Advanced Search
Charles Fecher
Charles Fecher
The Diary of H.L. Mencken
ISBN: 039456877X
The Diary of H.L. Mencken
Charles Fecher, editor of the controversial book The Diary of H.L. Mencken, discussed the life of H.L. Mencken and his work in publishing Mencken's diary. A newspaper man, magazine editor, author, and critic, H.L. Mencken donated his personal writings to a Baltimore library upon his death in the 1950's, with the stipulation to make them publicly available after 25 years. Mencken's anti-semitic statements contained in his diary created a controversy. The editor of The American Mercury, an influential magazine of the 1920's and 30's, Mencken remains as one of the most influential personalities in American journalism.
The Diary of H.L. Mencken
Program Air Date: January 28, 1990

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Charles Fecher, editor of "The Diary of H.L. Mencken," what's been the most surprising thing that's happened since the publication?
Mr. CHARLES FECHER, AUTHOR, "THE DIARY OF H.L. MENCKEN": The--the uproar surrounding the publication. I--I was totally unprepared for anything like this. I expected that the book would generate some controversy because H.L. Mencken never wrote a book that didn't. But I did not expect what happened.
LAMB: Who uproared the most?
Mr. FECHER: Reviewers and critics.
LAMB: All critical?
Mr. FECHER: No, no. Not all, by any means. The--the initial reaction was highly critical of Mencken. But then some calmer voices began to be heard. And I would say that at the present time, the reaction is about 50 percent pro and 50 percent con.
LAMB: Is there anything to criticize him for as a result of this information?
Mr. FECHER: Oh, the diary reveals a strain of anti-Semitism, o--of racism, of what the media has called bigotry. It reveals a pro-German sympathy--that sort of thing. You know, none of this was entirely new. Anyone who was familiar with Mencken's work would have known that those things were in there. It's simply that in the diary, they are stated more strongly and starkly tha--than they ever were in what he published during his own lifetime.
LAMB: L--let's start at the beginning. Who is H.L. Mencken?
Mr. FECHER: H.L. Mencken was a newspaperman, magazine editor, author, philologist and critic of the national mores from about the turn of the century, 1900, up until the time of his death in 1956. He--he reached the peak of his reputation in the 1920s and '30s when Walter Lippmann called him the most powerful person of influence on this whole generation of educated people, and The New York Times called him the most powerful private citizen in America.
LAMB: What's a philologist?
Mr. FECHER: A philologist is a person who studies the origins and meanings of words. Mencken wrote a book called "The American Language," which is a study of the way that the English language developed in the United States. He published the first edition in 1919. There were second and third editions in 1921 and '23. In 1936, he totally rewrote the entire book to bring out a fourth edition. And then subsequently, he brought out two supplements to that edition. So what you have are four thick volumes run--six thick volumes running to about 3,800 pages of study of the American lang--of the English language in the United States.
LAMB: Where did he live?
Mr. FECHER: In Baltimore his--lifelong. He was born there, lived there and died there. And he lived in one of the city's typical brick front-row houses for all but about eight of his 75 years.
LAMB: And where do you live?
Mr. FECHER: I live in a similar community called Govans in North Baltimore, which, again, is--is row houses.
LAMB: Where did these diaries come from?
Mr. FECHER: When Mencken died, he left the diary, along with a mass of other papers, to the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore.
LAMB: Enoch Pratt?
Mr. FECHER: Enoch Pratt.
LAMB: And what's that?
Mr. FECHER: It was Baltimore's public library. And--and Mencken had used it from the time he was nine years old. All of his papers were deposited with the Pratt Library. The diary and some other papers were given to them with the stipulation that they could not be opened until 25 years after his death. And the 25th anniversary of his death was in January of 1981. But it wasn't until a number of years after that that the library decided to publish the diary.
LAMB: How did you get involved?
Mr. FECHER: Well, in 1978, I published a book on Mencken called, "Mencken: A Study of His Thought," which was also published by Alfred A. Knopf, the publisher of all of Mencken's books and the publisher of the diary. When it was decided to publish the diary, I, of course, applied--submitted my application for the job. The--there were any number of other applications, I know. Of the various applicants, the library selected me.
LAMB: What were you doing before that? Are you a writer by training?
Mr. FECHER: Well, I w--would like to say that I am a writer. I've never made a living at it. I worked for a good many years for the Archdiocese of Baltimore in various capacities and retired from there in 1982. I've been retired since. I suppose some of the considerations that led them to give me the job of editing the diary were the fact that I had written the other book about him, the fact that I was a native Baltimorean and knew the whole background, many of the people he talks about in the diary, and was retired so that I could give it my full time.
LAMB: When did you first get interested in H.L. Mencken?
Mr. FECHER: So far back that I can hardly tell you when it first happened. Mencken wrote a series of articles for the Evening Sun--the Baltimore Evening Sun--that they were known as The Monday Articles. They appeared on the editorial page of the Evening Sun every Monday from 1920 until 1938. And I first became acquainted with him in those Monday Articles. I--I don't go back to 1920, but I can remember s--the--the later years, you know, the middle '30s. I fell in love with his style, his manner of expression and with his ideas. And this began a love affair that has gone on ever since. I bought his various books as they came out and read everything by and about him that I could get ahold of.
LAMB: If you go to the National Press Club here in ashington, there's an H.L. Mencken Library.
Mr. FECHER: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: And as we're talking, a major controversy is whether or not to con tinue calling it the H.L. Mencken Library.
Mr. FECHER: Yes, I know. I'm aware of it.
