H.L. Mencken, the "bad boy of Baltimore," had an erudite opinion about or phrase for almost everything from his own popularity ("Let's not forget that the embalmer may be waiting just around the corner") to Southern culture ("The Sahara of the Bozart").
At least 10 biographers have tackled Mencken. This most recent Boswell is Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, whose "Mencken: The American Iconoclast" has garnered favorable reviews since Oxford University Press published it in November. (Mencken's own paper, the Sun, is not reviewing it because, as Book Editor Michael Ollove wrote in an e-mail, "We are Menckened out.")
Rodgers edited the correspondence between Mencken and his wife, Sara Haardt, in "Mencken and Sara: A Life in Letters" (McGraw-Hill, 1987) and a collection of his newspaper columns in "The Impossible H.L. Mencken" (Doubleday, 1991). AJR Associate Editor Robin T. Reid interviewed Rodgers over the telephone from her home in Washington, D.C., where she lives with her husband, former Sun columnist Jules Witcover, and two dogs.
Q: Why Mencken again?
A: When I was working on my first two books, "Mencken and Sara" and "The Impossible H.L. Mencken," I did a lot of research for the introductions. Children of Mencken's contemporaries loaned me papers that hadn't been seen before. I also realized that none of the previous Mencken biographies had delved into what he called the primary goal of his life: his fight for liberty. In the "Weapon of Silence" chapter, you'll see where his love for freedom of the press comes out.
Q: How long did it take you to write and research this?
A: I got the contract in 1991. It took really five years of research and five years of writing.
Q: Where did the research take you?
A: No other Mencken biographer had gone to Germany. I did. I found a few things in archives there. I wanted to see it because Mencken's ancestors came from Germany and were renowned scholars in Leipzig. I felt that I should see the country that he so loved... I lived in Baltimore between 1991 and 1994 to research the book. I could do further interviews there, and I could delve into microfilms of old newspapers at the Enoch Pratt Library... I wanted to walk the streets that he walked.
There are Alfred Knopf's papers and diaries at the University of Texas in Austin. At Cornell, there were George Jean Nathan's papers. Up at Yale, the head librarian came to my little table one day and said, "We've just received this week the diaries of Mencken's secretaries." That was catnip to me.
Q: Did you learn anything new about Mencken this time?
A: I did not realize how dishonorable he could be with his girlfriends. As a woman, I thought it was very sad when a woman allows herself to become victimized. I found those chapters to be the most painful to write.
Q: Did you see any similarities between the journalism business today and that of Mencken's time?
A: One of the things Mencken really railed against was the timorousness that some journalists have shown. Mencken was always writing on things that he thought should be said. He began seeing a lot of journalists going out and becoming PR men. He thought that was traitorous to journalism.
In 1948, he began seeing men of print going into television and radio. He thought both mediums "were a pander to imbecility." I think Mencken's words on television and how it would be a rival to newspapers were so prescient.
Q: Are there any Menckens among us today?
A: I don't think there are. Very few have his courage, very few have his style of writing, and very few have his background. He was a literary critic, and he had such a huge knowledge of so many subjects.
One of the things that made the Baltimore Sun such a great paper in Mencken's day was that they printed his columns on lynching. In those days, Baltimore was a very segregated city, and when Mencken wrote his columns, the Sun was boycotted and so were many Baltimore businesses. The Sun, instead of backing down to this boycott, continued to publish his column.
It was a family-owned paper then. Maybe when you have so many papers owned by conglomerates, there's not enough room. They're looking at their profits now.
Q: What can journalists and publishers learn from Mencken?
A: They can learn how to have courage to write about their beliefs in a strong way. They can learn about good writing but not to imitate him.
One of Mencken's failings was when he went to Germany in 1938, his own sentimental views of Germany prevented him from writing about it. He never came out publicly against Hitler. One of the things journalists can learn from this is never to let your sentiments get in the way.