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by H.L. Mencken

Pub Date: Jan. 30th, 1995
ISBN: 0-679-42829-1
Publisher: Knopf

Rescued from an abandoned but essentially finished manuscript, the second of Mencken's chrestomathies forms as good a compendium of social and literary irascibility as one could hope for. Mencken put together his first chrestomathy (from the Greek, "useful learning") to bring back his pungent but out-of-print writings from his Prejudices, the American Mercury, the Baltimore Sun, and the Smart Set. Although his philological The American Language had sustained his reputation after the Depression, the Chrestomathy's success inspired him to a sequel, which he had almost finished editing at the time of his crippling stroke. Teachout (City Limits, 1991, etc.) has retrieved the manuscript from Mencken's voluminous deposit of papers in Baltimore and, with a last boost of editorial care, perfected it into a mirror-image of the first volume, succeeding in preserving Mencken's character as well as his writing. With sections titled "Americana," "Progress," "Constructive Criticism," and "Lesser Eminentoes," this farrago is less coherent than most miscellanies; but that is likewise true of Mencken's supercharged polemical prose, whether he is attacking YMCA morality ("The Emperor of Wowsers"), the legal profession ("Stewards of Nonsense"), or New York City ("Totentanz"). A few of his better-known pieces appear here, such as his sardonic history of academic criticism, "Criticism of Criticism of Criticism"; his attack on the later George Bernard Shaw, "The Ulster Polonius"; and his gastric analysis of America, "Hot Dogs." Throughout there are gems of cultural and literary criticism, even buffooneries like an anthropological satire of the discovery of fire. The only drawbacks to this anthology, aside from Mencken's lapses into offensive remarks (e.g., about non--Anglo Saxon immigrants) and bombastic opinionating, are the omissions of an author editing himself for posterity: Mencken includes no substantial excerpts of his political, philological, or autobiographical writings. Still, this has everything that puts Mencken alongside Ambrose Bierce and Edmund Wilson in the American tradition of intelligent ornery writing.