I think that Fred Hobson has provided us, in his excellent biography of H. L. Mencken (Mencken: A Life, 1994), with a very useful insight into the Sage of Baltimore as journalist when he notes, of his immersion in newspaper work that “he would always see himself as a newspaperman (in a man’s world) rather than the belletrist” and that “the profession of letters was permissible . . .because it was entered through the door of rough turn-of-the-century metropolitan journalism.”
I want to consider Mencken as a newsman. I do not intend, in what follows, to try to psychoanalyze him, but rather to look at his career and his work in terms of his involvement in newspaper journalism, which began within a couple of days after his father’s death in 1899, and closed only with the stroke that on Nov. 23, 1948, made it impossible for him to read or write any longer. His first newspaper story appeared in the Baltimore Herald for Feb. 24, 1899, a single paragraph about the theft of a horse, buggy, and harness worth $250 near Kingsville, Maryland; his last, for the Baltimore Sun of Nov. 9,1948, was a column denouncing a law that prohibited a group of whites and blacks from playing tennis together at Druid Hill Park.
The two best books by far on being young and a newspaperman during the Gutenberg Era that ended with the arrival of the TV set upon the American scene following World War II are Mencken’s Newspaper Days (1941) and the second part of Theodore Dreiser’s A Book About Myself,likewise subtitled Newspaper Days (1922). They are very different in kind. Dreiser’s is intense, for the most part humorless, very much in high earnest; Mencken’s is light-hearted, mirthful, and expansive— “mainly true, but with occasional stretchers,” as he noted in his preface.
Dreiser’s book ends when, having worked as a reporter on newspapers in Chicago, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh, he moves to New York City, finds himself unable to get anywhere writing on space rates for the World, and decides that “come what might, this was the end of newspaper reporting for me. Never again, if I died in the fight, would I condescend to be a reporter on any paper. I might starve, but if so—I would starve.” Mencken’s memoir closes with the folding of the Herald in 1906 after he had become its city editor, its managing editor, and for several months editor-in-chief. His move to the Evening News as news editor is remarked, and, less than two months later, to the Sun as Sunday editor. I quote the final sentence of Newspaper Days: “Since 1910, save for a brief and unhappy interlude in 1938, 1 have never had a newspaper job which involved the control of other men’s work, or any responsibility for it.”
Upon finishing Newspaper Days in 1941, Mencken decided to write an account of his years with the Sunpapers, not for publication during his lifetime but only “Later on, when time has released all confidences and the grave has closed over all tender feelings. . . .” That manuscript, considerably pruned, has now been published as Thirty-five fears of Newspaper Work: A Memoir, edited by Fred Hobson, Vincent Fitzpatrick, and Bradford Jacobs (1994). I have to say that, for all my interest in both author and subject—and I too began on newspapers and even worked briefly for the Sunpapers—I found it a rather disappointing affair, bearing qualitatively about the same relationship to Newspaper Days as Mark Twain’s more tedious works such as Following the Equator do to Huckleberry Finn and the first part of Life on the Mississippi. Nothing Mencken ever wrote could be devoid of internal life, but I do think that the other posthumous Mencken memoir, My Life as Author and Editor, which Jonathan Yardley edited (1993), is a far more interesting and important document.
Mencken, Dreiser, Mark Twain—these were but three among many American literary figures who began their careers in the newsroom, or, before the advent of the cylinder press and the linotype had made possible the large, staffed daily newspaper, the printshop. There were also Walt Whitman, William Dean Howells, Ernest Hemingway, George W. Cable, Ambrose Bierce, Joel Chandler Harris, Harold Frederic, Stephen Crane, David Graham Phillips, Henry Blake Fuller, Carl Sandburg, Ring Lardner, Willa Cather, Katherine Anne Porter, and so on up into our own time. Some of those cited also attended college; most did not.
When a young man went to work as a novice reporter of news, it was for meager pay. (Not until World War II and thereafter could a young woman usually hope to find a place in a news room other than with the society page.) Mencken hung around the news room of the Baltimore Herald for long days before receiving an assignment, and still longer before being given a job, at seven dollars a week and a trolley-pass. Dreiser did the same at the Chicago Globe in 1892 before being taken on at $15 a week, which was what Hemingway received when he began as a reporter at the Kansas City Star in 1916.
