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Tempting leftovers from Mencken's work


Mencken's America, edited by S.T. Joshi. Ohio University Press. 400 pages. $49.95.

Even the best newspapermen tend to be short hitters, and H.L. Mencken was no exception. As a writer of books, he was uneven at best; as an essayist, he was close to matchless. For this reason, only a few of his books, and almost none of the best ones, were written from scratch. Instead, he preferred to scoop up handfuls of his newspaper and magazine articles, give them a good going-over with a blue pencil, and slap them between hard covers.

That's how A Mencken Chrestomathy, the three Days books, and the six volumes of Prejudices were born, and in the half-century since Mencken's death, many more collections of his essays, articles and reviews have been cobbled together in like fashion.

Mencken's America, a volume of essays on American culture, is the third in a series of Mencken anthologies edited by S.T. Joshi, a Mencken buff based in Seattle. Like its predecessors, H.L. Mencken on Religion and H.L. Mencken on American Literature, it consists in large part of previously uncollected pieces, of which several thousand more repose in the Enoch Pratt Free Library's mammoth trove of Menckeniana.

This isn't to say that the contents are altogether unfamiliar. The Sage of Baltimore was a compulsive reviser, and quite a bit of Mencken's America has already seen print in later versions prepared by Mencken for inclusion in his own books. Mr. Joshi, in common with a number of other Mencken buffs, favors the originally published versions, believing that they are "more capable of standing independently than their later revisions."

I take a different view: Mencken, it seems to me, was often garrulous and over-elaborate when writing on deadline. Many of his best-known essays started out as Sunpaper op-eds, were later recycled into Smart Set book reviews or American Mercury editorials, and finally found their way into books, gaining in force and clarity with each successive revision.

Even at his most diffuse, though, Mencken was never less than entertaining, and Mencken's America contains a generous selection of his characteristically sulphurous musings about life in these United States.

Who else would have called the American people "the most timorous, sniveling, poltroonish, ignominious mob of serfs and goose-steppers ever gathered under one flag in Christendom since the fall of the Eastern Empire"? Or declared that "there is little more esthetic merit in Uncle Tom's Cabin than in the average college yell"? Or described a Catholic supporter of Prohibition as "a Catholic with a Methodist liver"? Mr. Joshi also earns full credit for supplying explanatory footnotes to each and every obscure period reference, and his introduction, if uncritical, is no less thorough.

For those unhappy souls who've never read Mencken -- and they do exist, even in Baltimore -- the place to start is still A Mencken Chrestomathy (Vintage, 656 pages, $19.95), the nonpareil self-anthology that has never been out of print since its original publication in 1949. Also worth seeking out, if I do say so myself, is A Second Mencken Chrestomathy (Knopf, 491 pages, $30), the hitherto-unknown sequel that I rediscovered and edited for publication nine years ago. (Forgive the plug --I don't get any royalties!) Veteran Mencken aficionados, on the other hand, will revel in the long-forgotten pieces newly exhumed by Mr. Joshi. I can't say that they shed any unexpected light on the style or thought of America's greatest journalist, but they sure are fun to read.

Terry Teachout, the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal and the music critic of Commentary, is the author of The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken, now out in paperback from Perennial. A Terry Teachout Reader, a collection of his essays, will be published by Yale University Press in May.

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