The Literary Olio

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/February, 1909

BOOKS upon the occult and the incredible seem to be driving the great American novel to the wall. I went into a bookstore the other day and stood agape before a towering pyramid of Dr. Worcester’s “Religion and Medicine.” One salesman seemed to be devoting his whole time to it and at least half a dozen women were buying. There were copies in sedate black cloth, copies in cloth of other hues and copies in quasi-morocco. Some, again, were printed upon thin, opaque paper and bound chastely in limp leather, like Oxford Bibles! No doubt there are fair devotees who will take these last to church and employ them in “concentrating” against indigestion between psalm and sermon. May the inspired words of the reverend soothsayer blast their impious stomachaches!

Moving along, I came upon other pyramids of somewhat less altitude—one made up of the collected works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, founder and high priest of our present passion for the New Thought; one of Christian Science litanies and philippics; one of Hindoo near-philosophy; and one, finally, of Hamlin Garland’s latest lucubration, “The Shadow World” (Harpers, $1.50). “The Shadow World” seemed to be going very well, indeed. A gentleman wearing copious whiskers and medicated underwear—I know it was medicated because it peeped shyly but scarletly from beneath his carefully shaved cuffs— bought two copies; a young girl of twenty or thereabout bought one, and another girl, this time of forty plus, bought another. So I went home and read the copy that had been waiting on my workbench for two weeks. It took me three hours to read it, and I enjoyed every moment.

It is, indeed, almost as entertaining as “Alice in Wonderland”—which, in more than one respect, it resembles.

Mr. Garland takes great pains to assure us at the start that he is a man of alert and pellucid intellect and without prejudices or superstitions. He has no patience with those who believe too readily or too virulently. For him the scientific method—the method which examines evidence cynically and keeps on doubting until the accumulated proof, piled mountain-high, sweeps down in an overwhelming avalanche.

Accordingly, Mr. Garland proceeds to the haunted chamber and begins his personal dalliance with the spooks. They touch him with clammy, spectral hands; they wring music for him out of locked pianos; they throw heavy tables about the room; they give him messages from the golden shore and make him the butt of their coarse wit. Through it all he sits tight and solemn, with his mind wide open and his verdict up his sleeve. He is belligerently fair and belligerent in maintaining fairness. He calls attention to it time and again, and seems not a little proud of it. And then, in the end, Mr. Garland, with delicious ingenuousness, shows us how much we are to depend upon all these pompous assurances of neutrality. One of his fellow “scientists,” more frankly credulous, expresses the belief that real scientists will soon prove the existence of spirits. “I hope they will,” says Garland, naively.

For all his solemn talk of scientific test conditions, Garland is apparently entirely unacquainted with the experimental methods of true scientists. He grants a medium’s demand for darkness, and then tacitly accepts her ridiculous explanation of her need for it. It never occurs to him to strike a match, and so find out how the table happens to be moving. Furthermore, he seems to be unfamiliar, not only with the commonplaces of physical experiment, but also with the methods and history of his own occult science. This is shown by his report of a preposterous encounter with the ghost of an unnamed composer—obviously Edward MacDowell. Had he prepared himself for this test by reading “The Physical Phenomena of Spiritualism,” by Hereward Carrington (Small-Maynard, $2), or any other such book, he would have known how such elemental tricks are done. As it is, this MacDowell episode reveals not only execrably bad taste, but also an astounding and magnificent willingness to be bamboozled.

I have devoted so much space to this superficial and amateurish book, not because it is worth two lines in itself, but because it is enjoying a wide circulation and will no doubt make many converts to the faith. Garland calls a long roll of “doctors” and “professors” who speak for the spooks. As a matter of fact, most of Garland’s “scientists” are of the one-horse, fresh water sort, and of the remainder, some are notorious fanatics and others are obviously to be pitied. Taking the best of them—Lodge, Crookes and Wallace—their evidence only shows that they are exceedingly willing to believe. Garland seems to think that these men represent the highest conceivable peaks of human acumen, and that their mere belief is sufficient to prove anything. In reality they stand almost alone, and some of the men who oppose them are vastly their superiors.