The tradition of paying minuscule wages to aspiring journalists is of long standing. This I know from my own and my family’s history. In or about the year 1910 one of my uncles, who later became a playwright and a screen writer, worked for three months on the staff of the Charleston News and Courier in South Carolina, for no pay at all, competing against another young man; the winner was to receive a job at $7 a week. The other fellow was a college graduate, and my uncle, who had only a seventh grade education, lost out; but a job came open in Birmingham, Alabama, and he went to work there. In my own instance, 35 years later in 1946 and after the currency inflation of two world wars, I started out on the Bergen Evening Record in New Jersey at $33 a week. Two years later, in the fall of 1948, when I quit the Associated Press and began graduate school at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, one of my fellow students, a young man named Russell Baker, was working evenings as a police reporter on the Sun at $30 a week.
So it wasn’t done for the money. Why, then, was a young man willing to labor long hours at low pay, in a profession that promised slow advancement and at best moderate recompense, in order to be a member of the working press? The motivation is obvious: because he wanted to write for a living. To be a newspaper reporter was a move in the direction of a career in letters. It was a way to work with words.
By that I do not mean that the youthful journalist saw himself as having to write newspaper stories because he could not earn a living writing fiction or poetry. Rather, the point is that in his mind the two modes were still largely undifferentiated. To understand what getting a job on a newspaper meant for Mencken and Dreiser, it is important to keep that in mind. In their day, and no doubt well into our own as well, it simply did not occur to most youths born into families without college backgrounds or close ties to the learned professions to make any hard-and-fast distinction between journalism and literature. To an extent that I think is no longer true, they were, or seemed to be, part and parcel of the same impulse.
The national letters reflect this. From the post-Civil War period onward into the era of Ernest Hemingway, an apprenticeship in the news often provided an entreé to the writing of fiction. The American novel was realistic, or naturalistic, in its aesthetic. Our literature was learning to include within its purview a far wider slice of everyday experience, particularly urban experience, than in the pre-Civil War decades. To make this new subject matter available for literary purposes, what was needed was an access to middle- and working-class life in terms of its own values, rather than those of an older, more elevated, and polite cultural situation.
A necessary part of a writer’s equipment was the ability to see and identify what was actually in place around him: the documentation of everyday life—i. e., journalism—became an important artistic tool. It has been said of William Dean Howells, who pioneered in American realism, that for him the absence of culture could be viewed only as a deprivation, whereas for Theodore Dreiser it was seen as a fact. Certainly this was true for Mencken. Although as Hobson notes in his biography Mencken started off his literary career ensconced squarely within the Genteel Tradition in American letters, it wasn’t too long before he was running interference for Dreiser and the writings of the early Modernists in the columns of the Smart Set and the Sun. For about 15 key years, from 1908 through the early 1920’s, his principal cultural role was as Director of American Literary Implosion, which is to say, the person chiefly responsible for placing the dynamite charges that caused the obsolescent Literature of Ideality to collapse upon itself, and then shoveling away the debris so that the literature of the 20th century might have space to grow.
In fulfillment of the objective, Dreiser’s Sister Carrie and Jennie Gerhardt proved to be extremely handy weapons for Mencken’s use. “Ever since I began to find myself as a literary critic, in 1909,” he recalled, “I had been on the lookout for an author who would serve me as a sort of tank in my war on the frauds and dolts who still reigned in American letters. It was not enough to ridicule and revile the fakers they admired and whooped up, though I did this with great enthusiasm; it was also necessary, if only for the sake of the dramatic contrast, to fight for writers, and especially for newcomers, they sniffed at—always provided, of course, these victims of their intransigent obtuseness really had something to offer” (My Life as Author and Editor).
