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After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness?

ISSUE:  Summer 1990
The Diary of H. L. Mencken. Edited by Charles A. Fecher. Knopf. $30.00.

There is, indeed,” Henry Louis Mencken wrote in his Diary in the fall of 1945, “probably no trace in history of a writer who left more careful accounts of himself and his contemporaries. I have tried hard to tell the truth.” Soon after the turn of the century, when he was in his early twenties, Mencken subscribed to a clipping service and pasted in sturdy scrapbooks all of the comments made about his writing. He did not do this out of vanity, which was never one of his faults; he simply believed that a responsible person keeps the records straight. Throughout his life he seemed to save everything: correspondence and family photographs and old report cards, manuscripts of newspaper columns and magazine articles, drafts and sales records of his books, page and galley proofs. Mencken was, in brief, ever mindful of posterity. While his meticulousness has greatly benefited those who have written about him, it has also generated controversy.

Before his death on Jan. 29, 1956, Mencken, out of deference to the living, consigned considerable material to time lock. In 1971, much valuable correspondence became available to scholars. In 1991, “My Life As Author and Editor” in four volumes and “Thirty-five Years of Newspaper Work” in three will be released. Jan. 29, 1981 saw the unveiling of four volumes entitled “Letters and Documents Relating to the Baltimore Sunpapers,” three volumes called “Notes and Additions to the Days Books” (the highly successful autobiographical trilogy published during the early 1940’s), and a five-volume Diary covering 1930 to 1948, from Mencken’s 50th year until his debilitating stroke. Initially, there was some question as to whether Mencken intended for his Diary to be published. In the fall of 1985, Stephen H. Sachs, then attorney general of Maryland, formally ruled that the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, as the executor of Mencken’s estate, had “a legal right to publish.”

Charles A. Fecher, editor of Menckeniana and author of Mencken: A Study of His Thought, a book especially informative about Mencken as philologist and philosopher, was appointed editor of the Diary, and he has carried out his task with skill and dispatch. The original Diary runs to between 500,000 and 600,000 words, with entries varying widely in length, frequency, subject matter, and tone. Fecher selected approximately one-third of this material and annotated it copiously for publication in a book of one volume. Much to the credit of Fecher, the Enoch Pratt Free Library, and the publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., there was no attempt to exclude controversial material. Given Mencken’s lively and lifelong defense of free speech, such censorship would have been unconscionable. Back in 1981, when the Diary was made accessible to scholars, I read it in its entirety and anticipated a lively response when the material saw print. The furor, though, went considerably beyond what I had foreseen.

Originally scheduled for publication on January 15 of this year, the Diary was released early. And on Dec. 4, 1989, the Baltimore Evening Sun, which Mencken had helped to establish in 1910, ran a lengthy front-page story, “Mencken’s “Shocker,”” that quoted the more controversial excerpts and accused him of anti-Semitism and racism. The column went out over the Associated Press wire, and many other stories appeared soon after. The phone at my house rang incessantly; some of the reporters actually seemed to have read the book; a number burned with moral indignation. The letters-to-the-editor columns were filled with attacks and rebuttals; radio and television contributed further to the uproar. Long in his grave, Mencken has, to borrow on of his favorite phrases, stirred up the animals all over America once again.

When Mencken began this Diary, the huge reputation that he had established during the 1920’s—the New York Times suggested that he was this country’s most influential private citizen—had begun to wane. It declined precipitously during the Depression years. In December 1933, he stepped down as editor of the American Mercury and never acquired a comparable national forum. In 1935, the year in which his wife, Sara, died, one newspaper spoke acidly of “the late H. L. Mencken.” As FDR’s New Deal carried America into what Mencken viewed as a pathetic welfare state, he felt increasingly at odds with his native land. At times, this Diary reads as Mencken’s De Profundis, a bitter cry from an aging man in disrepute who saw friends, family, and the established footholds rapidly disappearing around him.

On occasion, this Diary shows Mencken at his worst, a picture so unattractive that one wonders how Mencken could have written such things. He carefully guarded his own privacy yet cavalierly disregarded that of others. Mencken would eat and drink at a friend’s house, then go home and chronicle his host’s drinking habits and the failings of his children. More than once, Mencken’s comments on his colleagues far surpass professional criticism. For example, he calls one of his editors, a highly respected journalist and author of books, “a time-server with no more principle in him than a privy rat.” (The man’s wife lived to read this.)

