H. L. Mencken rips Gum-shoe Steiner & sour old maids at Pratt Library

The following excerpt was published in yesterday’s Baltimore Sun (“Sage Words” by Mary Carole McCauley, September 21, 2014). It’s taken from H.L. Mencken, “The Days Trilogy, Expanded Edition,” edited by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers (Copyright 2014 by The Library of America, New York, N.Y. With the permission of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. All Rights Reserved.). As a contemporary Pratt librarian, I find it highly amusing. – Tom Warner (Baltimore Or Less)

Newspaperman on the job, and Gum-shoe Steiner
by H.L. Mencken

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Enoch Pratt Free Library: “The main building…was a morgue, and getting a book out was a tedious process.”

When I became a newspaper reporter in 1899 the Central Y.M.C.A. was one of my regular assignments, and I often dropped in to look through the magazines in its reading-room. Now and then I had to cover one of its Sunday afternoon religious meetings. They were always dull and gloomy.

Once, I recall, the speaker was Dr. Bernard C. Steiner, librarian of the Enoch Pratt Library — a solemn, humorless, intensely pious fellow who, because of his shambling way of walking, was known to the reporters of the time as Gum-shoe Steiner. He delivered an harangue so inconceivably stupid and uninteresting that I remember it clearly to this day.

Until he died in 1926 the main building of the Pratt Library, then in Mulberry street, west of Cathedral, was a morgue, and getting out a book was a tedious process. There was no card-index, but only a series of printed books with typewritten addenda, and the female attendants, mainly sour old maids, were far from helpful. Nevertheless, I patronized it assiduously, and whatever education I may be said to have came out of it. I used Branch No. 2, at Hollins and Calhoun streets, until 1894 or thereabout, but by that time I had pretty well exhausted its somewhat meagre stock of books, and after that I resorted to the main library. I had two cards — one a regular card, and the other what was called a student’s card — and I kept both of them working steadily. In addition, I dropped into the reading-room at least twice a week.

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“The female attendants, mainly sour old maids, were far from helpful.”

In 1903 or thereabout, after I had become dramatic editor of the Herald, I went to the central library one day to draw out one of the plays of Pinero. I found that it was starred in the catalogue, which meant that it seemed lewd and lascivious to Gum-shoe Steiner and could be issued only with the express permission of a member of the staff. I applied for that permission, and was directed to one of the younger members. In fact, she was a girl who seemed to be no more than eighteen or nineteen years old.

There was I, a grown man and a professional dramatic critic, and there, across the desk, was that preposterous flapper, eyeing me critically and giving me a sharp examination. In the end she decided that I could be trusted to read the book without being seduced to sin, and it was accordingly handed to me, and I took it home. It turned out, when I read it, to be completely innocuous. Gum-shoe, I suppose, had picked up the notion, at the time of the uproar over The Second Mrs. Tanqueray in the nineties, that Pinero was an indecent dramatist, and so starred all of his plays. Gum-shoe himself never went to the theatre. His only recreation was Christian Endeavor.

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