Like Mencken, as a beginning newspaper reporter, Dreiser was sent out each working day to confront the confusion, competitiveness, money-making, squalor, corruption, opportunism, extremes of wealth, racial and social admixture, and concentrated hubbub that made up everyday urban American experience. The contrast between what they encountered, and the version of life to be found in the approved literature of the Genteel Tradition, was striking. Dreiser, who was no man to see things even-handedly, was astounded when a fellow journalist in St. Louis let him read a Zolaesque novel he and another man had written, but which, the friend said, “could never be published over here. We’d have to get it done abroad.” Dreiser was indignant:
You couldn’t write about life as it was; you had to write about it as someone else thought it was, the ministers and farmers and dullards of the house. Yet here he was, as was I, busy in a profession that was hourly revealing that this sweetness and light code, this idea of a perfect world which contained neither sin nor shame for any save vile outcasts, criminals and vagrants, was the trashiest lie that was ever foisted upon an all too human world. Not a day, not an hour, but the pages of the very newspaper we were helping to fill with our scribble observations were full of the most incisive pictures of the lack of virtue, honesty, kindness, even average human intelligence, not on the part of a few but of nearly everybody. (Newspaper Days)
Dreiser was appalled by what he saw around him; Mencken was—or at least would lead us to believe that he was—mainly intrigued and amused. Dreiser set out to make literature out of what he saw, and Mencken set out to see that Dreiser and others received the right to a full hearing and were not disqualified by virtue of either their choice of subject matter as such or their failure to moralize acceptably about it. For both of them, and for others whose entry onto the American literary scene came via the newsroom, what they saw as reporters led them to insist that the literary imagination of their time must not ignore or view obliquely the kind of everyday reality they had reported on—with the result that the Genteel Tradition crumbled and the literature of modernism could be written and published.
It is true, of course, that when the full fruition of that new literature arrived, so that the literature of Genteel Ideality was set aside not only in subject matter but in language, form, and complexity of human portraiture, Mencken himself was largely unable to recognize it. He could, for example, accept and publish in the Smart Set several of the stories from James Joyce’s Dubliners, yet say of Ulysses that it “seemed to me to be deliberately mystifying and mainly puerile, and I have never been able to get over a suspicion that Joyce concocted it as a kind of vengeful hoax” (My Life as Author and Editor).
Except for Dreiser, the handful of his American contemporaries whose fiction Mencken genuinely admired were not those whose work has lasted importantly beyond their day— Joseph Hergesheimer, Sinclair Lewis, James Branch Cabell (who still has his devotees, however few in number). But that is of small moment; there were other critics to champion and to teach us how to read modern literature, once the doors had been opened. Mencken it was who did most of all to pry them apart.
When he began his work, the American literary firmament was dominated by Howells, Brander Matthews, Owen Wister, Henry Van Dyke, H. C. Boynton, Hamlin Garland, Robert Underwood Johnson, Edmund Clarence Stedman, Hamilton Wright Mabie, and Augustus Thomas—writers, as he said of a cluster of them after Howells’ death, lacking “enough sin to raise a congressman’s temperature one-hundredth of a degree” (“Want Ad”). By the time he lost interest, in the mid-1920’s, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, Aiken, Faulkner, Eliot, Frost, Pound, Dos Passos, Williams, Marianne Moore, Ransom, Stevens, Cummings, and O’Neill were all publishing regularly.
Of those second-generation modernists, only Hemingway began on newspapers. It was the earlier generation, that of Mencken, Dreiser, Lardner, Stephen Crane, Phillips, Sandburg, etc., in whose beginnings the news room figured so prominently. For it was that generation which was needed to open up literature to urban experience, and also to detumesce the swollen literary idiom—purify the language of the tribe as it were—so that it could image that experience. Thus William Vaughn Moody, in “Ode in Time of Hesitation,” an anti-imperialist poem, wanted to evoke the image of the Midwestern metropolis where he lived and taught school: “Chicago sitteth at the northwest gates,” he wrote. But Carl Sandburg began his poem about Chicago as follows: “Hog butcher to the world. . . .”