LAMB: Why is that?
Mr. FECHER: Because of the anti-Semitism and racism expressed in the diary, the National Press Club felt that they did not want their library to be named after a person with--with these ideas. And a proposal has been made to take his name off of the library. I--I would hope that calmer minds will prevail, and that the proposal will not go through.
LAMB: Why?
Mr. FECHER: Because Mencken was, above all else, a newspaperman. He--he was probably the greatest journalist this country has ever seen. And the National Press Club, in naming its library after him, recognized that fact. And the fact is not changed because the diary reveals some disagreeable aspects of his personality. It re--reveals his weaknesses as well as his strengths.
LAMB: Are there people that are genuinely shocked by what they read here and surprised?
Mr. FECHER: Yes, yes, there's no question about that.
LAMB: Should they be?
Mr. FECHER: I suppose they have every right to be. I--I said earlier that anyone who knows Mencken's work would have been prepared for this. I--if you did not know Mencken very well, then the anti-Semitism and the racism revealed in the diary would come as a shock.
LAMB: From your perspective, what--what was it about his writing that made him so good?
Mr. FECHER: Primarily, I would say, the style. No other man in American literature has ever written like him. The style is utterly unique. He's one of the great humorists in American literature. The--there are passages by him that you can't read without bursting into guffaws. Now, you know, style is only one aspect of a--a writer's equipment. He must also have ideas to express. And--and Mencken did. The--the range of his interests and activities was--was enormous. He wrote about politics, literature, civic affairs, politicians--mo--mostly, I would say, politicians.
LAMB: What'd he think of politicians?
Mr. FECHER: He didn't like any of them. He said that a good politician is as unthinkable as an honest burglar.
LAMB: No politician at all that he liked.
Mr. FECHER: In--in theory, yes. In actual practice, there were, of course, men whom he knew personally and liked and respected.
LAMB: Let me read from your introduction.
LAMB: `Roosevelt'--this is Franklin Roosevelt...
Mr. FECHER: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: `...was a, quote, "world saver." His political and economic premises were, quote, "so false as to be absurd." The conclusions he drew from these--for those premises were, quote, "always dubious and sometimes completely idiotic."' Is that strong for Mencken?
Mr. FECHER: No. That--that--for Mencken, that's rather mild. He wrote about all presidents of the United States like this.
LAMB: You describe an appearance by the president--Roosevelt, FDR, in front of the Gridiron Club...
Mr. FECHER: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: ...and--and that Mr. Mencken was sitting there in the audience. Can you tell us about that?
Mr. FECHER: Mencken had been invited to be the speaker at this dinner of the Gridiron Club--in 1934, I think it was. He'd gone up and delivered what was a--a critical, but essentially good-natured and humorous, talk about Roosevelt's New Deal. And--and, of course, he found plenty of fault with it. He claimed that the only provision of the Constitution that had not been violated by the New Deal was the prohibition of quartering soldiers in people's private homes. A little later, it was the president's turn to speak. He got up and began a vicious attack on newspapermen and journalism, an attack that had cold chills running up and down the spines of the people listening to him.

Finally, they realized that what he was doing was reading a piece called "Journalism in America" which had been written by Mencken himself and published in his magazine, The American Mercury. So, you know, the--the president was attacking journalists and--and Mencken in Mencken's own words. Mencken felt publicly humiliated by this and swore that he would get even, although, of course, there was really no way that he could ever get even except to write more and more bitter attacks upon Roosevelt.
LAMB: And the Gridiron Club--the--the room was full of journalists.
Mr. FECHER: Yes, of course.
LAMB: You also write in your introduction, `He had castigated and ridiculed presidents before almost as a matter of policy. Harding...'
Mr. FECHER: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: ...`the numskull and Gama'...
Mr. FECHER: Gamaliel.
LAMB: ...`liel. Coolidge a cheap and trashy fellow, a dreadful little cad. Hoover where his char--where--where his character ought to be there is almost a blank.'
Mr. FECHER: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: Did--did this have any impact on the public?
Mr. FECHER: Oh, yes. I think so.
LAMB: How?
Mr. FECHER: Because of his enormous reputation a--as a political commentator and--and journalist the--these Monday Articles in the Baltimore Evening Sun that I spoke of were known and quoted all--all over the country.
LAMB: But you could only read them in the Baltimore Evening Sun?
Mr. FECHER: I--I--I think they were syndicated in some papers.
LAMB: Go back to 1956. Tha--that was the year of his death.
Mr. FECHER: Yes.
LAMB: Had you ever--have you ever met him?
Mr. FECHER: No, I never did.
LAMB: Have you talked to people who had met him?
Mr. FECHER: Yes. A number of them, yes.
LAMB: What was he like to know?
Mr. FECHER: According to everybody who ever knew him, he was one of the kindest, most courteous, most gentle and most considerate persons you could imagine.
LAMB: How did he write? I mean, when did he write? What was his style?
Mr. FECHER: He wrote with a bludgeon. He--he hurled thunderbolts at everybody.
LAMB: Was he a morning writer? An afternoon writer? Did he--did he write with a typewriter or longhand? Did he...
Mr. FECHER: All his work was done at the typewriter. My impression is that most of his work was done in the afternoon and evening.
LAMB: Was he a drinker?
Mr. FECHER: Yes, he was. If you mean by that, `Was he an alcoholic?' no, by no means. He was a very careful and cagey drinker. Among his friends were authors like Sinclair Lewis and Scott Fitzgerald. And he blames them for the fact that what he considered their excessive drinking had--had destroyed their--their literary gifts. And he--he himself had very careful rules about what, when and where he drank. And there--you know, there is no record that he was ever at any time under the influence of it.
