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My Mentor, Mr. Mencken : L.A. Writer John Fante Carried on a 20-Year Correspondence With the Sage of Baltimore

<i> Michael Moreau is assistant editor of Special Sections at The Times. </i>

Four years ago next month, Los Angeles writer John Fante died at the Motion Picture and Television Hospital, Country House and Lodge in Woodland Hills. Since that time there has been a renewed interest in his intensely personal novels, especially those depicting the struggling writer, Arturo Bandini, which are set in Los Angeles during the 1930s. “Ask the Dust,” “Wait Until Spring , Bandini” and his last novel, “Dreams From Bunker Hill,” are classic portrayals of the city that has been home to many writers, but rarely incorporated into their fiction.

Less well-known is Fante’s correspondence with pungent journalist and social critic H. L. Mencken, Fante’s first publisher and his lifelong hero. The two exchanged letters for about 20 years, beginning in 1930, when Fante was starting to build a reputation as a writer, and when the Sage of Baltimore had seemingly passed the peak of his career.

Fante, then a student at Long Beach Junior College, began writing to Mencken when he was 21 and Mencken was 50. In his letters to Mencken, Fante was effusive, bombastic, funny and often plaintive. In one letter he told Mencken: “I still hold you, and always shall, my ideal of a man, and measure myself by you. I’ve got to have a god, and you’re he.”

Mencken’s letters were generally terse, but he clearly found intelligence and talent in Fante’s outpourings. He encouraged the younger man to write, and he published Fante’s first short story, “Altar Boy,” in the August, 1932, edition of the American Mercury, the respected literary journal that Mencken had founded.

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During their correspondence, Fante wrote dozens of short stories for the American Mercury and other magazines, four novels and several screenplays. During the same time, Mencken was editor of the American Mercury, columnist for the Baltimore Sun and author of “The American Language” and other books.

This fall, Black Sparrow Press will reissue Fante’s 1952 novel, “Full of Life.” Belgian producer Erwin Provoost is currently at work on a screen adaptation of Fante’s first novel, “Wait Until Spring , Bandini.” McGraw-Hill has just published “Mencken and Sara: A Life in Letters,” edited by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, a set of letters between Mencken and his wife. And Black Sparrow Press now plans to publish the complete Fante-Mencken letters, from which the following are excerpted.

July 26, 1932

Dear Mr. Mencken,

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Will you answer a question for me? In the past thirty days I have written 150,000 words. I know a writer with a reputation does not do that many, but is the man just starting supposed to do that much? I certainly feel the effects, for being broke throughout, I ate very little and lost a pound a day, or thirty pounds. Moreover, to test my immunity to other writers who are often imitated, I read all of Hemingway, Dos Passos, and De Maupassant, besides great stacks of H. G. Wells and a chronic dose of Mencken. It means ten hours of the day and night, including the writing. I’m not bragging here. I just want to know whether a man just beginning to write must necessarily work that hard. I want to know whether you did as much in a similar period of your life.

It is my plan to edit the American Mercury some day. By forty or thereabouts I think I shall be qualified. This means a lot of hard work, so I am going about it very systematically, and barring death or blindness a man can get whole warehouses of work done in twenty years, and I know no earthly reason why the job should not be mine at the end of that time. The only hitch in the plan is that should you ever decide to quit the job, the magazine is liable to go on the rocks, so for God’s sake stick around for a while longer.

Yours with great admiration,

John Fante

Aug. 3, 1932

Dear Mr. Fante:

I incline to think that you are trying to pile up too many words. Certainly it is absurd to write 150,000 in thirty days. I believe you’ll accomplish more if you take things more slowly. If you get one thousand words of good stuff on paper every day you’ll be doing well enough. Very few authors are able to do actual writing for more than three hours a day. In fact, a good many very successful ones average no more than an hour.

Sincerely yours,

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H. L. Mencken

The following was soon sent, at Mencken’s request. Not all the information, it turns out, is accurate. For instance, Fante was born in 1909, not 1911. The other information, except for his being born in a macaroni factory, is essentially correct.

Aug. 7, 1932

Dear Mr. Mencken,

Ten trillion thanks for your advice concerning working hours and writing output.