What sets Mencken apart from those of his contemporaries who began in news rooms, however, is that, unlike them, he remained a newspaperman all his working life. Except for periods during and briefly following American involvement in the two world wars, when he stopped writing for the Sunpapers because his views clashed with what he considered their pro-British editorial policy, he did not give up daily journalism once he had established himself on the national literary scene. Even when most actively engaged in New York, as editor of The American Mercury, he kept his residence in Baltimore and wrote his weekly pieces for the Sun. He covered the national political conventions, campaign tours, and other events, became a member of the company’s board of directors, and even served as the Sunpapers’ chief negotiator in its dealings with the American Newspaper Guild.
Clearly newspapers remained a major force in his life. He was Mencken of the Sunpapers. I think of that delicious moment at a press conference during the Progressive Party convention in 1948 when, or so the story goes as I heard it, Westbrook Pegler asked Henry Wallace about the so-called Guru letters he was alleged to have written, and Wallace replied that he would answer no questions put to him by Pegler or Pegler’s stooges. Whereupon Mencken rose to his feet. “I’ll ask the question,” he declared. “I’m H. L. Mencken of the Baltimore Sunpapers.” It was essential to the way that he viewed himself, a prime component of a proud man’s self-esteem.
Now if, as I proposed earlier, the young men of Mencken’s time and afterward strove for low-paying jobs in newspapers because it was a way of earning a living through writing, a first move toward a career in letters, then why didn’t Mencken likewise give up daily journalism, once he had cleared away a secure and remunerative place for himself in the literary firmament? Now that he could write what he chose when he chose to do it, why did he persist in the remorseless, never-ending task of filling up columns of newsprint?
It certainly wasn’t because of a passion for covering the news, as such. He soon tired of that—as did most of the young men and women who wrote for newspapers en route to literary careers. He ceased to take satisfaction in getting out a daily paper, did not wish to direct news coverage, lay out pages, write headlines, battle the composing room. From about 1908 onward Mencken was a commentator, not a reporter, and for the remainder of his days on earth it was the expression of his opinion, not the gathering of news, that concerned him.
He remained a newspaperman because he liked to sound off, to make a noise. In that respect he did not, in one sense, differ from any other person who has written for a living, whether fiction or fact, prose or poetry. And what he wrote about the underlying motive for authorship held for himself: “. . .an author, like any other so-called artist, is a man in whom the normal vanity of all men is so vastly exaggerated that he finds it a sheer impossibility to hold it in. His overpowering impulse is to gyrate before his fellow men, flapping his wings and emitting defiant yells. This being forbidden by the police in all civilized countries, he takes it out by putting his yells on paper” (“The Fringes of Lovely Letters”).
But there were particular compulsions at work within him that made it vital that he do his sounding-off in newsprint. I pledged myself earlier not to get into the business of psycho-analyzing the Sage of Baltimore (I have had a go at it else-where), so I will remark only on a few of the various needs that propelled him along his way, without attempting to inquire into why they might have done so. These were:
- the need to demonstrate that although possessing intense artistic leanings he was no dreamy esthete but an eminently practical and worldly-wise fellow;
- the need and wish to smite self-righteous authority-figures;
- the need to insist upon the absolute futility of any attempt to ameliorate the human condition, whether social, political, intellectual, or moral; and
- the need to feel himself in control of the situation, and to slap down anything and anybody appearing to menace that control.
Such needs existed not in separation but in creative relation to and as part and parcel of each other. For Mencken, however, their combined thrust meant that he couldn’t cut loose from his role as newspaper columnist—not even in the 1920’s when the American Mercury was in full flower and he was happily battling prohibitionists, book and magazine censors, anti-evolutionists, American Legionnaires, the British Empire, Calvin Coolidge, chiropractors, believers in Christian Endeavor, and all other Right Thinking people everywhere. Each Monday his Evening Sun column kept the animals stirred up and reasserted his presence on the home front.
It is frequently said of him—he several times allowed as much himself—that he enjoyed and welcomed adverse criticism, did not take it personally, maintained a cheerful distinction between criticism and critic, held no grudges, and habitually let bygones be bygones. That is what he wished us to believe. To an extent there was truth in it. Yet the author of several memoirs designed for publication only long after his death, in which he reviewed the various controversies in which he had engaged and proclaimed all who differed from him to be either knaves or imbeciles, was scarcely engaged in permitting bygones to remain bygones. Moreover, any man who would edit and publish a book containing 132 pages of epithets directed at himself (Menckeniana: a Schimpflexikon,1928) was almost certainly impelled to demonstrate something about his ability to take it.
