New Mencken book features unpublished material
NEW YORK (AP) — Nearly 60 years after his death, we still have not heard the last from H.L. Mencken.
Next week, the Library of America will publish “The Days Trilogy,” a bound and expanded edition of three popular memoirs by the celebrated journalist and linguist that were released in the 1940s: “Happy Days,” ″Newspaper Days” and “Heathen Days.”
Along with the original books are some 200 pages of commentary that he had requested not to be released in his lifetime.
Biographers have drawn upon the additional writings, which became available in 1981, but the Library of America volume marks the first time they have been collected in book form.
“Mencken had this and other material under time-lock for two reasons: out of respect for the (then) living personalities he was writing about; and because, like Mark Twain, he was a veteran self-promoter, always masterminding publicity for himself from beyond the grave,” said the volume’s editor, Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, who also wrote “Mencken: The American Iconoclast,” a biography published in 2005.
Mencken began his memoirs soon after his wife, Sara, died in 1935. He returned to his childhood home in Baltimore, looked through old family papers and wrote an essay that appeared in The New Yorker in 1936. Encouraged by publisher Blanche Knopf, he completed a book and “Happy Days” — in which the great curmudgeon looked back warmly upon his early years — was published in 1940. The response was so positive that he wrote two more memoirs, the last one coming out in 1943.
“No had seen this sensitive, amiable, tolerant side of Mencken,” Rodgers said. “No one could believe he had ever been young.”
The end notes in “The Days Trilogy” build on references to everything from a family doctor to the madams of Baltimore to stories from his world travels. In one passage, he supplies a missing detail from a visit to the Vatican in 1914, when he and his friend W. Edwin Moffett found themselves in the presence of Pope Pius X. Mencken recounts that Moffett had a “huge Masonic charm” hanging from his watch-chain, easily visible to the pope.
“I whispered a warning to him, and he thrust it into the fly of his trousers,” Mencken writes.
Mencken had been famous in his lifetime for his coverage of the 1925 “Scopes” trial, in which Clarence Darrow defended a Dayton, Tennessee teacher, John Scopes, accused of breaking state law by teaching evolution in a publicly-funded school. William Jennings Bryan, the orator and former presidential candidate, served as the prosecutor.
In his dispatches, Mencken had mocked Dayton as a “universal joke” and had more to say privately.
Although he had praised Darrow highly during the trial, he writes that his “opinion of Darrow was never very high” and that his “frequent pronouncements on legal and social questions were unusually banal.” Mencken had openly scorned the pious Bryan, regarding him as a “quack pure and unadulterated,” and in his notes he embellishes on a theory he later reached — that Bryan was sincere in his attacks against evolution.
“That there was a touch of mental unsoundness in Bryan I always believed, just as I believe the same of F.D. Roosevelt,” Mencken wrote.
In his preface to “Heathen Days,” Mencken jokingly warned that he had enough files in his cellar “to entertain a whole herd of nascent Ph.Ds.” Since his death, in 1956, posthumous releases have included letters, notebooks and journalism. Rodgers says there is still a great deal of uncollected work, on a wide range of subjects.
“You have the letters between (publishers) Alfred Knopf and Blanche Knopf and Mencken,” she says. “A medical historian could look at what Mencken wrote about public health. You could also look at his theater criticism. Mencken wrote wonderful, original theater criticism. You have material for anyone with creativity and imagination.”