The private diaries of the legendary H.L. Mencken -- long under wraps and only recently made available to a select group of scholars -- can now be published, the Maryland attorney general ruled yesterday.
Attorney General Stephen Sachs, noting that the late satirist, semanticist and social critic once called lawyers "obscurantists" and himself "a congenital disbeliever in laws," said the restrictions Mencken tried to place on his diaries are not legally binding.
The ruling was requested by Mencken's literary executor, the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, and it clears the way for an abridged version of the diaries to be published by Alfred A. Knopf Inc., his longtime publisher, as early as the fall of 1987. "It's not a book that's going to be a best seller, but it will be of considerable interest," said Knopf Senior Editor Ashbel Green.
The diaries, more than 2,000 typed pages in five cardboard boxes spanning from 1930 to the time of Mencken's crippling stroke in 1948, reveal the "dark side of Mencken," according to one scholar, and "the worst of Mencken," according to his biographer, Carl Bode, one of those who made a pilgrimage to the library's wood-paneled Mencken Room when the material was unveiled in 1981.
The library refused yesterday to let any part of the diaries be quoted. But Bode and others who have examined them said they reveal a depressed, bitter man who -- while producing such acclaimed works as his three-volume autobiography and his semantic tour de force "American Language" -- was also giving vent to anti-Semitism and hypochondria, slashing at old friends and humorlessly bemoaning his life and times.
Menckenians differed yesterday as to how the diaries should be viewed.
"Bleak," said Bode, a professor emeritus at the University of Maryland who wrote a respected biography of the man nicknamed "The Sage of Baltimore" and edited a volume of his correspondence.
"A lot of it reflects unfairly and badly on Mencken and the people he was writing about," said Baltimore Sun editorial writer Theo Lippman Jr., who was so dispirited by the diaries that he abandoned a project to chronicle Mencken's newspapering days at the Sun.
But Thomas Diggio, an English professor at the University of Connecticut, was far more sanguine about the material, some of it dictated to Mencken's personal secretary, some of it typed by the diarist himself in his row house on Holland Street.
"I think it's an extremely important record, one that will be of enormous value to biographers," said Diggio, who edited a much-admired volume of Theodore Dreiser's diaries and is being considered by Knopf and the Pratt to edit the Mencken opus.
"It's a very careful diary, not just jottings," Diggio said. "Mencken would come home in the evening, for instance, and if he'd had a day with Scott Fitzgerald or Sinclair Lewis, he would type out the scene itself. There's a remarkable series of portraits of literary people, prominent people in Baltimore and at the Sunpapers."
Diggio, who read the diaries two years ago, recalled this scene: "Mencken was fascinated by Sinclair Lewis' drinking habits. And there's a portait of Lewis lining up glasses of gin, wine, beer, milk and taking slugs from each and sitting around discussing literary matters."
None of Mencken's associates appear to come out unscathed, from Lewis to Fitzgerald to the late Paul Patterson, president of the Baltimore Sunpapers. None, that is, but his wife, Sarah Haardt Mencken, who died in 1935, five years into their happy marriage. On the fifth anniversary of her death, Mencken devoted one diary entry to an emotional tribute.
"It didn't bring tears to my eyes but it could have," said one diary reader, who asked not to be identified. Mencken, this reader said, presents himself in his failing days as "a man without any philosophical or religious underpinnings -- with his wife dead, no children, a great admirer of German civilization who saw that collapse, too . . ."
Vocally pro-German during World War I, Mencken was a World War II "neutralist" and, in his diaries, expresses ambivalence about Adolf Hitler, according to Diggio -- although "Mencken was not fooled by Hitler," he said.
"What will get people's blood boiling," Diggio said, "is that the kind of anti-Semitism that's always on the surface of his published writing emerges a little more strongly in his references to Jews. He would reflect on the influence of Jewish money, the influence of Jews on Roosevelt and the New Deal, 'Jew publishers,' 'Jew lawyers' -- much more blatant than the kind of thing he plays around with comically. He'd use 'Jew,' 'kike,' that sort of business. Then again, he would also use 'nigger,' 'wop' and the kind of petty epithets that were common in the period."
Diggio added: "The prose is very flat. It's effective prose, but it's certainly different from that bouncy Mencken prose. It really reflects his increasingly dark mood."
Henry Louis Mencken was born in Baltimore on Sept. 12, 1880, worked as a newspaperman and incomparable litte'rateur, and died in 1956, eight years after he suffered a cerebral thrombosis that left him an invalid. In a memo written two years before his death, he asked that use of his diaries be limited to "graduate students or those of a higher grade engaged in serious, critical or historical investigation."
But Maryland's attorney general ruled that the memo "does not in itself have the legal effect of a will because it was not executed with the formalities required for wills." Stephen Sachs further noted in his opinion that Mencken characterized the memo to his brother August and sister Gertrude as "a request only."
"Probably not," said Sachs, when asked if he'd be reading the published diaries. "I grew up reading him, because all Baltimoreans are Mencken fans, but I don't think he's worn very well."
As for the Sage himself, he might have dismissed the diary hoopla -- with typically Menckenian scorn -- as proof positive of what he liked to call "the virulence of the national appetite for bogus revelation."