The House that Mencken Built

City Paper

When the Sunpapers bought City Paper last spring, we were uncertain, to say the least. We’d been through a heavy battle with our old owners. We’d been for sale for a long time. We were tired. And then the paper against which the City Paper had always defined itself as an “alternative” bought us. 

But there was one comfort for those of us who were, despite our surface cynicism, a bit romantically inclined: It was Mencken’s old paper.

On our first day in the big brick building down on Calvert Street, we were a bit shocked by the sterility of the place. I mean, our old offices on Park Avenue—a Mount Vernon mansion—felt more like a newspaper office Mencken might inhabit, meaning it felt like the 19th or the early 20th century, with people cramped away in old converted closets or bathrooms banging out investigative features or throwing critical bombs down upon the booboisie. 

When we first came to the new building, we had to get security badges. 

“Stand there,” I was told and the security guard pointed to the picture of H.L. Mencken on the wall beside his great quote: “As I look back over a misspent life, I find myself more and more convinced that I had more fun doing news reporting than in any other enterprise. It really is the life of kings.”

This was an indication that someone here still believed that this was supposed to be fun, despite the badges and the elevators and the HR. Because it is truly the life of kings and there is something great about being reminded of that every morning as we walk into the building. It, like the city of Baltimore, is the house that Mencken built. 

Mencken certainly took great joy both in the city—which he always considered the paragon of good living, claiming that New York, where he had offices for The Smart Set and American Mercury, was suitable only for “the gross business of getting money” and Baltimore was “a place made for enjoying it” (in “Newspaper Days,” he writes of “the good living which once made Baltimore the envy of every other American city save New Orleans”—let’s get it together, y’all)—and the profession of journalism, by which I mean working as a reporter, critic, and editor. In many ways, he owns both subjects literarily. No one has come close to him in depicting the pleasures of this city—though, in the medium of television, David Simon may well have surpassed him in depicting its foibles and replaced Mencken as the Sage of Baltimore.

We can see how thoroughly Mencken loved both the city and the journalistic life in “H.L. Mencken: The Days Trilogy, Expanded Edition,” just published by the Library of America, with new, previously unreleased material edited by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, who also edited the Library of America edition of “Prejudices” and wrote the magisterial “Mencken: The American Iconoclast, the Life and Times of the Bad Boy of Baltimore” and “The Impossible H.L. Mencken.” 

Rodgers’ titles give a good sense of the predominant view of Mencken: the scourge of the booboisie, the bibulous Prohibition scorner, the champion of Nietzsche, the cynic, the wit, and the social critic. Indeed, the voice of the alternative weekly, such as City Paper, is directly descended from the Mencken of “Prejudices.” 

But there is more to the man than that. In one of his newspaper pieces, “Mark Twain’s Americanism,” Mencken writes about the posthumous works’ relation to the true Mark Twain, revealing “how little he resembles the Mark of national legend.”

In some ways, the republication of the Days trilogy, if not so much the new material that comes with it, shows a different Mencken and acts as a corrective to the archly sardonic Mencken of local legend. “Happy Days,” the first of the Days books, was commissioned by Harold Ross at the New Yorker, putting this Mencken more in line with Joseph Mitchell and A.J. Liebling. 

To read “Happy Days” in Baltimore is a disorienting experience. Mencken brings the city, especially Hollins market, to such vivid life that to walk out into the actual city of the present feels both familiar and uncanny. It is almost like science fiction. He writes of his father’s cigar shop, the saloons, the African-American culture in the alleys, the Arrabers, the police, the country house in Mount Washington, and everything is at once familiar and different. As Mencken wrote in 1925, “the old charm, in fact, still survives, despite the boomers, despite the street-wideners, despite the forward-lookers, despite all the other dull frauds who try to destroy it.”

Mencken’s house on Union Square, which he lived in from 1883 until he died in 1956—with the exception of the five years he lived at 704 Cathedral St.—is in disrepair, a fact made more frustrating since, as Adam Bednar recently reported for the Daily Record, the city has been sitting on $3 million that has been set aside to convert the home, which needs an estimated $500,000 in repairs, into a fully functioning museum. (There will be a “Cocktails and Curmudgeons” fundraiser at the house on Friday, Sept. 12. For more information, visit menckenhouse.org.)

If there is something strange about reading “Happy Days” and “Heathen Days”—the last book in the trilogy—in Baltimore, to be a newspaperman in the city reading “Newspaper Days” is even more uncanny. I was talking to my editor about the “life of kings” quote that we see every morning.

“It shows how much things have changed,” he said. 

But I didn’t think so. When we think about the Golden Age of journalism, what we are really thinking about is the post-WWII period and especially the time between Vietnam and Watergate. The journalistic world Mencken describes is every bit as uncertain as our own. He began as a journalist by showing up every evening to the Baltimore Herald for four weeks before the editor, Max Ways, tossed an unpaid assignment his way. He worked all night for the paper, while working in the day at his father’s cigar shop. (The editor told him “The Sun is the Bible of Baltimore, and has almost a monopoly on many kinds of news . . .[but] any Herald reporter who is worth a damn can write rings around a Sun reporter.”) There was little to no job security. In the course of his early career, reporters and editors were often fired (usually for being too drunk) and he quickly found himself City Editor and then Managing Editor. “I began to reflect upon my trade, and to discern some of its principal virtues and defects. Of the latter, the worst was the fact that it worked me too hard, but though I was aware of it, I did not resent it, for I was still full of the eagerness of youth and hot to see the whole show. Of the former, the greatest was that a newspaper man always saw the show from a reserved seat in the front row.”

David Carr, a somewhat Menckenian figure who began at alt-weeklies and went on to the New York Times, said something similar recently. No one has ever done journalism for the money. It is a thrill, it is an adventure, and “it beats working.” 

But Mencken’s journalism may have been a little too much fun. He is most infuriating when he says horrible racist things, for sure, but he is also infuriating when he laughs about all the stories he fabricated as a reporter or an editor. That is something that would, and should, ruin a career today.  And that causes me to question my faith a bit. I’m glad his career wasn’t ended so early on. And I am glad that he was honest enough to write about it himself. 

The new edition of the trilogy contains a couple hundred pages of new stuff—well, it’s new to anyone not in Baltimore. Mencken stipulated that his commentary on the Days trilogy not be published for 25 years after his death. Since then, in 1981, it has been available at the Pratt. 

Mencken’s love of life—which is related to his work on Nietzsche, whom he popularized in America—is amply apparent in all three volumes, placing him, as a character in his own writing, somewhere between Shakespeare’s Falstaff and Joyce’s Leopold Bloom (despite his instances of anti-Semitism).

As Baltimore’s Most Menckenian Publication, now in the heart of the Sunpapers, we want to lift our glasses—and our glass bowls; we take the stand against weed prohibition that Mencken took against hooch prohibition—to Mencken, while also hoping to use his failings, which were many, as prods to better examine our own lives. In the pages that follow, we talk with Dr. Larry Gibson, the biographer of Thurgood Marshall, who will be speaking as part of the Pratt Library’s Mencken Day on Saturday, Sept. 13 about Mencken’s relation to race—and whether he is a racist or a civil rights pioneer. We also chat with Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, who will also be speaking as part of Mencken Day, about the new edition of the Days Trilogy and about Mencken’s life and his relation to the city. Finally, we take a listen to some of the music Mencken made in the Saturday Night Club with David Donovan at the Pratt.  


Further Reading The Sage in Black and White More Mencken Mencken's Music H.L. Mencken On Brewing A Drinkable Home Brew The Mobtown Connection

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