LAMB: You say, `Let it be said at once, clearly and unequivocably--quivocally, that Mencken was an anti-Semite.'
Mr. FECHER: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: And then you go on to the--the difficulty in reading all this is it just fuels the whole discussion and--and--and that's why I hesitate. You--you go on to write that Lawrence Spivak, who was to become publisher of the Mercury, `is a "young Harvard Jew."' Young Harvard Jew is quote, unquote, from Mencken.
Mr. FECHER: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: Is that the same Lawrence Spivak that went on to do "Meet the Press"?
Mr. FECHER: Yes. Yes, it is.
LAMB: `The life of a distinguished Johns Hopkins professor is characterized in two words, "French Jewess." Charles Ang--Angoff...'
Mr. FECHER: Angoff.
LAMB: `...Angoff, quote, "like most of the other young Jewish intellectuals," unquote, inclines toward communism. Samuel Eliot--Eliot Morison, the great historian, is quoted as telling him that the students in his class at Johns Hopkins are, quote, "mainly Jews."' Why was this such a bother to him?
Mr. FECHER: I--I don't know. You know, I--I can't pretend to explain it. There--there was unquestionably an overt, or I should say a covert, anti-Semitism in the air and culture of that time. It--it wasn't the kind of psychotic and murderous anti-Semitism that occurred in Germany with the rise of the Nazis. It was a more quiet thing. I--I know that in my own Baltimore, and I suppose this is true of other cities still, there were neighborhoods that were "restricted," in quotes. This meant that Jews could not move into them. There were clubs the Jews could not belong to. There were swimming pools the Jews could not go in. And--and there were lots of other restrictions placed upon them. If...
LAMB: What was his religion?
Mr. FECHER: Mencken...
LAMB: Yeah.
Mr. FECHER: ...did not believe in anything. He was a...
LAMB: Did he go to church ever?
Mr. FECHER: No, he was a strict agnostic.
LAMB: One of the ironies--thi--this book is published, this "The Diary" here--I'll hold it up so the audience can see this--was published by Knopf Publishers.
Mr. FECHER: Mm-hmm. LAM: And Mr. Knopf was Jewish.
Mr. FECHER: Yes. And one of Mencken's closest friends.
LAMB: When did he--is he still alive?
Mr. FECHER: No, no, he died five or six years ago, I think.
LAMB: Was there ever any consideration by the Knopf Publishing Company that, by publishing these diaries, they're fueling the whole anti-Semitism again?
Mr. FECHER: I--I'm not aware of any such consideration.
LAMB: I mean, in the course of your conversations with them...
Mr. FECHER: No, no.
LAMB: ...that never came up, and they never worried about that.
Mr. FECHER: No. At the beginning of my work on "The Diary," when I was just getting started on it, I wrote to the senior vice president and editor at--at Knopf, pointing out to him that these things were in there, and that to do an honest editing job, it will be necessary to--to use them. And he wrote back and said he agreed completely and that there w--there was no point in trying to cover them up.
LAMB: Start with the diaries. How did he keep these diaries?
Mr. FECHER: He began them in 1930, when he was already 50 years old, and for a while, he kept at it fairly regularly--not--not daily by any means. There might be long stretches of several weeks where he wouldn't touch it. And then there might be a period where he would, you know, make an entry almost every day. In 1935, his wife died, and after that, for a long time, he gave it up almost entirely. It wasn't until like 1937 or '38 that he resumed it on anything like a regular basis. And then in the 1940s, he really took it seriously. The en--the entries for those years are--are lengthy.

He did it at his typewriter--as he--as I said, he never wrote anything in longhand, the--the--the result, I suppose, of his starting out in life as a newspaper reporter. About half the diary is in his own typing, about half of it is in the typing of his secretary, Mrs. Laura Fink.
LAMB: And did he only keep these diaries for 18 years?
Mr. FECHER: Yes.
LAMB: That's it. There are...
Mr. FECHER: That's it.
LAMB: Now when you started with this--when did you physically start with this project?
Mr. FECHER: About 1987, I suppose--1986 or '87.
LAMB: And once you showed up to work one day, where did you go and what did somebody hand you?
Mr. FECHER: Well, the Pratt Library handed me the total diary. It was--it was boxed in--in five volumes--it w--it was sealed in five boxes, let us say, each one with a label on it, initialed by him, saying that it was not to be opened until 25 years after his death. I was given a--Xerox copies, all--all the way through--from the beginning to the end of the diary. And the first thing I had to do was make a selection. Th--this, by the way, was by no means the total diary. The diary runs to something like 2,100 pages of double-spaced typing, which would make three books the size of that one.
LAMB: How many words is that?
Mr. FECHER: I would estimate it as somewhere between 500,000 and 600,000. So the first thing I had to do was make a selection and get it down to a volume of manageable size. What you see here in this book was what I selected, and it is about one-third of the total diary.
LAMB: Are you going to do another?
Mr. FECHER: No, there are no plans to bring out the unused two-thirds.
LAMB: Now when you had a glance at this first in 1987, there had been a period between 1981 and 1987 that these diaries were allowed to be seen by someone.
Mr. FECHER: The library made them available to those who had already established themselves as Mencken scholars, people who had written books or articles about him or were engaged upon research about him. And they made them available to scholars in some related fields. For example, there was a man at that time doing a history of the Baltimore Sun papers for the occasion of its 150th anniversary. And, you know, this book is loaded with material about the Sun papers. So, you know, the diary was made available to him.

