The Mencken Buffet

FIgure 1. A Menken Chrestomathy by H.L. Mencken. From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Kylie Sharkey.
FIgure 1. A Menken Chrestomathy by H.L. Mencken. From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Kylie Sharkey.

H.L. Mencken, a feisty and ravenous writer, met each of his subjects with a kind of gleeful self-indulgence. An empty page was like an empty plate. And Mencken had a cornucopia of words at his disposal, made up of delicious nouns and spicy adjectives. Over the course of an impressive career, Mencken made sure to always pile on heaps of decadent literary devices and syntax—leaving readers full and happily stupefied. This decadence is specifically American; one that is paralleled in the very way Menken arranges his chrestomathy (Fig 1.).

Merritt Moseley, Department Chair of Literature and Language at the University of North Carolina Asheville, astutely dissects what it is about Menken that reads as being so undoubtedly American. The writer follows a tradition of “copiousness” begun by Whitman and continued by the likes of Faulkner and Wolfe. Unlike the urge followed by writers like Hemingway to strip down writing to its bare shinning bones, Menken layers his words, his pieces building in grandeur, drama, and impact. This effect of linguistic accumulation can be dizzying, if not dazzling.

To concretely understand this idea of accumulative writing, Moseley examines Menken’s unique syntax. He finds that the writer’s hallmark is in how the “…discourse proceeds by addition; and what is added is a further accumulation, not a deepening or further complication” . In plainer terms it is as if a great scoop of ice cream has been dropped on the ground. Slowly, the lump melts, spreading out in a large consuming pool of sticky decadence. Menken’s writing is always expanding, his lists are pushed further into the absurd, his analogies stretched further and further still. It is in the way that Menken takes even the smallest things, and allows them to grow before our eyes in unabashed gluttony.

This idea of accumulation, seen syntactically, can also be seen in the way Menken chooses to arrange the works in his chrestomathy. Broken in to twenty-nine sections the reader sees a steady growth in the general depth of subjects. The first three sections, “Homo Sapiens”, “Types of Men”, and “Women” are relatively singular in their meanings. However by the last three sections “The Lesser Arts”, “Buffooneries”, and “Sententiæ”  the headers are increasingly theoretical in topic. The work progresses from the scientific name for our species to a Latin denotation for moral sayings. In other words, it progresses from the man, to the man’s fundamental truths. The expansion is characteristically Menken, and characteristically American.

Now as a reader you are standing before Menken’s chrestomathy, empty plate in hand. You look at his chapters, not knowing quite what to expect from the seemingly unlawful arrangement of subjects. You turn the plate nervously now, the edges sliding through your hands in sweaty circles. But if you think of Menken’s syntax, his indulgent sense of accumulation, you will find the order parallels the writing style. The chapters will also build, growing on your plate, leaving your arms fatigued under the weight. You can try to eat as you go but undoubtedly the intellectual lingo, witty similes, and biting lists will grow larger than your stomach. But if you take a deep breath, you will see the beauty in the decadency, and your appetite will be renewed.

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