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A Mencken Chrestomathy, by H. L. Mencken edited and annotated by the author, Alfred A. Knont New York, 1949, 527 pp.
Ther is a notion in the land that the writings of Henry Louis Mencken were served up exclusively for a by-gone age, namely the Twenties, and it follows that they no longer merit attention. This notion was voted, on and passed, it would seem, by the professional critics of our letters, their camp-followers, and their spiritual confreres, all of whom are afflicted with the need either to treat things seriously or to ignore them altogether. Since Mencken clearly cannot be taken seriously in this day and age, the alternative is chosen, with the result that his books, except for the tomes on the American language, the "Treatise On The Gods," and one or two others, have passed our of print. This situation disappears tomorrow with the publication of "A Mencken Chrestomathy." "Chrestomathy," Mencken reveals in his preface, means "a collection of choice passages from an author from Mencken's out-of-print works.
One cannot read very far into this big generous selection without relishing that it is a cardinal sin to take Mencken very seriously. Mencken does not take himself seriously, and he is always dismayed when his readers overdo the business. "One horse laugh," he says, "is worth ten thousand syllogisms," and he proceeds to provide many move horse-laughs than examples of neat, careful, judicious, and thorough thinking. I repeat that this is a matter of doctrine, not of accident. Speaking of great critics, he says that "they could make the thing charming, and that is always a million times more important than making it true."
But if he is not to be taken seriously, then how is he to be taken? He is to be taken, quite simply, for what he is; to wit, he is to be taken for a vastly engaging virtuoso of American prose style who is full of ideas, most of them stimulating and some of them convincing, on religion, psychology, music, letters, politics, education, the South, women, and sundry related topics. His ideas are often largely nonsensical. But they are never completely so. You may be reading through the wildest moments of a polemic against democracy, wondering if he is ever going to stop jabbering, when suddenly he does just that. Suddenly a paragraph intrudes, or a sentence, or an epigrammatic phrase, and makes you stop and think, and sticks with you and bounces about in your head for several hours, or even days. At his worst, in his most inaccurate, uninformed, out-dated, and even puerile moments, he manages to come up with something more worth saying than the collected works of many a solemn and over-cultured critic.
So much for his lesser moments. When he is going well, he is unbeatable. He writes about Judd gray, the co-murderer, with Ruth Snyder, in a famously atrocious crime of the Twenties, with really extraordinary perception. He has a piece called "The Critical Process" which is the most illuminating discussion of criticism I have ever read. And he writes about Beethoven's Third Symphony with such excitement that if you can read music, you will be impelled to hunt up a score of the "Eroica" and see for yourself what he is taking about. Nobody else for Bernard Shaw, has written of music with such vitality.
More than anything else, it is this vitality that makes Mencken always worth reading. He considers himself an eminently civilized man, and perhaps he is, but in the process of becoming one, through an education self-administered chiefly in Baltimore's public library, he did not at the same time become refined. He gives free reign to his impulses and to his notions; he does not bother to qualify, to mitigate, to water-down. Consequently he writes with a vigor which approaches what those of us with more refined sensibilities might call bombast, but which is preferable a hundred times to the cautious standards set for the sober-minded by the pale prose of the New York Times's editorial page. I belong to a small band of people who like to enjoy what they read. We distrust the doctrine that holds dullness to be a sign of wisdom; but even if this doctrine were true, we would tend to prefer those authors whose ideas, while superficial, are presented in a stimulating and exciting way. H. L. Mencken, at the very least, is such an author. I submit that he is often considerably more, and with this I pass into silence, pausing only to express the heartfelt hope that persons of excessive gravity will not read this book. If they do, they will put it to death, and it will go out of print as fast, and with as little reason, as did the works from which it has been culled.
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