A number of other occult books have come to hand of late. One is “The Law of the Rhythmic Breath,” by Ella Adelia Fletcher (Fenno, $1.50). In this amazing encyclopedia of nonsense we are introduced to the “science” of the Hindoo sages. They teach the doctrine, we are told, that health may be preserved by breathing through one nostril at a time—first the right and then the left, in various cabalistic combinations. There is a lot of quasi-scientific chatter about the Central Dynamo and positive and negative currents, and we are asked to believe that the antique Hindoos were familiar with the phenomena of electricity. As a matter of fact, all that the book proves is that both the Hindoos and the author are entirely ignorant, not only of electricity, but also of the elements of physiology. And yet, considering the present craze for occult rubbish, particularly in the domain of self-healing, there is no doubt that the book will have a large sale, and that hundreds of foolish readers will try to cure their rheumatism by turning their noses into induction coils.

An even more ridiculous collection of absurdities is “Through the Valley of the Shadow and Beyond,” by Rose M. Carson. This book is well printed on large paper and bound impressively in lavender, but it bears neither price nor publisher’s name. It purports to be a collection of theological essays by various disembodied spirits. As a frontispiece there is a portrait labeled “The Supreme Divine Ruler of the Spheres”—by which I understand the author to mean the Deity. The gentleman depicted wears a full beard, a carefully waxed mustache, a white shirt and a white Oriental headdress. He looks like a prosperous young dentist. In the 340 pages that follow one finds a series of stale variations upon the themes of Swedenborg’s “Heaven and Hell.” The book, in general, is well worth reading. You will get at least one loud laugh a chapter.

Gilbert Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy” (Lane, $1.50) is less frankly occult. The book pretends to describe the author’s gradual conversion to Christianity, and it is written with all his accustomed wit, ingenuity and vivacity. It is, indeed, the best argument for Christianity I have ever read—and I have gone through, I suppose, fully a hundred. But after you lay it down you suddenly realize that Chesterton has been trying to prove, not only that Christianity is reasonable, but also that supernaturalism is truth. His argument, indeed, crossing the bounds of merely sectarian apologetics, passes on to the fundamental problem of philosophy: what is true? The materialists answer that anything man can prove is true. Chesterton answers that anything man can believe with comfort is true. Going further, he maintains that anything which gives disquiet is, ipso facto, false.

Here we have pragmatism gone to seed, and here we have, too, a loud “No” to all human progress. As a matter of fact, the world gets ahead by losing its illusions, and not by fostering them. Nothing, perhaps, is more painful than disillusion, but all the same, nothing is more necessary. Because there were men willing to suffer painful doubts hundreds of years ago, we civilized white men of today were born without our ancestors’ harassing belief in witches. Because a horde of impious critics hang upon the flanks of our dearest beliefs today, our children, five hundred years hence, will be free from our present firm faith in political panaceas, unlucky days, dreams, hunches and the influence of mind over matter. Disillusion is like quinine. Its taste is abominable—but it cures. Not even Chesterton, with all his skill at writing, and with all his general cleverness—and he is the cleverest man, I believe, in the world today, though also one of the most ignorant—can turn that truth into anything else.

Two unpretentious books of sound and uncommon merit stand out from the month’s heap. One is a study of the mental processes of an habitual criminal in conflict with society, and the other is an attempt to analyze the mental processes of a young woman about to be married. In many ways the two books are as far apart as Haydn and Richard Strauss—or Kipling and Mrs. Hemans—or Heaven and Hell—but one thing they have in common, and that is an indefinable air of reality.

The crook book is called “9009” and it is by two men, James Hopper and Fred. R. Bechdolt (McClure, $1.50). Judging by certain correspondence recently appearing in the literary gazettes I fancy that Bechdolt furnished the facts and Hopper wrote the story. This Hopper, let it be said, knows how to write. He uses the parts of speech with economy and understanding; he builds climaxes with sure art; he senses the significance and importance of an episode, and he is ruthless in his slaughter of non-essentials. The result is a story that works itself out as simply and as inexorably as “Lord Jim.”

