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In the Spirit of H.L. Mencken: Baltimore Nonfiction Writers Showcase Their Talents

May 10, 2012

Volunteer Alisha blogs about the April installment of Baltimore’s New Mercury Reading Series.

On a recent Saturday in April, I had a chance to tour author H.L. Mencken’s former home, which was officially closed as a house museum in 1997, and now opens only for special functions. Two members of the Friends of Mencken House greeted me outside of the three-story rowhouse. While I chatted with them, a woman walked briskly up to the house, clutching two of Mencken’s books—The Vintage Mencken and Mencken Chrestomathy—closely to her chest. As I stared at her and wondered who she planned to have sign her books, she explained, “I want his spirit to touch the books.”

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, author of Mencken: The American Iconoclast, led the tour, treating us to recordings of Mencken interviews and offering anecdotes about the author such as his penchant for carrying seeds of morning glory in his pockets so that he could spread them “throughout Baltimore because he loved that shade of blue.”

During the tour, the book-toting woman listened intently to Rodgers. When the group was in Mencken’s study, I noticed that she had placed the books on one of the built-in shelves which were otherwise empty. I wondered perhaps if this was to allow Mencken’s spirit to more thoroughly “touch the books.”

It is with Mencken’s spirit in mind that the monthly New Mercury Reading series in Baltimore was established. The series, named after Mencken’s journal The American Mercury, is going strong as it enters its third year. “We don’t agree with everything that Mencken wrote, but we appreciate his independent thinking and willingness to challenge orthodoxies of all kinds—and the fact that 86 years ago, his Baltimore-based journal became a nexus for freelance writing and spirited debate,” say Deborah Rudacille and John Barry, co-curators of the reading series, on New Mercury’s website.

On Saturday, April 21, the series featured writers Bill Hughes, D.R. Belz, Geraldine Fagan and John Stabb. Bill Hughes—who lists amateur soccer player, longshoreman, attorney, professional actor and photographer among his occupations—opened the evening with a piece previously published in City Paper about Harry Agro, a World War II U.S. Navy Seaman. Hughes’ emotion was evident throughout the reading as he recounted how Agro survived close calls aboard the Luckenbach and Sawokia, both sunk by torpedoes, and endured two years and nine months in a Japanese prison camp. “All of the men caught below deck when the ship was first attacked died. By a stroke of sheer luck, Agro happened to be on deck when the first bomb hit,” Hughes wrote. “Despite serious wounds to his head and leg, he managed to get off of the dying ship, and after spending the night in the water, was picked up the next day by the crew of the Michel.”

D.R. Belz, a Baltimore satirist and author of White Asparagus, moved on to less serious territory with short, humorous pieces, including titles such as “Occupy My Trousers,” “Bibliphrenia,” “Underachievers in Heaven” and “Indispensible Oyster.” In his piece on heaven, Belz entertained the audience with quips like, “You can’t even keep water out of the basement reliably. What have you humans been doing?” Incidentally, Mencken’s basement, which a few of us had explored during the house tour, showed no visible signs of water damage, quite a feat in Baltimore.

The next reader, Geraldine Fagan, a visiting fellow at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C., read excerpts of her forthcoming book Believing in Russia – Religious Policy after Communism. Based in Moscow, Fagan has monitored religious affairs across Russia for more than a decade and is currently associated with Forum 18 News Service. Her thought-provoking narrative explores the country’s surprising diversity of religions beyond the Russian Orthodox Church, including Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist establishments, and raises important questions about the role of religion in public life. Remembering my own time in Russia in the early 1990s when I sometimes accompanied my “adopted” Russian grandmother on visits to her Moscow neighborhood’s Russian Orthodox Church, I was surprised to learn of the extent of the country’s religious diversity.

John Stabb finished out the evening with excerpts from his memoir, a work-in-progress titled Government Issue: Creation of a Monster. As the former front man of the D.C. hardcore/punk/pop-rock band Government Issue, Stabb intertwined his personal story with the history of punk rock. He seemed to transport himself back to this time with his heavy, thudding rendition of “Everybody’s Getting Banned”—part punk rock performance, part reading. Later, I found myself wondering what H.L. Mencken would have made of this scene.

The evening offered a little something for everyone—spanning World War II, oysters, religion and punk rock. One could imagine many pieces from this compelling, ongoing reading series slipping easily among the pages of one of Mencken’s The American Mercury—keeping his spirit alive. The book-toting woman on the tour would have appreciated that.

Note: New Mercury is on hiatus in May, but returns in June. Potomac Review contributors Sue Eisenfeld and Alexander Chip will be reading in June and July, respectively.

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