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Flashbacks: "Mencken, America's Critic"
(November 6, 2002)
Articles by Jacques Barzun, Alfred Knopf, and H. L. Mencken himself offer an in-depth look at the controversial newspaper legend.
The Atlantic Monthly | May 1959
first saw Henry L. Mencken in late 1913 in the offices of the Baltimore Sun, for which he was writing a rather celebrated column, "The Free-Lance." A round pink face, baby-blue eyes, blond hair parted in the middle, he sat at a typewriter and in his shirt sleeves. I had looked him up to talk about the work of Joseph Conrad. My employers, Doubleday, Page and Company, had in the works Conrad's new novel, Chance, and Mencken had been "beating the drum" for him in the pages of the Smart Set for years.
For Henry With Love
"I knew Mencken for more than forty years, intimately for well over thirty. Books have been published which describe him as a man I find it difficult to recognize. His public side was visible to everyone: tough, cynical, amusing, and exasperating by turns, but everlastingly consistent. The private man was something else again"
by Alfred A. Knopf
Nearly ten years later, Conrad wrote a friend: "Mencken's vigor is astonishing. It is like an electric current. In all he writes there is a crackle of blue sparks like those one sees in a dynamo house amongst revolving masses of metal that gives you a sense of enormous power. For that is what he has. Dynamic power." Conrad went on to object to Mencken's "harping on my slavonism," and after a long paragraph concluded, "this outburst is provoked of course by dear Mencken's amazing article about me, so many-sided, so brilliant and so warm-hearted. For that man of a really ruthless mind, pitiless to all sham and common formulas, has a great generosity. My debt of gratitude to him has been growing for years, and I am glad I have lived long enough to read the latest contribution." [For permission to quote from this letter I am indebted to the trustees of the Joseph Conrad Estate.] The two men had never met, but Conrad had grasped the essence of H.L.M.
Mencken had already published a few books, first with a small Boston firm long gone out existence, John W. Luce and Company, owned by an old friend who never took his business very seriously. Later he took up with the American branch of the English publisher, John Lane never knew why, except that his friends, George Jean Nathan and Willard Huntington Wright also were on Lane's list and that the head of the branch bore the name J. Jefferson Jones, and the patriotic overtones of this gave Henry pleasure.
Even then he had the reputation, chiefly with those who did not know him well—and I didn't know him well—of being a burly, loud, raucous fellow, rough in his speech and lacking refined manners. How mistaken this opinion was I learned a little later, when on a visit to Washington I introduced Blanche Knopf to him. He met her with the most charming manners conceivable, manners I was to discover he always displayed in talking with women. And shortly he handed her a box of cigarettes—Milos, I think they were called—and my wife and I both remember that their paper was purple and their tips gold.
knew Mencken for more than forty years, intimately for well over thirty. Books have been published which describe him as a man I find it difficult to recognize. His public side was visible to everyone: tough, cynical, amusing, and exasperating by turns, but everlastingly consistent. The private man was something else again: sentimental, generous, and unwavering—sometimes most blind—in his devotion to people he liked. In company he had what Fannie Hurst once called a self-starter; nothing at all was required to get his brilliant and perpetually amusing conversation going, and if no one else present contributed a word, he could keep his monologue alive almost as long as could Sinclair Lewis. If he never wavered in his devotion to a friend, he never changed his mind about an enemy, but I don't think he ever regarded people as his enemies, his enemies were the enemies of his friends. And he wanted people to fight fairly, however fiercely, hence his enduring bitterness toward Stuart Sherman over the latter's attacks during World War I on Theodore Dreiser. Sherman had used Dreiser's German ancestry in his attack on Dreiser's writings, and Mencken rightly felt that this was hitting below the belt.
