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Friday, September 26, 2014

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers on the new, expanded edition of H. L. Mencken’s autobiographical trilogy

The latest Library of America volume, H. L. Mencken: The Days Trilogy, Expanded Edition, containing Happy Days, Newspaper Days, and Heathen Days, goes on sale in bookstores everywhere this week. It also includes Days Revisited—over 200 pages of material that Mencken stipulated could not be published until twenty-five years after his death.

We recently interviewed Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, who edited the volume. Rodgers is the author of Mencken: The American Iconoclast, and she previously edited the Library of America edition of Mencken’s Prejudices.


Where does the Days trilogy fit in H. L. Mencken’s life and work?

From 1930 to 1935, when Mencken was married to the writer Sara Haardt, they lived at 704 Cathedral Street in the Mount Vernon district of downtown Baltimore. As happy as he was during these years, Mencken very much missed his old home at 1524 Hollins Street in West Baltimore, which he said was “as much a part of me as my two hands.” In the spring of 1936, after Sara’s death, Mencken moved back to his old home and began systematically exploring the house and neighborhood. He started writing a series of autobiographical essays about his childhood and early youth. Two pieces about colorful neighborhood characters were published in The New Yorker in 1936 and 1937, but he didn’t really get going on the book until 1939. Even then his progress was not always steady or smooth, since he was also traveling, working on his column, covering the presidential conventions, and writing “The Sunpapers of Baltimore,” “The Charlatanry of the Learned,” “A New Dictionary of Quotations,” and the fourth edition of The American Language. He also fell ill. But Blanche Knopf kept at Mencken with such steady encouragement that Mencken remarked to her, "I really should call it ‘Blanche’s Days.’”

Why do you think Mencken claimed Newspaper Days was his favorite book?

Mencken was writing Newspaper Days at a time when he was disillusioned with the state of journalism, and especially with his own newspaper (The Baltimore Sun and Evening Sun). Always an advocate of limited federal government, Mencken opposed FDR’s restrictions on the press, so much so that he resigned from writing for the Sunpapers on January 16, 1941. Escaping into the past—his salad days as a young newspaperman, when, as he put it, the human race could spend “weeks, months and even years without being badgered, bilked or alarmed”—was such a joy that he wrote Newspaper Days at a rate of 3,000 words a day, an all-time high for him. When it was finished, he worried that it would only be of interest to newspapermen; on the contrary, it is probably the volume that has the most resonance for modern readers.

What does this book from American journalism’s heyday tell us about newspapers and the media today?

Time and curiosity seem to be less on tap today—the tyranny of the instantaneous deadlines of social media, blogs, and websites is steadily encroaching upon thorough, quality work. As a young reporter, Mencken made it a point to study books on things he did not know much about; he interviewed his subjects, applying shoe leather to pavement as necessary. On the other hand, newspaper editors today would never tolerate an uncommunicative reporter or keep in their employment one who invented stories. Yet both of these were common enough in the early 1900s, during Mencken’s first years as a reporter. As Mencken wrote, “In my day a reporter who took an assignment was wholly on his own until he got back to the office . . . today he tends to become only a homunculus at the end of a telephone wire.” Part of this was a lack of technology—there were only two telephones in the office, “and no one ever used them if it could be avoided.” Also few papers had correspondents in the field, and wireless and ocean cables were undependable.

So after the Battle of Tsushima in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, hoping to revive the circulation of his newspaper with some exciting war news, Mencken simply fabricated details of the battle. Mencken never gives any indication that he recognizes how outrageous his exercise in manufactured news had been; he recounts it with self-congratulation and humor here in Newspaper Days. He gloated that he had “guessed precisely right in every particular of the slightest importance.” (Yet in 1906, when asked about his views of journalistic responsibility, he stated “exaggeration and deliberate falsification will have to die.”)

What’s the story behind the Days Revisited material—when was it written, when did it come to light, what’s its significance? How does it change our view of Mencken?

