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By His Own Rules

H. L. Mencken, a cigar always in hand, was the most influential commentator of his time.
Marion Elizabeth Rodgers
From the Print Edition:
Fidel Castro, Summer 94

(continued from page 3)

Drawing upon his love of chemistry, he tried to invent a method in which cheaper Pennsylvania leaf could be moistened with scuppernong wine and given the aroma of a genuine Havana. He tried to design a machine that would paste up containers to cheroots and even tried growing his own tobacco in the garden at home. (Result: tasteless.)

But when H. L. Mencken was promoted from the factory floor to the office, he became "intensely unhappy at once." He started as an office boy and assistant bookkeeper. After he broke the screw press, he was ordered to sell tobacco and cigars to grocery stores. It is not difficult to understand why it would be a depressing experience for him. There were salesmen in the factory who managed to sell up to $1,000 worth of cigars in four weeks, but in his first six months, Mencken squeezed out only $171 in business: during the entire month of August he made only one sale for the grand total of $3.50. "In the end," he wrote, "it became apparent, even to my father, that I was hopeless as a salesman."

He was banished back to the office, where the mystifying tasks of running a business made him feel as if he knew next to nothing. When he went to the bank to make deposits, he made mistakes; when he made out the bills, he made worse ones. Moreover, he was still required to sell cigars. The winner of the Alumnae Medal and class honorary speaker of the Polytechnique must have felt like a dismal failure, especially when he compared the fate of his best friend with his own. There was Arthur Hawks, happily free to greet each new day with the exciting prospect of another adventure as a reporter for the Baltimore Herald, while Mencken himself could only look forward to endless tedium, from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., miserably seated within the confines of a factory less than a mile from his house.

His evenings, however, were his own. Mencken spent his time reading the classics as well as books on journalism. He entered a correspondence course with the Associated Newspaper School of Journalism in New York, writing on his application of his hopes to "begin as a reporter and after that trust to hard work and luck for something better." Over time, he approached his father and told him of his journalistic ambitions. But this only led to an explosion or to a distressed response; it was plain August hoped his son would change his mind. Instead, the boy contemplated suicide, wallowing in melancholy, "the green sickness of youth."

The days dragged on, then months, then years. Rides to and from their country home during the summer were "devoted to lectures on the mysteries of tobacco and credit, the accursed nature of workingmen, the laziness of drummers, questions of freight, relations with the Internal Revenue, etc." For the entire ride, which lasted an hour, August was the assiduous businessman.

Then one summer afternoon, as if to console his son, August quit lecturing and confided his own story. His dream, as it turned out, was to be an engineer. It began with an early interest in mathematics. At 20, August had realized that engineering required long and laborious preparation and quietly gave up the notion. In the end, business had always been a sort of engineering for him: long before graphs and efficiency experts, he could make elaborate statistical analysis of his own business. That summer was the last of August's life. There was a sadness to the confidence: the fate of a man who had been successful in all his endeavors, save the one secreted in his heart. Bitterly unhappy, Henry Mencken remained the dutiful son and chose not to rebel for the time being, yet he anxiously dreaded the moment when he would have to do so.

That moment, however, never arrived. For the next two weeks following his collapse on New Year's Eve, August languished in bed, drifting in and out of a coma. Mencken could scarcely recognize his father: the husky, formidable man had lost 20 pounds and become a gaunt, helpless figure. Often he had tremendous convulsions, and it was up to Mencken and his brother to hold their father down before he collapsed feebly on the pillows, his eyes glazed and unseeing. It seemed incongruous: the man who, in his son's eyes had never lost his capacity to resolve any difficulty, was now struggling vainly against death. The exhausted family took turns watching him. Finally, on January 13, August Mencken died.

As he lay sleeping in next room, Mencken's uncle awoke him with the news. The boy climbed the stairs, lay on his bed and thought about the man whom he had resented and yet admired. On Monday afternoon, a black ribbon wreathed the door of 1524 Hollins Street. Inside family, friends and Freemasons gathered, and then proceeded to the cemetary. As the coffin was lowered into the ground, Henry Louis Mencken, now head of the household, stood by his family, grieved but determined to enter "the maddest, gladdest existence ever enjoyed by mortal youth."

He lost no time in clearing out of August Mencken & Bro. His father and uncle had an agreement whereby in case of the death of either, the survivor would have the right to buy out the dead partner's heirs at once. This was done. Almost immediately, H. L. Mencken applied for a job at the Baltimore Herald, and eventually plunged into the job at $7 a week, heedless of his Aunt Pauline's warnings that all newspapermen were enormous boozers and that large numbers of them died in the gutter.

Much to Mencken's surprise, his mother supported his decision. For some time, she quietly told him, she had been well aware of his unhappiness at the factory and his fervent wish to become a journalist. She also had not relished the prospect of seeing her son associated as the partner of Uncle Harry, for whose business talents she had a very low opinion. With her son's advice, she sold her shares of the stocks to her brother-in-law, who mismanaged the factory until its collapse in 1927. When his uncle and a cousin unceremoniously dumped the ledgers with notebooks full of careful figures into a trash heap in an alley, it was H. L. Mencken who dusted them off and had them carefully bound in blue Moroccan leather, a permanent record of his father's monument and his own unhappy adolescence.


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