Richard O'Mara: H.L. Mencken, 'The Sage of Baltimore,' had a zing bloggers can't touch

Roundup: Talking About History

BALTIMORE -- There's still time in this semicentenary year of H.L. Mencken's passing to review his contributions to American letters and ponder why - even amid the modern effluvia of our hydra-headed media - he remains the most widely quoted American writer.

Why does this curmudgeon, with a wit like a poniard, who dealt in the ephemeral currency of the news, and whose heyday had ended by the middle of the last century, still claim attention?

Any doubters should visit the Mencken Room in the Enoch Pratt Free Library here, which holds artifacts left by the Sage of Baltimore: his Corona typewriter, the desk he occupied at the Baltimore Evening Sun, his books, and nearly every scrap that holds the estimated 15 million words he put on paper during his life - not to mention a lavishly romantic portrait of the great man resting his head against his palm, in bright red suspenders given him by Rudolf Valentino.

Mencken had doughy features that made his face amenable to the skills of a deft artist. His center-parted hair made him look boyish beyond his youth. But there was nothing of the center about him, nor middle of the road. All his reflexes were of the conservative, untraveled provincial, combined with the arrogance of the autodidact. (He never went to college.) He was also a total libertarian with regard to free speech, a genius with words, driven by an inclination to impale the lords of the political ascendancy - people like Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose death drew forth this: "He had every quality that morons esteem in their heroes"; and William Jennings Bryan, for his "vague, unpleasant manginess."

"I was born in the larva of the comfortable and complacent bourgeoisie," Mencken wrote of his pillowed life, "encapsulated in affection, and kept fat, saucy and contented. Thus I got through my nonage without acquiring an inferiority complex."

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