A Kelleriana for Bill Keller

Credit: Twitter
Keller’s wife posted this tweet, he said.

In 1928, Alfred A. Knopf Inc. published Menckeniana: A Schimpflexikon, a book compiling assaults, slurs and rants against H.L. Mencken.

Its pages insulted Mencken, the critic and reporter whose viewpoints were seldom secret, in every way.

It said he had a “puff-ball” for a brain and that his work most appealed to bootleggers and prostitutes. The Macon News, of Georgia, had noted that if Mencken ever had a real thought, his head might very well explode.

Mencken decided to give a copy of Menckeniana as a gift to Earl Wilson, then a full-time columnist for The New York Post. But, it seems, Mencken couldn’t resist inscribing the copy. A few years ago, I was given this book as a gift. Here’s how Mencken prefaced it:

Earl Wilson,
This book is considerably bowdlerized and perfumed.
H.L. Mencken.

When the news broke yesterday afternoon that Bill Keller, executive editor at The New York Times, will be replaced by Jill Abramson, I took the copy of Menckeniana off the shelf to reread some of the insults.

The Council Bluffs Nonpareil, an Iowa newspaper, for example, wrote, “H.L. Mencken thinks journalism is in a low estate. It sure is wherever Mencken touches it.”

That started me wondering: Where are all the anti-Keller digs hiding? (This is about it.)

Keller has for eight years loomed as one of those larger-than-life presences in the newsroom, like Mencken or Ben Bradlee. He took the helm as the Jayson Blair debacle raged in 2003. At the time, he told CNN that the Times is “a national treasure. I will do everything in my power to uphold its high standards, preserve its integrity and build on its achievements.”

And he did just that, but with two caveats: His charge also included bringing the Gray Lady fully into the digital age and managing it through, as he told Esquire, “one motherfucker of a recession.”

Those two challenges brought themselves to a head late in April, when The New York Times Co. released its quarterly report. More than 100,000 readers had signed up for digital subscriptions in the three weeks after the paywall went up. And The New York Times Co. is still profitable, despite a 3.6-percent year-over-year drop in revenue during the first quarter of 2011.

But I’d like to think that Keller will be remembered for something else — at once embracing and disliking the digital culture in today’s newsroom. While his newsroom and its reporters are among the highest-followed media entities on Twitter, Keller thinks we’re all giving up our brains by joining Twitter.

But if you search for Keller on Twitter, you won’t find a Menckeniania. Instead, you’ll find only accolades — a Kelleriana of sorts.