A number of Mencken’s comments about Jews and blacks are equally reprehensible. He resorts, at times, to ethnic stereotyping; those who run Hollywood are snidely referred to as “the Jews,” and a professor at the Johns Hopkins University is categorized as “a brisk, clever Jew.” On another occasion, Mencken disparages “low-grade Jews” and goes so far as to speak of “dreadful kikes.” He stereotypes blacks as well by referring to their supposedly superstitious and child-like nature. One especially damning entry from July 1944 talks of “darkies” and “blackamoors” and uses the adjective “niggerish.” Faced with such evidence, Fecher says that Mencken’s “attitude toward black people was a curious mingling of total egalitarianism on the one hand and patronizing superiority on the other.” Fecher does not qualify his assessment of Mencken’s response to Jews: “Let it be said at once, clearly and unequivocally, that Mencken was an anti-Semite.” The editor’s first conclusion is valid; the second is not.

Both of these issues have been debated before; moreover, they will not pass away after the furor over the present volume has abated. It would be preposterous either to dismiss or to apologize for some of the language in this Diary, the worst sort of special pleading that Mencken always despised. But it is necessary to offer a rudimentary accounting for such attitudes, to insist that the troubling remarks comprise a very small part of the Diary and occur quite infrequently throughout the canon, and to acknowledge that the flawed private citizen exhibited little, if any, prejudice in his public life. In brief, these issues are not as simple as some have made them seem.

For better and for worse, Mencken was a creature of his bourgeois class and milieu. The financial conservatism that he learned early on allowed him to survive the stock-market crash relatively unscathed. And his intellectual stability allowed him to weather much of the chaos that has marked the 20th century. On the other hand, he was sometimes affected by the less enlightened attitudes that our present age rightfully abhors. As a number of people have remarked, the epithets that mar the Diary were hardly anomalous at the time; they were, in short, a sad fact of life. The same sort of language is sometimes present in the correspondence of Mencken’s siblings. Catholic and enlightened in so many ways, Mencken unfortunately remained, at times, a parochial Baltimorean. It is worth noting here that the most caustic remarks are not directed at blacks and Jews but rather at the poor whites who filled his neighborhood during and after World War II—those he bludgeoned as “oakies,” “lintheads,” and “vermin” engaging in incest.

Moreover, Mencken’s remarks may well have been affected by the declining mental acuity that marks the Diary. He experienced a general deterioration in health during these years and suffered more than one small stroke. One sees Mencken here groping for words and making errors in usage—startling flaws for one of the finest prose stylists who ever wrote in America. In one particularly pathetic entry made in 1946, Mencken got wrong the date of his marriage. In these entries that are dashed off and then filed away without any subsequent revision, one suspects that Mencken was not always himself. There is, to say the least, a compelling lesson here for aging diarists whose work will be accessible to posterity.

As I have suggested, Mencken’s public life belies the charges of anti-Semitism and racism. Whether he was choosing a publisher or an editorial assistant, reviewing a book or considering a manuscript as an editor, Mencken cared only about competence. After 1918, Alfred A. Knopf published all of Mencken’s books; it was a long and mutually beneficial relationship. Mencken’s previous publisher was Philip Goodman, also Jewish. On the Smart Set from 1914 to 1923, Mencken and George Jean Nathan served together as the most famous editorial duo in America. When they split while editing the American Mercury, the break had nothing to do with Nathan’s heritage; rather, the dispute concerned the direction that the magazine should take.

Mencken’s refusal to attack Hitler publicly has been construed as another example of his anti-Semitism and his supposed sympathy for the Third Reich. Actually, Mencken despised Hitler and the direction that Germany was taking. “I am entirely out of sympathy with the method used by Hitler to handle the Jewish question,” Mencken wrote to a correspondent in 1936. “It seems to me that the gross brutality to harmless individuals must needs revolt every decent man. . . . I don’t know a single man of any reputation who is in favor of the Nazi scheme.” Why, then did Mencken not attack in print the Fuhrer whom he lambasted in his correspondence as an “idiot” and a “lunatic”? As a German-American citizen during World War I who had cast a cold eye upon Woodrow Wilson’s grandiloquence, Mencken suffered greatly from what he called “the savage persecution of all opponents and critics of the war . . .the complete abandonment of all decency, decorum and self-respect.” His mail was opened; he was libeled repeatedly; a newspaper column was taken from him, and he feared for the safety of his family in the face of mob violence. Later, during the 1930’s, Mencken (understandably, I think) refused to give his opponents the satisfaction of seeing him attack Germany.

