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Curmudgeon in a Corset : THE DIARY OF H. L. MENCKEN edited by Charles A. Fecher (Alfred A. Knopf: $30; 476 pp.)

January 14, 1990|RICHARD EDER

Curmudgeonry should be practiced outdoors and in public view. It needs wit but it also needs exhilaration; otherwise, it is sullenness, or witty sullenness at best. The exhilaration comes from the risk of saying outrageous things; the risk requires that everyone, including the target, should hear them.

Without question, the late H. L. Mencken made his mark not only by his anger and his wit but also by the gaiety with which he turned them upon the idols of his time. It was the gaiety of the gadfly, always at risk of being swatted.

Lacking open air and a public space, it doesn't work. A hidden gadfly is a body louse. One of the problems in reading Mencken's diary, published despite his explicit request to the contrary, is that his fulminating is deprived of its natural ventilation. It festers.

If the privacy of a diary had given Mencken the means for greater introspection or profundity than he displayed in his published writing, there could have been a substantial reward in them. There is some reward, to be sure--glimpses of the constrained pleasures and considerable pain of his later years, and a few purely wonderful passages--but perhaps not enough, considering his instructions, to make an overwhelming case for publication.

But Mencken shunned introspection. He wrote in private as in public, except blacker and meaner. There is a corset around his feelings, the kind a middle-aged knight might have worn to hold him in his saddle and allow him to deal out mighty blows, but that commits him to a similar rigidity in the privacy of his bed.

One of the most astonishing bits of corset-work in this diary--begun in 1930 when Mencken was 50 and continued until 1948 when he was paralyzed by a massive stroke--is his treatment of his wife's death in 1935. There is no entry for it, but the diary all but closes down for two years. Then in 1940, he enters a rough account of what Sarah Mencken had meant to him for the five years of their marriage, and what her death has meant to him ever since.

It is a curious bit of writing. It reads almost like a tribute to a cherished pet or devoted secretary. The pain breathes through it, though, and it is more painful to read because of the suppression. It is a pain and suppression that we feel throughout the book. Only at the end of this particular entry does he break out, quoting Faust: "Deny yourself. You must deny yourself." To a diary?

Five years later--10 years after Sarah's death--there is a second entry. It repeats much of the first, but more completely and more beautifully. Mencken is finally able to explain why he did not view Sarah's body: "It was too dreadful a thing to face." He speculates that had she lived longer, the marriage might have frayed. But, he adds: "Marriage is nine-tenths talk and up to her last illness we were still amusing each other."

It is a stoic's elegy, and the best writing in the book. But it took him 10 years to fashion his full pain to the point where it was publicly presentable enough to go in this private journal.

If the tribute to Sarah, however delayed, is lovely, there are other splendid things. There is a prime tribute to vice. One of the leading surgeons at Johns Hopkins suffered from tachycardia as a result of heavy smoking. Accordingly, he was often unable to complete his operations, and the house residents would take over. Finally he quit cigarettes, his disability waned and he no longer required such help.

"The residents then got less experience," Mencken wrote, "and amounted to less when they left."

Mencken does nicely in refusing to join a campaign to end the use of a nearby park as a teen-age lovers' hangout. "One of the prime purposes of any public park is to provide places of assignation for the young," he wrote. Invited by a friend to witness an autopsy, he was asked his opinion when the doctors were unable to determine a cause of death.

"I replied that the man had really not died at all and proposed that his viscera be thrown back into his abdominal cavity and he be sent home."

The diary, of which about a third has been selected for publication, goes on at length, and eventually tedious length, about his role as a bitter in-house critic of the Baltimore Sunpapers. He stopped writing for them in 1941, when his opposition to Roosevelt and U.S. participation in the war grew too angry. (He referred to American troops as "Eisenhower's army.") He remained on the board, and lunched regularly and amicably with Paul Patterson, the newspaper's president; and then went home to berate him in his diary for pusillanimity and stupidity.

There is a long record of lunches and dinners. He loved eating and drinking and was particularly fond of terrapin with lots of butter. He writes of visits to and by old friends, whose advancing disabilities he carefully noted. He also charts each twinge and symptom of his own, and glumly and accurately predicted the stroke that was to prevent him from reading or writing for the last seven years of his life.

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