Painting a Blank Canvas

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H.L Mencken, Chrestomathy. From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Devika Agrawal.

H.L. Mencken is a comedian, a critic, an author, and I strongly believe, a clever man. I wonder, if I had come across him in person, would he have been a good conversationalist?  Written and curated by Mencken himself, Chrestomathy is a collection of his pieces from books, magazines, newspaper articles, and unpublished notes.

We must believe that Mencken’s arrangement of Chrestomathy is intentional. He begins with the category “Homosapiens” and ends with “Sententiae,” a Latin word signifying moral sayings.  Beginning with a description of the physicality of modern day humans and ending with an intangible way of encompassing human life, Mencken illustrates the components that are important in understanding the facets of mankind. Morality and ethics are what separate humans from other animal forms. To demonstrate this uniqueness of humans, he starts off with a very basic approach to analyzing humankind and progresses to a more complex way of examination.  Further, he chooses to start his collection with the scientific name for humans, indicating his acknowledgement of science and the evolutionary cycle. He starts from the very rudimentary and basic core of mankind, our genetic makeup, and ends with what he believes are words of wisdom that encapsulate takeaway lessons about the world. A closer look at his categories reveal that they follow a distinct order. “Religion” comes before “Morals” and the “Human Body” follows “Quackery”. Why does he choose this particular succession? I can’t help but think that through the Chrestomathy  he is setting out to paint his own blank canvas. His words become his paintbrush and allow him to sculpt his own painting about life. Like an artist with a pallet, Mencken starts the Chrestomathy with a broad layer, then as he begins to add layers they become finer, or more specific. He begins with “Homosapiens,” then divides into types of men, then further branches into women. He next adds religion to the society, which becomes closely tied to morals, and links directly to crime and punishment. I am led to believe that he ends with “Sententiae” in order to encourage readers to recognize the sublime beauty of human life.  However, he incorporates a lot of humor in “Sententiae,” trying to make sure that readers don’t take themselves or life too seriously.

In his preface, Mencken himself states that readers will find his pages “marked by a certain ribaldry,” or humor that has aspects of indelicacy. This rings true in many of his works, especially in his article “The Nature of Love”. Mencken writes that romantic love is simply “a wholesome diminishing of disgust, in its later stages, taking on a hallucinatory and pathological character” (Chrestomathy, 44). He goes on to describe how lovers become infected with a fever, and ends with how the powerful effect of habit overrides disgust. He is cynical, verbose, and wildly entertaining. One may ask, why does Mencken choose to present heavy and serious topics in a comical tone? I believe the answer is simple: he strives to exemplify harsh truths about human nature and society, while letting himself and his readers be humored by these very truths. Although his writing may make him appear as a pessimist, I view him to be a critic of pessimism. His individual articles also contain a structure mirroring the larger Chrestomathy collection. “The Nature of Love” starts off with a broad description of romantic love, then progresses into a more detailed account of the superficial nature of attraction and disgust, finally bringing in emotion, culminating in marriage and wise thoughts on how marriages still manage to survive. This  movement from the general to the specific reflects the larger shape of how the Chrestomathy is ordered.

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