Mencken's gifts were singularly varied. He was surely one of the great newspapermen of his generation, and of his books probably those dealing with the American language will be longest remembered. He took on the professional philologists and beat them at their own game. He knew more about medicine and the law than any other layman who has passed my way. And he was always reading books about religion. He was never interested, so far as I know, in painting or culture—music was a real hobby, but his tastes ran almost exclusively to Beethoven and nineteenth-century German romantic composers—and he never really liked the theater, though he acquired a great collection of Ibseniana, which he presented to the University of Leipzig. Despite the fact that his father was a successful tobacco merchant in Baltimore, he came of a long line of learned Germans, some of whom were considerable figures in their day, and on the walls of his old house in Hollins Street hung many portraits of Menckens, while in a bookcase next to the living-room fireplace were a number of learned works published in Germany by various Menckenii during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Henry, who was devoted to his mother, lived with her in the Hollins Street house—red brick with white front marble steps. He left the house only after his mother's death and his marriage to Sara Haardt. When she passed away he returned to it, occupying it with his younger brother, August; and in it he died. I never saw him use the front parlor, which contained a grand piano, except during Prohibition, when he was host to the Saturday Night Club in this room. Between it and the dining room was a gloomy living room with sofa and chairs. Back of the sofa was a bookcase in a Hepplewhite design, especially made to fit the space. Behind its glass doors were sets of standard authors, including the twenty-four volumes of the Variorum Shakespeare, which Henry must have acquired when he was very young. The lighting in this room was hard on the eyes. He didn't seem to realize this, until in his last years when his eyes had been affected by a stroke. The light did bother him then, and he wore a green eyeshade. But many a time while sitting in this room, I found the inclination to doze irresistible, despite the brilliance of his talk.
In the dining room one invariably ate and drank well. Mencken was marvelous in his handling of domestic help, and the Negro cook always served him devotedly. He liked to putter around the yard and particularly to break up wood—discarded packing cases, wine boxes, and what not—for burning in the living room fireplace.
He was a voracious reader: fiction galore, theology, medicine, jurisprudence, philology. I remember him once in the old days packing his bag in the Algonquin Hotel preparatory to taking the train for Baltimore—he never flew—and remarking as he threw in a batch of books, "These damned novels; it sometimes takes me an hour to read one." When I would point out to him that rail travel had its risks too, he would always reply, "That's all right. If there's an accident you're on the ground. But in a plane?"
When my wife and I lived in the city Mencken frequently came to dinner and to spend a quiet evening with us. We seldom went out, and when we did it was to a concert. He was in our box at the Boston Symphony's first performance of Falla's Concerto for Harpsichord (or piano). I remember his only comment when it was over: "It would be better without the flats." And one evening he fell sound asleep in our living room, sitting upright on a sofa, the almost inevitable cigar in his mouth, while I went on playing the piano very badly. After about an hour he woke up with a start and blurted, "Damn it, I can never sleep sitting up."
When we moved to the country, he always stayed overnight and often for a weekend. Invariably he read himself to sleep, never with anything he was tackling in a systematic way but with some odd volume he had picked up somewhere, frequently in a secondhand bookstore. His pajamas were of the brightest solid colors, as one could see since he never closed the door of his room. He endeared himself to the domestic help, and after his illness brought an end to his visits, the couple who had been with us for many years expressed great sorrow that they were not to see him again. No other houseguest of mine ever moved them that way.
All in all, Henry was my most intimate friend and influenced me more than anyone else. But he was as close to Blanche as he was to me and got along as well with my father, eighteen years his senior, as he did with me, twelve years his junior. He shared with us for more than thirty years books and music, good food and drink when we were well, and gave freely the most thoughtful and expert kind of help on those occasions, happily rare, when we were ill. In Baltimore he cultivated all his life the wise medical men at Johns Hopkins, and he spent a fantastic amount of his time getting friends to and from doctors' waiting rooms and hospitals, comforting them and keeping them company there.