John Collins, the hero of this absorbing chronicle, is a thoroughly bad lot. For half a dozen years he eludes the law, but finally some blundering sheriff takes him and he goes to prison. His keepers, observing his low brow and gleaming eye, set him down as a dangerous man, and so proceed to reduce him to docility—or to “break” him, as they say. Their intentions here are honest and even laudable, but John Collins’s badness is incurable, and the heavier the hand of discipline upon his shoulder the more he rebels. In the end he runs amuck, savagely and magnificently, and—but the story is not one that bears summarizing. Go read it yourself and think it over. It will entertain you and it may do you some good. It is something sincere and illuminating and different.

The book of maidenly meditation is called “The One and I,” and the author subscribes herself Elizabeth Freemantle (Jacobs, $1.50). I am not a woman myself and I am utterly unacquainted with Elizabeth Freemantle, and so I hesitate to say, without qualification, that her book is an accurate account of a young woman’s emotions in the face of matrimony, for it may turn out that I am wrong, and even that the name is but a nom de plume for some humorous and immoral male with a hearty appetite and a bald head. But all the same, it is quite safe (and very true) to say that the book, whether accurate or not, at least shows plausibility and ingenuity, and a keen appreciation, too, of that essentially feminine marvel, the process of reasoning by emotion.

The heroine is torn by two strong and conflicting desires. On the one hand she yearns for a career in the art of letters, and on the other she yearns for a union with her true love. The career is alluring, but it will mean long years of struggle, with a ceaseless, gnawing hunger for love. The union is alluring, too, but it will mean long years of toil with frying pan, darning needle and nursing bottle, with a ceaseless, gnawing hunger for self-expression and glory. And then, just as she is about to decide, apparently for the career, the hero falls ill—and it is all over with the poor girl! One gust of emotion, and her power of logical reasoning is about equal to her power of jumping over the moon.

In the department of prose fiction our national literature waddles along behind that of England, and in serious books we tread the ancient trail blazed by Germany, but in brewing nonsense we have no peers. Time was, perhaps, when England, with Lewis Carroll and W. S. Gilbert yet in harness, set the pace for us, but that time is far gone. Today we have more manufacturers of clever foolishness and better ones than any other country, and our presses pour out a never-ending stream of books full of quaint conceits in picture and rhyme, of extravagant satire and delicious absurdity.

One such volume, recently published, is Francis W. Crowninshield’s “Manners for the Metropolis” (Appleton, $1), an application of Gilbert’s “Palace of Truth” plan of burlesque to the manuals of etiquette of the Ladies’ Home Journal school. Thus, instead of laying down the orthodox rules for calling, Mr. Crowninshield tells his readers how to avoid calling at all—which last science, of course, is of far greater use and interest to every young man than its gentler predecessor. The book is alive with new-laid wit and humor, and half a dozen grotesque drawings in color by Louis Fancher catch its spirit exactly.

Another clever tome is “The Hole Book,” by the ever entertaining Peter Newell (Harpers, $1). Here we have a chronicle of the damage done by a stray bullet fired into space by an immoral small boy. The course of the missile is shown graphically by a hole punched through the book from cover to cover, and on each page is one of Mr. Newell’s extraordinary pictures, giving another chapter in the impossible history. Other books of the same refreshing cleverness are James Montgomery Flagg’s “All in the Same Boat,” a series of studies, in picture and rhyme, of the appalling bores who infest ocean steamers; and Oliver Herford’s “The Simple Jography” (Luce, 75 cents), a burlesque upon the school geography, with pictures by Cecilia Loftus and others. It looks easy to write nonsense of this sort, but in reality it requires a great deal more skill than writing theology.

The true humorist loves as he snickers, just as the born surgeon feels a vast kindness toward the appendix he excises. Even Thackeray, convinced that he was a cynic and trying hard to be bitter, couldn’t smother his tolerant affection for Barry Lyndon. When he drew less felonious scoundrels, his natural impulse overcame him entirely, and so the whole world loves Deuceace, Yellowplush and Harry Foker today.

