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Postcards from Mencken

H. L. Mencken is considered among the great American men of letters. While Mencken was known for his work as an editor of the Smart Set and especially the American Mercury, as well as for being a distinguished literary critic, an interpreter of Nietzche, and a self-taught scholar who compiled the definitive and substantial three volumes of the American Language. But he always kept his job as a journalist for the Sun paper in Baltimore, the city where he was born in 1880 and where he died in 1956. Mencken, above all, was robustly opinionated and a great wit.

Having known Sara Ann Duffy Chermayeff for quite some time, on some occasion or another I’d heard her mention Mencken’s name in passing, and eventually, I learned that he was her godfather. In fact, Sara’s original name was Bridget, but Mencken had asked her parents, Edmund Duffy, the great political cartoonist, and his wife, Ann, to rename her after his deceased wife. With Sara’s consent, the following are a select few of the many surviving postcards that Mencken regularly sent to his goddaughter from wherever he might be traveling.

The first two are quite compelling since they display a discrepancy over time. The first shows a hideously posed picture of Hitler with two young girls. On the back it is dated June 28, 1938, and addressed to Sara’s mother, Ann Duffy. It reads: “How could one who loves children be wicked? You have been grossly misinformed by Bolshevik propaganda. This photograph is authentic.” However, a later postcard, postmarked March 11, 1945, was written to Sara, who was then ten. On the front is printed a picture of cannons at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, and on the back, with characteristic bluntness, he wrote simply: “These canons protect Baltimore from the Japs, Nazis, etc.”

Perhaps those of us familiar with the whole Mencken enterprise remember that the bleakest chapter of his life was indeed his flirtation with the new-fangled doctrines of Nazism and Fascism. We acknowledge there is a delicate and complex bridge between Mencken’s idolization of the Nieztchean Superman—which for a time drew him to the more fanatical Hitler—and his concurrent enthusiasm for Thomas Mann. Mann’s attraction to Nieztche’s philosophy had more to do with his portrayal of the pessimism and the satanic inspiration of the artist than the worship of sheer power of the will. Mencken’s momentary change of mind, however, shows that his affection for the ten-year-old Sara was completely separate from his own political agenda. Nevertheless, as soon as Ezra Pound was brought back to Washington under a charge of having broadcast Fascist propoganda over Italian radios—leading to his indictment for treason—and remanded to St. Elizabeth’s hospital for the criminally insane in 1946, Mencken made it his business to visit Pound unannounced. He regarded the meeting as an enlightening experience. The remaining two postcards were written simply to amuse Sara. I especially like the one sent to Sara from Brooklyn, in which he comments, “Brooklyn is a wonderful city, though few have seen it. Many of its people speak English plenty.” That certainly demonstrates Mencken’s insight and his ability to enjoy the Brooklynite’s dialect—whether the more predominantly Italian or Jewish branches of the American Language. Mencken, to be sure, would take pleasure in analyzing the many new versions of English circulating through the streets of the increasingly diverse Brooklyn of today.


Phong Bui


The Brooklyn Rail


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