I used to attend the meetings of the famous Saturday Night Club with some frequency. Until ten o'clock there was music, chiefly arrangements of classical symphonies. The players I am sure enjoyed it far more than the listeners, who were few, but the listeners surely did enjoy the players. Two at the piano: Henry secundo and Max Broedel primo. Raymond Pearl with his French horn. A cello, a flute, a viola, a few violins, and Willie Woollcott (Alec's brother), author of a song that suited the crowd to a T called, "I Am a One Hundred Per Cent American," as a sort of Greek chorus. At ten o'clock sharp, los mit Musik, and serious beer drinking began. During Prohibition each member of the club was host in turn and supplied bottled home brew enough to half fill a bathtub. After repeal the members repaired to Schellhase's, Henry's favorite café or, as he preferred to call it, saloon.
How well I remember one Saturday night when Frank Hazlehurst was host. He was to remove my tonsils next morning. As the evening advanced and the drinking continued, one member after another came up and spoke words of reassurance to me: "Don't worry about Frank, the more he drinks of this the steadier his hand will be in the morning." Henry, invoking the sympathy of the crowd for me, finally broke up the party. We went next morning to St. Agnes Hospital. And when a sister turned up soon after I had been put to bed to ask why a tonsillectomy had to be done on the Sabbath, I recall Henry's telling her in his sweetest and most disarming manner something that made it sound as if Sunday were the only day on which any operation could ever be performed on me. And then he advised me that if priests came to talk with me after the operation, as they undoubtedly would, I had only to point to my throat, nod my head from side to side, and say nothing.
encken's first visit to the Bach Festival at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, seems to have been made with Joseph Hergesheimer in 1923, for I find a letter which reads: "The Bach jaunt turned out to be very pleasant. We found excellent beer on draught at ten cents a glass. The choruses were superb, but the solo voices singed my kidneys. Hergy turned up in a golden orange kimono with a purple lining—the perfect Borzoi."
Later, and for many years, I went regularly to the festival with Mencken, staying wherever we could find accommodations: the local hotel, a semi-residential hotel in nearby Allentown, and one time at the Elks Club in Bethlehem. During the prohibition years he boasted that he could find beer within ten minutes of his arrival in any town. He usually did, but once in Bethlehem we were stumped, and only at the end of twenty-four hours did a taxicab driver overhear his complaint and drop us off at the right place. We rang a bell, and the door opened. Henry pointed to the scores of the B Minor Mass that we were carrying and asked politely, "Can you do anything for two poor, thirsty musicians?" The fellow looked us over with two glass eyes, decided we were all right, and told us to come in and turn left. At the end of the hall we found a bar about fifty feet long serving good beer and sandwiches at ridiculously modest prices. Henry was enchanted.
Henry adored the B Minor Mass and knew it: well, but he suffered, as I did, from the fact that the pews in the Packer Memorial Church at Lehigh bear no relation to the anatomy of the human seat, and so sometimes we lay on the grass outside and listened to the performance.
For a long time Mencken and Nathan got almost everything they wanted out of editing the old Smart Set, but while George remained faithful to the theater and developed no great interest in anything else, Henry was ranging far afield, and the Smart Set began to cramp his style. By 1923 our publishing business was well established, Henry's friendship and mine indestructible, and I was convinced that a magazine could be just about as good as its editor and that as an editor Henry was out of the top drawer. So we began talking about what eventually became the American Mercury. I advised him to leave Nathan to carry on the Smart Set, but the marriage of the two seemed indissoluble at that time, and so when the magazine made its appearance it was under their joint editorship. As editors Mencken and Nathan each owned one sixth of the stock in the magazine but were to receive no salaries. They were to have an absolutely free hand, but the agreement called for me to arbitrate if any differences arose between them. A difference did very soon arise: the question of printing Eugene O'Neill's play, All God's Chillun Got Wings. Nathan was for it, Henry against; and I voted with Nathan.
