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Charmed Life

Sage Door

John Davis Jr.

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 1/26/2000

Calling all writers: Do you feel proud, purposeful, and productive? Do you consider your prose inspirational and important? Well, dear scribes, there is a windowless room tucked along a third-floor corridor of the Enoch Pratt Free Library's central library that will lacerate your literary ego with mind-numbing swiftness. It's a temple of words, and to breathe the room's air is to feel at once humble, insignificant, and lazy.

I'm speaking of the space beyond the cornflower-blue door marked H.L. MENCKEN ROOM.

Author, editor, and consummate newspaperman, Henry Louis Mencken possessed a Pratt library card before his ninth birthday. Early on, he decided that his hometown library would receive the bulk of his literary possessions. Born in 1880, he was sending the Pratt bits of Menckeniana as early as 1936. Alas, the Sage of Baltimore was three months in the grave when Alistair Cooke and a host of luminaries formally cut the ribbon on the collection in April 1956. It was Mencken's wish that the room be open to the public only once a year, on the Saturday closest to his Sept. 12 birthday. At all other times, the blue door is unbolted only for scholars and researchers—and, apparently, the odd curious journalist. Vincent Fitzpatrick, a University of Maryland, Baltimore County English professor and the room's part-time curator, was only too happy to give me a peek at the hallowed chamber.

The blue door opens into a large, handsome room hung with brass chandeliers and thick gray carpet on the floor. Dominating the book-lined room is Nikol Schattenstein's life-size portrait of Mencken, which hangs above the wooden desk the writer used at the Sunpapers. Completed in 1927, the painting depicts Mencken at the zenith of his power, which was considerable. (As Fitzpatrick notes, "It has been suggested that Mencken was the single most powerful private citizen [in the country] in the 1920s.") The canvas captures the literary lion at ease: rolled-up shirt sleeves, open collar, cigar smoldering in his right hand, his blue-eyed gaze fixed in the distance, as he ruminates—perhaps—over another day spent eviscerating eminent figures. Beneath this forceful visage lies the instrument of Mencken's power: the humble Corona portable typewriter he wielded between 1910 and 1930.

"Some of the most significant prose in American literature was written right here," Fitzpatrick says, looking down reverently at the toylike machine. The paint on the space bar is worn through where Mencken's right thumb slapped away at it. (Incredibly, given his prodigious output, Mencken was at best a two-fingered, hunt-and-peck typist.) It's dizzying to ponder how many pompous politicians were kneecapped by this runty Corona's keys.

The room's north wall is taken up by Mencken's personal library of some 2,000 volumes, including signed presentation copies from the likes of Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Mencken's own books, notes, and original manuscripts clutter the room as well. Two looming bookcases contain nothing but bound collections of clippings. (Beginning early in his career, Mencken subscribed to a clipping service that collected any and all published materials that mentioned him.) Forty-four years after Mencken was laid to rest beneath a marble slab at Loudon Park Cemetery, the Pratt continues to have a service compile such clippings. The sources range from all over the geographic and journalistic map, from The New York Times to the Cushing, Okla., Daily Citizen.

"The material just pours in," says Fitzpatrick, whose duty it is to paste the pieces into thick bound volumes. (The curator says he fills more than 350 pages every four months.) Mencken remains one of the most quoted American writers. His biting wisdom seems particularly relevant now, as our present era of cushy prosperity, portentous prudery, and hypocrisy in high places compares neatly with his own Roaring '20s.

Of course, Mencken's passion for work was matched only by his penchant for play. Above the door hangs the painted "coat of arms" of the storied Saturday Night club—at its boisterous weekly gatherings, Mencken traded his Corona keys for piano keys, pounding out Beethoven while putting away mugs of beer. The coat of arms—dated 1905 and emblazoned with a violin, a lobster, and a full mug—cheerfully conveys the spirit of those long ago nights of sonorous consumption and camaraderie.

"Mencken loved life," Fitzpatrick says. "He gave us the vibrant prose of a vibrant man."

And just how much did he give us? Fitzpatrick says a conservative estimate of Mencken's printed output run to some 15 million words. Fifteen million words, representing an astonishing fusion of quality and quantity. And while institutions ranging from the New York Public Library to Harvard University boast Mencken collections of their own, the bulk of his words rest behind the Pratt's blue door: the priceless legacy of one of the most fleet minds, acerbic wits, and tenacious pair of fingers that ever labored to lance the festering boil of American civilization.

The blue door of the Pratt's Mencken room next swings open for the gawking booboisie in September.

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