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Mencken and Sara

February 9, 2014

Mencken and Sara

I’ve been a fan of the dying art of letter writing ever since I read the wonderful A Friendship: The Letters of Dan Rowan and John D McDonald, so I was delighted to come across Mencken and Sara: A Life in Letters (1992) edited by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers. H.L. Mencken was the renowned journalist, magazine editor and acerbic critic of American society. Sara Haardt was a professor of English Literature and promising young author. Their correspondence began in 1923 and ended with Sara’s death twelve years later from tuberculosis aged only 37. Rodgers divides the letters into two sections, ‘The Courtship Years’ and ‘The Marriage Years’. The attraction between Mencken and Sara is evident from the start of the collection, and despite the ‘Sage of Baltimore’s’ well-known opposition to marriage, they wed in 1930.

Part of my reason for reading the book was that I thought I might learn a few things about a particularly rich period in American crime fiction writing. Mencken was the co-founder of Black Mask magazine in which authors such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett began their writing careers with short stories which defined the hardboiled style. However, on this point, I was disappointed. In his letters, Mencken talks at length about The American Mercury, the Monkey Scopes Trial, his disdain for President Coolidge and Romantic admiration for Imperial Germany, but he makes no mention at all of Black Mask and only one mention of his close friend and colleague James M. Cain, another creator of the hardboiled school. However, in her excellent seventy-page introduction to the book, Rodgers mentions Cain several times, and it is clear that, although he may not have intended to, Cain had a big impact on Mencken’s and Sara’s relationship. Mencken had been romantically linked with the famed silent movie actress Aileen Pringle who would later become Cain’s third wife. On the eve of Cain’s marriage to Pringle, Mencken wrote to Cain and warned him that he might begin to resent Pringle’s strong-minded personality. The comment, although tactless, proved to be quite prophetic as Cain’s stormy marriage to Pringle lasted only two years. Cain himself had been very close to Sara, although whether this was in any way romantic I don’t know. Cain was, to misquote John Inverdale, ‘never a looker’, but he seemed to have no problem in attracting beautiful women. As his biographer Roy Hoopes diplomatically put it, he was the type to come home ‘with lipstick on his collar’, although he was devoted to his fourth wife Florence Macbeth. Cain and Sara enjoyed the occasional dinner, and he recognised in her qualities that Mencken found so attractive. She had a quick wit and a wicked sense of fun, and this derived partly from the fact that she was such a good listener. Cain wrote that she could ‘see through most people’, and this helped Mencken to shed some of his more fair-weather friends. Perhaps Mencken had been yearning for this form of big lifestyle change for some time, as Rodgers writes that Cain believed that Mencken delayed marrying Sara until after the death of his domineering mother Anna. During one of her many illnesses Mencken recommended a clinic to Sara that Cain had attended when he was battling lung problems, and a few months after Sara’s death, Cain visited Mencken only to find him in a sad state, ‘wandering through the rooms, talking nonstop, almost mechanically.’

These are a few sketches of Cain I enjoyed taking from the book, but Mencken and Sara is about the two titular protagonists, and it is a informative, moving and witty read, which I would recommend to anyone interested in the history or literature of the era.

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