What is the summary for A Mencken Chrestomathy?

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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Henry Louis "H. L." Mencken (1880-1956) touches upon every significant subject in A Mencken Chrestomathy (chrestomathy: a representative collection of an author's choicest works). Discussions of his opinions touch on the intellectual differences between men and women, the value of art, the greatness of Abraham Lincoln's intellect, capital punishment, literary criticism, sex and marriage, beauty, morality, death, government, democracy, the American South, and so much more. His comments are angled from the perspective of the point of view of the Homo sapien, thus moral, ethical and intellectual consideration underpins all of his opinions, some of which have the potential of being shocking, such as his advocacy of the principle of an eye for an eye in matters of crime and punishment.

The simple device, in brief, of condemning the detected pickpocket to lose the third phalange of the index finger of his right hand--a quick, safe, wholly painless operation, almost as easy as having a boil lanced. ... This is what we need in punishments--first, a reasonable fitness and justice, and secondly, a removal of the damage or menace to social order and security. Our present system fails in both departments. It is arbitrary, unintelligible and alternately too cruel and too soft; and it wholly fails to make crime difficult and unattractive.

Mencken was born at the end of the nineteenth century, a time of very different community and social values. He lived through both world wars, World War I [between 1914 in Europe (1917 with the U.S.) and the Treaty of Versailles in 1919] and World War II [between 1939 in Europe (U.S. enters December 1941) and Allied victory in 1945]. During these tumultuous times, in which belief in a progressing human nature was turned upon its ear (i.e., upset beyond reclamation), Mencken developed equally tumultuous beliefs. Self-educated, he compiled the advances made in science against the seemingly hapless nature of Homo sapien and found Homo sapiens wanting in the measure of nature's species, finding creatures in the wild better parents, better spouses and more courageous than humanity.

Few other brutes are so stupid or so cowardly. The commonest yellow dog has far sharper senses and is infinitely more courageous, not to say more honest and dependable. ... [M]ost of all, man is deficient in courage, perhaps the noblest quality of them all.

Mencken graduated high school then took one of the first correspondence courses for higher education and studied writing. The furtherance of his education after this relied upon his prodigious skills in reading and thinking. A native of Baltimore, Maryland, he began his career as a journalist with Baltimore's Morning Herald (later the Baltimore Morning Herald), a career he pursued until he had a debilitating stroke in 1948. His death came eight years later in 1956. A brief overview of some--just some--of the opinions Mencken expresses in A Mencken Chrestomathy are enumerated below.

  • He thinks very poorly of Homo sapiens, but perhaps a little better of women than of men.
  • He perceives inherent flaws in Homo sapiens that makes the males liars, naive, gullible, deceived and weak.
  • Women are exempt from some of these flaws because women are realists while men are naive.
  • He holds to the view that work is the punishment of Adam (administered by God following Adam and Eve's disobedience in the Garden), thus rejects the social construct of work as spiritually and socially uplifting and valuable.
  • He values being uncivilized over being civilized and equates the ability to control one's emotions with a skill of the uncivilized. In this view, he vaunts superior women as being less civilized than men, who, in this view, are emotional war-mongers who don't even have the ability and reasoning power of the "true savage."
  • He values a society free from subjection to cruelty equally with individuals free from subjection to cruelty.
  • In accord with this view, he favors the death penalty for murders because society needs to free from the cruelty of murder.
  • He favors the death penalty for crimes if administered in a timely and pain-free manner.
  • He thinks that the punishment should fit the crime as punishment that was administered in Medieval times did.
  • He holds art and writing as high activities and holds criticism of literature as an art form.
  • He makes great distinctions between levels of Homo sapiens placing artists among the highest along with great world leaders like Bonaparte and U.S. Chief Justice Holmes.

Of such leaders as Abraham Lincoln, he says that the "highest flights of human intellect" are incomprehensible to lower levels of Homo sapiens, incomprehensible to the levels of the ordinary or the ordinarily great Homo sapiens.

The ideas that conquer the race most rapidly and arouse the wildest enthusiasm and are held most tenaciously are precisely the ideas that are most insane. ... He is chronically and unescapably deceived ... by his incomparable talent for searching out and embracing what is false, and for overlooking and denying what is true.  

While there are many strengths in Mencken's authorial style and in the expression of his views, such as the strength of being unafraid to tear back the facade of society and look unblinkingly at the stuff humanity is made of, there are some weaknesses as well. One of the most significant weaknesses is that he sometimes proceeds from faulty premises, such as when he expounds on the value of the soul humans possess (he accepts the existence of the soul) based upon a debatable definition of the purpose of the soul: "That function [of the soul] is to ... make [man] resemble God." Because of this occasionally recurring weakness, Mencken speaks with definitive authority but may speak from faulty premises.

The general trend of feeling that pervades all the essays in the collection is that humankind has failed to be what the promise of humanity has seemingly held forth and that humans, in Mencken's assessment, are inferior, immoral, unethical and seriously lacking in intelligence.

Always he imagines things just over the sky-line. This body of imaginings constitutes ... his corpus of high faiths and confidences--in brief, his burden of errors. And that burden of errors is what distinguishes man, even above his capacity for tears, [and] his talents as a liar ... from all other orders of mammalia.

It is difficult to seriously read Mencken and disagree with his conclusions on the general lack of intelligence shown by our species and the general tendency to error and corruption demonstrated by our species. Mencken intimates that the limited areas where Homo sapien has the potential to show greatness need to be acknowledged, honored and cultivated. While Mencken may be seen as overzealous on some counts as he weighs them against humankind, e.g., crime and punishment, the correctness of his observations give heavy weight to many of his conclusions.

Mencken's volume of essays is important because he cuts through commonplace self-absorption and self-admiration within our species to expose the raw truth of our self-deceptions and self-aggrandizement. In an era of history when everything, from community relationships to international relationships, was undergoing a paradigm shift away from a complacent community, social and national order toward global dominance, conflict and complexity--a complexity that would infiltrate things so mundane as how our homes were built, how we transported ourselves, how we approached education of our children and how our food was processed--Mencken observed, commented on and criticized the very essence of our innate human natures. He gives a perspective that was uniquely derived from that unique moment in history and that might uniquely be applied to our time in history with, it is hoped, beneficial effects.

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