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My Mentor, Mr. Mencken : L.A. Writer John Fante Carried on a 20-Year Correspondence With the Sage of Baltimore

April 26, 1987|MICHAEL MOREAU | Michael Moreau is assistant editor of Special Sections at The Times.

\o7 Four years ago next month, Los Angeles writer John Fante died at the Motion Picture and Television Hospital, Country House and Lodge in Woodland Hills. Since that time there has been a renewed interest in his intensely personal novels, especially those depicting the struggling writer, Arturo Bandini, which are set in Los Angeles during the 1930s. "Ask the Dust," "Wait Until Spring , Bandini" and his last novel, "Dreams From Bunker Hill," are classic portrayals of the city that has been home to many writers, but rarely incorporated into their fiction.

Less well-known is Fante's correspondence with pungent journalist and social critic H. L. Mencken, Fante's first publisher and his lifelong hero. The two exchanged letters for about 20 years, beginning in 1930, when Fante was starting to build a reputation as a writer, and when the Sage of Baltimore had seemingly passed the peak of his career.

Fante, then a student at Long Beach Junior College, began writing to Mencken when he was 21 and Mencken was 50. In his letters to Mencken, Fante was effusive, bombastic, funny and often plaintive. In one letter he told Mencken: "I still hold you, and always shall, my ideal of a man, and measure myself by you. I've got to have a god, and you're he."

Mencken's letters were generally terse, but he clearly found intelligence and talent in Fante's outpourings. He encouraged the younger man to write, and he published Fante's first short story, "Altar Boy," in the August, 1932, edition of the American Mercury, the respected literary journal that Mencken had founded.

During their correspondence, Fante wrote dozens of short stories for the American Mercury and other magazines, four novels and several screenplays. During the same time, Mencken was editor of the American Mercury, columnist for the Baltimore Sun and author of "The American Language" and other books.

This fall, Black Sparrow Press will reissue Fante's 1952 novel, "Full of Life." Belgian producer Erwin Provoost is currently at work on a screen adaptation of Fante's first novel, "Wait Until Spring , Bandini." McGraw-Hill has just published "Mencken and Sara: A Life in Letters," edited by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, a set of letters between Mencken and his wife. And Black Sparrow Press now plans to publish the complete Fante-Mencken letters, from which the following are excerpted.

July 26, 1932

Dear Mr. Mencken,

Will you answer a question for me? In the past thirty days I have written 150,000 words. I know a writer with a reputation does not do that many, but is the man just starting supposed to do that much? I certainly feel the effects, for being broke throughout, I ate very little and lost a pound a day, or thirty pounds. Moreover, to test my immunity to other writers who are often imitated, I read all of Hemingway, Dos Passos, and De Maupassant, besides great stacks of H. G. Wells and a chronic dose of Mencken. It means ten hours of the day and night, including the writing. I'm not bragging here. I just want to know whether a man just beginning to write must necessarily work that hard. I want to know whether you did as much in a similar period of your life.

It is my plan to edit the American Mercury some day. By forty or thereabouts I think I shall be qualified. This means a lot of hard work, so I am going about it very systematically, and barring death or blindness a man can get whole warehouses of work done in twenty years, and I know no earthly reason why the job should not be mine at the end of that time. The only hitch in the plan is that should you ever decide to quit the job, the magazine is liable to go on the rocks, so for God's sake stick around for a while longer.

Yours with great admiration,

John Fante

Aug. 3, 1932

Dear Mr. Fante:

I incline to think that you are trying to pile up too many words. Certainly it is absurd to write 150,000 in thirty days. I believe you'll accomplish more if you take things more slowly. If you get one thousand words of good stuff on paper every day you'll be doing well enough. Very few authors are able to do actual writing for more than three hours a day. In fact, a good many very successful ones average no more than an hour.

Sincerely yours,

H. L. Mencken

The following was soon sent, at Mencken's request. Not all the information, it turns out, is accurate. For instance, Fante was born in 1909, not 1911. The other information, except for his being born in a macaroni factory, is essentially correct.

Aug. 7, 1932

Dear Mr. Mencken,

Ten trillion thanks for your advice concerning working hours and writing output.

You may do as you please with the following:

I was born in Denver, Colorado, in 1911, in a macaroni factory, which is just the right place for a man of my genealogy to get his first slap, for my people were from the peasantry of Italy. My father was very happy at my birth. He was so happy that he got drunk and stayed that way for a week. On and off for the last twenty years he has continued to celebrate my coming.

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