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Newspaper Days: Mencken's Autobiography: 1899-1906 (Maryland Paperback Bookshelf) Paperback – August 28, 2006
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Warm and witty memories of the great politicos of the place and period, its wiseacres, its buffoons, its city-room characters, its preposterous stories.(New Yorker)
Newspaper Days charts Mencken's career at the Morning Herald... Only the most pusillanimous gnostic could turn up his nose at these passages, for they exude an uncomplicated delight.(Brendan O'Donnell Ex Libris) --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
About the Author
Henry Louis Mencken was born in Baltimore in 1880 and remained a lifelong resident. Opinionated and controversial, he wrote columns for the Baltimore Evening Sun that earned him a national reputation. He died in 1956.
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Beyond that, Newspaper Days shows a lost world. There are more than a few tavern owners who wish there were more dailies and more imbibing reporters.
(One highlight: Baltimoreans aid Jacksonville after it suffers a big fire.)
The H.L.Mencken room at the Pratt, has been called "the cradle of 20th Century literature." Alistair Cooke, said it exists..."for the comfort of sinners and the astonishment of the virtuous."
As you can see, the author of "Newspaper Days: 1899-1906", was regarded as an iconoclast during his lifetime, and is still celebrated for fresh, refreshing views and commentary. H.L. Mencken was, above all else, a critic.
Mencken wrote his autobiography in three separate volumes cumulatively known, in the world of journalism and literature, as the "Days Books". In addition to the work under consideration here: "Newspaper Days", the other two are "Happy Days: 1880-1892", and "Heathen Days: 1890-1936." As the title suggest, this book looks at H.L. Mencken's life from 1899, when at 19 he began his half-century career in journalism - at the now defunct Baltimore Morning Herald - through his move to the local newspaper of record: The Baltimore Evening Sun. This relationship with the Sun Papers (there was also a Morning Sun) lasted until 1950, when H.L.M. retired from the board of parent A.S. Abell Company.
It was apparent, even this early in the career of "the irreverent Mr. Mencken", that his niche was writing opinion and criticism; some of it shocking to the establishment; all of it entertaining.
Don't let the early period under discussion in this book (1899-1906) lead anyone to believe that the material is dated or old fashioned. Au contraire, Mencken is indeed talking of events which occured a long time ago, but evey word is perfect for the job it is called upon to do. His diction and syntax are all-important.
After all, the reason for remembering and reading a critic of an earlier time, like Mencken, is not the issues he wrote about, but the manner in which he said what he said. It is the WAY he said it -- he was a stylist.
A great man. A great book. Enjoy!
This memoir, which treats Henry Louis Mencken's milieu as a fin-de-siecle newspaperman, finds the great critic in an uncharacteristically sympathetic mood, putting aside much of the sass of its predecessor Happy Days, which tells the story of Mencken's amusing slog through adolescence. Mencken admits in the preface that he holds his tenure at the Baltimore Herald in rosy esteem, perhaps the most cherished era of his long career. The famous (and famously fat) critic here appears downright giddy as he discharges himself of more than a few outrageous anecdotes from his seven year lustrum at the Baltimore Herald.
Mencken opens with a narrative of his courtship, in 1899, of a reporting job at the Herald: On the heels of his high school graduation, Mencken brushed himself up in his smartest garb and planted himself, with absolutely no credentials, before the city editor Max Ways. Ways told him the staff was full but, as it was common for reporters in those days, either sloshed or just incurably languid, to go AWOL, suggested that the runt come back the next day to check for an opening. Like clockwork, lil' Henry showed up, and was similarly turned down, every day for months until at last he scored a one paragraph blurb in the back pages. Ways recognized his talent and diligence, soon hiring him on as a full time reporter. His responsibilities (and his pay) soon began a rapid and steady climb, landing him an editorship at the Herald at the precocious age of 23.
The range of reportage that Mencken was called upon to perform, as well as the nature of his work in general (journalism in this ancient Baltimore apparently amounted to little more than salaried gossip) put him in touch with a sinful amount of scuttlebutt, and effectively launched him into high society: judges, policemen, editors, reporters, restauranteurs, artists, press agents, magnates, actors, politicos, and innumerable other forces are exposed in this memoir.The tales told are of the fireside variety, often ribald, typically recounted with a certain wide-eyed wonder, and fraught with some of the writer's most pungent witticisms.
The young reporter's antics are largely benign and waggish, where he cares to share them - despite all he divulges about his peers, the man mostly keeps mum on his own affairs. Indeed, for a memoir, this one is quite lean on the beef. Where his feelings finally threaten to denude themselves, the goodies leak out in short, memorable snatches, never wholesale and direct; apropos to his profession, he does little but report the facts of his actions, and doesn't dote on private details. It is not apparent whether he endured the crises of young adulthood (perhaps this is one of the boons of avoiding college), or whether he ever doubted his own abilities. For better or worse, his editorials, featured in his Chrestomathy, remain the best source for his particular brand of froth.
He comes close at least, to full disclosure in the preface, which he capitulates with a remarkably lucid passage on the state of journalistic affairs circa 1941:
"Whether or not the young journalists of today live so spaciously is a question that I am not competent to answer, for my contacts with them, of late years, have been rather scanty. They undoubtedly get a great deal more money than we did in 1900, but their freedom is much less than ours was, and they somehow give me the impression, seen at a distance, of complacency rather than intrepidity. In my day a reporter who took an assignment was wholly on his own until he got back to the office, and even then he was little molested until his copy was turned in at the desk; today he tends to become only a homunculus at the end of a telephone wire, and the reduction of his observations to prose is commonly farmed out to literary castrati who never leave the office, and hence never feel the wind of the world in their faces or see anything with their own eyes. I well recall my horror when I heard, for the first time, of a journalist who had laid in a pair of what were then called bicycle pants and taken to golf: it was as if I had encountered a stud-horse with his hair done up in frizzes, and pink bowknots peeking out of them. It seemed, in some vague way, ignominious, and even a bit indelicate. I was shocked almost as much when I first heard of reporters joining labor unions, and describing themselves as wage slaves. The underlying ideology here, of course, was anything but new, for I doubt that there has ever been a competent reporter in history who did not regard the proprietors of his paper as sordid rascals, all dollars and no sense. But it is one thing (a) to curl the lip over such wretches, and quite another thing (b) to bellow and beat the breast under their atrocities just as it is one thing (a^2) to sass a cruel city editor with, so to speak, the naked hands, and another thing (b^2) to confront him from behind a phalanx of government agents and labor bravoes. The a operations are easy to reconcile with the old-time journalist's concept of himself as a free spirit and darling of the gods, licensed by his high merits to ride and deride the visible universe; the b's must suggest inevitably a certain unhappy self-distrust, perhaps not without ground."
Not just personal but professional curiosities are confounded as well: Writers come hither sniffing for tips will be bilked, for the sage neatly denies us of any useful particulars about his craft. The only specifics he offers are in one of the closing chapters, enumerating the ways he and his colleagues often fleshed out meager leads with private inventions, sometimes going as far as fabricating the entire story. Mencken's methods must, it seems, remain lost to posterity.
An important lesson, however, is continuously dangled before the reader, and it helps explain both Mencken's remarkable sedulousness and his highly refined prose: Do what you love and do it to death! While his peers toiled away as "simian sophomores" pursuing lives of quiet desperation, Mencken was chasing down his reporter's dream, going to bed every night exhausted, but never weary. I was so incensed after I finished this book that I marched right down to the office of the Cooper Point Journal, my local student newspaper, and immediately put in my resume. Let's hope fate smiles on me quite as kindly!