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Writing About Writers

The Sage of Baltimore

H.L.Mencken left a rich literary legacy, including his autobiographical writing.

Book Cover As is occasionally the case, I owe (and I hope I speak for his Washington Post readers) a debt of gratitude (whatever that is) to Jonathan Yardley for apprising me of the publication of Mencken on Mencken: A New Collection of Autobiographical Writings, edited by Mencken scholar S.T. Joshi (Louisiana State University Press).

Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956), who practiced his unique style of journalism in Baltimore when newspapers and magazines were important, is a singular figure in America’s literary history. He was a scathing commentator and a fascinating stylist whose wit and style never shone brighter than when he was recounting his own life, as this 1905 biographical sketch exhibits:
Mencken weighs 172 pounds, is 5 feet 10 inches in height and not beautiful. His chief amusement, after reading, is piano-playing, this he does very crudely. He takes no exercise except walking and is a moderate eater and drinker. He sometimes drinks as little as one bottle of beer a week, though this doesn’t happen very often.
S.T. Joshi anthologizes 44 of what he asserts are the best of Mencken’s previously uncollected autobiographical pieces (contrary to the publisher’s count, Yardley claims there are 50, but hey, nobody’s perfect), complete with annotations and a Menckenian/Menckenesque glossary.

Yardley offers an overview:
The more than 50 piece reprinted here were originally published between 1900 (when, at not quite 20, Mencken was already a three-year newspaper veteran) and 1948 (the year he suffered the stroke that left him debilitated until his death in 1956) and appeared in a number of places: the Sun and the Evening Sun of Baltimore, The New Yorker, The Smart Set, Vanity Fair and others. For the most part the best pieces show Mencken in a reflective, reminiscent mood—though there are more than a few flashes of his wit and his ability to deliver a knockout punch—and thus provide yet another reminder that the Sage of Baltimore had a sentimental, nostalgic side as well as an acerbic one.
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