Mencken’s Reflections on the Progress of Man

H.L. Mencken’s extensive career as a journalist, essayist, critic and even poet resulted in, to his estimation, the incredible amount of “well beyond 5,000,000 words” (vii). However, in A Mencken Chrestomathy, he impressively condenses this number to reflect only his “choice passages” (v). With so many options to choose from, it seems like an impossible task to select only enough essays to fill a single volume, yet the Chrestomathy is not only a reasonable size, but a cohesive unit, flowing from one subject to the next – a kind of large scale reflection of the miniature structure of each individual piece.

The reason for this is the careful arrangement of the writings into particular categories, and more importantly, the arrangement of the categories themselves. Beginning with “Homo Sapiens” and progressing from “Morals” to “Economics” then to “Literature” and finally “Buffooneries,” Mencken certainly organized these assortments with a particular purpose. Each heading marks a step forward in the progression of the human experience: the primitive man develops various natures in “Types of Men”; “Religion” and “Morals” lead to the creation of “Government”; the educational pursuits of “Pedagogy” and “Science” eventually progress to the fine arts of “Literature” and “Music.”

Mencken was co-editor of The Smart Set for many years, a literary magazine whose title exemplifies Mencken’s own feeling that it is artistic rather than rational minds that make up the “smartest” of men. The Smart Set, December, 1921.
Mencken was co-editor of The Smart Set for many years, a literary magazine whose title exemplifies Mencken’s own feeling that it is artistic rather than rational minds that make up the “smartest” of men. Cover of The Smart Set, December, 1921. From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Laura Ewen.

These categories trace a path through the development of mankind as a whole, exploring each important step along the way. By moving from the creation of social structures to the enhancement of knowledge and culminating in the appreciation of beauty and creativity, Mencken demonstrates his own values as an artistic intellectual. As is evident from his juxtaposition of mockeries of chiropractics and legislature with celebrations of Shakespeare and Brahms, he holds artistic expression as the ultimate achievement and the most valid intellectual pursuit. In fact, he seems completely opposed to the idea of concrete knowledge; in “The Critical Process” he claims, “Pedagogues believe in immutable truths and spend their lives trying to determine them and propagate them; the intellectual progress of man consists largely of a concerted effort to block and destroy their enterprise” (434). Although not many of Mencken’s statements can be taken at face value, it is clear from this rather serious essay that it is the stimulation of creative ideas rather than the deduction of pure facts that he views as the highest form of man’s intellectualism.

Although their placement may be primarily due to their unique structure, the fact that the “Buffooneries” and “Sententiae” come at the very end of the Chrestomathy seems to reflect an important ideal. Many of the previous categories are focused on serious subjects, “Crime & Punishment” and “Psychology” among them, yet these final chapters devolve into pure humor, minor sketches designed purely to make the reader laugh. It seems Mencken felt the need to include this final reminder that through all the seriousness of the progression of man, it is important to keep a sense of humor and appreciate the simple joys that make life, and Mencken’s own writing, so enjoyable to experience.


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