The traumatic event of Mencken’s adult life was what happened to him just before and during the First World War. In any assessment of his career the impact of that catastrophe, the abrupt check it gave to his newly-burgeoning journalistic career, forcing him to give up his weekly column because of his pro-German, anti-British sentiments, placing him at odds not merely with the rank and file of readers but with the owners, publishers, and controlling directors of the Sunpapers, cannot be overstated. He was told to mind his manners and button his lip. (I am reminded of that line by Ring Lardner: “Shut up, he explained. “)
All he could do was stay quiet and bide his time, which he did. But almost every one of the stands that he took in the 1920’s and thereafter, almost every position he assumed on every public issue, was formidably reinforced by what happened from 1915 through 1918. The celebrated Boobus Americanus, it should be remembered, voted for Woodrow Wilson, served in the A. E. F., and afterward joined the American Legion. Wilson, who led America’s involvement in the “war to end wars,” was the supreme high-minded moralist and Presbyterian elder of his day, and moreover a Southerner. No section of the United States was more avid for a declaration of war in 1917 than the Southern states. The Prohibition Amendment, enacted during the war, outlawed the sale of beer, a beverage brewed principally by German-Americans. The American language was decidedly not the British language. And so on.
I do not mean by this, of course, that many or even most of the quintessential Menckenian attitudes were not in place before the coming of the war, for demonstrably they were. But what happened during the war intensified and hardened them. With the return of what President Harding termed Normalcy, Mencken moved back onto center stage; but with an agenda and a hit list.
An important reason why Mencken remained a newspaperman was that turning out his weekly column was central to his way of writing and thinking. For someone of his temperament and abundant energies, that sequence of publication he evolved was almost ideally adapted to his needs. His weekly column for the Evening Sun and his coverage of the political party conventions kept him in close touch with the national political scene and enabled him to sound off on whatever came to mind. He could then refine and develop those impressions for the American Mercury and include the best, even further touched up, in the Prejudices books; or else develop, combine, and adapt them for full-length books such as Notes on Democracy (1926) and Treatise on the Gods (1930).
He wrote his newspaper pieces, from all accounts, rapidly and well; at the political conventions, knocking out his stories hunt-and-peck on his portable typewriter, he produced copy that needed little editing. What he did with it later, for magazine and book use, was principally by way of intensifying the language and sharpening the wit. We can watch the process as it took place, through the collection of his newspaper stories assembled by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, The Impossible H. L, Mencken (1991), and the subsequent development of some of them in the Prejudices volumes and his full-length books.
It should be pointed out that the Mencken who survives and to an extent even flourishes today, seven decades and more after his heyday in the 1920’s and almost a half-century after he stopped writing, is not the author of the full-length treatises, or even of the Days books—although I must say that I cannot imagine Happy Days and especially Newspaper Days ever going without readers. It is the essayist who has lasted best, the author of those medium-length pieces most of which were originally newspaper columns and that crackle so with wit and sarcasm. Each reader will have his or her favorites, whether “The Sahara of the Bozart”; “Want Ad,” the farewell to William Dean Howells; “Professor Veblen,” the hilarious assault on the author of Theory of the Leisure Class; “ In Memoriam: W. J. B.,” the Bryan obituary; the discourse on “Gamalielese”; “The Divine Afflatus”; “Imperial Purple”; the memoir of Huneker; “The Husbandman,” with that marvelous sentence: “There, where the cows low through the still night, and the jug of Peruna stands behind the stove, and bathing begins, as at Biarritz, with the vernal equinox—there is the reservoir of all the nonsensical legislation which now makes the United States a buffoon among the great nations.” Or others; I cite my own favorites from among so many that are splendid.
