Pertinent and Impertinent

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/July, 1913

A LITANY: Canto VI.

From “Lohengrin,” and from dandruff; from dill pickles, and from the Salvation Army; from monograms on shirts, and from connoisseurs of beer; from secret memoirs of the courts of Europe, and from church bells; from the motion pictures of Dante’s “Inferno,” and from Dante’s “Inferno”; from souvenir menus, and from rubber heels; from the post-Wagnerian theory of music, and from the practice of polishing one’s fingernails on the table cloth; from lady pianists who play Meyerbeer, and from gentlemen pianists who play Chopin; from the theory that money will not buy everything, and from clothes—Good Lord deliver us!

  1. It costs nothing to be polite.
  2. It is worth nothing.

If x is the population of the United States and y is the degree of imbecility of the average American, then democracy is the theory that x X y is less than y.

Yesterday                    Today

Ladies                          Women

Petticoats

Wives                           Sweethearts

Fallen Women           White Slaves

Sylvanus Stall             Havelock Ellis

9:30 PM                       3:30 AM

“The Old Homestead”             “Damaged Goods”

Wagner                       Richard Strauss

Twice                           Once

Dishonesty                  Dishonesty

He marries best who marries last.

The low, graceless humor of names! On my shelf of poetry, arranged by the alphabet, Coleridge and J. Gordon Cooglar are next-door neighbors! Mrs. Hemans is beside Laurence Hope! Walt Whitman rubs elbows with Ella Wheeler Wilcox; Robert Browning, with Richard Burton; Rossetti, with Cale Young Rice; Shelley, with Clinton Scollard; Wordsworth, with George E. Woodberry; John Keats, with Herbert Kaufman!

Ibsen, on the shelf of dramatists, is between Victor Hugo and Jerome K. Jerome. Sudermann follows Harriet Beecher Stowe. Maeterlinck shoulders Percy Mackaye. Shakespeare is beside Sutro and Sardou. Euripides and Clyde Fitch! Upton Sinclair and Sophocles! AEschylus and F. Anstey! D’Annunzio and Richard Harding Davis! Augustus Thomas and Tolstoi! Eugene Brieux and George Broadhurst!

More low alphabetical humor: Edwin Bjorkman and Bjornstjerne Bjornson; Gerhart Hauptmann and Robert Hichens; Voltaire and Henry Van Dyke; Flaubert and John Fox, Jr.; Balzac and John Kendrick Bangs; Ostrovsky and James Oppenheim; Elinor Glyn and Theophile Gautier; Joseph Conrad and Robert W. Chambers; Zola and Zangwill!

And midway along my shelf of immortal novels, between George Moore and Frank Norris, there is just room enough for the two volumes of “Derringford,” by Frank A. Munsey!

The American Flag —A decoration for public dance halls, circus lemonade stands, sideshows, boxing arenas, barber poles, clam bakes and Daughters of the Revolution.

The Sandows of Love:

Jacob.

Abelard.

The husband of a lady embalmer.

Courtroom —A place where Jesus Christ and Judas Iscariot would be equals.

Gentleman —One who will not strike a woman—without provocation.

Advice to ardent young men: If you knew what she was thinking, you would be braver.

Marriage —An unresolved dissonance.

Divorce—The return to the tonic.

Hell—A place where the Ten Commandments have a police force behind them.

Sign to hang outside the parlor door on evenings of amour: Don’t Stop! Don’t Look! Don’t Listen!

Impressions of Statesmen: Roosevelt—“Onward, Christian Soldiers!” in a slaughterhouse . . . a spar ring match at a mothers’ meeting . . . Booker T. Washington playing Hamlet . . . a lion with false teeth.

Taft—Washing on the line on a windy day . . . the village butt . . . a palm-house after a hailstorm.

Bryan—Sam Jones saying mass at St. Peter’s . . . three strikes, but not out . . . March 4, 1917.

Henry Cabot Lodge—A shipwrecked sailor lashed to a sponge . . . a grammarian in a cabaret . . . the last quince of summer.

Ladies:

The Saleslady.

The Leading Lady.

The Landlady.

The Scarlet Lady.

Lady Barbers.

The Wash Lady.

Awaiting the Judgment Day:

Bustles.

“Sweet Marie.”

The Republican Party.

“Ta-ra-ra-ra Boom-de-ay.”

Ping Pong.

The A. P. A.

The Emmanuel Movement.

Doc. Wiley.

Elements of Modern Romance:

Dress Shields.

Corsets.

Suspenders.

Toupees.

Dandruff cures.

Talcum powder.

Patchouli.

Umbrellas.

Breath perfumers.

Policemen.

Chaperons.

Toothpicks.

Eugenics.

The Higher Education.

Assuming that the majority is right, the following immutable truths are hereby offered:

That thirteen is an unlucky number.

That one bath a week is sufficient.

That quinine will cure a cold.

That all women who smoke cigarettes are hussies.

That all Chinamen smoke opium.

That George Barr McCutcheon is a greater novelist than George Moore.

That Dr. Parkhurst is a great thinker.

That all rich men are felons.

Someday, when at last I have obtained my divorce and ceased to toil, I am going to devote my leisure to a thesaurus of the Stable Names of the Great. You know what a stable name is, of course. You know that a racing mare called Czarina Olga Fedorovna in the dope sheets is not Czarina Olga Fedorovna in the stable, nor even Czarina or Olga, but usually plain Lil or Jinnie. And you know, too, that a prize bulldog called Champion Zoroaster II on the bench is often plain Jack or Ponto in the kennel. So with the eminent of the genus homo. The official style and appellation of the late King Edward VII was Edward, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and of the Dominions Beyond the Seas, King, Emperor of India— but his wife called him Bertie. And the wife of Kaiser Wilhelm calls him Willie.

But what of even greater men? What was Ibsen’s stable name? Did his wife call him Henrik, formally, harshly —or did she tone it down to Hen, Henny, Harry, Rik or Hank? And Bismarck? Did the Fiirstin ever call him Ottchen? Or Ottily? Both favorites at the German hearth! And Tolstoi? By Russian custom he was Leo Nikalajevitch to his friends—but was he ever Lee or Nicky to the Countess? What was Grant to his wife? Certainly not Ulysses, an inhuman, impossible name! And Napoleon I? And Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart? And Honore Balzac? And Robert Browning? Was he ever Bob? And John Wesley? Was he ever Jack? And Emmanuel Swedenborg? Was he ever Manny?

Now and then we are permitted to penetrate the veil. For example, we are told by Huxley’s son that his wife called him, not Thomas, nor even Tom, but Hal, an affectionate contraction of his mediate Henry. And we know from P. T. Barnum himself that his stable name was Taylor. Also, we know that Nietzsche was Fritz to his sister, that Edgar Allan Poe was Eddie to his wife, that Shakespeare was Will on the Bankside, that Mark Twain was always Youth at home, that Whistler was Jimmie, that Disraeli was Dizzy. But what of Rutherford B. Hayes? Rudyard Kipling? Gabriele D’Annunzio? Ludwig van Beethoven? Cardinal Armand Duplessis Richelieu? Eschenbach von Wolfram? Vasili Verestchagin? Diego de Silva y Velasquez? Tadeusz Kosciusko? Alessandro Cagliostro? Cipriano Castro? Helmuth von Moltke? It is this fair field that I propose to explore. So far, no roving psychologist has ever entered it. The facts I seek are scattered, curious, often deliberately concealed. But I shall track them down and bring them to the light of day. There will be more of human nature in my slim thesaurus than in all the novels ever written.

(Source: Hathitrust.org, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=njp.32101076380425;view=1up;seq=431;size=125)