You may do as you please with the following:

I was born in Denver, Colorado, in 1911, in a macaroni factory, which is just the right place for a man of my genealogy to get his first slap, for my people were from the peasantry of Italy. My father was very happy at my birth. He was so happy that he got drunk and stayed that way for a week. On and off for the last twenty years he has continued to celebrate my coming.

I have two younger brothers and a sister. Our family moved to Boulder, Colo., when I was still a little squirt, and I began my schooling there, under the nuns. I returned to Denver for high school, attending Regis College, a Jesuit house. Then I went to the University of Colorado for a year. I quit that place because I was just about to flunk out. I couldn’t study. I’d been four years in a Jesuit boarding school, and you can’t imagine the overpowering voluptuousness of everything feminine after four years of confinement.

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My family went to smithereens a couple of years ago, my father beating it in one direction, and my ma and we kids to Southern California. It was awful. I had to go to work. Ye gods, how I hated it. The only work I ever did previous to that was play all sorts of ball, but I got a job, and did a pretty swell job of keeping alive my ma and the kids.

Then my father came back, and the folks went north with him, and I went to Long Beach. I went to the Junior College in that town until my money gave out. Money has always been my problem, and the thing I’m trying to do is get enough of it to stop starving. I’ve done a lot of that, believe me.

Thanks again for all the grand things you have done.

With Admiration,

John Fante

March 23, 1933

Dear Mr. Mencken,

I thought I’d better write you a letter of thanks. Alfred Knopf has let me have about 500 bucks in advance on a novel which I will finish in about six months. Of course, what was most instrumental in making this advance possible was your purchasing and publishing my short things. And too, Mr. Knopf may have consulted you in reference to my synopsis. I wish my gratitude to you were more tangible and emphatic. I don’t know how to bring this about unless it be to dedicate my book to you, and, depending on whether or not it is a good book and worthy of the dedication, I shall certainly do it.

Sincerely yours,

J. Fante

March 28, 1933

Dear Mr. Fante:

If you want to dedicate your book to me I’ll certainly be delighted, but I should warn you that I was not responsible for its acceptance by Mr. Knopf. As a matter of fact, he did not show me the synopsis, and if he had asked my advice about paying the $500 advance, I’d have advised him not to do it. That is certainly not because I believe you can’t do the book, but simply because I am opposed to advances on principle.

Sincerely yours,

H. L. Mencken

After Fante’s proposed novel, “The Road to Los Angeles,” was completed in 1936, Knopf rejected it--probably for its controversial ideas and language and for the despicable persona he created in the young Arturo Bandini. Fante put the book away. His wife, Joyce, discovered it in his papers after his death, and it was finally published by Black Sparrow Press in 1985.

(Undated; before Oct. 12, 1933) Dear Mr. Mencken,

For Christ’s sake, you can’t quit the American Mercury! It would be like an automobile without gasoline. I think it’s a plain case of desertion, especially at a time like this. The only reason the vast majority of people read the American Mercury is because your book reviews and editorials appear, and without you as its active editor the thing will go to pot within a year or so.

The whole goddamn world is hell-bound, and now you quit. I think you need a sock in the jaw. Mencken, the most vital and inspiring man in my life, and now, a mere urchin at fifty-three, he folds up with a bogus senility and decides to quit!

Sincerely yours,

John Fante

Oct. 12, 1933

Dear Mr. Fante:

Please don’t take my departure from the American Mercury too seriously. The magazine is still there. You’ll find your market as good as ever.

I seize the opportunity to thank you for the excellent stuff you wrote in my time. I’ll always remember it with the greatest pleasure. Let me hear from you when you feel like it. I hope the book goes well.

Sincerely yours,

H. L. Mencken

Nov. 10, 1933

Dear Mr. Mencken,

Now that you have--possibly--more time on your hands, I think it opportune to ask you a number of things which I in my inexperience have not yet been able to answer. Most of my thinking these last three years has not really been “thinking” in the sense of a man sitting down and sweating out theories on what he wants and how to get it. What I have done, to be very honest, is imitate you in as much as I possibly could. My imitation went beyond mental and conversational gymnastics. It extended to smoking cigars, wearing high shoes, parting my hair in the middle, and staring intently out of one eye at a speaker. I used to be vexed because I didn’t know what sort of toothpaste you used; and I used to spend hours and hours aping certain Menckenian expressions I came upon in newspapers and magazines. All this was, I realize, more pathetic than stupid, but it represented a period of transitions through which I am still passing.