But it was not generally available. And even those who were allowed to see it had to swear solemnly in writing that they would not quote from it or paraphrase it or use it in any way in their writings.
LAMB: There was a problem getting a decision to actually publish. Why?
Mr. FECHER: I--I spoke of the fact that there were--was a label on each one of the boxes initialed by him. That label said that it was not to be opened until 25 years after his death, and that even after that, it was to be made available only to scholars engaged in serious research. This created the problem, or--or brought up the question: Did Mencken ever intend the diary to be published at all? The Board of Trustees of the Pratt Library debated this question for a long time, and they sought a legal ruling from Stephen H. Sachs, who was at that time attorney general of the state of Maryland, as to whether, in view of what was said on the labels, the library could publish them. Now Mr. Sachs ruled that the labels did not have the legal formality required for wills, and that, therefore, the library was within its rights in publishing them.
LAMB: Do you think that H.L. Mencken would be pleased that these diaries were published?
Mr. FECHER: I don't think Mencken ever wrote a single word that he didn't envisage being published sometime. So I think, yes, he would be pleased and, doubtless, highly amused by all the reaction to it.
LAMB: Put the actual diaries in the context with everything else he was doing. I mean, this wasn't the only writing he was doing during these 18 years.
Mr. FECHER: Oh, God, no. Hmm-mm.
LAMB: And what was his style of writing the diaries compared to other things he was writing?
Mr. FECHER: Well, the diaries are much rougher. They--they don't have the finished, polished style of the published books. They don't have the high humor of the published books. Well, i--and this is not to say that they're serious or somber in tone; they're not. It was impossible for him to write anything somber--a--you know, and he's complaining about his health, which he does constantly through here.
LAMB: You say he was a hypochondriac.
Mr. FECHER: Oh, God. Yes. Yes, one of the worst in the world.
LAMB: Was he really--was he sick very often?
Mr. FECHER: There--y--there's no doubt that in later years, he self-declined. He--he was really a candidate for high blood pressure and a stroke. And, of course, this--it was a stroke that he--eventually finished his career. I--I don't know how much of the complaining about his health in the diary was genuine and how much was just hypochondria.
LAMB: At--at what time did he--would he write the diary compared to everything else he was writing during the day? Was it the end of the day?
Mr. FECHER: I--I would imagine so. There's no indication. As I said, about half of it is his own typing and half of it is in the typing of his secretary. And it's very easy to distinguish between them. Apparently, on days when he had the time--and I would imagine that this was late in the evening, you know, it--some time after dinner--he--he would sit down at his own typewriter and type a diary entry. When time did not permit, he would dictate it over to his secretary, along with the--the mail he had for her, and--and she would type it.
LAMB: You've got a lot of photographs in here, and I want to hold a couple of them up and--and take a look at them and--and have you explain what they are. On the screen right now is a photo of Mr. Mencken and who?
Mr. FECHER: George Jean Nathan, who was a close friend of Mencken's and al--incidentally, also, Jewish. They worked on The Smart Set magazine for--oh, from 1908 to 1923. Mencken was the book editor; Nathan was the drama critic. In 1914, they became the co-editors of the magazine. And it was during those years that they both became famous for their--their irreverence, their pungent style and for the influence they had on, in--in Mencken's case, literature; in Nathan's case, the--the drama.
LAMB: What's this picture below?
Mr. FECHER: That is a picture taken on Boston Commons at the time of the famous Hatrack case, which occurred in 1926.
LAMB: Is Mencken in this picture?
Mr. FECHER: Yes. He's the one holding up that sheet of paper in the--in the center. He--he was editor of The American Mercury magazine by then. He and Nathan gave up The Smart Set at the end of 1923 and started a new magazine called The American Mercury at the beginning of 1924, which im--immediately became one of the most influential magazines of--of that period. In 1926--in--in April, I believe it was--the magazine was banned in Boston by an organization called the Watch and Ward Society because of an article in it called, Hatrack: The--the Story of a Prostitute in a Little Midwestern Town. A--a man named Chase, who headed the Watch and Ward Society, thought that the article was obscene and ordered al--all Boston newsstands and book dealers not to sell it. Now Chase's society had no legal standing whatever, but it had such enormous influence that book dealers and newsstands were afraid to buck him. So they took it off of their stands.

Mencken heard about this and went up to Boston and sold a copy of the magazine on Boston Commons. He was promptly arrested for selling obscene literature. The next morning when the case came up in court, the judge, who had read Hatrack the night before, threw the case out of court. He said that there was no evidence of obscenity in it at all. So, you know, there Mencken won, although in--in the long haul, he lost because Chase succeeded in having the issue barred from the mails. Now this was a moot point since it had already been mailed out anyway. But it was necessary to go through a long hearing before the postmaster general, and there, Mencken lost--he and his publisher, Knopf, considered taking the case to the Supreme Court, but it would have been too long and too expensive, and they never did it.
LAMB: We're going to have a photo here in just a moment of H.L. Mencken and--second wife?
Mr. FECHER: No, he was only married once.
LAMB: Only married once.
Mr. FECHER: Yes. He married at the age of 50 in 1930.
LAMB: I know what confused me here. You say he--she died in 1935?
Mr. FECHER: That's right.
LAMB: And they were only married for how long?
Mr. FECHER: Five years.
LAMB: What impact did she have on his life?