The diarist who sometimes stereotyped blacks and used racial epithets was praised, by Countee Cullen, as “the intrepid Mr. Mencken.” The Pittsburgh Courier ran an editorial in 1927 that extolled the Baltimorean for “performing a great service for us in banishing bigotry, prejudice and ignorance so effectively.” As editor of the American Mercury, Mencken published writing by George Schuyler, James Weidon Johnson, Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois, and Walter Allen White. As Charles Scruggs has shown in The Sage in Harlem: H.L. Mencken and the Black Writers of the 1920s, “Every possible aspect of Negro culture . . .was discussed in [the magazine’s] pages.” As a philologist, Mencken maintained an interest in black English and discussed it in The American Language. And as a man of letters with valuable contacts, Mencken assisted black authors in a variety of ways. For example, he performed “midwifery” upon Walter Allen White’s The Fire in the Flint and then successfully urged Alfred A. Knopf to publish the novel.

As a social and political critic, Mencken decried racism. During the early 1930’s, he wrote several columns denouncing lynchings on Maryland’s Eastern shore, an area that he viewed as sadly unreconstructed. The pieces were so vitriolic that there were threats that Mencken would not be wise to cross the Chesapeake Bay. Moreover, in the final column that he wrote for the Sunpapers in 1948, Mencken lambasted segregation in Baltimore’s public parks. After blacks and whites were arrested for playing tennis together, Mencken announced that “it is high time that all such relics of Ku Kluxry be wiped out in Maryland.”

Mencken’s most representative statement about racial matters occurs not in the Diary but rather in the American Mercury. “Personally,” he explained, “I hate to think of any man as of a definite race, creed, or color; so few men are really worth knowing that it seems a shameful waste to let an anthropoid prejudice stand in the way of free association with one who is.” With his usual craftsmanship, he combined common sense with common decency.

In the end, contradiction was, in large part, Mencken’s orthodoxy. Out of fairness to the Baltimorean and in the interest of enlightened analysis, one does best to view the Diary’s unpalatable remarks in the larger context of a career that generated well over 10,000,000 words for publication. It was a career that saw Mencken playing a variety of roles, a career that saw him insisting, above all else, on the need for civil liberty for all people regardless of gender, color, origin, or social class.

Thankfully, the Diary presents aspects of Mencken’s life and thought that require no polemical response. Although the volume sometimes shows a bitter man, it also portrays the more typical Mencken of huge energy who took a fierce delight in life itself. As one would expect with a diary, much of the prose here does not approach the high level of expertise found in the writing that Mencken did for publication. Yet there are flashes of the style that regaled so many for so long, the wit that has led to Mencken’s being judged America’s finest humorist since Mark Twain. Mencken snorts about “Methodist orgies” and recounts a meeting where FDR “bathed me in his Christian Science smile.” Mencken called himself “ombibulous,” yet he encountered a bottle of Scotch so poor in quality that it “tasted like bad rum used to preserve anatomical specimens.” Always appreciative of a good quip, Mencken shares Moorfield Storey’s assessment of the betrothal of a famous American: “[William Randolph] Hearst married a prostitute, and then gradually dragged her down to his own level.” As was usually the case, Mencken shows a refreshing ability to laugh at himself as well as at others. Echoing the conclusion reached in the earlier In Defense of Women, Mencken explains that “women in general seem to me to be appreciatively more intelligent than men. A great many of them suffer in silence from the imbecilities of their husbands. I daresay that poor Sara occasionally shouldered her share of that burden.”

As Mencken chronicles his life over these 18 years, the Diary presents, as Fecher remarks, “a full and rounded portrait of an enormously complex person.” The number and range of Mencken’s contacts seem staggering. He moved easily among his fellow magazine editors, among politicians and musicians (music was always his first love), among judges and physicians. He never went to school beyond the age of 15—he liked to remark that he was “spared the intellectual humiliations of a college education”—yet he remained on friendly terms with a number of professors. An agnostic through his life, Mencken maintained an abiding interest in religion and conversed regularly with clergymen of numerous denominations. He lambasted Prohibition, as a violation of his personal freedom and as a misguided attempt to legislate morality, yet he enjoyed palavering with the Methodist Bishop James Cannon of the Anti-Saloon League.