I find myself falling short of my ambitions, which I set up and gauge with you as a yardstick. I used to do it chronologically, in this manner: Mencken at twenty-one, a volume of poems; Fante at twenty-one, two stories in the American Mercury. If I still felt the same way, I suppose I could say that I was outdoing H. L. Mencken because he’d never published a novel at twenty-two. But one must be honest and admit he is growing up; besides, I am licked in that I’ll never edit the Baltimore Sun at twenty-three. It has been great fun though, and I’m not through yet.

Sincerely yours,

John Fante

June 16, 1934

Dear Mr. Mencken,

In these treacherous days I fortify myself with heavy doses of Nietzsche who, for all his little errors, is the best medicine in the world. It takes a terrific amount of it to write the stuff I’m now writing, and still go on living from day to day. The hell of it is, I’m writing for the studios, and it’s the most disgusting job in Christ’s kingdom.

I wouldn’t be scribbling this motion picture slop except that I’ve had very bad luck in the past three months, and a scenario writer makes fifty times as much money as James Branch Cabell and Sherwood Anderson put together. This famous first novel of mine (“The Road to Los Angeles”), which I have been boasting about, was really a pretty lousy novel. Mr. Knopf was bitterly disappointed in it and insists that I go to work on another one to satisfy the demands of the contract.

Sincerely,

J. Fante

June 29, 1934

Dear Mr. Fante,

I find your letter of June 16 on my return to Baltimore. It is too bad that you couldn’t come to terms with Knopf. But inasmuch as you agree with him that the novel was probably not what it should have been, I suppose there is nothing to be done about it. I always advise young authors to scrap their first two or three book manuscripts. Many a man has been ruined by being published prematurely.

H. L. Mencken

July 12, 1934

Dear Mr. Mencken,

You see by now what has happened since you retired from the American Mercury. Once more the country is infested with literary and political quacks who have been hibernating for ten years. I may be stupidly prejudiced, but my conviction is that never in my life have I seen a greater exhibition of imbecilities and frauds. All over the land the mob is roaring for blood, the politicians are resorting to their basest tricks, and organized religion is showing the intrinsic gutlessness of its tenets. The last straw would be a newspaper notice of the fact that H. L. Mencken is running for the governorship of Maryland. I would take poison or finish like Nietzsche.

Very sincerely,

J. Fante

July 17, 1934

Dear Mr. Fante,

The over-production of quacks that you notice is always visible in times of public difficulties. The American people are firmly convinced that every imaginable disease is curable, and when the regular doctors fail to relieve them they turn at once to quacks. My belief is that all of the members of the Brain Trust belong to this category. I can see nothing whatever in them save the desire to line up at the public trough--in brief, they are job holders precisely like any others. The notion that they are altruists is sheer insanity, and the notion that they are master minds is almost as crazy.

Sincerely yours,

H. L. Mencken

Aug. 15, 1934

(on Warner Bros. letterhead)

Dear Mr. Mencken,

Here I sit, laughing and laughing. I have a secretary and a great big office and a lot of people bow low when I pass, all of them hating my Dago guts.

I not only made these folks swallow that bilge water but I did it to the tune of $1,500, plus $250 a week for an indefinite period. I never had so much money in the offing in my life; moreover, if my luck holds good I shall certainly bed Del Rio inside of four weeks. Once I sent her twenty-five cents for her picture. Now today, ten years later, I see her daily, eat in the same room with her, ogle her big Rolls Royce, and having concluded that she’s unquestionably the world’s worst actress, I am all set to tell her so the very instant I meet her.

What a movie! I wrote it for Frankie Darro. They didn’t like that. They said Kay Francis. So I wrote it for Kay Francis. Then they said change it to Barbara Stanwyck. The yarn used to be a kid story. Now it’s a prison story. Some day it will be King Kong. And all I do is write and laugh and laugh and think of Dolores Del Rio.

