The Nature of Mencken

Whatever the origin (okay, Greek) of the thing called “chrestomathy,” its mere phenomenal definition can be described as “a collection of choice passages from an author or authors” (as Mencken points out). It is, in brief, a wholesome habitualization to insults and wits, but often in its later stages, quite serious.

The above paragraph was my attempt of describing Mencken’s writing as Mencken himself might describe it as it is closely modeled after the opening of Mencken’s “Nature of Love.”

The Nature of Love - originally published as a simple filler #16 as a "Footnote upon a Favorite Theme" was deemed important and interesting enough by Mencken to include in his Chrestomathy of his best favorite works.
“The Nature of Love” as originally published in The smart Set, July 1915.  Photograph by Astha Berry. George S. Thompson Mencken Collection, The Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University.

In all seriousness, though “Chrestomathy,” this oddity of a word, is highly emblematic of Mencken’s writing, full of words that he finds interesting although they are sometimes unique or quirky. The terms that he revives help to distinguish his writing, so of course the title of his archive should be no exception. Just as his writing caught people’s attention, his collection did just the same – even while I carried around the book this past week, a number of people stopped me and asked about the title. It sparked conversation, which is exactly what he intended to do.

His uniqueness as a writer is evident from the very title of his book, but his talent as an editor helped him to select pieces for the collection. Using his clippings from his own out-of-print writings, unpublished notes, pieces previously written under pseudonyms, and writings which he had already published as himself, he was able to create a mix of his diverse works.   The mix is a reflection of his diversity in his work – a writer, an editor, and even an agent of sorts as he found rising writers like James Joyce and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

In particular, I was amused by his piece “The Nature of Love” printed under the section about Women in his chrestomathy. As a piece itself, it is highly intriguing – although probably not the best way to get a date for Valentine’s Day. He asserts that love is actually just a diminishing of disgust, that human contact is superficial, and that the body is in fact greater than the mind (as opposed to the popular saying, the mind is greater than the body). He also insinuates that classes and social boundaries cannot be crossed with love – a Harvard man could not possibly love a chauffeur and a genuinely refined woman would not fall for a Methodist.   He further plays off of the stock idea that “Love is blind” by noting how the eye of love can be opaque or “out of focus” (Mencken 16). He thinks that those in love see through a rosy lens through which they edit or improve those who they love. Using the phrases “editing” and “improving” would get a reaction even now – especially now. He could spark a reaction with his controversial topics – such as his writings on the Salisbury lynching – but also a topic as seemingly safe as love.  Who doesn’t like Love? Mencken. And apparently everybody else, although they are probably too simple to realize it, because of the weakness of the human mind, as he aptly points out in the very same piece.

From complicated words to simple ideas complicated by Mencken, the Chrestomathy is a true remix of his words.

Cover of “The Smart Set,” July 1915, the issue that includes “The Nature of Love.” Photograph by Astha Berry. George S. Thompson Mencken Collection, The Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University.

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