"Who would leave Baltimore, once Baltimore has taken him to her arms?"
H.L. Mencken, April 1910.
This somewhat frowzy maiden aunt of a city remembers its few gentlemen suitors. And none was so courtly, so admiring of its charms, as the man honored here today, a writer known as "The Sage of Baltimore" who had almost nothing good to say about anything except his native town.
If London has its Dickens and Dublin its Joyce, then certainly Baltimore has its own man of letters -- Henry Louis Mencken.
"He has given the city a sense of its own identity and history," said Richard Hart, a longtime associate of the late columnist and linguist who assembled a special Mencken room at the Enoch Platt Free Library here. "He has given Baltimoreans who are not particularly articulate something to say when they are moved to speak about their city.
"He loved and praised his backward and sometimes unfortunate city."
And Baltimore, that much-maligned province near what Mencken liked to refer to as "the immense protein factory of the Chesapeake Bay," requites the affection.
Every fall on the Saturday closest to Mencken's Sept. 12 birthday, Enoch Pratt celebrates "Mencken Day" with films, lectures, receptions and an open invitation to explore the trenchant critic's work and memorabilia in the library's third-floor Mencken Room.
Hundreds of Mencken lovers trooped through the musty, book-lined room today, reliving his pungent prose in original manuscripts and personal letters to the literary giants of his day, examing his first Corona typewriter and famous "Maryland Madstone" talismans and flipping through such immortal photographs as Mencken swilling the first beer served at the old Rennert Hotel on the night prohibition was repealed.
Nearly 2000 volumes from his personal library fill these shelves, each marked by the special Mencken book plate -- the etching of a bearded scholar stooped over his document with a quill pen. Most of the books carry messages, from the most gifted authors of the early 20th Century.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, for instance, inscribed a copy of "This Side of Paradise," with the following self-criticism: "This is a bad book, full of good things, a novel about flappers for philosophers, an exquisite burlesque of Compton in keeping with a pastiche of Wells . . . "
Henry Bederski, a 69-year-old retired actor and baker who began reading Mencken's regular Monday columns in the Baltimore Evening Sun more than a half-century ago, was one of several devotees who said he never misses the Pratt's annual festivities.
"If Dublin can have Bloomsday [celebrating author James Joyce's literary hero Leopold Bloom]," said Bederski, "why shouldn't Baltimore have one for Mencken ? He gave Baltimore a lot of publicity. Nobody else is going to give us any credit, except for our seafood."
In fact, Mencken, a magazine editor and author of 30 books, whose career spanned nearly four decades reaching the late 1940s, wrote on a great deal more than Baltimore. His works ranged from a serious study of linguistics, "The American Language," to witty aphorisms about religion, ethics, politics and women.
Part Nietzsche and part W. C. Fields, the square-jawed skeptic is probably best known for his dislikes, a long list of irreverent prejudices against Methodists, hypocritical politicians, sex hygiene, boosters, college professors, Rotarians, reformers, Broadway restaurants, women under 30, the YMCA, prohibition, censorship and talcum powder.
But his poison pen rarely touched Baltimore, the cherished home of his full 75 years. Even when he served as editor of The American Mercury in New York, he always returned at the end of the work week to his unpretentious brick row house at 1524 Hollins St. Except for five years of marriage, he lived in the same house from the age of 3 until his death in 1956.
Some of Mencken's most unqualified chauvinism burst forth in comparing his hometown to New York. In 1931, he described his relief upon leaving the Big Apple on weekends. "Behind me lies the greatest city of the modern world, with more money in it than Europe, and more clowns and harlots than all Asia, and yet it has no more charm than a circus lot or a second-rate hotel . . .
"Escaping from it to so ancient and solid a town as Baltimore is like coming out of a football crowd into a quiet communion with a fair one who is also amiable, and has the gift of consolation for hard-beset and despairing men."
To Mencken, a stocky man who parted his hair down the middle and constantly chewed his favorite Uncle Willie stogies, Baltimore was a town of simple pleasures and refined cultures, a gastronomical wealth of his beloved crabs, terrapin and oysters. In short, he once said, a city rich in "the impalpable, indefinable, irresistible quality of charm."
Through his autobiographical work, "Heathen Days," he introduced the outside world to such "eminent characters" of Baltimore as "Hoggie Unglebower," whom he portrayed as "an uncouth youth . . . venerated by the boys of my generation" because of his "successful and notorious resistance to the doctrine that cleanliness is next to godliness."
Then, there was "Nellie d'Alembert," a madame, he wrote, and "one of the leaders of her profession in Baltimore," a women "who, though she lacked the polish of Vassar, had sound sense . . . [and] was, in fact, the source of a great many news tips. She knew everything about everyone that no one was supposed to know, and had accurate advance information, in particular, about Page One divorces."
Little is left today of Mencken's Baltimore, and even years before his crippling stroke in 1948 he bemoaned that the "boosters and boomers . . . have replaced all its ancient cobblestones with asphalt, and bedizened it with Great White Ways and suburban boulevards, and surrounded it with stinking steel plants and oil refineries . . . "
Except for the collections at the Pratt, his Hollins Street home and a few fountains and plaques, Baltimore has little to remind it of its great literary son. One memorial lies at Schellhause's Cafe, an old German restaurant where Mencken and his cronies drank and dined for their Saturday Night Club. The restaurant has enshrined the members' glass beer steins, hanging them against a mahogany wall.
A "Mencken Fair" is usually held once a year in Union Square, a city park across from the writer's home, and visitors get a chance to tour his old digs. A literary journal, "Menckeniana," is published quarterly and the Mencken Society is already planning a new book, television movie, lectures and special events for his centennial birthday next year. "Among the literary people of Baltimore, Mencken's the city's No. 1 citizen," said Gwinn Ownes, editor of the Evening Sun's Op-Ed page, who publishes an article on the late critic or a Mencken quote in every Monday edition.
All this fuss may seem justified for the scholars, relatives, friends and admirers whose lives have been enriched by Baltimore's bespectacled writer-in-residence. But the fanfare would most likely be painful to the "Sage of Baltimore," who wrote his own epitaph:
"If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and think to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl."