As a student, Marion Elizabeth Rodgers was intending to write a master’s thesis on the poetry of T. S. Eliot, when she stumbled upon a box of letters between H. L. Mencken and his wife, Sara, at the Goucher* Library. That chance encounter led to her first book, “Mencken and Sara: A Life in Letters.”Subsequently, she has written a biography, “Mencken: The American Iconoclast: The Life and Times of the Bad Boy of Baltimore,” and edited “The Impossible H. L. Mencken” and the Library of America edition of “Prejudices,” among other works of Menckeniana. She has just edited Mencken’s vast commentary on the Days trilogy, published in the new Library of America edition as “Days Revisited.”
We are usually loathe to do an email interview, but Rodgers’ responses to some background questions we asked her were so charming, we decided we should print them.
City Paper: How did the “Days Revisited” material come to be?
Marion Elizabeth Rodgers: Mencken was very much aware of the importance of his private papers. He recognized that they were not only a contribution toward the history of American journalism of his time, but also provided a fascinating general history of the country. The Days volumes proved to be so popular that Mencken began receiving letters from men and women across the United States who not only shared their own memories but also triggered more reminiscences from him as well. This was the basis for “Additions, Corrections and Explanatory Notes,” which the Library of America has named “Days Revisited.” Mencken stipulated that these typescripts were to be given to the Enoch Pratt Free Library and were to be inaccessible until 25 years after his death (1956).
CP: Why is it just coming out now?
MER: My guess as to why this material was never published until now is because the release of other manuscripts under time-lock overshadowed this other rich resource. The same year the additional notes to the Days books were unsealed (1981), so was his Diary (“The Diary of H.L. Mencken,” edited by Charles A. Fecher, published in 1989). Ten years later, in 1991, adhering to the terms of Mencken’s will, the Enoch Pratt Free Library revealed the last of Mencken’s papers: his memoirs, “My Life as Author and Editor” (edited by Jonathan Yardley, published in 1993) and “Thirty-Five Years of Newspaper Work” (edited by Fred Hobson, Vincent Fitzpatrick and Bradford Jacobs, published in 1994). Along the way, various Mencken biographers, among them myself, looked at this material in preparation for their own books and quoted bits from it. I confess that even while I was working on my biography I kept thinking how lovely it would be to share this manuscript in its entirety with more readers. Mencken not only took great pains to put it together, in addition he carefully organized a visual record of the places and locations mentioned in the Days volumes, with photographs that he took himself. But it was not until after the Library of America approached me to edit the two-volume edition of Mencken’s “Prejudices” (published in 2010) that I broached the idea of this volume to them. Their mission is to “preserve the nation’s cultural heritage by publishing its most significant literature.” That they also have a track record of producing handsome books of the very highest quality goes without saying. I feel grateful to the Library of America but also to the Enoch Pratt Free Library and the Trustees for the Estate of H. L. Mencken for supporting this project with such enthusiasm. The whole adventure has been a pleasure.
CP: He didn’t want the material to be public until 25 years after his death—which had me hoping for some more racy material, perhaps. But there isn’t anything more scandalous than in his (generally scandalous) published work. Why the 25-year wait?
MER: For two reasons. The first is that Mencken candidly discusses men and women who were still living at the time he wrote these Notes (from 1943-1946, up to 1948). Elsewhere Mencken eloquently explained that he wanted the passage of time to release all confidences and the grave to close over all tender feelings. The second reason, which he does not mention, but which I (among others) have long suspected, is that Mencken, like Mark Twain, was a veteran self-promoter, ever mindful of posterity and always masterminding publicity for himself from beyond the grave.
CP: And was there anything that surprised you?
MER: I have been reading Mencken for so long I cannot say there were a lot of surprises, but yes, there were a few. For instance, his flat-out declaration of how much he disliked Clarence Darrow, whom he once called “a gladiator of the law.” Here are personal details about his family: the guilty elation he felt when he realized that his father’s death was going to free him from the yoke of the family cigar business and enable him to pursue a career in journalism; the revelation of the prejudices harbored by his parents and grandparents.
CP: What is it that draws you to Mencken?
