H.L. Mencken, perhaps the most controversial and influential American critic of almost everything in the 1920-1940s, never found his way to the Pacific Northwest, but he did offer erudite and stinging comment from afar. Called the Bard of Baltimore, Mencken wrote books and scandalized the American culture through a biting, humorous newspaper column, and he never wavered in his defense of the First Amendment.
If you savor an iconoclast, turn to his written work or join the H.L. Mencken Society. Through both you gain access to his favorite American workshed, Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library. Over 40 years ago I picked up a brief HLM biography from my uncle’s library, and essentially never put it down. I’ve attended meetings of the Mencken Saturday Night Club in Baltimore and tried to work through heaps of steamed blue crabs from Chesapeake Bay – Mencken’s “Protein Factory” – while carrying around his monumental work, The American Language.
San Francisco was as close to Seattle as Mencken dared visit in the West, though shards of the Pacific Northwest crept into his writing. In 1931, Mencken observed that the research of Russell Blankenship, a former Whitman College professor (my Alma Mater), was impressive. He referred to Whitman as a “modest filling station . . . in far-away Walla Walla.” Mencken wrote that Professor Blankenship’s erudition and clear prose were impressive, and that the professor’s “discussion of such things as the racial make-up of the American people, the influence of the national geography upon them, and the origin of their principal ideas is well-informed and very shrewd.” As a master wordsmith and reader himself, Mencken was excited whenever he “discovered” an original thinker or talented writer in America’s outback.
The Bard’s other verbal and written comments about the Pacific Northwest were cribbed from Washington state newspapers, as described in his 1925 and 1926 books titled Americana. He also had a pen-pal relationship with Seattle’s leading realtor and patron of the arts, Henry Broderick. One of Broderick’s Christmas books was entitled The Commandment Breakers of Walla Walla. Mencken thought it was an excellent tract (Broderick had been a member of the Washington State Board of Prisons) and the two gruff writers exchanged letters for several years.
A minor cultural scandal erupted in 1990 when The Diary of H.L. Mencken was published. Mencken had blasted everyone in his path for 50 years: Methodists, Jews, African Americans, Democrats (especially Franklin Delano Roosevelt), political conventions, Hollywood, Prohibition, politicians in general, and much more. On Mencken’s orders, the Diary was sealed at the Enoch Pratt Library for 25 years after his death.
His cheeky diatribes aside, the Diary also revealed that Mencken knew personally just about everybody who was anybody in 20th century America. He hobnobbed with George Gershwin, Dashiell Hammett, William Faulkner, Theodore Dreiser (whom he boosted for the Nobel Prize in Literature), Clarence Darrow, Sinclair Lewis, Felix Frankfurter, and Senator Robert Taft.
Although publication of his Diary caused a ripple in the press and among book clubs and literary societies, general interest waned. Mencken’s highly prejudiced, fiery and fearless style had fallen from favor. Today, few readers remember the power of HLM’s words and presence on the American cultural stage. Yet his mastery of the “American” language and fierce defense of journalism and the booming country in which he lived enhanced our never-ending affection and appreciation of cantankerous writers and the printed word.