The 'Chrestomathy': classic Mencken

January 29, 1995|By Charles A. Fecher

"A Second Mencken Chrestomathy," Selected, Revised and Annotated by the Author; Edited and with an Introduction by Terry Teachout, by H. L Mencken.

/# Alfred A. Knopf, 491 pages, $30

How many anthologies of the writings of H. L. Mencken have there been since his death in 1956? My own count is 13, but I may have missed one or two, and in any case this figure naturally does not include the first, biggest and most representative of them all, the one that he himself put together in those last months before his disabling stroke in 1948 and which appeared the following year as "A Mencken Chrestomathy."

Alfred Knopf, his publisher, objected to the title on the ground that nobody would know what it meant, and many people would not even be able to pronounce it; this, he held, would tend to discourage prospective customers from asking for it in bookstores. However, Mencken insisted and won his case, and the book has never been out of print since. You would think that by this time the bottom of the barrel had been scraped, but --amazingly -- here is another collection, and -- more amazing yet -- it, too, comes from the master himself. In other words it is, as its title indicates, "A Second Mencken Chrestomathy."

In an entry in his diary dated Sept. 14, 1948, he wrote: "Today I completed the first draft of 'A Mencken Chrestomathy.' It runs to 265,000 words. Knopf will probably complain of this as excessive, and he will be supported by the present extravagant cost of printing. I myself feel that there are things in the present text that had better come out, so we should be able to reach an agreement without difficulty. There is an excess of copied material about equal in bulk to the matter now in the book. Thus, if the 'Chrestomathy' has an encouraging sale I'll be ready to produce a second volume."

That is precisely what he prepared to do. Then came the massive stroke, depriving him of the ability to read and write. The rest of the story is Terry Teachout's put forth here today. Mr. Teachout, among other things a columnist for the New York Daily News and he author of "City Limits: Memories of a Small Town Boy,"explains what his role was in a charming and very insightful introduction. Mencken had selected the material, noted in each case its source among his writings, and here and there had added some prefatory comments. But he had not arranged it and had given very little indication of how it was to be grouped. Mr. Teachout undertook this task and has accomplished it admirably. The arrangement does not duplicate that in the original "Chrestomathy,"but it makes just as good sense.

Mr. Teachout says, "Mencken would have viewed my modest editorial contributions as a plausible substitute for the finishing touches he was unable to apply."I think he would have, and would have been pleased by it.

The first question that has to be asked is, of course, this one: is the second "Chrestomathy" as good as the first? Well, no, not really. Mencken, with a remarkable critical objectivity in approaching his own writings, selected for the first one the very best of his work over the years. It was good, and he knew that it was. What he held back for a possible sequel was necessarily not on the same level. You are not going to find here things like "The Sahara of the Bozart," or "Roosevelt: An Autopsy," or "Professor Veblen and the Cow," or "The Hills of Zion,"or many another piece that is as fresh and cogent and delightful today as when it first appeared.

At the same time - and perhaps because the material in it is less familiar - this second "Chrestomathy"is capable of bringing as much enjoyment as the first. As Mr. Teachout notes, of the 238 pieces brought together here, 147 have never before appeared in book form and 62 come from books that are no longer in print. Thus it reads almost like a fresh new work. (I like to think that I have an acquaintance with Mencken's writings that is better than that of the general reader, but I have to admit that there are things in here that were new to me and, just as when I was first getting to know him many ago, I frequently found myself bursting out into guffaws.)

Mr. Teachout also notes wonderingly, as so many have done before him, the immense range and catholicity of Mencken's interests. Here in this one volume you will find his views on politicians (naturally!), clergymen, theologians, lawyers, judges, censors, critics, journalists, novelists and playwrights both American and British, Socialism, Prohibition, bartenders, women, sex, marriage, himself. . .to name only a few. There is no lack of assurance on anything he says on any of these subjects, and no evident fear that his own authority may be questioned.

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