A birthday party for the writer reveals his strange place in the world of letters.
“I never lecture, not because I am shy or a bad speaker, but simply because I detest the sort of people who go to lectures and don’t want to meet them.” – H.L. Mencken
This weekend, like they do every year around H.L. Mencken’s September 12 birthday, about one hundred Mencken fans descend on Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Library to pay tribute to the man famous for his scathing attacks on religion, creationism, the middle class, politicians, countryfolk, and a host of other targets he blamed for the ruination of America. The Pratt is the perfect setting for such a celebration. There are parts that feel as if they haven’t changed since Mencken wandered its halls. The first day of the celebration, the library’s main elevator was broken. Visitors who didn’t want to climb the stairs to the third floor auditorium — and there were many, Mencken fans being on average quite advanced in age — had to instead take an elevator operated by an attendant. An actual elevator attendant, who had to open the door by hand, and raise and lower the elevator with a handle. The bathroom just outside the auditorium had a shower, and its mirror was a medicine cabinet that actually opened — features for a library that seem like they could only have been logical a century ago.
I went to Baltimore because, as a science student in college, I had become a fan of Mencken’s dispatches from the Scopes Monkey Trial and, well, now worked at a magazine whose name was a nod to him. I was also curious about how one celebrates a grump like Mencken. He’s one of the most quotable, and therefore most quoted, writers. That’s especially true in newspapers, where reporters often fancy themselves successors of (if not equals to) the crotchety scribe who himself once worked for the Baltimore Sun. But how to honor a man whose public and private lives lacked the romance, the alluring backstory, that drives fans to, say, Hemingway’s Key West retreat, or Faulkner's Oxford, Mississippi, home?
With lectures, it seems. And the kick-off lecture to celebrate Mencken’s birthday this weekend began as so many do in the time of PowerPoint. Dr. Sharon Hamilton, a Georgetown professor, had come to Baltimore to present (ahem) “The First New Yorker: Mencken’s and Nathan’s The Smart Set Magazine and the Making of Modern New York.” There was applause as Hamilton took the stage, and then silence. The library’s A/V man was having a bit of trouble with the laptop Hamilton would use for her presentation. When presentations involving PowerPoint get off to a rocky start, as they often do, the audience’s eyes naturally move from the lecturer to the screen. The computer desktop was visible. There were a bunch of icons for typical computer applications and then, in the second column, a document titled DON’T DIET!
“Sharon, what’s DON’T DIET!?” someone in the audience asked, breaking the silence.
“Uh, this isn’t my computer,” Hamilton, a thin woman who really doesn’t need to diet, answered nervously. The A/V technician, an overweight man who does, rushed back to the stage.
Once rolling, Hamilton discussed Mencken’s influence on New York’s cultural life as a critic and later as editor of The Smart Set. Unlike the hundreds of thousands that later fled Baltimore, Mencken never left his hometown. But through the magazine based in the more influential and culturally rich New York, he launched the careers of Fitzgerald and O’Neil, and helped Americans discover Conrad and Joyce. His writing developed an almost rabid following of fans that hung on his every word. Harold Ross named Mencken’s Smart Set as a model for Ross’ New Yorker; the latter, coincidentally, even moved into the offices of the former at 25 West 45th St. in Manhattan.
But Mencken’s influence on New York is largely forgotten. That’s okay — he likely wouldn’t care less. Mencken was often out of place in New York, his short sleeves, hair part, and use of awkward words like “flapdoodle” setting him apart from the city’s sophisticates.
What’s instead more interesting is that he’s also increasingly forgotten on the literary landscape. The 1967 Norton Anthology of American Literature, for example, contains excerpts from Mencken’s Prejudices, the second and third series, as well as from The American Language. The newest Norton Anthology contains nothing by the writer.
So while The Sun Also Rises and As I Lay Dying remain on bookshelves, Mencken is relegated to the lede of middling columns in middling American newspapers by middling writers who want to take a stab at biting satire.
Hamilton’s lecture was just the first of three in the Mencken celebration. Saturday afternoon, Anthony Lewis gave the keynote address. Lewis was for a columnist for the New York Times for more than 30 years, and is unabashedly liberal. He began his lecture, “Beyond Scorn,” by acknowledging that he was very fond of scornful Mencken, but knew less about the man than most in the room. Lewis instead railed against the Bush Administration, against CIA “black sites” in Europe, against alleged torture of war prisoners, against the denial of habeas corpus to Guantanamo Bay detainees. “Scorn is not adequate for the profundity of today’s disasters,” he said.
Lewis did bring the lecture around to Mencken. He doubted that the tools of the writer who skewered William Jennings Bryan and Warren G. Harding, describing the latter as “of the intellectual grade of an aging cockroach,” would suffice in this moment in history. “Mencken’s work is unequal to the scale of today’s disasters,” he said.
The reference to the writer came too late, however, to change the course Lewis’ earlier remarks had set. Mencken fans pride themselves, by and large, on their self-perceived distance from the American “booboisie” Mencken criticized. It’s a group the Menckenites identify as largely conservative. Bush-bashing was a trigger, and when it came time for a Q&A, they were off and running.
“Do you think it’s possible that come January of 2009, Bush could decide to ignore the election results and keep himself in power?” one man asked.
“Well, I’m critical, but I’m not that critical,” Lewis said.
