(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

On November 5, 1930, Henry Louis Mencken, the fifty-year-old “Sage of Baltimore,” began to keep a diary. By the time of his final entry, on November 15, 1948, eight days before the stroke that left him incapable of reading or writing during the final seven years of his life, Mencken’s diary totaled about 2,100 typed, double-spaced pages. Under the terms of his will, the diary was deposited in Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library, sealed until twenty-five years after his death. It became available to scholars on January 29, 1981, but a label that Mencken affixed to each of the five wooden boxes in which he placed the diary stipulated that, even after twenty-five years, the material was “to be open only to students engaged in critical or historical investigation, approved after proper inquiry by the Chief Librarian.” In a rationalization worthy of Max Brod’s justification for saving the work of Franz Kafka and of the gratitude of any reader, the Pratt trustees authorized trade publication of Meneken’s diary. He had, after all, hired a secretary to transform each day’s scrawl into a typewritten essay. The diary was surely meant to be read, and, as edited by Charles A. Fecher, is a fascinating document of a particular time, place, and sensibility, part of a vast body of memoirs, letters, and essays that led Mencken, with only slight hyperbole, to marvel: “There is, indeed, probably no trace in history of a writer who left more careful accounts of himself and his contemporaries.”

Does it, however, qualify as public discourse? For all his zest for polemic, even Mencken’s published writings were soliloquies—if we are to believe his claim, in a 1939 entry, that he never writes except “to provide a kind of katharsis [sic] for my own thoughts.” The hefty volume culls almost one-third of the more than half a million words that Meneken recorded in the private journal he kept for eighteen years, simultaneous with prodigious activities as author, editor, lexicographer, and bon vivant. By 1945, Mencken estimated that he had published about ten million words, and his unpublished writings were almost as prolific. “Not many American authors will ever leave a more complete record,” claims the entry for June 1, 1942.

Mencken’s diary is a record of the affections and animadversions of one of the era’s most distinctive personalities, the self-anointed scourge of the “booboisie” whose pungent columns in the Baltimore Sun attracted a national following. He edited the influential magazine The American Mercury and undertook the ground-breaking linguistic study The American Language (1919; First Supplement, 1945; Second Supplement, 1948). A voracious and sophisticated reader in several languages, Meneken was also an amateur musician of some talent. For all of his cantankerousness and lifelong hypochondria, he was a very gregarious man, and his wide circle of acquaintances included notable writers, politicians, clergymen, scientists, and businessmen. He was reluctant to leave Baltimore, but his house on Hollins Street became an obligatory stop for many of the illustrious figures of the time. The diary includes trenchant observations on T. S. Eliot (“An amiable fellow, but with little to say”), F. Scott Fitzgerald (“He is a charming fellow, and when sober makes an excellent companion”), Theodore Dreiser (though Meneken championed his fiction when Sister Carrie was roundly reviled, he came to view his comrade as “an incurable lout”), and many others. Mencken remained a bachelor until the age of fifty, and the diary begins three months after his marriage to Sara Haardt. She was to die five years later, and some of the most moving entries express curmudgeon Meneken’s passionate, lifelong devotion to her memory.

“I am never much interested in the effects of what I write,” writes Mencken on November 29, 1939. Yet even he might be bemused by the sensational effect that publication of his diary created, by the hostile reaction to a crankiness that is now as fashionable as uncut pages. The published book seemed to many to authenticate rumors of a sinister private Mencken that had been circulating among scholars. Much of the response to the diary was preoccupied with a pattern of entries that seemed to many critics virulently racist.

In a gesture usually reserved to deplore the detention of a dissident poet, nine of the most distinguished authors in the United States signed a letter published in The New York Review of Books (March 15, 1990). The writers, two of them—Norman Mailer and Arthur Miller—Jewish and one—Ralph Ellison—black, proclaimed their “dismay at the overreaction to the Diary of H. L. Mencken.” Reviewers of the journal had tended to agree with the painful but unequivocal verdict of Charles A. Fecher; the book’s editor: “Mencken was an anti-Semite.” By contrast, the New York Review Nine celebrate Mencken as “a tremendous liberating force in American culture,” a man guilty of discourtesy but not bigotry. At stake is the reputation of the zestful scourge of the booboisie, the icon of American iconoclasm. As with the CBS...

(The entire section is 2120 words.)