Marion Elizabeth Rodgers
“On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” H.L. Mencken wrote those words more than 80 years ago, and Bush-bashers have latched onto it with winking glee. But then such is the fate of Baltimore’s firebrand journalist, essayist, editor, social critic, linguist, and Prohibition-era home brewer: Mencken’s millions of words tend to come at us now in cherry-picked snippets. In an era when poison-penned political scribes tend to take aim along partisan lines, Mencken’s machine-gun assault on governance and self-styled elitist libertarianism have few takers today. The liberal The Nation and conservative Weekly Standard have both tossed brickbats at the writer’s worldview, and accusations of racism and anti-Semitism now encircle Baltimore’s so-called sage like so much back-room cigar smoke. About the only place where Mencken seems alive and well is on the bookstore’s biography shelf. Last year, Washington, D.C., writer Marion Elizabeth Rodgers tossed the first female hat into the Mencken bio ring with her Mencken: The American Iconoclast; earlier she’d authored Mencken and Sara: A Life in Letters and The Impossible H.L. Mencken, a collection of his newspaper writing. Fifty years after Henry’s mortal remains were laid to rest beneath a marble slab in Loudon Park Cemetery, City Paper sat down with Rodgers to talk about Mencken’s dented reputation, his surprisingly randy love life, and his place in 21st century thought.
City Paper: I understand you came to be interested in Mencken quite by accident.
Marion Elizabeth Rodgers: It’s kind of a weird story, but it’s a true story. I was at Goucher College when it was still a women’s college. This was 1981. I was writing a feature story for the school newspaper on Sara Haardt, a former Goucher student who had married Mencken and was also a Southern writer of some note. I went into the vault in the rare book room at the college and I literally stumbled upon this box. When I looked down I saw a note written on top of the box that said, in essence, “Do not open until 1981” and signed “H.L. Mencken.” Inside the box was 750 love letters between Sara and Mencken, and that became the basis for my first book, Mencken and Sara, which came out in 1987.
CP: Did you know much about him before tripping over his mash notes?
MER: Mencken was mentioned in some of my classes. My father and brother used to mention Mencken at the dinner table, but I had not read very much about him. By coming to Mencken through this tender route it almost opened a door to another side of Mencken, which was probably a nicer side than I would have met in his other writing.
CP: How did this end up in your putting a 672-page biography onto the already crowded Mencken shelf?
MER: The sons and daughters of Mencken’s contemporaries had gotten to know me through the Mencken and Sara book, and also some of Mencken’s contemporaries who were still alive then. They had lent me a lot of material, and I had done extensive interviews and couldn’t use a lot of the material in my first two books. I was left with all this wonderful stuff: memoirs, diaries, letters. When The Impossible Mencken came out in 1991, I was approached by Oxford University Press to do the biography of Mencken, which at the time I thought would only take me four years to do.
CP: For a while there recently, three Mencken bios were underway at once. Did you ever bump into your competitors along the Mencken trail?
MER: Yes. It was odd, because at one point the three of us were in the [Enoch Pratt Free Library] Mencken Room at the same time, smiling at each other. But I think all of us were polite and gentlemanly about it.
CP: Is being Mencken’s first female biographer enough to give a different slant to your effort?
MER: Not really. I just felt I could bring new material to the table. But then maybe, I thought, as a woman I might be more sensitive to how he treated women, and you’ll see in parts of the book that Mencken was not all that honorable with his girlfriends. He could be quite cruel, and he was juggling multiple girlfriends at the same time. A man might have a very different point of view of all this.
CP: It’s curious that Mencken was this bibulous gadabout in the roaring ’20s who bunked at home with Mom. He’s even been called a “momma’s boy.”
MER: “Momma’s boy” is not a term I’d use. It’s patronizing and so wrong. Yes, Mencken was devoted to his mother and adored her, but those days were so different from our own. Back then, a son who was living at home when his father died is going to remain with his mother and sister, if only to be the male figure and a protective figure. Also, as [Mencken’s magazine editing partner] George Nathan said, one the reasons Mencken only married after his mother died was that his mother was doing all the cooking and had the house humming along while Mencken was off covering the Scopes trial and all these different things. And so who needs a wife at that point if you can have your girlfriends on the side?
CP: Did your opinion of Mencken change while writing the book?
