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A Second Mencken Chrestomathy

A New Selection from the Writings of America’s Legendary Editor, Critic, and Wit


Terry Teachout (View Bio)
Hardcover: Knopf, 1995.

Chrestomathy, from the Greek for "useful learning," is defined as a selection of choice literary passages by one author. The material which eventually made it into Mencken's second chrestomathy was selected, revised, and annotated by Mencken himself. It was discovered by Mencken's biographer Terry Teachout in 1992, after more than thirty years in storage, and is filled with the trademark common sense and barbed wit of this great social critic.

"This book’s precursor, A MENCKEN CHRESTOMATHY (collection), was a bestseller in 1949; this anthology of 238 short excerpts from a range of works, selected and annotated by Mencken but unfinished, lay undisturbed in a Baltimore library until Teachout, an arts columnist for the New York Daily News, found it in 1992, while working on a Mencken biography…. Baltimore’s bard can be magnificent and maddening in the same passage, damning American idiocies while disparaging immigrants. But what impresses most about this collection is Mencken’s breadth; few contemporary writers would assume such a broad brief, writing not only about politics, law and the clergy but also about geography, literature, music and drink. To apply a Mencken sobriquet, he was no lesser eminento." — Publishers Weekly

"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 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 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…. Throughout there are gems of cultural and literary criticism…. This has everything that puts Mencken alongside Ambrose Bierce and Edmund Wilson in the American tradition of intelligent ornery writing" — Kirkus Reviews

"More than an anthology, the second volume represents pieces (some previously unpublished) that Mencken himself selected and revised before his stroke aborted the project…. Over 60 percent of the 238 items, many from Mencken’s magazines Smart Set and American Mercury, are not available elsewhere, which in itself makes the publication of this title something of a literary event…. Edited by New York critic Terry Teachout, who is preparing his own biography of the provocateur, this entertaining, exasperating collection captures Mencken’s gloomy view of human nature and his bright delight in stripping from it all cant and concealment." — Booklist

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