Mencken, lovers & haters.

While in the midst of exploring and collecting items for my digital exhibition, I have come up with the perfect title for it: Reactions to Mencken: A glimpse of varied responses during his time. My exhibition is going to center on the different types of responses that individuals and groups had to Mencken and his writing. Mencken’s audacious and bold personality gained him the readership of many, but also caused him to be the target of many people’s disgust and disdain. His tendency to criticize nearly every group of people, including his own colleagues, was very controversial and made him in a hypocrite in the eyes of many. His vitriolic condemnation of different groups of people can be seen vividly in Prejudices.

A variety of factors caused me to become interested in looking at responses people had to Mencken’s work. Reading the Chrestomathy and The Smart Set revealed that his writing was very powerful, satirical, and oftentimes insulting. During my research I read “The Sahara of the Bozart,” in which Mencken brutally strips the South of all cultural and artistic value. This essay made me curious about how those living in the South felt about Mencken’s overly harsh and inflammatory words. Reading newspaper articles about Mencken’s racist and anti-Semitic tendencies further led me to be curious about how colleagues and strangers viewed him. I noticed that many of the materials we examined in class and many of the items I looked at in Special Collections all portrayed Mencken in a very positive light. Then I took a closer look at the Dreiser-Mencken Letters and discovered that not everyone was a Mencken lover. Many of his relationships were plagued by tension and disagreement.

One of the objects that I will include in my digital exhibition is the Dreiser- Mencken Letters. The Dreiser-Mencken Letters illuminate the complex relationship that Theodore Dreiser and H.L. Mencken shared. Through their correspondences, Dreiser’s feelings about Mencken and his writing are revealed. The letters are valuable to my exhibition because they allow readers to see how Mencken was viewed by one of his closest friends and colleagues. They certainly provide Dreiser’s perspective on Mencken through the way he composes his letters, the particularities he mentions about Mencken’s character, and the opinions he provides on his writing.

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Cover. Thomas P. Riggio, Dreiser-Mencken Letters. From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Devika Agrawal.

Another object that I am going to include in my digital exhibition is a page from Menckeniana: A Schimpflexikon. Menckeniana is a collection of direct responses taken from individuals, newspapers, and other sources about Mencken and his work.  The page I have selected has a quote from The Asheville Citizen about Mencken’s habit of critiquing everyone. The quote is a great reflection of how Mencken was viewed through the eyes of a newspaper, home to North Carolina. Furthermore, it reveals that many people attributed Mencken’s habits to different aspects of his personality. He was hated and insulted by as many people as he was applauded by.

Page. Menckeniana. From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Devika Agrawal.




Scales of evaluation

The exhibition that I decided to review is Rainbows and Plunge Pools-An Angler’s Alphabet from Cornell University’s Albert R. Mann Library. The exhibition’s focus is the art of fishing through an exploration of different texts, topics, and people who are instrumental figures in fishing history. Installed in April of 2011, this online exhibition is very pleasing to the eye.

The reader is first led to a main page, which features a beautiful title in black bold letters, as well as a picture of a fish. Navigating through the exhibition is very systematic because clicking anywhere on this main page will lead the reader to the introduction page. The introduction page gives a short synopsis of what the exhibition features. The synopsis is not only sweet and short, but also filled with puns to make the reader laugh. For example, the synopsis ends with “So join us as we meander up the alphabet – it’s as promising a stream as any, and you never know what we might catch.”

The exhibit features a different object for each letter of the alphabet, and clicking on one of the letters on the bottom leads to a page about that object along with an image. For example, clicking on P will lead to a small subpage with a description and image of a plunge pool. Similarly, clicking on W will lead to a page about Woolly Bugger, a widely used wet fly to attract fish.

Main Page. Rainbows & Plunge Pools. An Angler’s Alphabet. Accessed 9 April 2015.


Home Page. Rainbows & Plunge Pools. An Angler’s Alphabet. Accessed 9 April 2015.

The exhibit’s set-up leads to a very interesting experience for the reader. The introduction page does a good job of capturing the reader’s attention. The first thing it says is “Come get hooked!”.

This is a humorous introduction and does a good job drawing in an audience who may not necessarily be interested in or invested in the art of fishing. These readers may simply be browsing in order to learn about a new topic.

Also, there are beautiful letters of the alphabet that run across the bottom of each page. At first, I was confused by the letters and thought they were simply a design. Later, while clicking around, I discovered that each letter leads to a page corresponding with it. This was quite unintuitive because the appearance of the letters doesn’t give any indication that they are links.

A great characteristic of this exhibit is that the reader can access any page, regardless of which page they are currently viewing. However, a downside is that the reader can’t sort through what types of objects that want to see. For example, if I wanted to only look at archival texts about fishing, there is no way for me to select to see all the options. Regardless, the exhibition is unique and has a lot to offer. Three scales up for this job!

