Picks and Pans Review: The Diary of H.l. Mencken

updated 02/05/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/05/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

Edited by Charles A. Fecher

It is disheartening enough that Mencken, the unforgiving social-political critic, turns out to have been a cheap, gutter bigot. After all, we are looking into the heart of a writer whose opinions defined the nation's intellectual Zeitgeist, the towering inferno of iconoclasm, the Baltimore crab, so to say, in our literary oyster bed, scuttling off with pearls of English prose in his attacks on our inferior kultur.

But beyond that disappointment, it is a heartache to find that the fastidious author and student of the English language can find nothing more elegant than the epithet "kikes" with which to denounce Jews in the unguarded pages of his diary. (Fecher leaves this reference out of the main text for the sake of delicacy—the two men who were the objects of the remark are still alive—but he mentions Mencken's use of the term in his introduction.)

From 1930 until 1948, to judge by these excerpts from his journal, this giant of journalism shrank to a puny, beer-guzzling lout. And, oh, his interests were of such a mundane scale. "My physical state at the moment is not too good, for in addition to the illness that floored me in July, I am suffering from a severe hay fever," he writes in September of 1939, when the world has plunged into World War II.

We can chart his intake of hops and his outlay of taxes as he makes his self-absorbed way through the hard times of the Depression and World War II. Dinners with Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis and lunch with George Jean Nathan all sink to pedestrian name-dropping.

A great diary should slip the flavor and stench of the hour between the lines. What a man eats for dinner, his ailments and complaints are of passing interest; what's valuable is a diary's contribution to a higher understanding of a life. Yet this diary dwells on the trivial: "Of late I have been very uncomfortable, with occasional pains in the right arm and foot," he notes in summer 1940. If Mencken were alive (he died in 1956) and reviewing this writing, he would dismiss it as the ravings of a porch-climbing mountebank—or perhaps a mistake by an over-zealous publisher.

Fecher notes that some Mencken scholars have argued that the man who wrote the diary was "soured on a world that had passed him by, and incurably cynical about all the changes that had made his life so much less pleasant than it used to be." Fecher himself, however, writes that the Mencken of the diary was not a changed man, merely a revealed one, exposed in "the extent of his stubbornly held opinions and prejudices."

Either way, Mencken stipulated in his will that his diary be opened 25 years after his death, suggesting that he was aware of at least the possibility of publication.

Mencken does make painfully tender references to his wife, Sara, and his long grief after she died in 1935, and there are passages when the old fire is rekindled. His denunciation of Moby Dick is a reminder of his willingness to combat common opinion: "It really amazed me by its badness.... I found an extremely overblown and windy piece of writing...."

Nevertheless, infrequent bursts of welcome irreverence notwithstanding, we are left with an impression of a deflated windbag where once a great airship flew. (Knopf, $30)

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