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Reviewed by:
  • H.L. MENCKEN: The Days Trilogy, Expanded Edition ed. by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers
  • Alexandre Fachard
H.L. MENCKEN: The Days Trilogy, Expanded Edition. Edited by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers. New York: The Library of America. 2014.

During 1940–1943, the iconoclastic Baltimore newspaperman, author, and editor H. L. Mencken published three autobiographical memoirs dealing respectively with his childhood (Happy Days, 1940), his early career in journalism (Newspaper Days, 1941), and “random reminiscences … ranging from the agonies of nonage to the beginnings of senility” (Heathen Days, [1943] 408–409). Their public and critical receptions were favorable and have remained so: all three books are widely regarded as being among the finest memoirs in American literature. In 1947, Alfred A. Knopf of New York grouped them into a collection entitled The Days of H. L. Mencken. The Library of America has just reissued this triptych under a new title, The Days Trilogy, Expanded Edition. The strengths of this edition, put together by Mencken scholar and biographer Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, are twofold. Rodgers’s comprehensive explanatory notes gloss, for the first time, most of the text’s rare and foreign words, as well as cultural and biographical sources. Her annotations are invaluable, given the richness of Mencken’s vocabulary—”25,000 words” and “I am constantly expanding it,” he wrote to fellow journalist Burton Rascoe in 1920, his multilingualism, his encyclopedic knowledge, and the range of his acquaintances. But the edition’s pièce de résistance comes in the last fourth of the volume, which contains close to 200 pages of supplementary “Notes” (that is, corrections and additions) that Mencken himself typed over the years, and most of which Rodgers publishes for the first time. These “Notes” were sealed until 1981, Mencken having stipulated that they should not be made available to the public until twenty-five years after his death. Their declassification turns out no shocking revelation. Rather, it provides more of the same: picturesque and nostalgic descriptions of Baltimorean life, with a particular fondness for its eccentric and seamier sides, as well as benign—by Menckenian standards—criticism of “this once great and happy Republic, now only a dismal burlesque of its former self” (821).

Mencken’s elegiac and at times embroidered reminiscences encompass his childhood in Baltimore, when he was “encapsulated in affection, and kept fat” (4); his introduction to the chewing of tobacco, courtesy of a “garbageman” (105); his omnivorous reading and “discovery of ‘Huckleberry Finn,’ probably the most stupendous event of my whole life” (107); his salad days as a reporter—“the maddest, gladdest, damndest existence ever enjoyed by mortal youth” (207); his journeys abroad; his unsparing descriptions of scores of contemporaries; and his amused tributes to “political mountebanks,” whose histrionics he viewed as “one of America’s richest gifts to humanity” (585).

Readers will search in vain for about-faces in these “Notes.” For all his lucidity, inventiveness, and verbal brilliance, Mencken remained until his death an unwavering [End Page 159] champion of the same ideas. The “Notes” correct factual errors and add new material cast in the same ideological mold, but they never serve to question or tone down the author’s prejudices, racial or otherwise: Mencken still describes some Baltimore houses as being “infested by Jews” (600).

The outspokenness of some remarks explains why Mencken wanted his “Notes” to be sealed to the public. He describes several acquaintances and even relatives as “not too bright” (610), “stupid” (611), and “extremely stupid” (651). He also owns that he never had a “very high” opinion of his friend Clarence Darrow, the defending attorney at the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, nor of Darrow’s “extraordinarily silly” wife (788–789).

The “Notes” section also contains twenty-three pictures, some of them taken by Mencken himself, as well as a caricature of Baltimoreans that he drew as a boy. These illustrations supplement a hitherto largely unpublished text that provides no major disclosure but that fills some biographical gaps and offers more vintage Mencken.

Finally, if a revision of this scrupulously edited and annotated volume becomes possible, the following errors should be rectified: 491.36, there\after; 550.37, missing indefinite article before “cruel”; 763.26, arterio sclerosis; 832...


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