Mr. FECHER: A tremendous one. He had met her seven years before they got married, and there--there's no doubt that he was deeply and romantically smitten by her from the very beginning. There was an--an 18-year age difference between them. When they married, he was 50 and she was 32. She was in poor health; she had a number of serious perations over the time that he knew her. When he married her, the doctors told him that she did not have more than three years to live. Actually, she lived five. And he--he says in the diary that, you know, they were the five happiest and most fulfilling years of his life, and that there's no doubt that her death left a tremendous void in his life. And not all of his activities ever sufficed to fill that up.
LAMB: Why did she have so much impact on him?
Mr. FECHER: Why did she have so much impact?
LAMB: Yeah. What was it about the relationship that y--that--what does he say about the relationship that was so important to him?
Mr. FECHER: She was a beautiful, charming, intelligent woman.
LAMB: And he never married before that or after.
Mr. FECHER: That's right. Yeah.
LAMB: What did her death do to him? And what--what--what can you read through the diaries that--that give you an impression of...
Mr. FECHER: The--the fact that he writes so often of how much he misses her, that hardly a day goes by that he doesn't think of her.
LAMB: Didn't he say he was--somewhere in one of these--one of the entries that `an hour doesn't go by without him thinking about her'?
Mr. FECHER: Ye--yes, pri--yes, very probably so. Ev--every day, he thinks of something he wants to tell her or sees something he wants to buy for her.
LAMB: Another photograph of H.L. Mencken. By the way, what does H.L. stand for?
Mr. FECHER: Henry Louis.
LAMB: Who was he named after? Anybody?
Mr. FECHER: Hen--Henry was the name of his uncle, who lived next door to them, by the way. And Louis was the name of a long-since-dead child of his grandfather by another marriage. This child died in infancy, was named Louis. And for some reason, which nobody could possibly figure out today, little Henry was named--was given the middle name Louis.
LAMB: Did he always part his hair down the middle?
Mr. FECHER: Yes.
LAMB: Did he ever say why?
Mr. FECHER: No, not that I'm aware of.
LAMB: When was this picture taken--the little one?
Mr. FECHER: The little one about--I--I think about 1942.
LAMB: And the one below it.
Mr. FECHER: The one below it is, I believe, dated 1939. It's the backyard garden of their row house at 1524 Holland Street in West Baltimore. And he--he and his brother spent a tremendous amount of time in the garden, planting flowers in the spring and pulling them up in the fall and enjoying them in between.
LAMB: What were his politics?
Mr. FECHER: He was an incurable conservative and Tory.
LAMB: Any reason that he gives why?
Mr. FECHER: No. No, there--there are, I suppose, a number of reasons that would have contributed to it--his solid Germanic background, the--the flavor and atmosphere and culture of Baltimore in that period, the fact that his father owned a business, which he wanted Henry to succeed him in. So that his father was in at--at least a modest sense of the word, a capitalist. And, you know, Menck--Mencken believed in--in the virtues of capitalism and bourgeois values very much.
LAMB: Did he make any money in his life?
Mr. FECHER: Ye--yes, he did. You know, he was--he was one of those very rare creatures, a financially successful author. Now--now, obviously, he did not get the kind of advances on his books that you get on some books today. In fact, he didn't believe in advances; he never took one. He took his royalties when the book had been published and was selling, but he never took an advance in his life. That and what he earned from the Sun papers for being a columnist and an editorial adviser, plus the fact that--you know, his father had left the family pretty well taken care of at his death. But Mencken never had any real ser--real serious money worries.
LAMB: The American Mercury was a publication that lasted how long?
Mr. FECHER: Well, if you're asking how long it lasted, it came down to relatively modern ti--recent times. The great Mencken period began in 1924, and he resigned the editorship of it in 1933.
LAMB: What did it look like?
Mr. FECHER: It was a magazine with an arsenic green cover. This cover was uniform from beginning to end, as far as color was concerned and general design--although the design was changed a little bit over the years.
LAMB: And who wrote for it?
Mr. FECHER: Oh, an enormous number of people. It w--it was primarily devoted to political and social commentary, some literary criticism, some fiction and poetry, but not much. You know, it--it dealt with the social, political, economic problems of that era, and man--many people, many writers contributed to it. It has been said that it was a one-man magazine, which it was really. It reflected Mencken's personality. And anybody whose ideas differed from Mencken's wouldn't have much chance of getting published in it. It was even said that Mencken rewrote the articles that were contributed to it so that they would reflect his views. He--he himself denied this, and I--I believe that his denial, you know, w--was sincere. I--I don't think that he would have changed other people's writings. But--but the articles that appeared had to be in agreement with his own philosophy.
LAMB: Let's go back to your work on this--this book. First of all, let's see, it sells for $30.
Mr. FECHER: Yeah.
LAMB: It's expensive.
Mr. FECHER: Yes, it is.
LAMB: Any trouble selling it, do you know?
Mr. FECHER: I think it has been selling pretty well. I--I don't have any figures on it, but in Baltimore and Washington, when it came out the early part of last month, the booksellers could not keep it in stock.
LAMB: Did the publisher tell you why they put such a high premium on it?
Mr. FECHER: No. But y--I--I think that's fairly standard for books in today's market.
LAMB: And you started on this in 1987.
Mr. FECHER: Uh-huh.
LAMB: When did you finish it?
Mr. FECHER: The completed manuscript was probably turned in about September of 1989.
LAMB: How did you go about...
Mr. FECHER: No, no. September of 1988, I'm sorry.
LAMB: How...
Mr. FECHER: How did I go about it?
LAMB: How'd you go about doing this?
Mr. FECHER: Well, as I said, first of all I had to make a selection...
