An Archive of Ribaldries

H.L. Mencken, “Sage of Baltimore,” stylist, editor, newspaperman, and unapologetic critic who would say something far wittier off the cuff than you and I could ever concoct.

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Front Cover. A Menken Chrestomathy by H.L. Mencken. From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Ali Cox.

Mencken’s Chrestomathy boasts “his own selection of his choicest writings” with the alleged motive to make some of his unobtainable, out of print writings, obtainable. With options from an archive of well over five million published words (which Mencken humbly shares on the third page of his preface), one must assume that the selection of works as well as the arrangement into a single volume is indicative of his values, his understanding of his life’s work, and perhaps even his character (though I’m sure this assumption has Mencken rolling in his grave).

“No moral man—that is, moral in the YMCA sense—has ever painted a picture worth looking at, or written a symphony worth hearing, or a book worth reading…”  (H.L. Mencken, “Art and Sex”, Chrestomathy, pg. 61).

If Mencken’s words are even the least bit representative of his personal dogmas, I can safely postulate he was a man who believed in very little (aside from himself, that is) and his goal in life was nothing more than to be remembered, to not be glossed over in the study of literature long after he was covered with dirt. How he was to be remembered, I believe he did with utmost intent, and I believe he succeeded. Full of ribaldry and unapologetic criticism, his publications judge almost every aspect of society, and thus I applaud him for his unprejudiced way of being prejudiced.

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Table of Contents. A Menken Chrestomathy by H.L. Mencken. From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Ali Cox.

If we examine the Table of Contents to Mencken’s Chrestomathy, we see he has ordered his writings categorically into books. Starting with I. Homo Sapiens, he progresses onward through human development to II Types of Men, and then of course, after men comes III Women. He continues onto Book IV, Religion, and then so on and so forth through the critical elements of human society to XX Quackery, XXI The Human Body, and XXII Utopian Flights. Then, toward the end of his volume, he begins to present surprisingly serious works. In the books XXIV Criticism, XXV Literature, and XXVI Literati, we gain a clearer picture of the genius behind the curtain of bigotries, and see Mencken as an unequivocally talented critic. Why he put this specific order together, I can only speculate. It is clearly a forward progression through society, perhaps from what he finds most vulgar to most tolerable. Or, perhaps, he assumed only an intelligent customer would make it to the end of the compilation, where they could appreciate his more serious work. I would put my money on the former.

“Thus I incline to suspect that some of the planets may swarm with life, just as the earth does, and that it is just as useless and obscene as it is here.” (H.L. Mencken, “The Universe”, Chrestomathy, pg. 339).

Perhaps Mencken’s Chrestomathy does precisely what he intended, in that it remains, however offensive and full of ribaldries, in the minds of scholars and students alike as a specimen of some of the greatest critical works, both comic and severe, to be compiled in the same volume.

“I do not believe in democracy, but I am perfectly willing to admit that it provides the only really amusing form of government ever endured by mankind.” (H.L. Mencken, Chrestomathy, viii).

Further Reading:

Mencken Catalog: https://catalyst.library.jhu.edu/multi_search?q=h.+l.+Mencken&search_field=&utf8=✓

The Mencken Society: http://www.mencken.org/wordpress/

H.L. Mencken Internet Archives: https://archive.org/search.php?query=creator%3A%22Mencken%2C+H.+L.+(Henry+Louis)%2C+1880-1956%22

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