The Lost Mencken


One day toward the end of his life, H. L. Mencken is said to have come upon his own obituary in the files of the Baltimore Sun . He read it through and, to the intense relief of its anxious author, pronounced it satisfactory. Then he asked that one more line be added: “As he got older, he got worse.”

On the evidence of The Diary of H. L. Mencken , edited by Charles A. Fecher (Alfred A. Knopf), that seems to have been true, and it is perhaps understandable that Mencken asked that the journal he kept during his last active years be sealed until a quarter of a century after his death, and then be opened only to serious scholars. After that anniversary arrived, it took the trustees of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, to which Mencken had entrusted his papers, five more years to rule that the interests of history outweighed the author’s informally expressed wishes and decide to publish it—and then another three for Fecher, the editor of the library’s quarterly Menckeniana , to winnow out the present substantial volume from its twenty-one hundred double-spaced pages.

The diary begins in November 1930, when Mencken was fifty, and ends in November 1948, seven years before his death. The twenties had belonged to Mencken: never in our history has a single critic or journalist wielded more gleeful power than he did then, using the Baltimore Sun , The Smart Set , and The American Mercury to loose gaudy onslaughts on everything from Prohibition and fundamentalism to democracy itself—the theory that “the common people know what they want and deserve to get it, good and hard.”

“I am strongly in favor of liberty and I hate fraud,” he once told a biographer who asked for his credo, and he stubbornly believed that government best which governed least, whatever the circumstances. That view did not sit well with the generation that grew to maturity in the grip of the Great Depression, and Mencken’s reputation was still another victim of the crash and its grim aftermath. By 1933 the readership of the Mercury had so dwindled that he felt called upon to resign as its editor. The same year, FDR—the man Mencken routinely dismissed as “Roosevelt Minor” and loathed most in American political life—assumed the Presidency. By 1935 Mencken had fallen so far from favor that a Cleveland writer could caustically mention “the late H. L. Mencken,” and then add “What? You say Mencken isn’t dead? Extraordinary!”

Mencken simply didn’t seem funny any more; for better or worse, the thirties demanded reform, the very idea of which was anathema to him. “It has … been assumed on frequent occasions that I have some deep-lying reformatory purpose in me,” he confided to his diary. “That is completely nonsensical. It always distresses me to hear of a man changing his opinions, so I never seek conversions. My belief is that every really rational man preserves his major opinions unchanged from his youth onward. When he vacillates it is simply a sign that he is stupid. My one purpose in writing I have explained over and over again: it is simply to provide a kind of katharsis for my own thoughts. They worry me until they are set forth in words. This may be a kind of insanity, but at all events it is free of moral purpose.”

“Mencken sets down many true sayings but spoils his case by overemphasis …,” the novelist Hamlin Garland wrote in 1934. “I finished [a book of his essays] with a sense of being entertained as by a ‘cut-up’ at a dinner table. It is like being thumped on the head with a boy’s wind-blown bladder filled with dried peas. This comes ultimately to be a bore. The fact is, Mencken in private life is a quiet and peaceable citizen. This lessens the ferocity of his pose.”

The quiet and peaceable routine of Mencken’s daily life should not have surprised anyone. The lives of writers are rarely eventful, and Mencken was always, as the critic Carl Bode has written, “the happy prisoner of his origins.” After his wife’s death in 1935 he lived alone with his bachelor brother August in the Baltimore row house at 1524 Hollins Street in which he had spent his boyhood, resolutely tapping away for most of almost every day at his vast correspondence (nearly every letter received was answered by nightfall) or working on one or another of the several books upon which he liked to labor simultaneously—the fourth edition of The American Language (and two supplements to it), Treatise on Right and Wrong , A New Dictionary of Quotations , Happy Days , Heathen Days , Newspaper Days , A Mencken Chrestomathy , Minority Report , plus seven more autobiographical volumes (now locked away in a safe at the Pratt library, to be opened—and presumably published—in 1991). He worked so hard in part because he hoped to be rediscovered by the post-FDR generation. “On the ultimate fate of my writings I sometimes speculate idly,” he wrote in 1942. “At the moment, with the Roosevelt crusade to save humanity in full blast, my ideas are so unpopular that it is impossible … to print them. But when the New Deal imposture blows up at last, as it is sure to do soon or late, they may have a kind of revival.”