Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

H.L. Mencken: Prose Marvel

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

H.L. Mencken: Prose Marvel

Article excerpt

A friend and colleague from my working days on The Baltimore Sun asked me some years back to name the journalist most people, anywhere, associate with our newspaper.

"Of course," I said. "H. L. Mencken."

"Not so," said he, or words to that effect, and with a smirk that made me realize Fd been snookered. We had both been editorial writers on the paper, and my friend had written a book on Mencken. he knew a lot more about him than I.

"Who, then?"

"Charlie Corddry," he said, then told me why. Mr. Corddiy at the time was our very competent Pentagon reporter, in The Sun's Washington Bureau. Since he had snagged a spot among the panelists on the weekly TV show "Washington Week in Review," his face and name had become familiar to countless people across the nation, who tuned in every Sunday, many more than ever got within range of the late Mr. Mencken's communications.

I said it was a trick question. The answer was literally true at the time it was asked, certainly not now. H. L. Mencken has beaten death, or at least obscurity, for his name is more prominent in the public consciousness not only than the late Mr. Corddry's, but just about that of any other writer or journalist this country ever produced, who is no longer at work or alive.

What the question did was to illustrate how notions of fame have changed as the instruments through which it is bestowed have changed and, in doing so, have fractured the nature of it. Since World War II, wrote Leo Braudy, in his book The Frenzy of Renown, "the increasing number and sophistication of the ways information is brought to us have enormously expanded the ways of being known. In the process the concept of fame has been grotesquely distended." We are confronted today by people famous for infinite numbers of reasons, good and bad, and even for no reason at all. The two words, fame and infamy, once antonyms, have very nearly evolved into synonyms.

For most people, fame, or just being widely known for something or other, is and has been an ephemeral experience. Yet, Mencken's fame endures. Vincent Fitzpatrick, the curator of the Mencken Room at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, the holy of holies for Menckenites, which contains just about every scrap that held the estimated 15 million words Mencken put on paper throughout his life, says, "H. L. Mencken and Mark Twain are the most frequently quoted American writers today," living or dead. he is uncertain who is number one.

It is the task of Dr. Fitzpatrick, a Mencken scholar and biographer himself, to conserve and watch over all this material, plus the stuff that keeps pouring in, which is considerable. Nearly every year he fills a thousand large scrapbook pages about articles about Mencken. More Menckeniana for the Mencken Room.

When I first came to the Baltimore Sunpapers (this is the locals' term for the two papers published here then; it endures even though only the morning paper remains), it was not easy to walk around in the parts of the building where the journalists lurked without meeting with evidence of Mencken's long tenure. One of the more famous photographs of the great man hung in the publisher's outer office, visible to all who walked by the open door: Mencken relaxed on a chair in his garden, a look of dull surrender mixed with disgust on his face, cigar in hand, taken seven years after his incapacitating stroke in 1948, after which he could no longer read or write. The man who took that picture, the dapper A. Aubrey Bodine, was as artful with a camera as Mencken with a typewriter. I always seemed to encounter him standing in the hallway cracking his knuckles, his mere presence resonant of those times and that other presence.

Mencken did not spend that much time in the newsroom. Breaking news was something he had dealt with on the Baltimore Morning Herald and another defunct competitor of the Sunpapers, The Evening News. Commentary became his metier on the Sunpapers, both morning and evening, and continued to be throughout his life. …

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