One man said that Bush made him nostalgic for Nixon, and then looked around the room, smiling, as if he were the first person to ever make that point. Another man asked Lewis how it was possible that intelligent people could still support the President.
“Well, different people have different views,” Lewis said, shrugging.
It’s important to note this question, which assumed a correlation between intelligence and political views, followed a particularly strange one by a member of the largely left-leaning crowd.
A man in the back of the room raised his hand, and Lewis called on him. He was not the typical Mencken fan. Typical Mencken fans are old; this guy was young. Typical Mencken fans dress in suits on Saturdays; this guy wore a neon pink hat, sunglasses, and a fanny pack. Typical Mencken fans ask silly questions meant to be jabs at Bush; this guy asked, “Can you give some examples of the sexual torture that you talked about?”
Lewis seemed a bit uncomfortable, but mentioned how prisoners in Abu Ghraib, naked, were forced into a human pyramid. He also described a case that included the use of fake menstrual blood, but then decided that maybe it wasn’t best to go into details of sexual torture during a Saturday afternoon library talk on H.L. Mencken.
A special treat awaited Mencken fans Saturday afternoon. At the Maryland Historical Society, members of the Peabody Opera Theatre presented what is believed to be the only performance of an opera written by Mencken.
He wrote The Artist: A Drama Without Words as a straight play in 1912. It was performed a few times, in Baltimore and Philadelphia, but remained largely forgotten. Louis Cheslock set the play to Beethoven’s music in either 1949 or 1962 — nobody’s quite sure. Cheslock was a friend of Mencken’s and a fellow member of the Saturday Night Club, the gaggle of friends that met weekly for 45 years to play music and drink.
The main idea of The Artist is funny. The Artist itself is not. It’s the short story of a concert recital featuring a German pianist bored with America, a swooning female American audience oblivious to his errors, and lazy critics who dread the work ahead of them. There’s no dialogue. What’s spoken is instead the inner-thoughts of the characters. But the music dulls the critique of American audiences, so eager to glean a bit of Continental class. But this audience ate it up, simply because it was Mencken.
Following The Artist, the Peabody performers led the audience in singing “I Am a One Hundred Percent American.” The song was written by Willi Woolcott, a non-playing member of the Saturday Night Club; that group sang it often over beer and cigars.
It’s an uncomfortably smug song, but it’s hard not to join along in a room packed with Mencken fans. It includes classicly Menckenesque stanzas including:
I am an anti-Darwin intellectual.
The man that says that any nice young boy or gal
Is a descendant of the ape
Shall never from Hell’s fire escape.
I am a one hundred percent American, I am, God damn, I am!
For I’m just folks, and that’s just what I am,
I like to read the Saturday Evening Post;
In art I pull no high-brow stuff,
I know what I like, and that’s enough
I am a one hundred percent America, I am, God damn, I am!
The organizers of this newest performance of The Artist acknowledged that the opera isn’t a very good one. They offered that the world premiere would also likely be its last performance. It was simply another piece of Mencken for rabid fans who subscribe to a quarterly newsletter entitled Menckeniana, and who count among their peers the recently deceased George H. Thompson, whose collection of 6,000 books, articles, and photographs of or related to Mencken were recently acquired by Johns Hopkins University. Mencken’s fans laughed, and applauded, and moved out to the lobby to pile small plates high with cheese cubes, grapes, and crackers.
The Friday before the celebration, a burglar had attempted to break into the Mencken House on Baltimore’s Union Square by removing a pane of glass at the back of the house. He was a meticulous burglar, according to the Mencken Society: “Police found the pieces of molding neatly placed against the wooden fence and the pane upright next to it,” the Society reported on its blog.
The burglar never made it inside. He was likely deterred by the house’s alarm. Had he entered, however, he would probably have been disappointed by what he found there.
The Mencken House has been closed since 1997, when the Baltimore City Life Museum that oversaw it folded. Today it’s all but empty. It was open for a few hours this Sunday; fans of the writer were able to tour the now bare rooms where Mencken lived from 1883 until his death in 1956.
Pictures show the house as it was when Mencken churned out his books and articles. It looked like a warm place, the bookshelves full, the chairs and sofas comfortable. But today the place is in pretty awful shape. Some of the windows are boarded. A chair in the corner of one bedroom has a sign warning visitors that the floor underneath it is weak. The third floor former study has the remains of a cheap kitchen, from when the University of Maryland used it for student housing.
After wandering the empty rooms, I stepped out back, to the garden Mencken loved. A pit bull in the yard next door growled through the fence as I walked the narrow brick path in the small yard. This was where the writer spent much of his time, and he added many personal touches. There’s a mask of Beethoven cemented in the wall. At the base of a brick arbor column is a blue tile depicting a man making love to a horse.
Mencken’s sad, empty house, feels like a physical manifestation of the thing he’s become — a writer still around, and likely to always be around, but set off as a novelty, as a thing that stands awkwardly alone. The idea was reinforced when I left the house and walked across the street to Union Square. The small park was once the verdant center of a neighborhood of families, but it’s been long neglected. The water fountain was filled with cigarette butts. The grass was weedy. The trashcans were overflowing. In the center was a fountain honoring Mencken. Around its edge were bronze covers of his books, each bearing the name of a different donor. Some of the covers were missing, screw holes left behind. And the fountain was dry, trash blowing around its base. • 19 September 2007
Jesse Smith is managing editor of The Smart Set.
Photo via Getty Images.