LAMB: Right.
Mr. FECHER: ...from the total diary.
LAMB: How did you do that? Did you read every word?
Mr. FECHER: Oh, yes. Yes, I had to.
LAMB: How long did that take you?
Mr. FECHER: Not long, a matter of a few weeks. And the--the job of making the selection was not all that difficult. You--you may wonder what's in the other two-thirds, the parts that I didn't use, but--but really what's in it i--you know, is more complaints about his health. He was a member of the Board of Directors of the A.S. Abel Company, the publishers of the Baltimore Sun papers, and a director of Alfred A. Knopf, Incorporated, his publisher. And many of the entries are little more than minutes of board meetings of these companies and are--are of very little interest to anybody today. So it...
LAMB: You--you point out that actually, it is--his writing about the board meetings were better than the minutes themselves.
Mr. FECHER: They probably were. I--I'm sure they were. But anyhow, you know, tho--those things I pulled out. Well, I--I tried to give as representative a glimpse as I could of all his activities, you know, as--as an author, as a newspaperman, as a family man, as a friend of authors and musicians and so on. And, you know, thi--this is what you have in--in this volume.

Then, of course, I had to settle down to the job of annotating, because many of the people he mentions--and most, I suppose--many of the events he talks about would have meant little or nothing to today's readers. So I had to provide an enormous amount of--well, a relatively enormous amount--of annotation at the bottom of every page explaining who so-and-so was or what this refers to--that--that sort of thing.
LAMB: Where did you do that?
Mr. FECHER: Everything was done at the Pratt Library in Baltimore. I never had to go anyplace else for any information I needed.
LAMB: And as you were doing this, who helped you make sure that--I mean, who edited you?
Mr. FECHER: Well, no one really until I submitted the manuscript to the publisher.
LAMB: You--the reason I ask you that is you mention in the introduction--this is right in front of me. `I owe to Vincent Fitzpatrick, assistant curator...'
Mr. FECHER: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: `...of Pratt's Mencken Room, who knows more about its contents than any other person on Earth, with whom I could discuss any problem that arose and any doubt in my mind'--th--this is what I want to ask you about--`He read the first draft of this introduction, disagreed vigorously with some of the things in it.' What did he disagree with?
Mr. FECHER: Well, you know, I--I don't remember all of them because this was more than a year ago.
LAMB: But what kind of things? I mean, what--I assume--is he a real expert on H.L. Mencken?
Mr. FECHER: Oh, yes, he is. Yes, indeed, he is. He disagreed with my flat statement that Mencken was an anti-Semite, a--among other things. I--that--that's just one example.
LAMB: And why would he, based on what you read here that it's rather clear how he feels about it?
Mr. FECHER: I can't say, you know.
LAMB: Are there people that are worried that this will do great damage to H.L. Mencken and...
Mr. FECHER: Oh, there are. Yes. No question about it.
LAMB: And will it?
Mr. FECHER: That--that's pretty hard to say. My own fear, when--when the book hit the stands and all the hullabaloo started, was that it--it might permanently damage his reputation. Now, I'm not so sure. I--I really believe that he--he will survive in spite of the--the new id--the new material that's coming out about him. I say that because "The American Language," for example, is still one of the greatest works of scholarship of our time. His three-volume autobiography, the "Days" books, still makes the most delightful reading you can imagine. He still remains one of the most important and influential critics in the first half of this century. All that is there. And the--you now, the things in "The Diary" don't change that. So I--I--I don't think that it's going to permanently damage his reputation. Obviously, scholars who write about him from now on, future biographers and critics, are going to have to take what is in there into consideration and deal with it a--as they see fit. But no, I--I still think his reputation will survive.
LAMB: Now if somebody wants to go see the rest of these diaries for any reason, is it available? Are they available?
Mr. FECHER: They're in the Pratt Library. You know, you would have to be engaged in some kind of scholarly research involving them to--to get permission to see them.
LAMB: You say you jus t can't walk in and say, `I want to see the rest of them'?
Mr. FECHER: Oh, no. No.
LAMB: Why are they so cautious with that? Why don't they bind them, put them in a--on the shelf and let anybody come in and look at them?
Mr. FECHER: Because I--well, first of all, the--the reason--the reason they didn't let anybody see them originally was because--you know, there was always the thought in mind that eventually that they might be published. And the library wished to hold their contents in reserve until such time as it was published. Now that a portion of it has been, the restrictions, so far as I am aware, still apply on the rem--the unused portion of it because there's always the possibility that some day, the--the diary may be published in its entirety. There are no plans for this at the moment. But somewhere down the road, a university press may want to publish the total diary in a relatively limited edition for the use of scholars. And for that reason, you know, the library is holding on to them.
LAMB: Who gets the profits?
Mr. FECHER: The Pratt Library.
LAMB: And what do they do with that? Is it go--does it go right into the Mencken section of the library? Or does it--or do you know?
Mr. FECHER: I--I really can't answer that question.
LAMB: Is--if you go to Pratt Library, what kind of a--a area is set aside for Mencken alone?
Mr. FECHER: There is a Mencken Room on the third floor.
LAMB: What's in it?
Mr. FECHER: Mencken kept every sheet of paper, I think, that he ever typed on. In that room are the volumes, bound in blue Morocco bindings, which must have been extremely expensive even then, of all his books, all his magazine articles and newspaper columns. I--I spoke of The Monday Articles which ran from 1920 to 1938. There are 18 big volumes, each one containing a year's Monday Articles, his original manuscripts and the cutouts of the article from the paper. There's an enormous amount of his correspondence. And then his personal library of--of quite a few thousand volumes was also bequeathed by him and is in the Mencken Room.
