This year is one of those not so ordinary times when the annual celebration of Mencken’s birth by the Mencken Society and Enoch Pratt Free Library actually coincides with the man’s birthday (September 12, 1880). The missus and I have descended on Charm City for the festivities and the warm associations with the city — from Machen and Mencken, to living here during grad school, to Barry Levinson’s movies (Diner, Tin Men, Avalon, Liberty Heights), to David Simon, Bunk, Jimmy, Omar, and Avon — have come flooding back.
Mencken was no choir boy, but he did know most of the gospel songs of his era thanks to his days as a Sunday school student. His favorite song was “Are You Ready for the Judgment Day?”:
. . . a gay and even rollicking tune with a saving hint of brimstone. We grouped it, in fact, with such dolce but unexhilarating things as “In the Sweet By-and-By” and “God Be With You Till We Meet Again” – pretty stuff, to be sure, but sadly lacking in bite and zowie. The runner up for “Are You Ready?” was “I Went Down the Rock to Hide My Face,” another hymn with a very lively swing to it, and after “the Rock” come “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus,” “Throw Out the Lifeline,” “At the Cross,” “Draw Me Nearer, Nearer, Nearer, Blessed Lord,” “What A Friend We Have in Jesus,” “Where Shall We Spend in Eternity?” . . . and “Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Revive Us Again.” . . . It was not until I transferred to another Sunday-school that I came to know such lugubrious horrors as “There Is A Fountain Filled with Blood.” The Methodists avoided everything of that kind. They surely did not neglect Hell in their preaching, but when they lifted up their voices in song they liked to pretend that they were booked to escape it. (Happy Days, Library of America edition, 179-180)
If anyone wonders why Mencken’s father, a religious skeptic, sent his boys to Sunday school, the reason is that August Mencken wanted a Sunday afternoon nap and the boys were not so docile as to accommodate. So with Sunday school a two-hour afternoon production in the 1800s, off he shipped the young H.L. to sing with the Methodists.