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Book review: 'Mencken on Mencken,' by Jonathan Yardley

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, April 11, 2010; B08

MENCKEN ON MENCKEN

A New Collection of Autobiographical Writings

Edited by S.T. Joshi

Louisiana State Univ. 263 pp. Paperback, $24.95

Three decades ago I experienced an epiphany. In 1980 I was book editor of the Washington Star but living in Baltimore, which made me acutely aware of the impending centennial of that city's most famous native son, Henry Louis Mencken, to be celebrated that September. I was 40 years old but had never read Mencken; I don't remember why, but it was a serious omission. I thought I should take note of the centennial in my regular Sunday column in the Star, so I made plans to read and review "A Choice of Days," a selection of Mencken's autobiographical essays being published to mark the occasion.

I was completely blown away. I'd never read prose -- at least journalistic prose -- as rich, original and forceful as Mencken's. I roared with laughter at his reminiscences of a boyhood in late 19th-century Baltimore and of his newspaper apprenticeship on the long-departed Baltimore Herald. In an instant I went from someone who'd never read Mencken to one who couldn't stop reading him, and I have been thus ever since. Late in 1980 I contracted to write his biography. That project had to be set aside when various professional complications arose, but in 1992 Knopf did me the honor of asking me to edit his posthumous memoir, "My Life As Author and Editor," which it published the following year.

At the time I assumed that this memoir, along with the "Days" books -- "Happy Days," "Newspaper Days" and "Heathen Days" -- and "Thirty-Five Years of Newspaper Work" (1994), constituted the sum of Mencken's autobiographical writing, but now it is my pleasure to report that I was wrong. S.T. Joshi, an independent scholar who has written or edited four previous books on Mencken, has now blessed us with "Mencken on Mencken," which, he says, "seeks humbly to be the fourth of Mencken's 'Days' books, including writings written over a period of nearly fifty years and focusing on numerous facets of his life and thought that the three earlier books address only glancingly or not at all."

Well, I wouldn't go quite that far. The "Days" books are sui generis. Even though they originally were written as discrete pieces for the New Yorker in the late 1930s and early '40s, they have the feel of carefully structured narratives. Despite Joshi's heroic effort to give similar shape to the many miscellaneous newspaper and magazine pieces collected here, "Mencken on Mencken" may be a welcome footnote to the "Days" books, but it is not their equivalent. Divided into four sections -- "Memories of a Long Life," "Author and Journalist," "Thinker" and "World Traveler" -- the book is uneven. The reminiscences about youth and journalism are wonderful, the rest somewhat less so. But it's all Mencken, and if you're even half as addicted to him as I am, you'll be thrilled to have yet more of him to read.

The more than 50 pieces reprinted here were originally published between 1900 (when, at not quite 20, Mencken was already a three-year newspaper veteran) and 1948 (the year he suffered the stroke that left him debilitated until his death in 1956) and appeared in a number of places: the Sun and the evening Sun of Baltimore, the New Yorker, the Smart Set, Vanity Fair and others. For the most part the best pieces show Mencken in a reflective, reminiscent mood -- though there are more than a few flashes of his wit and his ability to deliver a knockout punch -- and thus provide yet another reminder that the Sage of Baltimore had a sentimental, nostalgic side as well as an acerbic one.

Mencken was born in Baltimore in 1880 and lived almost his entire life in the house on Hollins Street where he grew up. "The Baltimore of the 80's had a flavor that has long since vanished," he wrote in a 1925 Evening Sun piece reprinted here. "The town is at least twice as big now as it was then, and twice as showy and glittering, but it is certainly not twice as pleasant, nor, indeed, half as pleasant. The more the boomers pump it up, the more it comes to resemble such dreadful places as Buffalo and Cleveland. I am not arguing here, of course, against the genuine improvements that the years have brought. . . . I am simply arguing against the doctrine that mere size is something -- that bringing in scores of new and stinking factories and thousands of new morons has done us any good. The boomers seem to take a great delight in their own handiwork; they are forever giving one another banquets. Personally, I'd prefer to see them hanged."

Mencken believed, as he wrote in 1930, that the great fire of 1904 was what killed the old Baltimore that he knew so intimately and loved so deeply: "The new Baltimore that emerged from the ashes was simply a virtuoso piece of Babbitts. It put in all the modern improvements, especially the bad ones. It acquired civic consciousness. Its cobs climbed out of the alleys behind the old gin-mills and began harassing decent people on the main streets." Mencken never lost his love for Baltimore -- after all, he refused to move to New York while editing the Smart Set and then the American Mercury, preferring to commute weekly by train from Baltimore -- but what he most loved was Baltimore before the fire:

"I am glad I was born long enough ago to remember, now, the days when the town had genuine color, and life here was worth living. I remember Guy's Hotel. I remember the Concordia Opera House. I remember the old Courthouse. Better still, I remember Mike Sheehan's old saloon on Light street -- then a mediaeval and lovely alley; now a horror borrowed from the boom towns of the Middle West. Was there ever a better saloon in this world? Don't argue: I refuse to listen! The decay of Baltimore, I believe, may be very accurately measured by the distance separating Mike's incomparable bar from the soda-fountains which now pollute the neighborhood -- above all, by the distance separating its noble customers (with their gold watch-chains and their elegant boiled shirts) from the poor fish who now lap up Coca-Cola."

All of these quotations are from the "Monday Column" that Mencken wrote steadily for the Evening Sun from 1920 until 1941, when he stepped aside because of differences with its management over the coming war. These pieces remind us that he was uncommonly skilled at what the best of his biographers, Terry Teachout, calls "meticulous serial revision": writing a column for the Evening Sun, revising and expanding it for the Smart Set or the American Mercury, then doing so once more before adding it to one of the many books in which his work was collected. Thanks to Joshi, we can see now that Mencken, probably completely unconsciously, was laying the groundwork in these newspaper columns of the 1920s and '30s for the "Days" books that he began to write (in New Yorker installments) in 1936.

As noted, these pieces about old Baltimore are the highlights of "Mencken on Mencken," and anyone who dotes on the master's prose will be delighted to find them rescued from the copious if dusty files of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. There are other bright moments elsewhere: an appreciation of Theodore Dreiser, foreshadowing the more extensive one written for "My Life As Author and Editor"; various exuberant recollections of his journalistic apprenticeship, when "the romance of journalism -- and to a youngster, in that era, it surely was romantic -- had me by the ear"; and mature reminiscences about his days as a magazine editor.

In one of these last, Mencken bemoans the disappearance of "amour" from magazine offices, and then allows himself a classic Menckenism: "I can recall but one lady during my last two years in service who indicated that I might make havoc with her amiability, and she turned out, on investigation, to be insane." For my money that one phrase -- "make havoc with her amiability" -- is reason enough to buy, and treasure, this book.

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