LAMB: Here's a photograph of him with a cigar in his mouth. Is that one of his trademarks?
Mr. FECHER: Oh, yes. Yes. He always had a cigar in his mouth.
LAMB: Where was this picture taken?
Mr. FECHER: That is in his second-floor study in that house on Holland Street, looking out the--the front window across to Union Square across the street.
LAMB: What have they done with his house?
Mr. FECHER: His house is now a Baltimore city museum. It has been restored so far as possible to the--what it was when he and his brother August lived there. It is open to the public. Right now an effort is being--there was a picture you showed earlier of him in the backyard garden--right now they're trying to restore that garden to what it was in his time.
LAMB: When he was a reporter--and what were the years that he actually did reporting for the Baltimore paper?
Mr. FECHER: Well, he went to work about 1900 for the Baltimore Morning Herald, which is long since extinct. The Herald folded up, I think, about 1906. And he went to work for the Sun papers and was with them until his stroke in 1948.
LAMB: Would he actually physically go out--I mean, like, for instance, would he come to Washington and talk to presidents and senators and congressmen? Or did he just write his opinion?
Mr. FECHER: He interviewed many of the important politicians and statesmen of his time. But very early--he--he shot up so fast in the newspaper business. You know, he--in a relatively short time, he was in a managerial and supervisory capacity. So he--he--he did relatively little newspaper reporting in the course of his life. He would under--he would undertake certain assignments. For example, he always covered the national political conventions--the Democratic and Republican conventions.
LAMB: A matter of fact, we have a photograph right here...
Mr. FECHER: Yes.
LAMB: ...from the national Republican convention.
Mr. FECHER: Yeah. Mm-hmm.
LAMB: In this--how many entries are there in--in "The Diary" here that you've done?
Mr. FECHER: How many entries?
LAMB: Different days that he writes about.
Mr. FECHER: Oh, I--I really have no idea what the number of entries are.
LAMB: What about your favorites?
Mr. FECHER: Oh, I--I--I have some favorites, of course. One is the long and very beautiful entry on May the 31st, 1940, the 50th--the fifth anniversary of his wife's death. Between the time that she died and that entry, there is no mention of the fact in the diary at all. You wouldn't even know that she had died. In fact, you wouldn't know he even married. And then on May the 31st, 1940, he writes this beautiful and very long entry about their life together, about how much she meant to him, about their travels together and so on. That would certainly be one of my favorites.

There's one about a trip that he and a friend of his, Joseph Hergesheimer, a novelist of the period, made through the Pennsylvania Dutch country, which is very interesting. And, of co--he--you know, he--in New York, he met for lunch or dinner with novelists like Theodore Dreiser, poets like Edgar Lee Masters. His accounts of, you know, having a meal with them and what they talked about are fascinating.
LAMB: Who did he like the most--in people?
Mr. FECHER: Who?
LAMB: Yeah. What kind of people did he like? He writes a lot about people e didn't like.
Mr. FECHER: Yeah. You know, I--I don't know if you can generalize and say, you know, what kind of person he liked. He--he was obviously drawn to writers...
LAMB: Who--or whose--or who were his closest friends?
Mr. FECHER: Writers, journalists and musicians and doctors.
LAMB: `His attitude toward black people was a curious mingling of total eg--of total egalitarianism on the one hand and patronizing superiority on the other.'
Mr. FECHER: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: You say that--that things just didn't make sense, that he had people that worked for him that he was tremendously kind to.
Mr. FECHER: Mm-hmm. Tha--that's right.
LAMB: What did you conclude? Tell us more about that, the...
Mr. FECHER: Mencken published black writers in The American Mercury at a time when there were very few markets for the work of black writers. He encouraged his publisher, Alfred Knopf, to bring out their books. He played a very important part--an inspirational part--in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. He knew and was on friendly terms with and corresponded with many importan t black people of that period. And, you know, he--he and his brother had two black women who cooked and cleaned for them, and obviously he was very fond of them, took the most complete care of them. He paid their medic al bills if they got sick. You know, it--here--here you have what I call the egalitarianism. But at the same time, there's no question that he thought that black people were inferior to white. You know, in--in speaking of these two black women who worked for him, he--he speaks of their belonging to the Afro-American race and bearing many of its psychological stigmata.
LAMB: And you quote him as saying here in the introduction, `"It is impossible," he held, "to talk of"'--this is--this is quoting--`"to talk about anything resembling discretion or judgment in a colored woman. They are all essentially childlike, and even hard experience does not teach them anything."'
Mr. FECHER: Mm-hmm. Now are--are you going to ask me to explain the paradox here?
LAMB: Not necessarily. I mean, if you want to, go right ahead...
Mr. FECHER: No, I--I can't. Yeah. He was a complex and contradictory person.
LAMB: I guess what I really wanted to ask you was, do you expect journalists now, in the world we live in today, to be able to sort through all this and, in the end, accept him and still revere him as one of the great journalists of all time?
Mr. FECHER: You know, I--I, myself, in spite of the fact that I have been a Mencken buff all my life and admire him and enjoy him tremendously, you know, I--I would not say that I revere him. And I wouldn't expect anybody else to revere him. But, you know, I--I would expect somebody else--and especially journalists--to respect him for his tremendous abilities as a journalist and writer.
LAMB: Do you think that a lot of journalists who would use his name all the time as being one of their idols as--as a writer really knew the story here that you tell in this book throughout?