Mrs. Helen Green, being a true humorist, shows this benevolent weakness in “The Maison de Shine” (Dodge, $1.50). The vaudevillains who appear in her stories can never hope to go to Heaven. Those that walk in pantaloons are alcoholic polygamists and full of equivocation and deceit, and those that wear long hose and false hips dally with backbiting, polyandry, chicanery and the flowing bowl. Hell stands agape for such as these, and the devil smacks his lips. Nevertheless, Mrs. Green obviously loves them, and the reason therefore lies in the fact that a humorist, having no theology, knows that everything human is lovable.

The stories gathered here were written for a newspaper and many of them show signs that they were written in too much haste, but now and then a delicious page wipes out all memory of artificialities before and after it. On one such page there is a picture of the Mangles Four en famille—a picture full of insight and alive with the comic spirit. Again, what could be better than the story of Johnny Trippit’s ascension from the Varieties to Broadway and of Mrs. Johnny’s terrible revenge? Yet again, who will ever forget that most human of animals, the Property Man?

The slang that she writes is always natural and probable. It is not the elaborate, fantastic, studied speech of Artie and the Chorus Lady, but the easy, elemental slang of the refined knockabout artist and burlesque soubrette—of the bartender, plain-clothes man, hack driver and stage hand.

A number of dramatical books of far more serious purpose stand on the shelf with “The Maison de Shine.” The largest, thickest and most dignified of the lot is Paul Wilstach’s “Richard Mansfield: the Man and the Actor” (Scribners, $3.50). It is a volume that practically exhausts its subject, and there is little likelihood that any other work will ever supplant it.

One may urge against Mr. Wilstach that he goes to his hero’s defense too valiantly and too often, but a moment’s thought will show that this is an inevitable weakness in all first-hand biography. To write the history of a man out of your own recollection of him and intercourse with him, you must have had the run of his house and mind, and to have felt any impulse to seek this, you must have held him in uncommon esteem. No man knew Mansfield better than Wilstach knew him, and no man admired him more. One cannot explain this admiration save upon the assumption that, in the light of clear understanding, the man was admirable.

Wilstach, it must be said, is by no means a mere special pleader. In general, the picture that he draws of Mansfield is a frank and free one, and it reveals all and singular of the man’s weaknesses—his grotesque extravagance, his unbounded ambition, his excellent conceit of himself not only as an actor but also as a public character, his intolerance of opposition, his cruel wit, his easy descents from flamboyant heroics to wise compromise, his quick rages and patronizing forgivenesses, his general air of feudal grandiloquence and barbaric magnificence. The point is that Wilstach, while admitting these things, explains them upon the ground of irresistible impulse and unfortunate environment, and so excuses them as being beyond remedy. Of this theory it may be said that it is as plausible, to say the least, as that older and more popular one which ascribed Mansfield’s eccentricities to a league with the devil.

He fails, however, to point out Mansfield’s two prime faults as a producing manager—his persistent confusion, natural enough to an actor, of theatrical effectiveness with dramatic value, and his curious detachment from the great movement toward naturalness which marked his time. He was the most splendid of contemporary actors, perhaps, but he was still only an actor— and an actor’s yearning to put the clock ahead is always conditioned by his greater yearning to win the fleeting applause of the great inert mob that holds it back.

But it is unfair to bring up such matters in a review of Mr. Wilstach’s book, for he has deliberately fought shy of criticism. His purpose, as he explains it, is to tell the story of the man’s life and dreams, and this he has done most admirably. The book has reality in it, and in its telling there is grace and skill. From the first page to the last it holds the interest unfailingly.

A book of criticism, frank and unabashed, comes next. It is “The American Stage of Today” and its author Walter P. Eaton (Small-Maynard, $1.50). Mr. Eaton succeeded James Huneker and John Corbin as dramatic critic of the New York Sun, and so, sitting at the desk once adorned by these famous men, he managed to absorb, in some telepathic manner, a measure of the faults and virtues of each. In consequence, his book shows a bit of James’s gift for superficial iridescence and a bit of John’s abysmal profundity—a smear of James’s liking for the dazzling and devilish and a stain of John’s deep faith in miracles and university pundits. The result is the most interesting volume of dramatic criticism in English, save one, since “Iconoclasts.”

