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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 It also includes Days Revisited—over 200 pages of material that Mencken stipulated could not be published until twenty-five years after his death.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!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Lorenzo Carcaterra remembers how Elmore Leonard “brought his characters close enough to life they could be touched”

Photo by Kate Carcaterra
Last week The Library of America published Elmore Leonard: Four Crime Novels of the 1970s, which contains a quartet of crime novels set in Detroit: Fifty-Two Pickup, Swag, Unknown Man No. 89, and The Switch.

Lorenzo Carcaterra, the best-selling author of Sleepers and Gangster, whose most recent novel, The Wolf, was published earlier this summer by Random House, recalls what it was like learning the novelist’s trade from Leonard himself, whom he met thirty years ago.

The Master

Pete Hamill. George V. Higgins. Jack London. Alexandre Dumas. Harry Crews. Victor Hugo. Ernest Hemingway. Dashiell Hammett. John Irving. These are just a few of the writers whose works I have read, studied, and absorbed over the course of decades, as have thousands of others. They are the masters whose lessons never waver, who offer fresh insights with each new work and with every re-reading. At the very head of that distinguished group is Elmore “Dutch” Leonard, the dean of my writing university.

I was fortunate not only to have gone to school on Leonard’s work—learning as much as I could about pacing, using dialogue to not merely tell but describe, and realizing that not every hero need be painted with an unvarnished brush—but also to have spent time in his company.

I first met him on a People magazine assignment in 1984, flying to his home in Birmingham, Michigan, fresh off the success of his novel Stick. He was reed slender and soft spoken, never saying more than what needed to be said, his pristine office dominated by a large framed photo of Ernest Hemingway holding a fish nearly as tall as he was. “Got that in Key West,” Leonard said, catching me staring at the photo. “Didn’t pay much for it. Don’t think the fella who sold it to me knew that was Hemingway. Just another guy who caught another fish.”

He was in the early phase of the success that was to follow him for the rest of his writing life, but that didn’t seem to affect him much. He was a working writer before the media started glancing his way, before the accolades came pouring in, before books landed with yearly regularity on the bestseller lists. He had been working at his craft since selling his first short story in 1951, a western, and he didn’t stop until his death last August when he was just about halfway through yet another novel.

There were some bumps along the road but he kept at it, waking every morning at 5 and writing two pages of fiction before heading off to work at an advertising agency. Among those early works two stand out as classics: the short story “3:10 to Yuma” and the novel Hombre. Through those early years, he helped raise a family that would grow to five children, cave to the lure of drink and then come back to beat it, lose some jobs (he was dropped by one ad agency for copy he wrote about a pick-up truck—“It never breaks. You just get tired of looking at the S.O.B.”), wrote for movies and TV and kept at the novels. His turning point came when he signed with the legendary Hollywood talent agent, H. N. Swanson.

“I liked his westerns,” Swanson would tell me a few years after I met Leonard. “But no one was buying westerns anymore. I asked him two questions. Asked, ‘Do you like girls?’ He said yes to that. And then I asked if he could write a contemporary novel and get himself out of the west. He told me he could. I told him to get back to me when he did.”

A year later, a Leonard novel called The Big Bounce landed on Swanson’s desk. He read it and then called Leonard. “I kept the conversation simple,” Swanson told me. “I told Leonard he was going to be a very rich man.”

Leonard worked the writing hard, making certain that each word chosen mattered, each sentence written essential. And every character fully sketched and brought close enough to life they could be touched. His heroes were lawmen and criminals and none were drawn in simple black and white. They were, to quote former New York State Supreme Court Justice and novelist Edwin Torres (Carlito’s Way), “people who lived after midnight and at that hour there is no black and white. At that hour every cat is grey.”

I stayed in touch with Leonard long after that profile ran in People, but I didn’t need to speak to him to keep learning about the writing life. All I needed to do was read his work—from the “Detroit novels” (four of which are included in the new Library of America collection) to his take on Hollywood with the brilliant Get Shorty down to Florida with LaBrava and into the world of music with Be Cool (where my son has the distinct honor of having a character named after him—Nick “Nicky Cadillac” Carcaterra). There are many lessons to be learned from reading an Elmore Leonard book and one cold hard fact that’s a take-away: he will never be topped.

He might have been the first to start a chapter in the middle of a conversation. “I thought George was,” Leonard told me, meaning George V. Higgins. When I asked Higgins the same question, he said, “I was pretty certain I lifted that from Dutch.” Others were watching as well. The opening scene of Lethal Weapon II begins in the middle of a car chase. “It’s nice to be read,” Leonard said.

He is gone now but the work will always remain, a reminder that for more than fifty years we were in the company of one of our greatest writers. There are the movie adaptations for those curious to see how they translate. They range from the horrible (both versions of The Big Bounce) to mediocre (Be Cool) to classic (Get Shorty and Hombre with Paul Newman and Richard Boone, one of Leonard’s favorite actors). “He’s got the look,” he said of Boone, “and he’s comfortable with the words.”

And then there’s Justified, sadly going into its final season. Every episode, practically every scene, is a tip of Timothy Olyphant’s hat to Leonard. Watching that show comes a close second to reading the work itself, it is that good and true. Raylen Givens may well end up being one of Leonard’s greatest gifts to us.

I miss Elmore Leonard. Miss hearing that sweet, humble voice that never surrendered to ego or brag, easy to smile, quick with a story, faster with a sharp line. It was an honor to be in his company, even for a short time. But he leaves behind a massive body of work that will age well with each passing year. The stories fresh, the characters memorable and the dialogue always true.

The lessons of the Master on the page, waiting to be learned.

Previously on Reader’s Almanac
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