In 1936, H. L. Mencken was as low as an ebullient pessimist can be. Sara, the beloved wife of his middle age, had died a hard death the previous year. Franklin Roosevelt, his detested arch-enemy, beat Alf Landon by a landslide in November, a pulverizing triumph that Mencken failed to foresee. He had quit The American Mercury, the magazine that he co-founded with George Jean Nathan in 1924 and that helped to make him, in Walter Lippmann’s oft-quoted words, “the most powerful personal influence on this whole generation of educated people,” and now that most of those same people were embracing FDR’s big-government liberalism, his influence had waned to the point of invisibility.
It was time for a sea change, and Katharine White supplied it when she invited him to try his hand at writing for The New Yorker. He responded by sending her a reminiscence of his Baltimore childhood called “Ordeal of a Philosopher.” “It is really not a short story, but what it is I don’t know,” he told her. “I had a lot of fun writing it, and so I am passing it on.” She liked it, as did editor Harold Ross, who had a particular fondness for the recollections of famous writers with a sense of humor — Clarence Day’s Life with Father and James Thurber’s My Life and Hard Times first saw print in the pages of his urbane weekly — and Mencken, knowing a good thing when he saw one, obligingly kept the copy flowing.
Soon he had published enough New Yorker pieces about “the odd and amusing place” that was the Baltimore of his late-19th-century youth to fill a book, and when Happy Days came out in 1939, it promptly found its way onto the bestseller list. The Times Literary Supplement went so far as to compare Happy Days to Huckleberry Finn, Mencken’s favorite American novel, while The Atlantic called it “a book to be read twice a year by young and old, as long as life lasts.” Two more volumes of reminiscential essays, Newspaper Days and Heathen Days, followed in due course. By the time they came out, the sour curmudgeon who hated FDR had been transformed in the public eye into a charming old codger with a knack for telling tall but fabulously well-written tales.
Mencken’s Days books are no longer widely read, but those who know his work more than casually are in universal agreement that they rank among his greatest literary achievements. So it is wholly appropriate that they have now been reissued in a single omnibus volume by the Library of America, superlatively edited by Mencken biographer Marion Elizabeth Rodgers and accompanied by a 200-page appendix of hitherto-unpublished notes on the text that he left to Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library with the stipulation that they not be opened until 1981. In so doing, Mencken furnished scholars with a treasure house of factual information about the Days books, all three of which contain a fair number of what he called (borrowing from Mark Twain) “stretchers.” While it’s grand to have these notes in print at last, the point of The Days Trilogy: Expanded Edition is, it should be needless to say, the books themselves. If you already know them, they’re as good as you remember, and if you don’t, you’re in for the most resplendently satisfying of treats. Mencken never wrote anything better, or more likely to last.
Why, then, are the Days books largely unknown save to specialists? One obvious reason is that Mencken, being the most politically incorrect of writers, is not taught in the academy, meaning that you have to find out about him on your own. Another, which is doubtless as much of an impediment to the postmodern recognition of his literary virtues, is that unlike your average Daddy-beat-me-black-and-blue memoirist, he genuinely enjoyed his childhood and youth and wrote about them with the lip-smacking delight of a man who was as far from alienated (that came later) as a human being can be.
Here, by way of example — though one could open The Days Trilogy almost at random and find an equally stylish case in point — is how he describes the commencement of his journalistic career in the opening paragraph of Newspaper Days:
My father died on Friday, January 13, 1899, and was buried on the ensuing Sunday. On the Monday evening immediately following, having shaved with care and put on my best suit of clothes, I presented myself in the city-room of the old Baltimore Morning Herald, and applied to Max Ways, the city editor, for a job on his staff. I was eighteen years, four months and four days old, wore my hair longish and parted in the middle, had on a high stiff collar and an Ascot cravat, and weighed something on the minus side of 120 pounds.
How could anyone in his right mind not keep on reading?
#page#To read further in the Days books is to encounter countless other reasons why you’re not likely to run across them in English 101. They are at all times cheerfully cynical about matters that Americans are now accustomed to discussing with the longest of faces, such as the proclivity of newspapermen to make stuff up (the chapter of Newspaper Days called “The Synthesis of News” ought to be required reading in every journalism school) or of politicians to take the odd bribe. In Mencken’s turn-of-the-century world, blacks were figures of fun, prostitution a fact of life, and capital punishment no big deal, and he writes about such matters without ever making ritual obeisance to our wooden god of anachronistic outrage. Those who make a practice of striking attitudes of virtue whenever anybody talks matter-of-factly about the way we were would do better to stick to the op-ed page of the New York Times.
If, on the other hand, you don’t find it shocking to read about the bad old days, you’ll find that every page of the Days books crackles with the smile-making juxtapositions of highfalutin language and pure Americanese that were Mencken’s trademark. You’ll also learn a lot about what we’re now pleased to call social history, and you’ll learn it painlessly. How were oysters consumed in the Baltimore of the Eighties? Consult the fourth chapter of Happy Days and marvel:
Fried, they were fit only to be devoured at church oyster-suppers, or gobbled in oyster-bays by drunks wandering home from scenes of revelry. The more celebrated oyster-houses of Baltimore — for example, Kelly’s in Eutaw street — were patronized largely by such lamentable characters. It was their playful custom to challenge foolish-looking strangers to wash down a dozen raw Chincoteagues with half a tumbler of Maryland rye: the town belief was that this combination was so deleterious as to be equal to the kick of a mule. If the stranger survived, they tried to inveigle him into eating another dozen with sugar sprinkled on them: this dose was supposed to be almost certainly fatal.
Being a journalist, I like Newspaper Days best. Nowhere has the experience of seeing your words in print for the first time been better described: “I was up with the milkman the next morning to search the paper, and when I found both of my pieces, exactly as written, there ran such thrills through my system as a barrel of brandy and 100,000 volts of electricity could not have matched.” But all three volumes of the Days books are jammed full of like nuggets, and to start quoting them is to find it exceedingly hard to stop.
Contrary to popular belief, Mencken was not a conservative, or even a full-blooded libertarian: He fits no known ideological pigeonhole. But in one respect he was perfectly described by Michael Oakeshott, who probably never read a word of his but nonetheless hit the bull’s-eye when he observed that conservatives have “a propensity to use and to enjoy what is available rather than to wish for or to look for something else; to delight in what is present rather than what was or what may be.” H. L. Mencken was among the most furious of complainers when it came to matters cultural and political, but in his daily life he had an enviable capacity for enjoying things as they are. The fancy word for this capacity is “gusto,” and Mencken had it in spades: He liked a good chat, a good meal, a good glass of beer, and a good night’s sleep, and he understood that in such simple pleasures lies much, perhaps most of the point of life. It is that gusto which irradiates the Days books, and anyone who can read them without feeling a reciprocal echo of his joie de vivre is a blue-nosed prig.
–– Mr. Teachout is the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, the critic-at-large of Commentary, and the winner of one of this year’s Bradley Prizes. His books include The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken.