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The Lost Mencken
December 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 8
He did take time off to make his way downtown from time to time, to the offices of the Sunpapers to offer the (mostly unwanted) editorial advice for which he was still paid a salary, and he met each week with other lovers of German music at the Saturday Night Club to play the piano, devour seafood and Pilsner beer, and smoke his noisome Uncle Willie cigars.
What surprises the reader of Mencken’s diary is not the relative drabness of the everyday life it chronicles, then, but the drabness with which most of it is set down. Here and there are flashes of the wit that had once enlivened even his most bombastic writings. He pronounces the findings of Dr. Joseph B. Rhine, the extrasensory-perception enthusiast, “so worthless that they have been hailed as masterly by Upton Sinclair,” and recalls shaking hands with his enemy in the White House and being reluctantly bathed “in his Christian Science smile.” But for the most part the writing is uncharacteristically flaccid, the tone often merely peevish.
Publicly, as the diary’s editor writes, Mencken was always “utterly unafraid,” happy to take on anyone and anything, and he was invariably cocky and good-humored when visitors came to call. But on the evidence of his diary, Mencken seems at least during the latter part of his life to have been privately anxious about almost everything—encounters with “low-grade” Jews and “dreadful kikes,” wartime incursions into his neighborhood by poor blacks (“blackamoors,” all of whom are “essentially child-like”) and “filthy poor whites from Appalachia and the Southern Tide-water” (“lintheads” who “live like animals, and are next door to animals in their habits and ideas”), and the constant and entirely baseless threat that the federal government was poised to crush him because he opposed American participation in the war—which he believed to be a product of British propaganda and Rooseveltian duplicity.
“It is astonishing how little the war impinges upon me,” he wrote in 1944. “I am, of course, rooked like everyone else by excessive taxes, and now and then some eatable that I like is unprocurable (or procurable only by giving up an enormous number of ration points); but in general I am hardly affected by the great effort to save humanity and ruin the United States…. The American people are now wholly at the mercy of demagogues, and it would take a revolution to liberate and disillusion them. I see no sign of any such revolution, either in the immediate future or within the next generation. When the soldiers come home it will become infamous to doubt—and dangerous to life and limb.”
By 1935 Mencken had fallen so far from favor that a Cleveland writer could caustically mention “the late H. L. Mencken.”
Above all, he was apprehensive about his health. Perhaps because his father had died at forty-four, he seems to have been haunted hourly by the prospect of his own sudden death and planned to append a full medical history to his already voluminous autobiography on the assumption that his readers would share his fascination with it: “So far as I know,” he writes, “no one has ever set down such a record of himself,” and he went so far as to gather affidavits from doctors and hospitals to supplement his own encyclopedic notes. The reader can only be grateful to the editor for his decision to leave out of the published version fully two-thirds of Mencken’s querulous hypochondriacal musings; the remaining eighteen-year tally of ailments, real and imagined, is numbing enough, page after page of aches and pains and mysterious twinges, each of which at the time evidently seemed to herald imminent doom.
Nothing much seemed to please him anymore. The end of the war brought no joy. Even the pleasure he might otherwise have derived from the death of Franklin Roosevelt (who had possessed, he wrote the next day, “every quality that morons esteem in their heroes”) was spoiled for him when the passage of the presidential funeral train through Baltimore forced the Saturday Night Club to miss “its usual post-music beer-party for the first time in forty years.” (Mencken did take some comfort from the supposed plight of the President’s widow: “The case of La Eleanor is not without its humors. Only yesterday she was the most influential female ever recorded in American history, but tomorrow she will begin to fade, and by this time next year she may be wholly out of the picture.”)
The diary ends on November 15, 1948. Eight days later his worst fears were realized when he suffered a stroke, destroying his ability to match words with ideas and making it impossible for him to write. He lingered on for seven silent years, watching as Hollins Street and the great world beyond it continued inexorably to change, unable ever again to achieve the katharsis that had once transformed his fears and crotchets into art.