Diaries Disappointingly Destroy Myth

He was once called "the closest embodiment of the Johnsonian type of literary dictatorship the United States had known." From the image of the man and writer that emerges in this diary, it was a fitting sobriquet for journalist H.L. Menken.

The terror of teetotalers and the debunker of American myths, Mencken was the most famous journalist of his time. Known for his biting commentary, the Baltimore-based writer combined a lifelong interest in the uniquely American forms of the English language with an abiding concern about the public issues of the day.

The Diary of H.L. Mencken

Edited by Charles A. Fecher

Alfred A. Knopf

$30.00; 463 pages

But Mencken's diary--just released this year after decades of languishing, unread, in Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Library--is not really about politics. Or about the writer's craft. Or even about the inner life of the writer himself.

Instead, the 463-page diary is best regarded as an example of a literary and intellectual way of life that will never again flourish in American society. More than anything else, the diary succeeds in conveying the network of personal and professional ties that bound together the elites from many different worlds into a close-knit bunch that ate and drank, gossiped and traveled together despite ideological differences.

In his diary, Mencken tells the story of this group--his interactions with them, their personal foibles, their hypocrisies, and his fascination with all of the above. He recounts anecdotes about his friends and enemies with equal glee--one moment excoriating Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis and F. Scott Fitzgerald as washed-up old drunks, the next extolling their work.

He is fascinated with his own insider status, and the diary at times reads like a "Who's Who" of American politics, literature, medicine and academia. Despite the fact that Mencken ordered the diary sealed after his death, these are very much the public reminiscences of a very public man.

The sub-text of the diary--Mencken the man--is harder to decode. Though the one-time founder and editor of the American Mercury was a literary critic who prided himself on sifting through other writers' pomposity, he seemed to find his own methods of criticism strangely removed from his life. Rarely does he present in the diary the introspective or self-critical ponderings that mark so many other diaries.

But a picture of Mencken, albeit an often self-contradictory one, does emerge in the pages of this record of his life from 1930 to 1948. Mencken, as he wrote in this most private of forums, was a husband proud of his solicitousness and a hypochondriac; a wealthy man obsessed by money; a writer intrigued by the failings of his colleagues and competitors.

Mencken was really a man of his times, and despite his reputation as a vitriolic critic of American hypocrisy and greed, he shared more than a little intellectual common ground with those who perpetuated a status quo based on race, class, gender and religious bias.

This facet of the diary, more than any other, has prompted comment and dismay from the current standard-bearers of the literary establishment, who have launched a lively controversy in the pages of such mass circulation journals as the New York Review of Books about the Mencken legacy in American letters. There are those who suggest it should be revised in light of his retrograde social views.

But what these commentators have often refused to acknowledge is that the moments of anti-Semitism and racism in Mencken's diary are not--and cannot be--separated from the larger picture of the life which he conveys. Yes, he makes a number of remarks which would today be considered "offensive speech," ranging from concerns about the "colored" moving into his old Baltimore neighborhood and "destroying" it to incredulousness at the "Jewish" appearance of someone he knows to be a Christian. But, perhaps more significantly for understanding Mencken's biases, he comes across as an almost unknowing bigot.

While the thought of being revealed in a Menken expose left many of America's most prominent citizens quaking in their shoes, the author himself seems to simply accept his prejudices as of a part of life. What might surprise many readers of the diary is the actual extent to which Mencken fails to hold himself and his personal views up to his usually rigorous standard of review.

This lack of self-awareness on Mencken's part is indicative of the ideology which spawned his fame. His was a public life, and a privileged one, and he conceived of his role in American society as that of the unassailable critic, as one who thought his message was as important as his means. An eternal fondness for dismissing sacred cows did not mean that Mencken as a man or as a writer even began to address his own.

And this, in the final analysis, is what is the most disconcerting part of the Mencken diary. The Mencken of these pages is an unsympathetic figure, historically interesting, perhaps, but unsympathetic nonetheless. He is caught up in the petty prejudices and mundane concerns that dominate most of his contemporaries' lives, though his writings and reputation had taught us to expect more.