BALTIMORE, JAN. 29 -- In the genteel, dark-wood-paneled recesses of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, a crowd of primarily older men and women, some sporting natty bow ties, tweed caps and walking sticks, braced themselves for a torrent of vitriol.

And sure enough -- after a sweating, straining library official armed with a crowbar pried open the seven wooden crates containing the last batch of manuscripts embargoed by cranky, brilliant local writer H.L. Mencken upon his death in 1956 -- out it flowed.

"In just two pages he managed to insult people, including people in this room!" marveled Mencken biographer Charles A. Fecher, after the public reading of a few random pages from the three-volume "35 Years of Newspaper Work" and the four-volume "My Life as Author and Editor."

"Good Lord," exclaimed Mencken's Sunpapers colleague Philip Wagner, who found himself reading a page that mentioned him, dismissed another colleague and insulted the editorial pages he wrote for. The passage, on Page 563 of "Newspaper Work," was a recollection concerning the departure from the newspapers of one Frederic Nelson:

"Everyone liked Nelson, but everyone concerned was glad to see him go. I suggested that he be given a farewell dinner, and this was done on Good Friday evening, April 3. Wagner presided, and Patterson and I made the only speeches, both very brief. The scene was the Elkridge Foxhunting Club, and the fourteen diners all went home sober."

A few lines later, Mencken observed that the editorial pages Nelson and Wagner worked on were "heavy, plodding" and "opportunistic and irresolute." More than a little surprised to find himself in the first entry he selected, Wagner urgently sought out central library chief John Sondheim after the ceremonies. "I'd like to read the rest of that, John, I'd like to see the next page," he whispered. "That's from the time when he was pretty mean."

The crowd of about 50 scholars, Mencken fans and surviving friends and colleagues who witnessed the ceremonial opening reflected on the tantalizing excerpts, sipped champagne and granted interviews, all seeming to take the media attention in stride.

And why not, they've been in the national spotlight for a year now, after the apparent antisemitism, racism and appalling meanness in Mencken's just-published diaries exploded their quiet world:

Suddenly, Mencken scholars from Baltimore were appearing on C-SPAN and CBS's "This Morning" show. Normally polite, modestly attended meetings of the Baltimore-based Mencken Society became packed verbal slugfests. A recipient of the Mencken Writing Award gave the honor back. And anyone who was anyone in American letters, it seemed, offered an opinion in print -- Norman Mailer, Ralph Ellison, William Styron, John Hersey, Arthur Miller, Doris Grumbach, Russell Baker.

Aside from today's intriguing glimpses, there will be no more public peeks at these writings for months, and probably years, as Pratt officials (Mencken's literary executors) organize and copy them, scholars pore over them and publishers decide how to present them.

Along with their potential to shock and insult, scholars say, the writings are likely to contribute significantly to our understanding of American journalism and letters.

"He knew everyone," said Vincent Fitzpatrick, curator of the Pratt's Mencken Room. "He was at the center of the whole era."

A writer and editor with the Sun and the Evening Sun for more than 35 years, Mencken edited the Smart Set and American Mercury magazines during their golden era in the 1920s. His magazine work brought him in contact with such writers as Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner.

Indeed, the random page of "My Life as Author and Editor," pulled out for a reading today by Ashbel Green, vice president and senior editor of Alfred A. Knopf Inc., included this passing shot at writer John Reed:

"One of my colleagues on the {New York Evening} Mail was John Reed, later to die in Moscow in the odor of sanctity: he was, in his Mail days, a Liberal rather than a Communist."

Another excerpt, describing the liquored-up antics of Sinclair "Red" Lewis, illustrates why Mencken instructed that the work be kept under lock for 35 years:

Lewis's wife, Gracie, "led poor Red a rough dance, and all his friends felt sorry for him. The aforesaid inferiority complex made it simply impossible for him to stand up to her. He lived in wonder that so ravishing and brilliant a female had ever condescended to marry him. ... Red, as always, got drunk, and was presently engaged in reciting a long monologue ... supposedly spoken by an imbecile Rotarian who claimed some sort of acquaintance with Calvin Coolidge. ... Gracie objected violently, on the ground that it bored her, and when he began in spite of her ... she screamed in the manner of a stock company actress, threw herself belly down upon a couch and kicked her legs."

That selection was contributed by officials of the Dartmouth College Library, who today opened duplicate copies of the same works. Mencken gave copies to Dartmouth and the New York Public Library, which has delayed opening them until March.

Philip N. Cronenwett, a librarian of special collections at Dartmouth who spent the day eagerly sampling the two works, said they are more personal and critical than Mencken's polished "Heathen Days," "Newspaper Days" and "Happy Days."

"I see a much more detailed description of people, how they wrote, who were good writers or critics, what makes a good critic," Cronenwett said.

"Those {other Mencken} works were positive, friendly, generous and kind," said a Sunpapers colleague, Theo Lippman Jr., who attended today's ceremonies in Baltimore. "You can tell already this is not going to be like that. This is going to be like the diaries."

The controversy over the diaries was sparked by Mencken's references to two "horrible kikes" and "a brisk clever Jew" and his remark that "it is impossible to talk anything resembling discretion or judgment to a colored woman. They are all essentially child-like. ..." In a scorching description, he called newspaper colleague Hamilton Owens "a time-server with the principles of a privy rat."

Fecher, who edited the diaries for Knopf, fanned the flames with his remarks in the introduction to the book. He noted that in his 1978 book, "Mencken: A Study of His Thought," he defended Mencken against charges of antisemitism, and wrote in the introduction, "Today I would be much less ready to take such a stand. Let it be said at once: Mencken was an anti-Semite."

Consequently, some Mencken scholars and devotees condemned not only the accusations of what they called the simple-minded popular press ("Mencken's Shocker," ran the headline on the Evening Sun's Dec. 4, 1989 story), but Fecher as well, for stating his case so baldly.

"Oh, I was criticized, I certainly was," said Fecher, who stands by his statement but says people overreacted to it.

"It's not so simple. People either said he was an antisemite or he wasn't, and they both threw up their hands in pious horror when they said it," Fecher said. "He had some antisemitic feelings, but I think they were unconscious. He grew up with them and he didn't know they were there. Today no one goes around calling someone 'a rich Jew' or 'a horrible Jew' unless they are an antisemite. It wasn't the same thing back then."

Whether the seven blue boxes of manuscripts will resolve or renew the debate over Mencken's darker side will not be known for some time. The diaries, embargoed by Mencken for 25 years, took nearly a decade to reach the public.

"People wonder what was so scathing about this batch, why he wanted it held back even longer," said Bethesda writer Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, author of several Mencken books and studies. "Mencken had a lot of faults, as someone once said, but he was never dull." Added Pratt library trustee Michael J. Kelly, as he lifted his glass of champagne to the roomful of anxious friends, eager writers and flashing cameras:

"Clearly, he was the greatest posthumous self-promoter in the history of American letters."