Do I believe what the author is maintaining in such gems of vituperation? Sometimes yes, sometimes not at all; but what does that matter? Does one agree with Samuel Johnson’s prejudices most of the time? Johnson provides an apt comparison; the similarities are intriguing. Indeed, it seems to me quite likely that, just as with Ursa Major, Mencken’s eventual place will be that of a personality, as much as for what he wrote. In Hobson’s words, “it is entirely possible that he is one of those writers, like Dr. Johnson or Thomas Carlyle or Henry Adams, whose life, both as fact and as metaphor, will always inspire as much interest as his work” (Mencken: A Life).
What are Mencken’s best pieces, as has been so often noted, but consummate works of humor? Not for the television masses, to be sure, but for the reader who can grasp the compacted insult contained in a line such as that from “Want Ad,” concerning President Nicholas Murray Butler of Columbia University: “Moreover, he is a member of the American Academy himself, elected as a wet to succeed Edgar Allan Poe.” If in years to come there will be few who will know what a wet was, or the relationship of the American Academy of that day to the dying Genteel Tradition, or what Nicholas Murray Butler had to do with either, the loss will be theirs.
Frequently one hears the lament, “If only H. L. Mencken were alive today—,” meaning that there is abundant humbug around that cries out for the Sage’s genius at castigation. The Messrs. Hobson, Fitzpatrick, and Jacobs echo it in the introduction of Thirty-five fears of Newspaper Work. What they and everyone else uttering such a lament overlook is the fact that, not only would it be impossible to bring off in our day, but that by the 1930’s and 1940’s Mencken himself couldn’t bring it off.
The archetypal Menckenian iconoclasm and demolition we so cherish dates almost exclusively from the 1910’s and 1920’s. Once the Depression got into higher gear and Hitler took over in Germany, it became no longer possible to position oneself in print as above the melee, or as Mencken put it, “Well-fed, unbounded by sordid cares, at ease in Zion” (“On Being an American”). His act was over. Read Mencken on the New Deal, on the C. I. O. vs. the automobile companies, on the Blitz, on the need to repeal the Neutrality Act—if, that is, you can find what he wrote, for the numerous collections of his work, whether by himself or by others, include few such pieces. The Mencken touch didn’t work then, nor would it work today. I have known political columnists who had the Menckenian style down perfectly, and could use the Sage’s rhetorical tactics to a fare-thee-well. Yet they couldn’t achieve the Menckenian effect, for the same reason that he couldn’t manage it either, once the banks failed, the breadlines formed, and the concentration camps were set up; what was happening mattered too much. There was too much at stake.
Not surprisingly, the Mencken of the later 1930’s and the 1940’s was a largely disappointed man. He focussed his discontent upon the political scene, but his anger over what was wrong with nation and world was at bottom an emblem for his personal unhappiness and frustration. The refrain that runs through the later chapters of Mencken’s Thirty-five Years of Newspaper Work is the alleged failure of the Sun to develop into the “the really great newspaper that it might have been.” What the failure appears to have consisted of, one gathers from reading both that work and the entries in the Diary of H. L. Mencken edited by Charles A. Fecher and published in 1989, was the refusal of the management to compel the editors of the Sun and the Evening Sun to oppose almost everything that President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal undertook to do domestically, to protest Roosevelt’s efforts to aid a beleaguered England against the Nazis, and to attack him for seeking to lead the nation into war. In other words, to adopt the political and social views of H. L. Mencken.