Mr. FECHER: No, they did not.
LAMB: What's that say about journalists and their ability to investigate? Anything?
Mr. FECHER: Well, perhaps so. But you have to remember that they had no access to this anyway.
LAMB: But you said, when we started this, that it should come as no surprise if you'd ever read Mencken over the years.
Mr. FECHER: Yes, that--that's right. There are, you know, indications of anti-Semitism and of his feelings about black people scattered here and there in his published writings. But, you know, I--I think that most of us--and you know, I was one of them--just skimmed over this and ignored it and did not let it get in the way of our admiration for him.
LAMB: Have you done much talking about this book? Have you traveled much with it? Or has this thing just taken off on its own?
Mr. FECHER: It's pretty much taken off on its own. I've had quite a few interviews in news--with newspaper people and radio talk shows and on television.
LAMB: What--what are the questions you're asked the most often?
Mr. FECHER: How do I account for the anti-Semitism and the racism?
LAMB: Is--if somebody gets this book and looks in it, are there going to be some surprises, based on, you know, lots--I mean, I've got here a stack of paper--all the reviews and everything that's been done--but are people going to be surprised by things that have not even been touched? I mean, are there major stories in here from your perspective that--that no one's written about that...
Mr. FECHER: No, I--no, I wouldn't say so. No--no major stories. Yeah. You know, this is not going to make previous biographies and studies of Mencken obsolete. You know. As I said in my introduction, it tells us things about him that we had not hitherto known, but it doesn't tell us anything basicall y different. You know, what it adds i--it adds in--in details, not--not in any major revelations.
LAMB: There's another thing that--that caught my eye. You say has--that--that the story goes that he once read his own obituary in the Sun files, meaning the Baltimore Sun files...
Mr. FECHER: Yes.
LAMB: ...approved it and directed that a single sentence be added at the end. Quote, "As he got older, he got worse." And then you say this was undoubtedly true. What did you mean by that?
Mr. FECHER: Oh, there's no question that he became very crotchety and stubborn and set in his ways. He--he must not have been an easy person to get along with. You know, he--he was--he was one of the great humorists of the time, and I think he was this in person as well as in print. For the most part, I don't think he ever lost his--his good humor or his ability to relate to people and his generosity and politeness to them. But he did become set in his ways. There were certain things that, you know, he believed, and the rest of the world believed otherwise, which meant that the rest of the world was wrong and he was right, and, you know, he--he just became crotchety, as I said, and set in his ways.
LAMB: You said he was a conservative.
Mr. FECHER: Yes.
LAMB: Is there conservative dogma that he writes about that becomes Mencken-generated, or is he just--is it he just comments from a conservative point of view? Or do you find the thought...
Mr. FECHER: He just--he--he just comments from a conservative point of view. You know, if you could reduce his political philosophy to a sentence or w o, he was in total agreement with Thomas Jefferson that the best form of government is that which governs the least. Mencken thought that government had no business whatever intruding into the lives of its people. The government existed for two things: to repel foreign invaders and to maintain domestic order and tranquility. And this was the source of his hatred of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who came along and created--yeah--the CCC, the NRA, the NLRB, you know, all these other government agencies, the Social Security Act, welfare and so on. Yeah, all of this, to Mencken, was anathema because he didn't believe that government had any business in such areas.
LAMB: You said, when we started this, that he was very German, and I'm not sure you said it that way, but that that meant a lot to him. What did that--what does that mean to you? How do you translate that so we can understand what that means?
Mr. FECHER: Mencken's whole background and culture was German. Three of his four grandparents were German. His father and mother were German. He--he grew up in a sense--and I think in those days, a great deal of the Baltimore population was German. He--he grew up absorbing German ideas and German culture. The--the Germany that he loved--and I think, you know, an important distinction has to be made here--was the Germany of Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, German beer--yeah. This sort of thing. So it was hard for him to feel--both in World War I and again in World War II, to feel any strong anti-German sentiments.

At the same time, you know, I think it would be wrong to say he was pro-Nazi. Nothing in his writings gives the slightest indication that he approved of what Hitler was doing in Germany. It has to be admitted he never wrote anything against it, and he should have, of course. Why he didn't is a mystery that, you know, no--no writer about him, no one who knew him has ever been able to explain.
LAMB: You point out, and--and as I look through the--your--your book to find it, there is no entry around December the 7th, 1941.
Mr. FECHER: That's right.
LAMB: There is no entry around V-E or V-J Day.
Mr. FECHER: That's right.
LAMB: How come?
Mr. FECHER: Again, I don't know. There is an entry where he talks about the--the end of the war--I don't know whether it was V-E Day or V-J Day. My impression is it was V-E. But the only--the matter with which the entry deals is that--the noise that all the people were making around the neighborhood while he was working, celebrating the end of the war.
LAMB: Did he ever talk about war?
Mr. FECHER: Oh, he talks about it here and there in the diary, yes. But--but mainly to the extent that he had--it has had very little effect on him. It hasn't changed his way of life very much or, conversely, that it's inconveniencing him in this way or that.
LAMB: Last question.
LAMB: What impact has Baltimore had both on you and on him? Can you tell us something about Baltimore that's different from other places that you know?
Mr. FECHER: Let me try to quote--or not to quote, I can't do that--but to give you some idea of what Mencken said, and you know, I--I'll go along with it. He--he felt that it re--retained, you know, a Southern charm and leisureliness of life, along with something of the vigor and activity of the North. He felt that it was a great city to--to live in, to grow up in, that--that it had charms that no other city had.

Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 2004. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.