The Days books proved to be so popular they revived Mencken’s reputation. They also struck a chord among men and women who had shared similar childhoods, who after the publication of Happy Days began sending Mencken letters with their thoughts and impressions. This correspondence triggered more memories, and, as was his wont, Mencken started keeping a careful record. His “Notes, Additions and Corrections” were written mainly between 1943 and 1946, with perhaps a few entries after that up to 1948. Because he was writing about people who were still alive, he sealed these papers under time lock, not to be opened until twenty-five years after his death, which turned out to be in 1981. As he put it, “the passage of time would release all confidences and the grave close over all tender feelings.”

Several biographers, including myself, had access to these typescripts, but they are published for the first time in The Library of America edition. They are important not only because any new writings from Mencken, and these are wonderful and characteristic, are a gift to American letters, but also because they provide context, a window onto race relations, for example, as well as cultural beliefs and other aspects of Mencken’s time and place. What I find so interesting is that from this heritage and this particular family, Mencken became a journalist and started breaking barriers from an early age.

Why did you decide to include photographs?

As a boy, Mencken was an amateur photographer before he became keenly interested in writing. The photos here are those that were taken by him as a boy, and again later, during 1939–1940 when he was revisiting the locations for the Days books. He loved Baltimore so much he wanted to keep a record of the buildings and places he had described. These photographs are wonderful period images of a Baltimore that once was—and, in a very few instances, still remains.

What’s your favorite passage or moment in Days Revisited?

The writing here is typical, classic Mencken, full of caustic observations and witty asides, displaying the ease of a highly skilled writer. There are many passages to choose from. I like this one: “The worst burden that a competent and ambitious young man can carry is a stupid wife. When . . . she is also egotistical and bossy, his case is almost hopeless.” Or this one, about the suicide of a young girl: if she had lived, Mencken wrote, “she’d be a grandmother, with her conscience long since worn to a stump and her old age lighted by sentimental memories of her first love affair.” Or his disappointment in the new residents who have moved into his neighborhood and have destroyed the park (Union Square) in front of his house: “I have sat at my office-window and watched their little children digging great holes in the lawns: the poor brats had never heard of lawns and regarded every spot of grassland as a mere field. The depredations of these yahoos inspired a saying in Baltimore: ‘There are now only 45 states in the Union. West Virginia and South Carolina have moved to Maryland, and Maryland has gone to Hell.’”

What’s your sense of how this new edition—and Mencken’s writing in general—will be received?

When the original Days trilogy was published (1940, 1941, 1943), it became such a sensation that the Armed Forces published a pocket edition that was a GI favorite. One copy actually went into Normandy after D-Day, was read by many soldiers and traveled through thirty cities in England, France, Belgium, Holland and Germany, before it was donated to the Mencken Collection at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. Mencken is enjoying another resurgence of popularity today, especially among millennials. They are studying him in classrooms, quoting him, and are keenly interested in his take on all kinds of subjects, like the Scopes Trial. Baltimore students show a tremendous amount of curiosity in his old house at 1524 Hollins Street.

Why is this so?

According to a study by the Pew Research Center (March 2014), this generation identifies itself as “independent libertarians” rather than conservatives or liberals; Mencken’s libertarian point of view strikes a chord. There is even a twitter account—@HLMenckenBot—with nearly 10,000 followers. The pendulum is swinging back toward Mencken!

3 comments:

  1. On page 293 of "Newspaper Days," there is this statement by H.L., "...the immortal McKinley was done to death by one of Hitler's agents...." Unless there was another notorious Hitler at large at the time (Adolf was only 12 years old), is this a typo or was H.L. being abstrusely metaphorical?

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  2. Edward: No typo in the text. During the earliest years of World War I, and even before, Mencken was notably pro-German (or, perhaps more accurately, anti-anti-German). He was especially angered by fallacious media reports of “barbarous Huns” bayoneting Belgian babies and such.

    In his monograph "Germany and German thought in American literature and cultural criticism," the scholar Peter Freese singles out this sentence in "Newspaper Days" as one of Mencken's "rather casual, bitingly ironical" remarks--suggesting that Americans thought Germans were Nazis long before there were even Nazis.

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  3. Thank you for the reply and answer. I looked at the blog again this morning (I was up at 5 a.m.), and didn't see a reply, so that must have been before you answered my query.

    Thanks again. I had supposed that when HL wrote that segment of Newspaper Days Hitler had already made a name for himself.

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