Thus the president of the Sunpapers, Paul Patterson, “was not equal to the task of formulating and enforcing a really enlightened editorial policy. His interest in the editorial pages was always very slight and seldom more than intermittent: he gave his chief attention to the news department, or to such cony-catching features as the comic section.” All others in the Sunpapers hierarchy—John Owens, Hamilton Owens, Harry Black, Gerald Johnson, Frank Kent, Philip Wagner, the papers’ collection of “third-rate editorial writers”—were hopeless. Again and again Mencken sounded off in such fashion. As Charles Feeher remarks in his introduction to the Diary,”One has a mental picture of Paul Patterson, the dignified president of the Sunpapers, diving under his desk when he hears Mencken coming down the hall so he won’t have to listen to another tirade about the “imbecility” of the editorial page.” (Thirty-five Years)
By that time, Mencken had ceased to be an active participant in the national letters. He had lost virtually all interest in literature by the mid-1920’s, had given up editorship of the American Mercury in 1933, moved back into the Hollis Street house in which he had grown up, and no longer made regular trips to New York City. He went daily to his office at the Sun, took part in Sunpapers deliberations, fumed over politics and the war, wrote his memoirs, and kept his work on the American language up to date. In short, by the 1940’s H. L. Mencken, widowed and in his sixties, was back where he had started out, his attitudes and opinions still largely and doggedly those which he had formed when young, and increasingly frustrated and bewildered by what was happening within a city, a nation, a world, and a newspaper organization that declined to stay in place.
His last years, after the stroke of late 1948, were a dreadful caricature, as it were, of the preceding decade. Now he literally couldn’t articulate his opinions. No Dante, prescribing appropriate punishment for the sinners in the Inferno, could have devised a more hideous conclusion for this man, of all men. In his own words, spoken to a departing visitor, “It’s a hell of a state of things when the only thing a man can read or write is his name.” Fred Hobson’s summation is to the point:
Devastating as the results of Mencken’s stroke were, they were probably made even worse by the manner in which he received them. Not only might another patient have adjusted better to the inability to read and write—one whose entire life had not been devoted to those pursuits— but another patient, one of Mencken’s doctors later suggested, probably would have accepted with better grace the inability to speak with facility. Among other things, Mencken was a victim of that great pride, as well as an aversion to social embarrassment, that he had always possessed. From his youth he had been orderly, precise, competent in all he undertook—above all, in control —and if he could not now do things well, he sometimes refused to do them at all.
No longer in control. That was what so enraged and dismayed him—just as it had in those years when he had been forced to work in his father’s cigar business and he had even contemplated suicide until liberated by his father’s death; and during World War I when his pan-Germanism got him muzzled; and in the New Deal and World War II years when no one in authority, whether in Washington or on the Sunpapers, would heed his remonstrances. His response at all such times was to dig in his heels, to intensify his opposition, to adhere ever more atavistically and furiously to his loyalties and prejudices—to concede nothing. In William Manchester’s words, “He feared change and battled it to the end.” (“Mencken in Person,” in On Mencken, 1980, edited by John Dorsey.) He was not in control. And when contradicted, he was recalcitrant as a mule.
Earlier I posed the question of why it was that Mencken, unlike his other literary contemporaries who began on newspapers, did not move on to a fulltime existence as litterateur, but remained in newspaper journalism. I suggested that it was because he needed a place to sound off, and that writing his newspaper column gave him a matchless opportunity to do just that. There were other reasons as well for his remaining a working newspaperman, not the least of them being that he was very, very good at it. “I am at my best in articles written in heat and printed at once,” he said of himself, and if that is not quite true, for he is at his best in those articles as embellished and intensified through revision for book publication, setting down that first impassioned impression for newspaper publication was certainly an essential dimension of his artistry.
I think that more than most good writers, it was necessary that the one-man show he put on feature him directly and personally, and the weekly newspaper column permitted him to do that with the minimum amount of contrivance and dissimulation, right there in the city where he was born and grew up. The trait was spotted early on, by no less an authority on journalistic showmanship than Colonel Henry Watterson, the oldtime editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal and Democratic Party warrior from the days of Samuel J. Tilden and Grover Cleveland onward: “Think of it! The staid old Baltimore Sun has got itself a Whangdoodle. Nor is it one of those bogus Whangdoodles which we sometimes encounter in the sideshow business—merely a double-cross between a Gin-Rickey and a Gyascutis—but a genuine, guaranteed, imported direct from the mountains of Hepsidam.” (Quoted in William Manchester, H. L. Mencken: Disturber of the Peace,1951.)