By the time that Mencken began the Diary, he had for the most part put aside his earlier interest in literary criticism. But this volume will prove informative to scholars for its recounting of Mencken’s interaction with a variety of authors. His dealings with Theodore Dreiser marked the most important literary relationship in each man’s career. Mencken explains here the estrangement that occurred in late 1925 and early 1926, soon after the publication of An American Tragedy, and the reconciliation effected in 1934. Much earlier, Mencken had published F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing in the Smart Set and had praised This Side of Paradise. The Fitzgeralds lived in Baltimore from 1932 to 1937 while Zelda received psychiatric treatment, and Mencken laments the novelist’s decline due, in large part, to excessive drinking. The Baltimorean offers a similar assessment of Sinclair Lewis who, by the time that he received the Nobel Price in 1930, was “a novelist somewhat in decay, and far gone in liquor.” Mencken comments frequently on his close friend Joseph Hergesheimer, a novelist of considerable popularity at one time who is now largely forgotten. Mencken admired Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology and found, when the poet visited Baltimore in 1930, that they shared a “favorite vice”: taking a chew of tobacco before they stepped under their morning shower. Willa Gather enters these pages, as do William Faulkner, Dashiell Hammett, Jim Tully, Ellen Glasgow, and James T. Farrell. Mencken met T.S. Eliot in Baltimore in 1933, and they discussed how much he charged for the Criterion. The diarist remarks laughingly that the Missouri native looked “more like an Oxford man than any Englishman.”

In greater detail than any other work in the canon, the Diary sets forth Mencken’s domestic life, the routine that made him so productive. The modest rowhouse in Southwest Baltimore, purchased in 1883 for $2900, was one of the most famous literary addresses in America. During the 1920’s, as Tom Wolfe has remarked, “American literature commuted from 1524 Hollins Street.” Later, during a less balmy time, the house served as Mencken’s refuge from tragedy. Fecher’s Introduction is especially good in capturing the flavor of Mencken’s life here: the book-filled, second-floor study overlooking Union Square, the pet turtle named Mrs. Mary Baker Eddy, the attention that Mencken and his brother August lavished upon the backyard garden, delicious meals, and drinks in front of the fire at night while the brothers laughed about the ways of the world. “The essence of a home,” Mencken has explained elsewhere, “lies in its permanence, in its capacity for accretion and solidification, in its quality of representing, in all its details, the personalities of the people who live in it.” It is hardly surprising that 1524 Hollins Street, Mencken’s Howards End, assumes such prominence in the Diary.

It is Mencken’s wife, rather than his siblings or his parents, who figures in the Diary’s most poignant entry, an elegy containing some of his more remarkable prose. Mencken and Sara Powell Haardt, a writer from Alabama 18 years his junior, married in 1930; she was terminally ill with tuberculosis. Soon after her death five years later, Mencken somehow managed to write the Introduction to Southern Album, a collection of her stories. He chose, understandably, to concentrate upon her work rather than upon their marriage. On May 31, 1940, the fifth anniversary of Sara’s death, Mencken wrote four pages discussing the marriage and its effect upon both of them. It was a love match, with none of the contention and jealousy that can so easily be generated by the union of two writers. “I can recall,” Mencken reminisces gratefully, “no single moment during our years together when I ever had the slightest doubt of our marriage, or wished that it had never been. I believe that she was equally content.”

He proceeds to speak of her courage in the face of illness and her final days. He closes the entry in a tone that I have not encountered elsewhere in his writing:

Her ashes are buried at the foot of the grave of my mother, and beside her there is room for mine. Thinking of her, I can well understand the great human yearning that makes for a belief in immortality, but I do not believe in it, and neither did she. We have parted forever, though my ashes will soon be mingling with hers. I’ll have her in mind until thought and memory adjourn, but that is all. Whether or not it is better to do so I do not know, but there is the fact as I see it. We were happy together, but all beautiful things must end. Entbehren sollst; du sollst entbehren. [Deny yourself! You must deny yourself!]

Mencken shows here an emotional depth hidden from the public by his thorny exterior and the huge gifts that allowed him to capture so much sentiment without degenerating into sentimentality. The passage shows as well his immense strength of character—his refusal to accuse or complain in the face of adversity, the courage of despair that allowed him to look into the abyss, fully perceive its horror, and then turn away to face another day.

Above all else, it was Mencken’s devotion to his craft that saved him, at least until the final stroke that robbed him of the ability to read and write. Mencken always attacked moralism, yet there is a strongly moral strain throughout this Diary that reminds me somewhat of Thomas Carlyle’s pronouncements about the value of labor. “Looking back over a life of hard work,” an elderly Mencken remarks, “I find my only regret is that I didn’t work harder.” He did more than enough. When physically able, he got to his desk every day and wrote as long as possible about what seemed important to him. The Diary that he has left causes both consternation and delight. Mencken was imperfect like the rest of us—impetuous and wrongheaded and prejudiced at times—but his gift will survive it all.


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