Mr. Mencken, you should come out here and get rich. What about “The American Language?” Don’t lie to me, Mr. Mencken, I know you had Jean Harlow in mind when you wrote it!

Cordially, and begging your pardon,

J. Fante

Nov. 11, 1936

Dear Mr. Mencken

Last night I finished the new “American Language.” It is such a marvelous thing, so full of laughter and wisdom.

I can’t say much for my novel. Knopf thought it was horrible stuff and so did Vanguard. But William Soskin (his editor at Stackpole Books) is interested. It means months of rewrite, though. But writing persists in being the thing I like best of all, and so I do not mind. The best way for a writer nowadays to get money is via the movies. When I go broke, my agent in Hollywood can usually place me for a few weeks at one of the studios--until they fire me--and I come away with enough to breathe easy. But it’s a nerve-racking, jittery existence. The compromise becomes increasingly difficult. Hollywood is a bad place. It kills writers. They die young and violently there.

Sincere good wishes,

J. Fante

March 20, 1938

Dear Mr. Mencken,

I was recently married to Joyce Smart, a Stanford girl who writes wonderful poetry and is also very remarkable in a kitchen apron. We live here in Los Angeles, where I am writing a novel (“Wait Until Spring, Bandini”), which William Soskin will print in the fall. I trust you are in good health and ever the Mencken fighting man.

With best of luck,

J. Fante

March 29, 1938

Dear Mr. Fante:

I offer you my most sincere congratulations, but have only condolence for your poor wife. She will discover soon enough that living with a literary gent is a dreadful experience. I only hope that she is never tempted to load your victuals with roach powder.

Sincerely yours,

H. L. Mencken

Aug. 20, 1938

Dear Mr. Mencken,

Bill Soskin is putting out my first novel in October. You might recall that this is the third try I have had at book writing. Such a record measures perfectly with your comment that a writer should discard his first two books.

Marriage is alright, Mr. Mencken. It keeps a man satisfied and full of big ideas. I hope my book makes a lot of money so I can travel a bit and develop my ideas. I hope you will get behind it and tell other people to buy it. If you don’t like the book, then by all means warn people against it.

Sincerely,

J. Fante

Aug. 29, 1938

Dear Mr. Fante:

I needn’t tell you that I’ll read that novel with the greatest interest. My chaplain is instructed to pray for it diligently.

H. L. Mencken

June 18, 1951

Dear Mr. Mencken,

All I know of you these days is what I read in the papers, but no news is indeed good news and I hope this finds you over the hump. It is surely twelve years since I wrote you a letter. In that time I have acquired a wife and four children, and lost my father, who died six months ago at 72.

My new novel (“Full of Life”), the first in 10 years and the best by far, is being published by Little, Brown in the Fall. The dedication will read: For H. L. Mencken, in undiminished admiration.

Regards always,

John Fante

March 21, 1952

Dear Mr. Mencken,

I am sending you a copy of my book “Full of Life.” I wrote it as a short story last Spring, but my agent got Woman’s Home Companion interested in publishing an expanded version, for which they gave me a couple of thousand in advance. The magazine rejected my final version, however, and Little, Brown agreed to publish it. I peddled it to Stanley Kramer of the films for forty thousand bucks.

I trust this letter finds you well over the hump, and that the courage so lavish in your writings is there to beat back what must be a fearful siege! God be with you on the road back to victorious health.

Sincerely yours,

John Fante

March 29, 1952

Dear Mr. Fante:

Mr. Mencken, unfortunately, is still ill and it is impossible for him to write to you. But he is delighted to hear that Little, Brown has published your book. Mr. Mencken can’t read the book at this time, but if he sufficiently recovers to do so sometime later in the year, he will certainly go through it with the greatest pleasure. Meanwhile, he sends his congratulations.

Rosalind Lohrifinck

Secretary to Mr. Mencken

Mencken suffered a stroke in 1948 that left him unable to speak, read or write; he died Jan. 29, 1956. Fante died from complications of diabetes on May 8, 1983.

He and Mencken never met.

Fante’s letters reprinted courtesy of Joyce Fante. Mencken’s letters reprinted with permission of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore.


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