By Jonathan Yardley
Friday, July 3, 2009
An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.
Henry Louis Mencken was in his late 50s when he began writing a series of autobiographical recollections that eventually became three volumes of memoirs published between 1940 and 1943: "Happy Days," "Newspaper Days" and "Heathen Days." Coming as they did from the typewriter of America's most notorious journalistic curmudgeon, these books delighted readers with their rich humor, a salient characteristic of Mencken's prose since he began writing as a teenager in the 1890s, but also surprised them with sunny nostalgia. Here was a Mencken whom almost no one had known, and readers by the uncountable thousands warmed to him at once.
Any of these books would be a worthy candidate for reconsideration, but in the present moment "Newspaper Days" seems especially appropriate. At a time when newspapers are busily if not obsessively composing their own obituaries, it is a joy to recall "the gaudy life that young newspaper reporters led in the major American cities at the turn of the century . . . the maddest, gladdest, damndest existence ever enjoyed by mortal youth," a time when "life was arduous, but it was gay and carefree," when "the days chased one another like kittens chasing their tails." It is a time that had vanished long before my own newspaper career began in 1961, but from time to time I glimpsed evanescent traces of it, and reading "Newspaper Days" for the third or fourth time brings back, in a way, the days of my own youth.
Too often books about newspapers (like articles about newspapers' imminent demise) are of interest only to newspaper people, but "Newspaper Days" certainly is an exception, and so, too, are others of a more recent vintage. Two of Mencken's fellow Baltimoreans have written deservedly popular books about newspapering in that city: Russell Baker in his evocative memoir, "The Good Times," and Laura Lippman in her spunky, irreverent series of novels about newspaper reporter turned private detective Tess Monaghan. John Darnton's "Black and White and Dead All Over," published last year, is a deliciously acerbic roman a clef about the New York Times, and Philip Norman's "Everyone's Gone to the Moon" (1996) is the funniest novel about London's Fleet Street since Evelyn Waugh's classic "Scoop."
Still, "Newspaper Days" is in a class by itself. I did not come to it until 1980, the centennial of Mencken's birth, but when I did it was as though the clouds finally had parted and the sun at last shone forth in all its glory. I was swept away by Mencken's prose -- firm, confident, inventive, blunt, hilarious -- as well as by the mixture of unabashed nostalgia and fierce irreverence with which he wrote, not to mention the extraordinary intelligence of every sentence. This, I realized, was writing that far transcended anything ever done by any other American journalist, indeed writing that far transcended mere journalism and strode confidently into the temple of literature.
"Newspaper Days" begins in January 1899 when Mencken, 18 years old, entered the newsroom of the Baltimore Morning Herald to apply for a job, and it ends in June 1906 with the end of the Herald itself. In those seven years Mencken rose, astonishingly, from cub reporter to star reporter to Sunday editor, city editor, managing editor and, finally, editor of the paper and secretary of the company. He had attained this eminence at the ripe age of 26, and of course that was only prelude. He went on "to the various Sunpapers -- morning, evening and Sunday," and then to a parallel career as magazine editor, author of dozens of books, crusader against literary and cultural Puritanism, the most influential American journalist of his or any other day. By his death in 1956 his star had faded -- a stroke in 1949 had weakened his speech and other faculties -- but it still glows, and the magnificence of his prose is undiminished.
That Mencken was able, as he neared his 60th birthday, to recapture in full the exuberance of newspaper days four decades behind him is testimony to the powerful hold his memories of those days had on him. As he says, "When I project my mind back into space and time it gathers in more pictures from my days as a police reporter than from any other period, and they have more color in them, and a keener sense of delight." He was convivial but not demonstrative and kept his emotions pretty much to himself, especially the sentimental ones, but here -- far more than in the boyhood recollections of "Happy Days" or the miscellaneous ones of "Heathen Days" -- he gives full, gleeful vent to the joy he had contained for so long.
Mencken had wanted to be a newspaperman throughout his teens, and immediately after the death of his father -- which freed him from the obligation to labor in the family cigar factory -- he showed up at the Herald. The city editor, Max Ways, was skeptical but open-minded and eventually offered him a job at the grand salary of $7 a week. Ways soon became the first of several older men who saw Mencken's abilities and steered him through his apprenticeship, for which Mencken remained eternally grateful. He grew to know Baltimore intimately, in all its variety, corruption and eccentricity, and came to love it so much that "I stuck to living in Baltimore, which suited me, and still suits me, precisely."
"Newspaper Days" takes the reader into the bowels of Baltimore's police stations, courts, city hall, saloons, whorehouses, burlesque theaters and concert halls. Wherever he went, Mencken was a keen, irreverent observer and never more so than in the newsroom itself. He loved newspapering but had no illusions about it or those who practiced it. Editorial writers, for example, were "copy-readers promoted from the city-room to get rid of them, alcoholic writers of local histories and forgotten novels, former managing editors who had come to grief on other papers, and a miscellany of decayed lawyers, college professors and clergymen with whispered pasts."
There's a wonderful chapter about "a notable series of giants who flourished in Baltimore at the turn of the century" -- heroic drunks whose feats provoked awe among their less talented contemporaries -- but it is with "the great Baltimore fire of 1904" that "Newspaper Days" reaches its climax. The fire "burned a square mile out of the heart of the town and went howling and spluttering on for ten days." The beginning of this chapter demands to be quoted at length:
"It delights me, in my autumnal years, to dwell upon it, for it reminds me how full of steam and malicious animal magnetism I was when I was young. During the week following the outbreak of the fire the Herald was printed in three different cities, and I was present at all its accouchements, herding dispersed and bewildered reporters at long distance and cavorting gloriously in strange composing-rooms. . . . It was brain-fagging and back-breaking, but it was grand beyond compare -- an adventure of the first chop, a razzle-dazzle superb and elegant, a circus in forty rings. When I came out of it at last I was a settled and indeed almost a middle-aged man, spavined by responsibility and aching in every sinew, but I went into it a boy, and it was the hot gas of youth that kept me going."
Almost 40 years after the fact, Mencken still was reduced to ecstasies by it: "We had a story, I am here to tell you! There have been bigger ones, of course, and plenty of them, but when and where, between the Chicago fire of 1871 and the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, was there ever one that was fatter, juicier, more exhilarating to the journalists on the actual ground?" Clearly, Mencken was running on sheer adrenaline by the second or third day, but he never skipped a beat. He was delighted when the Herald was printed at the presses of Baltimore World, "a small, ill-fed sheet of the kind then still flourishing in most big American cities," even though the resulting paper "looked as if it had been printed by country printers locked up in a distillery."
For five weeks the Herald was printed by the Philadelphia Evening Telegraph, the B.&O. Railroad running back and forth between the two cities at record speeds. When, at the end of the adventure, Mencken went to the railroad's president to settle up, Oscar G. Murray said, "We had some fun together, and we don't want to spoil it now by talking about money." For the rest of his life it was a point of pride with Mencken that "we were printing a daily newspaper 100 miles from base -- a feat that remains unparalleled in American journalism, so far as I know, to this day."
Possibly so, though half a century after Mencken's death, the staff of the New Orleans Times-Picayune can claim comparable distinction for its heroics during and after Hurricane Katrina. But "Newspaper Days" itself is unparalleled. It is the ultimate newspaper book, a brassy reminder that every once in a while the good old days really were good, and a grand monument to its author, the greatest journalist there ever was.
"Newspaper Days" is out of print, but used copies are widely available.
Yardley's e-mail address is email@example.com.
The next book in this series is "Pride and Prejudice," by Jane Austen.