The two drifted apart and soon began to quarrel. Nathan had no part in the editing of the magazine after February 1925, though his name appeared on it for several months thereafter. Before too long Alfred A. Knopf Inc. bought Nathan's interest in the magazine, and Henry had it to himself until 1933, by which time he had lost interest in it. His old battles had been for the most part won, and a new era, which to him was to prove exceptionally unattractive, was opening up.
Someone—I suspect it was Ben Hecht—once played a mean trick on Maxwell Bodenheim, the Greenwich Village poet. He wrote Bodenheim saying that times were flush with him, as he knew they were not with Bodie, and so he was enclosing a twenty-dollar bill, which of course he didn't. Bodenheim tried to raise hell with the post office, claiming the envelope had been tampered with, and finally took the case to Mencken, who replied that his Uncle Moshe, the money smeller, assured him that no currency had ever been in that envelope. So one day in 1921, returning ten dollars I had borrowed from Henry, I wrote that I was "attaching herewith Moshe the money-smeller's certification of my having put it in the envelope." He protested that I didn't owe him the ten dollars and, when I explained, wrote: "Call me a liar if you will, but I had completely forgotten that ten dollars. Moral: I am a good man to borrow money from."
Reviews of Mencken's work in the early days were far more favorable abroad than at home, so we once, at his request, sent the following release to the press:
In view of the extreme disfavor with which a large proportion of American critics regard Henry L. (Lyddite) Mencken the following quotations from recent foreign reviews of his books should be of some interest. They prove possibly, 1) that America is extremely provincial, 2) that a prophet is subject to being decorated by the academicians of almost any country but his own, and 3) that the beer served in other countries is probably better than in ours.
Early in 1921 Henry wrote me, "If you can get Buddenbrooks at a reasonable price, grab it. It is probably the solidest novel done in Germany for years. It is well worth having." We followed his advice, as we did on many another occasions. He was never on our payroll and would have been greatly offended, I am certain, had we ever even suggested offering him a fee for the considerable amount of reading he did for us—and it was considerable. His advice was always ours for the asking; he frequently suggested authors for us to approach and books to publish, but the idea that this was anything but a normal relationship between a writer and a friend who happened to be his publisher would have shocked him beyond words. He was not a unique example of this. Carl Van Vechten, Thomas Beer, and Joseph Hergesheimer acted toward us the same way.
Also in 1921, Mencken sent in the revised version of In Defense of Women. I suggested publishing it the following spring but said that I would try for the immediate fall if he so desired. His reply was characteristic: "You are the publisher; not I. I leave all such matters to your judgment." And as we had the second edition of The American Language in the works at that time, he added, "All I ask is that you make The American Language good and thick. It is my secret ambition to be the author of a book weighing at least five pounds."
The first edition had been a thinnish book running to fewer than four hundred pages. So we printed the second on cardboard and brought its bulk to a hideous two inches. A third edition, again revised and enlarged, appeared in 1923. My copy bears the inscription: "This is the last edition as God is my judge—H. L. Mencken." Henry kept his word for a dozen years, but in 1936 the fourth edition appeared, rewritten and, this time, enlarged to nearly eight hundred pages. By now Henry was, as he would put it, spitting on his hands with a vengeance, and in 1945 we published Supplement I, another octavo of eight hundred pages, followed finally, in 1948, by Supplement II, an equally large and impressive tome. It delights me that a volume of such vast proportions should have sold more than 60,000 copies, in addition to the 150,000 copies sent out by the Book-of-the-Month Club.
Mencken and I had often discussed the need for a good popular physiology. There were, of course, plenty of textbooks, but nothing first-rate for the general reader. Late in 1925, Henry reported one day that he had found the man to write the book: Logan Clendening, whose Modern Methods of Treatment, a medical textbook, he had just read. Here, he said, was a sound man who could really write. At my request he sent Clendening this letter, which illustrates perfectly his ability rare among book editors, as every publisher knows—to reduce his ideas to the simplest and most concrete terms:
What I suggested to Mr. Knopf was not a book on physiology in the technical sense, but a general work on the human body and its operations for the intelligent layman. Strangely enough, there is no such book in print. Old time school texts are all stupid, and the later books for general reading are full of pious propaganda.