MER: His sheer talent with language! He was the man who searched for the perfect word, so that when you are reading him, there is, as he put it, “the constant joy of sudden discovery, of happy accident.” What else? His humor, his common sense, a righteous anger that leaps off the page, a glittering vocabulary that sends readers scurrying to the dictionary. I have spent more than 20 years reading Mencken, and he is very hard to resist. He never bores me, and always makes me laugh. I can’t say that of many other writers (or, come to think of it, of many other men, either!).
CP: What do you think he has to say to our time?
MER:Mencken not only makes his readers laugh; he makes them question and think. His iconoclasm is refreshing and necessary. Few Americans, Mencken said, say what they believe, freely or frankly; they always try and find out first what will be well-received. This is especially true of journalists, not only in his time but in ours. Mencken could be considered more of a libertarian than anything else, but during his own time he identified himself as “a lifelong Democrat.” He supported free speech, championed the civil rights of immigrants and minority groups, lambasted Big Business—all causes historically embraced by liberals. While it can be unwise to read a modern meaning into the statements Mencken wrote over 70 years ago, the issues he engaged in still have direct relevance to readers today. Press censorship, racial issues, civil rights—all of these continue to make Mencken relevant.
CP: It is fascinating to read the Days trilogy in Baltimore. One gets such a feel for the city. Can you talk a bit about his relation to the city—and your own?
MER: The real hero of the Days books is the city of Baltimore, and Mencken one of its most famous sons. He was born here in 1880, and began his newspaper work in 1899. In 1906 he was hired at The Baltimore Sun and, except for a brief break, worked for the Sunpapers in various capacities until his stroke in 1948. Mencken loved Baltimore, so much so that various times he resisted the temptation to move to New York where not only he had many business contacts, but also where he worked as the editor of two magazines (The Smart Set and The American Mercury). For him, Baltimore had “a tradition of sound and comfortable living,” a sense of tradition and permanence that made it immensely charming. Except for the five years when he was married, he lived at 1524 Hollins Street in West Baltimore, at one time one of the most famous addresses in America. When the Mencken House operated as a museum you could walk inside and feel as if he had just left the room: all of his furniture, seidels, and personal effects were intact. Now, sadly, the museum is closed and those items are in storage. (I encourage your readers to visit Menckenhouse.org to find out more.) If, as the historian David McCullough believes, visiting a writer’s house turns us back to his work, then the H. L. Mencken House is part of the national archive, as important as the H. L. Mencken Collections preserved at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, the Sheridan Libraries at Johns Hopkins, and Goucher College. Just like the Poe House, it is part of our American heritage and a precious asset that Baltimore cannot afford to waste.
As for myself, I went to college in Baltimore (Goucher College, with course work at Johns Hopkins). When I was working on my biography, “Mencken: The American Iconoclast” (Oxford, 2005), I moved to Baltimore and spent several happy years here, much of my time researching at the excellent Enoch Pratt Free Library. Many of my closest friends are from Baltimore. I continue to miss many of the older men and women I once had the privilege to know—true originals from another generation, many who either knew or wrote about Mencken—among them: Betti Anne Patterson, Robin and Margery Harriss, Hal Williams, Charles Fecher, Gwinn Owens and his mother Olga, Carl Bode, Mrs. Louis Cheslock, oh, so many others. I love the architecture of Baltimore as well as its history; walking down Charles Street, being inside of the Peabody Library, looking out at the harbor from Fells Point—none of this ever loses its thrill. I love retracing Mencken’s steps and visiting his house. Mencken’s Baltimore is not totally lost, even today: There is an ease and graciousness of manner, a sense that here live a group of people grounded in the knowledge of who they are, where they are from, all having the good sense to appreciate what is important in life. Baltimore is the very opposite of Washington, D.C., the city where I now live—a bubble infested with automatons: shallow, sour, rootless, self-absorbed and self-important, nervously looking over their shoulders for the next main chance, perpetually dissatisfied, forever ill at ease. It’s a whole other world, really!
*In an earlier version of the story, the library was mistakenly identified as the Pratt. City Paper regrets the error.