Mr. Eaton makes solemn oath, in his preface, that he has no dramatic creed, and it is very likely that he believes this to be true, but the observant reader, after a few chapters, begins to dissent. As a matter of fact, Mr. Eaton is the first of the dramatic pragmatists, and his god is Professor William James. He quotes Professor James again and again and the test that he applies to each succeeding play is the pragmatic question: considering everything, is it good enough? This test is far easier and far more workable than Mr.Corbin’s, which is: what would the faculty of Harvard say?—or Mr. Huneker’s, which is: how many Beatitudes are disproved?—or Mr. Winter’s, which is: how long has the author been dead? It is, indeed, the test of a tolerant and humane critic, for it allows some merit to the ephemeral journalistic nonsense of “The Witching Hour” and to the platitudinous banalities of “The Servant in the House,” the while it bars out entirely the worst of the products of Sardoodledom and the Palmy Days.

But Mr. Eaton will outlive, let us hope, this reverence for Professor James, just as he will outlive his New England bringing up—which last reveals itself in the constant assumption that a play which preaches a sermon is, in some unaccountable way, a shade better than a play which doesn’t preach a sermon. When he gets rid of James he will discover that, after all, pragmatism is not a philosophy, but an apology for the lack of a philosophy. A careful study of the recent history of the English stage (say from November 11, 1865. when Tom Robertson sent the first shell screaming into the camp of the ancients) will teach him that criticism, to be effective, must have a goal, and that it must strive for that goal with a certain fine frenzy. Because William Archer saw such a goal ahead in the melancholy early eighties there is a Pinero today. To put it more simply, I should like to see Mr. Eaton work out a creed of his own—and then fight for it like a Tartar.

But let him be wary of Archer’s ponderosity, the while he evolves his Archerlike theory of the drama. His present style, as it appears in this book, has enough of Broadway in it to flavor the flatness got at Harvard, and this flavor must be kept there. One is reminded, more than once, of the vivacious A. B. Walkely, but Walkely’s copious borrowings from the more impossible languages are pleasantly absent. Mr. Eaton, in a word, writes rattling good journalese—and it gives the reader two hours of unmixed delight.

“As Others See Us,” by John Graham Brooks (Macmillan, $1.75), is one of those rare books which help to civilize the reader while they delight him. It is a volume that all professional patriots, Sons of the Revolution, Colonial Dames and members of Congress should be compelled to read forthwith, on penalty of the bastinado. It is the long-sought antidote to “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Mr. Brooks’s plan is so simple that it is astonishing that it was not put into execution years ago. Briefly, he has made a digest of all the books written about the United States by foreign visitors, from the time of Washington to the time of Roosevelt—and then compared the jury’s verdict with the facts. The result is a volume of vast and abounding interest. We see ourselves literally “as others see us,” and the spectacle, if it is not always soothing, is at least exceedingly instructive and sobering.

Let no one, however, make the mistake of supposing that this thick volume is a mere encyclopedia of abuse. Mr. Brooks has chosen flattering criticisms as well as peevish ones, and in this very impartiality, indeed, lies the chief value of his book. Furthermore, he has weighed and digested, as well as recorded, and his conclusions are those of a tolerant and just judge. When, in the end, he lays down the verdict that our national faults—of political charlatanry, of snobbery, of blatancy—are outweighed by our national virtues, you agree with him, not because you are an American, but because his logic is without a flaw.

Mr. Brooks’s authors, it is curious to note, seem to be but dimly aware of that ferocious intolerance which is at the bottom of many specific American evils. Your typical American, who is extravagantly moral, holds it as the first article of his creed that all who differ with or from him (I’ll be hanged if I know which word is correct) are not only ludicrous fools, but also dangerous maniacs and criminals. This is the simple and ingenuous Rule No. 1 of the great masses of the plain people, and its result is a collection of bizarre laws and artificial crimes that would make a German police inspector laugh himself to death.

Another result is the continued importance in our national life of the professional moralist—a gentleman who went out of office in Europe a good while ago. There are hundreds of towns in the South in which the local Wesleyan clergyman is still, ex-officio, the leading citizen, and even in New York such men as Comstock and Parkhurst exercise a very real power.