To merit the notice of a Marse Henry Watterson, and the attention of politicos, newspaper editors, braumeisters, cops, and other men of affairs in the world of power and civic renown, was no trivial consideration for a young man who had been taught to believe, and ever afterward suspected and even perhaps feared, that there was something impractical and sissyish about an addiction to books and literature. There is the oft-cited boast from the preface to Newspapers Days: “At a time when the respectable bourgeois youngsters of my generation were college freshmen, oppressed by simian sophomores and affronted with balderdash daily and hourly by chalky pedagogues, I was at large in a wicked seaport of half a million people, with a front seat at every public show, as free of the night as of the day, and getting earfuls and eyefuls of instruction in a hundred giddy arcana, none of them taught in schools . . .if I neglected the humanities I was meanwhile laying in all the worldly wisdom of a police lieutenant, a bartender, a shyster lawyer, or a midwife.”
He entered literature via journalism, then, and as Hobson notes, that made it all right, because journalism was rough and masculine. To cut himself off entirely from newspapers, to discard that identity as H. L. Mencken of the Sunpapers, was to lose touch with the Real, as he saw it. He associated his literary existence with New York City, and his newspaper identity with Baltimore, and important though the literary life was, it was not what mattered most. The Proustian notion that the only ultimate reality is art, and that whatever exists in time is finally ephemeral and meaningless, would never do for him.
In this respect the piece he wrote comparing the two places, entitled “On Living in Baltimore,” is interesting. “The very richest man, in New York,” he contends, “is never quite sure that the house he lives in now will be his next year. . . . The intense crowding in the town, and the restlessness and unhappiness that go with it, make it almost impossible for anyone to accumulate the materials of a home. . . . The charm of getting home, as I see it, is the charm of getting back to what is inextricably my own—to things familiar and long loved, to things that belong to me alone and none other. I have lived in one house in Baltimore for nearly forty-five years. . . . It is as much a part of me as my two hands. If I had to leave it I’d be as certainly crippled as if I lost a leg.” Baltimore was where he lived; whatever else he might do or say or write, he was H. L. Mencken of the Baltimore Sunpapers.
I first discovered the joys of Mencken through the Days books, which I read in the early morning hours of midsummer, 1949, after getting off work on the copy desk of the Wilmington (Del.) Morning News. The nights that summer were suffocatingly hot, the hottest I have ever known; editing news stories and putting headlines on them was terribly boring, and I longed to be able to go back fulltime to Baltimore and the Writing Seminars (they were not called that then) of the Johns Hopkins University, where I could teach a course and edit the Hopkins Review and be among literary folk again. By September I could take no more, and I headed back down U. S. 40.
I too had originally set out to be a newspaperman, and I worked as reporter, city editor, and desk man for several years before going to graduate school. But except for a brief interlude as an editorial writer in the mid-1950’s, thereafter I made my career on college campuses, and I have never regretted it. Even so, for most of the years of my adult life I have always maintained some kind of a newspaper connection, whether as editor of book pages or writer of columns, and I still do an occasional piece. So I think I can understand, if on a diminished scale, something of the attraction that writing for newspapers had for H. L. Mencken.
He told Bill Manchester, when he went to work for the Sun in 1947, “You’ll love it, but be sure you get out before you’re thirty-five” (“Mencken in Person”). If in so advising, Mencken was implicitly second-guessing the choices he had made in his own career, then surely he was drawing the wrong conclusions. To think of Mencken, what he was, what he wrote, the role he played in the national letters, without the Sunpapers affiliation is impossible. As well think of Winston Churchill without the House of Commons, or Lucrezia Borgia without access to a supply of poison. “Whatever Mencken was, he was a journalist,” Fred Hobson declares, and rightly so.
As Mencken himself wrote in the Preface to A Mencken Chrestomathy (1949) not long before undergoing the stroke that did him in as a writer, “I do not regret that I gave so much of my time and energy, especially in my earlier years, to this journalism, for I had a swell time concocting it, and in its day it got some attention. . . . There is something delightful about getting an idea on paper while it is still hot and charming, and seeing it in print before it begins to pale and stale.”
Anyone who has ever sat around in a news room when young and, when a copy boy brought the first edition up from the pressroom and handed out copies of the still-warm news-print, opened the pages to scan his own words transformed into print, will know what H. L. Mencken meant by that.