MER: During this course of this research and the actual writing I discovered there were some aspects of Mencken I didn’t like. I wasn’t too crazy about how he treated women, although women, as whole, I think he was very positive toward, and this was when the feminist movement was just beginning to percolate. I became disillusioned that here was a man who had visited Hitler’s Germany in the summer of 1938, and he sees things going on, but he’s feeling so sentimental about Germany, and he suffered so much during World War I as a German-American, that he couldn’t bring himself to write publicly about what he’d seen. He just didn’t want to criticize his mother country. It’s disheartening to say that about a writer who had been so courageous and so forward-thinking about so many other issues. It’s also disheartening that in private he was grappling with all these different racial issues. He was a student of social Darwinism and a product of his time, but he could also be so forward-thinking—writing against lynching and publishing black authors in his magazines.
CP: Yeah, he championed black writers and counted Jews among his best friends, yet wrote, “the Negro brain is not fit for higher forms of mental effort,” and called Jews “the most unpleasant race ever heard of.”
MER: Right. That first comment, I believe, he wrote in 1910, when the whole social Darwinist theory was still being widely discussed. But by 1915 he was changing his point of view and becomes more and more sensitive toward the black race, and others, because of how he had been viewed as a German-American during the very onset of World War I, when anti-German feelings were riding high. I tried to show that change, and if you are the kind of person who thinks actions speak louder than words, then his many actions help defray a lot of the negative connotations of his words.
CP: Still, for many he is damaged goods.
MER: The sad thing about Mencken is that because he did not really recognize the threat of Hitler, or own up to it, because he said those remarks that were anti-black and anti-Jew, which everybody has latched on to while forgetting some of his positive actions, this in the end makes him a lesser figure than, say, Mark Twain, who was very sensitive about the situation of blacks in his time. It’s sad for me to see that, because I think there’s so much about Mencken to admire. But it’s always going to be, “Oh, yes, but he said this . . . ” And that’s the shame of it.
CP: A recent nasty article in The Nation said Mencken had a “cracker-barrel” philosophy and if he was around today would be a “Bill O’Reilly or Rush Limbaugh, with a little William Safire mixed in.”
MER: Oh. No. Not at all. That is so wrong. If someone wants to nitpick Mencken, you could say all that. He was a big fan of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington and many of the Founding Fathers. He believed in liberty, he stood up for truth and beauty, he liked the composers Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, he liked good writing. There are lots of things that Mencken believed in. He always adopted a rather European point of view and always looked at the U.S. as an outsider, maybe because of his upbringing. To say he would be Rush Limbaugh or O’Reilly diminishes Mencken and does not really recognize all the good things he stood for.
CP: So what does Mencken mean to the 21st century? What message does he bring to us from the 1920s?
MER: Mencken will never be a fossil because he was so modern in terms of his outlook and his style of writing. He will always be timeless. But what I would want people to take away from this book, and what I was trying to show was, that besides Mencken’s great style of writing and the causes he believed in, there is his courage: his courage to fight for what he believed in, to write what he believed in, and to say what he believed in.
I think in recent times Americans have been sleepwalking through history. They have felt very cowed down. I don’t know if it’s because of Sept. 11 or some other reason. But now that we are having so much scrutiny of the press, I think the lesson Mencken gives to people of our day is that sense of courage. You must never be cowed down, whether by government or authority figures. That’s his message to the press as well. He said the press must always keep presidents and government figures in the bright glare of light—to keep a wary eye on the gentlemen who run this great nation and only too often slip into the assumption that they own it. And when you think about it, the 1920s were not much different from today—the relentless consumerism. Mencken called it a preposterous age. I would say we are now living in preposterous age, with renewed censorship, the rise of fundamentalism, and the battle some are calling the second Scopes trial with intelligent design in the schools. Many things from Mencken’s age have resonance in ours.
CP: Ever ponder what civil-liberties champion Mencken might make of today’s hot buttons: gay marriage, the “war on drugs,” abortion?
MER: It’s a temptation and a big danger to put Mencken in these times. I hesitate to guess, but probably rather than drugs, I think he would be concerned with tobacco. As someone whose father had a cigar factory and who enjoyed cigars himself, he probably would be infuriated that smokers can’t light up wherever they want to if he were alive today.
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