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Enoch Pratt Free Library Digital Collections

About this collection

Portraits, photographs, drafts, letters and artifacts from the personal collection of Baltimore journalist and critic, H. L. Mencken, (1880 - 1956).

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Collection Location: H. L. Mencken Room at the Central Library, Enoch Pratt Free Library / State Library Resource Center

H.L. Mencken seated at typewriterCollection Overview: Henry Louis Mencken had a long and friendly relationship with the Enoch Pratt Free Library. As a child, he frequented the neighborhood branch at Hollins and Calhoun Street. As an adult, he made frequent use of the vast resources of the Central Library in downtown Baltimore. He began to donate material to the library during his lifetime, and this continued after his death on January 29, 1956. The Mencken Room was opened on April 17, 1956, under the curatorship of Betty Adler. She was the Mencken bibliographer and the founding editor of the quarterly Menckeniana, which was first published by the library in 1962. All who have written about Mencken are very much in her debt.

Mencken's Career

Henry Louis Mencken was born in Baltimore on September 12, 1880. After graduating from the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute in 1896, he worked in his family's cigar business. After the death of his father in 1899, Mencken began his journalistic career with the Baltimore Herald and joined the staff of the Baltimore Sun in 1906. In time, Mencken would become one of the most storied journalists in America. Many consider his coverage of the Scopes trial in 1925 to mark the zenith of this aspect of his career. Mencken's fame grew to such heights during the 1920s that it was suggested that he was the most powerful private citizen in America. His reputation fell during the 1930s, as America suffered under the pall of the Depression. However, it ascended again with the tremendous success of the autobiographical trilogy: Happy Days (1940), Newspaper Days (1941), and Heathen Days (1943). Here, Mencken the mellow elegist mourns what America has lost but celebrates what his writing can preserve. On November 23, 1948, Mencken suffered a severe stroke that robbed him of his ability to read and write, and his final seven years proved difficult. He died in his sleep of a heart attack on early Sunday morning, January 29, 1956. His epitaph has first appeared in the December 1921 Smart Set, and, thankfully, Mencken never found reason to revise it. He talked not about himself or his writing but rather about people. In an unusually quiet voice, he asked for tolerance: "If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl."

What happened here in Baltimore with Mencken is truly a remarkable story. This man who never went to school beyond the age of fifteen years and nine months taught himself to write and became one of the most distinguished stylists in prose nonfiction in the history of American letters. In his second floor study at 1524 Hollins Street, Mencken pecked away at his small Corona and produced prose which ranks with that of Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Adams, and Henry David Thoreau.

The H. L. Mencken Room

Interior of H.L. Mencken Room showing window with table and chairsThe Mencken Room houses the most important Mencken collection in the world. Among its many treasures are the books in Mencken's personal library. There are presentation copies from such notables as Theodore Dreiser and F.Scott Fitzgerald. The collection contains typescripts of many of Mencken's newspaper columns and magazine articles as well as proofs of some books. It houses all of the volumes that he wrote and copies of the magazines that he edited or co-edited. Mencken began to subscribe to a clipping service in 1903. Early on he suspected, correctly as it turned out, that he would be famous and the collection has bound volumes of these clippings continuing up to the present time. These volumes are an invaluable resource for researchers. TheĀ  Mencken Room also holds books by members of the Mencken family other than Henry Louis. Mencken's brother August, for example, edited a book about hangings with the macabre but memorable title of By the Neck. The Mencken Room contains various Mencken artifacts such as photographs, portraits, and his press badge. There is also a sizable collection of his correspondence with Marylanders.

The new Mencken Room, housed on the first floor of the Enoch Pratt Free Library's new Annex, was dedicated on November 8, 2003. This new area offers a climate-controlled environment that will help immensely with matters of preservation. It provides individual study areas, comfortable chairs for reading and a state-of-the-art security system. Unlike its predecessor, the new Mencken Room has a window that creates an airy and attractive ambiance without exposing the books and artifacts to sunlight.

The Mencken Room is open to the public each year on Mencken Day, which is held on the Saturday closest to his birthday on September 12. The Mencken Society, which has done a good deal to preserve Mencken's flame, always meets on this day, and Mencken aficionados come from all across America and abroad to attend the festivities. For the rest of the year, the collection's vast resources are used by a variety of researchers, scholars, and professional writers.

 
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