Mencken’s Ghost

By Ernest B. Furgurson

On a rainy January Sunday 57 years ago, I walked into the city room of the Baltimore Sun for the first time and immediately realized I had found a home. The place was rocking: the union had called a strike against Baltimore Transit Company, paralyzing a city of steel and dock workers; 10 people burned to death in a church bingo fire, and—most notably in the rest of the world—Henry Louis Mencken died.

No doubt I’m the only person who ever imagined some significance in the fact that the day that Mencken died, I arrived to work at the Sun.

That the Sunpapers tolerated and cherished H. L. Mencken was one reason they attracted talent out of proportion to their circulation and abysmal pay scales. Gee, said eager youngsters typing away at the Provincial Post and the Biweekly Bugle, if they let Mencken fly so high and swing so freely, maybe some day….

What mainly attracted me was the Sun’s foreign and Washington bureaus, the chance that I might some day don trenchcoat and chase adventure like the Hal Boyles and Ernie Pyles I had tracked as I delivered the Danville Register & Bee during World War II.  That, and my then eagerness to get out of Richmond, where people associated anybody working for the News Leader with Jack Kilpatrick’s segregationist rants on the editorial page. Maybe Mencken was hovering somewhere in the back of my mind, too.

In time, I did everything there was to do at the Sun besides sit indoors—shipwrecks, striptease dancers, Washington, Moscow, Vietnam, elections, wars, presidents, assassinations. And then I became a columnist, as free as anyone has ever been to go wherever and write whatever I pleased. Occasionally I ruined the breakfasts of Ku Kluxers or coal and oil magnates across the country. It’s a scandal that I got paid to have so much fun.

Fifty states, 65 countries, thousands of conversations—and if there was one sentence that I heard more than any other in my travels, it came the moment I identified myself. Even in towns where my column was running in the local paper, when I mentioned the Baltimore Sun the response was likely to be “Oh yes, that’s Mencken’s paper, isn’t it?” He had not written a word in 40 years, or drawn a breath in 30, yet there he was, still hovering.

True, as decades passed, such queries dropped off along with old-timers who remembered the Sage of Baltimore’s dancing prose on the Boston Watch & Ward Society, the Scopes trial, the Sahara of the Bozart. And then, just over 20 years ago, Knopf published Mencken’s diary, disclosing that privately he had written offensive anti-Semitic terms about men who were genuinely his best friends. Although his biographer Bill Manchester and the old Baltimorean Russ Baker of the NY Times, both Sun alumni, defended Mencken as using words not uncommon in his time and place, most reviews scalded him.

So today, as the Baltimore Sun bears little resemblance to the great paper of years past, respect for its once brilliant star is in steep decline. Mencken’s ghost is still out there somewhere, but 21st century Americans don’t know it. They don’t know what they’re missing.
Ernest B. “Pat” Furgurson spent most of his career with the Baltimore Sun, in the Washington bureau, the Moscow bureau, as a war correspondent in Vietnam, and covering the White House as Washington bureau chief. He also wrote a syndicated column and has written six books on politics and military history, most recently Freedom Rising: Washington in the Civil War.

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