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Road Trip

Sage Scribe H.L. Mencken's Baltimore

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Sunday, May 4, 2008

WHERE: Baltimore.

WHY: The spirit of H.L. Mencken, Sage haunts and a very wise watering hole.

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HOW FAR: About 10 miles.

In Baltimore, H.L. Mencken is considered as much a native son as John Waters, and the curmudgeonly, cigar-puffing newspaperman was just as outrageous and controversial. Known for his groundbreaking reportage of the Scopes "monkey trial" in 1925, the "Sage of Baltimore" sure knew how to give a pen-lashing.

His main targets -- teetotaling Southern Baptists, welfare-state liberals and high-profile hypocrites of all stripes -- made up what he called the "booboisie." He spared no words attacking them in the pages of the Baltimore Sun, the American Mercury and the Smart Set, a magazine that, under Mencken's mantle, printed F. Scott Fitzgerald's first story and became the template for the New Yorker.

Mencken lived his whole life, save for seven years that included his marriage to Sara Haardt, in the same West Baltimore rowhouse in which he was born in 1880. Apart from regular trips to New York to work for various magazines, plus one notable visit to Boston to fight (and win) an obscenity charge, the scribe mostly stuck to his home town until his death in 1956.

During his career, the brazen writer certainly had his share of fans and detractors. Some foes accused Mencken of being anti-Semitic and racist, even though he publicly denounced Hitler in his writings and fought to promote the works of such early black authors as George Schuyler and Langston Hughes. Whatever the reasons, Mencken dropped into obscurity, even in his home town, where efforts to resurrect the Mencken House as a museum have all but fallen by the wayside.

Still, there are a number of sites where a visitor can relive the Baltimore that Mencken knew and revered. It was a town that thumbed its nose at Prohibition (following Mencken's lead, of course), where mob mentality trumped civic arrogance and where hard-drinking cops fried oysters fresh from the harbor and challenged tourists to eat a dozen of them, washed down with a tumbler of rye. Mencken described all of these characters and scenes in his columns and essays. The city was as much a part of him as he was a part of the city.

-- Robbie Whelan


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