Meanwhile, every American with natural appetites is a criminal. I, myself, am a felon—at least in intent. I found it out a few months ago, on a Sunday evening. Dining with a friend in a provincial city, I proposed that we spend the rest of the evening in forgetting our sorrows. We thereupon discussed ways and means, and finally drew up a list of three divertissements agreeable to our fancies and habits. And then, of a sudden, we made an alarming discovery, to wit: that all of them were forbidden by law!

Were any of these desired diversions immoral, disorderly or hurtful to others? Not a one! Did we yearn to beat up the watch, like Sir John Brute, or carry off some merchant’s shutters, or disturb the solemn orisons of the Salvation Army? Not at all! The most felonious of our three plans was this: to fare forth to some public hall, listen a while to some passable orchestra and then drink a few steins of beer. Alas! the laws of this city provided a fine of $100 for anyone who gave an orchestra concert on the Sabbath, and a further fine of $500 for anyone who sold a stein of beer, with imprisonment overnight for anyone caught drinking it.

Those who have lingered lovingly over the pages of Harper’s Biographical Edition of Thackeray know the delightful introductions provided for all of the thirteen volumes by the great novelist’s daughter, Anne Ritchie. Lady Ritchie has a good deal of her father’s humor and not a little of his skill at making the mere names of history blossom into human beings. In her latest book, “The Blackstick Papers” (Putnams, $1.75), these talents combine to produce an indefinable charm. She discourses of Haydn, of Joachim, of Felicia Hemans, of “Jacob Omnium” and of Tourgenieff, and somehow her rambling essays make one know these worthies better. There is nothing very novel or startling in her book, and now and then (as in her chapter on Haydn, for instance) she has scarcely anything to say. But if, at times, one drowses a bit over her pages, the drowsiness is of that rare sort which leads, not to leaden, snoring slumber, but to daydreams of old books and old music, half memory and half imagination.

That Pup—
by Ellis Parker Butler. (McClure, $1)
Another good short story by the author of “Pigs Is Pigs.” Some of the rare flavor of “The Jumping Frog.”

The Rubaiyat of a Huffy Husband—
by Mary B. Little. (Badger, $1)
The latest of the Rubaiyat parodies—and one of the most appalling.

The Witching Hour—
by Augustus Thomas. (Harpers, $1.50)
The author’s “novelization” of his play of the same name. His willingness to enter the ranks of the “novelizing” hacks reveals a very frank and accurate self-estimate of his literary importance.

Pictures of Old Chinatown—
by Arnold Genthe, with text by Will Irwin. (Mofiatt-Yard, $1.50)
The pictures are interesting as records of a lost city, but have little artistic value. Mr. Irwin’s text is full of his usual charm and feeling for color. The book is beautifully printed.

Nancy MacIntyre—
by Lester Shepard Parker. (Badger, $1.25)
A romance in rhyme—almost as bad as “Lucille.”

The Calico Cat—
by Charles Miner Thompson. (Houghton-Mifflin, $1.25)
An ingenious farce for young readers, full of movement and humor.

The Four-Flusher—
by John Edward Hazzard. (Dillingham, $1.50)
The tale of a fair young hero who breaks into New York society on $15 a week. Incredible, but far from dull.

Her Caveman’s Letters and Hers in Reply—
by Lance Swift and Carol Steele. (Gillam, $1.50)
Page one: a Platonic friendship. Page 169: “I belong to you. I say the words slowly, solemnly, as one enters upon a sacrament.” Slightly devilish, but in an entirely lady-like manner.

The Harvest Moon—
by J. S. Fletcher. (McBride, $1.50)
A dull tale of seduction, in which the chief incident is physiologically improbable and all that goes before and after is psychologically incredible.

The Heart of a Geisha—
by Mrs. Hugh Fraser. (Putnam, $1.25)
A tale of old Japan. The heroine, a geisha, sells herself to save her lover. Told with decided skill.


The works of H.L. Mencken and other American journalists are now freely available at The Archive of American Journalism. Visit our bookstore for single-volume collections–-ideal for research, reference use or casual reading.