H. L. Mencken died in his sleep on January 29, 1956, having spent the preceding eight years in the ironic limbo of misery reserved for prolific writers who are deprived by massive strokes of the power to work with words. The lawyers embarked on the labyrinthine task of carving up his estate, and a year and a half later it was revealed that he had left behind an archive of private papers so monumental as to make Boswell look like a tight-lipped introvert. The Enoch Pratt Free Library of Baltimore, Mencken’s home town, announced on July 13, 1957, that Mencken had left it a four-volume typescript called “My Life as Author and Editor”; a three-volume typescript called “Thirty-five Years of Newspaper Work”; and a five-volume diary. The New York Public Library received a collection of Mencken letters running into the thousands.

The noses of untenured academics throughout America began to twitch with...

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