pilsner beer, and smoke his noisome Uncle Willie cigars.

What surprises the reader of Mencken’s diary is not the relative drabness of the everyday life it chronicles, then, but the drabness with which most of it is set down. Here and there are flashes of the wit that had once enlivened even his most bombastic writings. He pronounces the findings of Dr. Joseph B. Rhine, the extrasensory-perception enthusiast, “so worthless that they have been hailed as masterly by Upton Sinclair,” and recalls shaking hands with his enemy in the White House and being reluctantly bathed “in his Christian Science smile.” But for the most part the writing is uncharacteristically flaccid, the tone often merely peevish.

Publicly, as the diary’s editor writes, Mencken was always “utterly unafraid,” happy to take on anyone and anything, and he was invariably cocky and good-humored when visitors came to call. But on the evidence of his diary, Mencken seems at least during the latter part of his life to have been privately anxious about almost everything—encounters with “low-grade” Jews and “dreadful kikes,” wartime incursions into his neighborhood by poor blacks (“blackamoors,” all of whom are “essentially child-like”) and “filthy poor whites from Appalachia and the Southern Tide-water” (“lintheads” who “live like animals, and are next door to animals in their habits and ideas”), and the constant and entirely baseless threat that the federal government was poised to crush him because he opposed American participation in the war—which he believed to be a product of British propaganda and Rooseveltian duplicity.

“It is astonishing how little the war impinges upon me,” he wrote in 1944. “I am, of course, rooked like everyone else by excessive taxes, and now and then some eatable that I like is unprocurable (or procurable only by giving up an enormous number of ration points); but in general I am hardly affected by the great effort to save humanity and ruin the United States…. The American people are now wholly at the mercy of demagogues, and it would take a revolution to liberate and disillusion them. I see no sign of any such revolution, either in the immediate future or within the next generation. When the soldiers come home it will become infamous to doubt—and dangerous to life and limb.”

By 1935 Mencken had fallen so far from favor that a Cleveland writer could caustically mention “the late H. L. Mencken.”

Above all, he was apprehensive about his health. Perhaps because his father had died at forty-four, he seems to have been haunted hourly by the prospect of his own sudden death and planned to append a full medical history to his already voluminous autobiography on the assumption that his readers would share his fascination with it: “So far as I know,” he writes, “no one has ever set down such a record of himself,” and he went so far as to gather affidavits from doctors and hospitals to supplement his own encyclopedic notes. The reader can only be grateful to the editor for his decision to leave out of the published version fully two-thirds of Mencken’s querulous hypochondriacal musings; the remaining eighteen-year tally of ailments, real and imagined, is numbing enough, page after page of aches and pains and mysterious twinges, each of which at the time evidently seemed to herald imminent doom.

Nothing much seemed to please him anymore. The end of the war brought no joy. Even the pleasure he might otherwise have derived from the death of Franklin Roosevelt (who had possessed, he wrote the next day, “every quality that morons esteem in their heroes”) was spoiled for him when the passage of the presidential funeral train through Baltimore forced the Saturday Night Club to miss “its usual post-music beer-party for the first time in forty years.” (Mencken did take some comfort from the supposed plight of the President’s widow: “The case of La Eleanor is not without its humors. Only yesterday she was the most influential female ever recorded in American history, but tomorrow she will begin to fade, and by this time next year she may be wholly out of the picture.”)

The diary ends on November 15, 1948. Eight days later his worst fears were realized when he suffered a stroke, destroying his ability to match words with ideas and making it impossible for him to write. He lingered on for seven silent years, watching as Hollins Street and the great world beyond it continued inexorably to change, unable ever again to achieve the katharsis that had once transformed his fears and crotchets into art.

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