The book which resulted, The Human Body, found a steady demand and passed through many editions before going into a cheaper hard-cover reprint.
What I suggest is a volume describing the anatomy of the human body with constant reference to function and ending with a brief statement of pathological principles, say along the run of McCallum's well-known textbook. The layman reads about such things as blood counts, blood pressures, kidney functions, Wasserman reactions and fallen arches, and yet he finds it almost impossible to discover precisely what they mean. The book I have in mind ought to avoid useless physiological and anatomical minutiae; nevertheless, it should contain a few pages devoted to histology. I believe that such a book would have a large and permanent sale and that it would do a great deal of good. Its value as a counter-blast to the grotesque quackeries now prevailing must be obvious.
Do you plan at any time in the near future to come to New York or Washington? If so, I'd like very much to see you and explain the plan in more detail. My home is in Baltimore and I maintain there a supply of old-fashioned refreshments. They are also obtainable in New York.
A Baltimore clergyman had sent us a manuscript with the suggestion that Mencken would write an introduction for it if we published it. I sent the manuscript to him, and he wrote me: "The — book is psychical crap, but it might sell. — is a High Church Episcopal Rector in a fashionable suburb. Most of his congregation are rich ex-Methodists, Presbyterians, Dunkards, Jews, Lutherans, etc. I shall certainly write no introduction for it. More, — is well aware that I shall not. Never believe a clergyman."
In September, 1922, Mencken was in Berlin, where Blanche and I had been a year earlier. He ended a letter: "Tell Blanche that the Sohlers always refer to her as 'die schoene Frau Knopf.' On the question of your own beauty, they are polite but not enthusiastic. I told them that you and Harding were regarded as the handsomest living Americans."
Later that year we must have drawn up an organization chart and shown it to him, for he ended another letter: "It cost you thirty or forty dollars to draw up that Stammbaum you showed me. Read Henry Ford on the subject of office diagrams and abscissae. His overhead is only one eighth of one percent. In sso. corde Jesu."
In 1928, I went with him to the Republican National Convention at Kansas City. He collected political conventions the way other men collect books or paintings. We met at lunch on the opening day. He asked where I was sitting, and I told him up in the gallery, nearest the roof. He acted with his usual briskness, and from then on I sat with the Baltimore Sun crowd and was the proud wearer of a photographer's badge. It was all great fun, but my fondest recollection is of Henry at his typewriter in the suite that Paul Patterson had engaged, a sailor straw hat on his head, a corncob pipe between his teeth, clad only in his B.V.D.'s.
We had the same birthday but never were together on it, because it came at the height of his hay-fever season. Anyway he disliked all such celebrations, and only two or three times did he take any notice of the passing of another year. But once he sent me a present with this note:
Your moustache has no greater admirer than I am; nevertheless, I am not unaware of the penalties that you must pay for cultivating it. It practically cuts you off from noodle soup, and makes you justifiably uneasy every time a salad dressed with mayonnaise is brought on the table. Above all, it deprives you of the great boon of having Schlagsahne on your coffee. In a day when vibrissae were more common on men such difficulties were thought of, and human ingenuity surmounted them. The moustache-cup was invented, and came into wide use. My father had one, and my grandfather had a whole set, some of them specially designed to take care of his chin whiskers. Now they have gone out, but in the antique shoppes of Baltimore specimens are still discoverable. At immense labor and expense Sara and I have assembled a battery of four, with saucers for the drip. They go to you to gladden your birthday. For the first time you are now free to wallow in Schlagsahne. Find out which cup fits you best, and keep it for private use. The rest are for moustachioed guests.
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Copyright © 1959 by Alfred Knopf. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 1959; Vol. 203, Issue 5; pp. 50-54.