The Life of Stein in a Timeline

I created my timeline keeping in mind some of the significant events that occurred in Gertrude Stein’s life (such as where she was born and where she moved throughout her life), while also trying to choose events that reveal more about her character or give insight into what may have shaped her writing. I included her time spent with William James in order to demonstrate how he and his teachings in the field of psychology influenced her train of thought and writing. Also, her prestigious education at Johns Hopkins Medical Institute shows her exploration of the sciences during the most formative years of her life. Another integral event in her life that I included was the permanent settlement of Alice Toklas and Gertrude Stein at rue de Fleurus. This marks the point in Gertrude’s life when Alice “officially” became her life-long companion and partner in supporting the careers of artists such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Gertrude and her relationship with her brother Leo also helped jump start and shape her pursual of the arts. After purchasing her first Cezanne, she begins to write her famous work Three Lives. Three Lives is comprised of three different short stories; one of these that we read in class is called “Melanctha,” a story about a young girl’s internal struggle with finding her place in the world, while she deals with issues relating to love, race, and abandonment. Lastly, another important piece of my timeline is the inclusion of Gertrude’s first portrait of Ada. This portrait is the first of many, in which Gertrude explores the inner workings of a human mind using the power of repetition and rhythm.

Timeline of Events:

1) Gertrude Stein was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania in a twin house with several siblings, then moved to Vienna, Paris, and then back to the states.

Stein, Gertrude, Gertrude Stein and her brothers (1906). From the Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale University Library.

2) When her parents died, she and her siblings moved to the East Coast. She wrote about Radcliffe in her first story.

3) She worked with Professor William James at Harvard while she was at Radcliffe, on a series of experiments in automatic writing. The result was her first publication, an article in the Harvard Psychological Review. James inspired her to enter Johns Hopkins Medical School. This gave her experience in the sciences.

Gertrude Stein at Johns Hopkins (1892). Photograph by Unknown photographer. From the Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale University Library.

4) Gertrude and her brother buy a big Cezanne, and it inspires her to write Three Lives.

5) She repeatedly says that her only language is English, and when she moves to Paris being surrounded by French allowed her to have English to herself.

6) Gertrude poses for Pablo Picasso’s painting about 90 times. She collects and promotes both Picasso’s and Matisse’s paintings.

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Gertrude Stein and Picasso (1922). Photograph by Unknown photographer. From the Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale University Library.

7) Alice Toklas moves to Paris and develops a friendship with Picasso and Fernande Olivier.

pablos alice
Pablo, Picasso, Woman with a Fringe (Alice B. Toklas) (New York, Arts Rights Society, 1908). From Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories, National Portrait Gallery.

8) 1910- Gertrude Stein first starts writing portraits. It all begins with a portrait called Ada.

9 ) 1910- Alice B. Toklas permanently moves into the Rue de Fleurus.

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Gertrude Stein’s atelier, 27 rue de Fleurus (1910). Photograph by Unknown photographer. From the Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale University Library.

10)  During the war, Alice and Gertrude take on a military god-son and become very attached to Abel.

hitler gertrude
Gertrude Stein with soldiers on Hitler’s balcony at Berchtesgaden (June, 1945). From the Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale University Library.

The Hook

This is the cover image on a collection of stories featuring the Continental Op.
Dashiell Hammett, The Return of The Continental Op. From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Devika Agrawal.


The cover of The Return of the Continental Op makes one inclined to think that she is in for a thrilling ride. The reader’s attention is first captured by the big, bold, capital red letters against the bright yellow background of the cover. Next, one wonders who or what this Continental Op could be. Without knowing that he is a character, one may think it is the name of a place or that it is the name of some sort of operation. The illustration of a gun that is going off in someone’s hand suggests that the story likely involves a villain, a thief, or maybe a hero. The title is written on a yellow colored shape, resembling a badge of some sort. The reader’s mind may now jump and speculate that the police will be involved in this story somehow. The word “OP” is written in the largest font and surrounding it is a red chain like design. It shares similarities with a handcuff because of the “official” badge style ornamentation.  Personally, I think this cover image serves as a “hook,” or introduction that engages my curiosity towards what is to follow.

The cover image is a crucial part in the reader’s experience of the text inside. Even before opening the book, the reader is already given a sense of its contents. One expects something dramatic, electrifying, and sensational. The gun hints at lots of action, some crime, and a flavor of suspense. The reader becomes captivated by this cover image; her mind is now racing as the first impression settles in. This first impression ( in this case, a story filled with blood, mystery, and something big and exciting) sticks with the reader as they go through the text. The reader is now given a point of view, or a lens through which she can view the body of the text. The image creates a mood that reinforces the body of the text, and this mood allows the reader to form preconceptions about the story inside. In particular, this image makes the reader emotionally engaged enough to want to know what Continental Op stands for and why it’s a name that elicits excitement, crime, and danger.

This cover does an excellent job of giving the reader a taste of a Continental Op story. In “$106,000 Blood Money,” the Continental Op is the main character who faces two major obstacles. He battles the betrayal of one of his own agency’s members and fights to try an capture an escaped gang leader. These obstacles not only test his willingness to fight crime, but also test his morality. Through this story, he proves to be a character with a personal code of ethics that he refuses to violate no matter what threats he faces. Violence fails to engender fear in him, and he doesn’t hesitate to kill criminals. The title “$106,000 Blood Money,” also reinforces that risk and temptation will plague the pages inside. This story, as well as other Continental Op stories, fulfill the expectations the reader gets from the cover.  The cover image effectively communicates what kinds of stories the reader should expect to read.



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.