Saving a Whale

A Choice of Days: Essays from "Happy Days," "Newspaper Days," and "Heathen Days,"

by H.L. Mencken, selected and introduced by Edward L. Galligan
Knopf, 337 pp., $12.95

On Mencken

edited by John Dorsey
Arlington House, 206 pp., $8.95

The Young Mencken: The Best of His Work

collected by Carl Bode
Dial, 576 pp., $15.00

The American Scene: A Reader

by H.L. Mencken, edited by Huntington Cairns
Knopf, 542 pp., $15.00

H.L. Mencken on Politics: A Carnival of Buncombe

edited by Malcolm Moos
Vintage (out of print), 365 pp., $1.85 (paper)

Letters of H.L. Mencken

edited by Guy J. Forgue
Knopf (out of print), 506 pp., $12.50

A Mencken Chrestomathy

edited and annotated by H.L. Mencken
Knopf, 627 pp., $15.95

H. L. Mencken
H. L. Mencken; drawing by David Levine

A Choice of Days and On Mencken make up Knopf’s testament to Henry L. Mencken on the hundredth year since his birth. We should, of course, be grateful to have any memorial less degrading than those essays of R. Emmett Tyrrell through which Mencken’s ghost now and then flickers like some damned soul in hell. All the same these garlands, though altogether worthier and more scrupulously worked, seem somehow not quite up to their subjects.

But then there are subjects that fairly prohibit adequacy. Whales are the only mammals that the museums have never managed to stuff and mount in their original skins. The great whale in New York’s Museum of Natural History is a styrofoam reproduction; and the museum’s orca, despite its more modest proportions, is only a compound of burlap and plaster. These counterfeits are the best the taxidermists can do, because, they have found, something in the very nature of the whale’s original skin makes its preservation impractical.

Mencken is a very great whale and can stove all boats that sail too close too soon. The careful sailor begins at a respectful distance and looks for what the creature is not before grappling with what it might be.

The first sight is the spouting, and who cannot be forgiven for coming upon such a spectacle and henceforth and forever deciding that this sportive play in the warm waters is most of what whales are about? Alistair Cooke, who knew him well and read him keenly, settles for defining Mencken as “a humorist in the classic American tradition, about halfway between Mark Twain and Woody Allen.”1

Even those of us least satisfied with the notion that his spout is all there is to the whale have to concede that any geyser is a joyous sight indeed. Here, as an instance, is the thirty-six-year-old Mencken on Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony:

In this grand complex of tunes, indeed, Tschaikowsky tells all his troubles—how he was forced into marriage against his will; how he lost three thousand roubles on Russian government bonds; how his pet dog Wolfgang was run over by the Moscow-Petersburg D-Zug and lost an ear; how the concert-master was in liquor at Dresden and spoiled his Romeo and Juliet; how ill he was after eating that gekochter Schellfisch at Prague; how the wine merchant, Oroshatovich, swindled him with synthetic Burgundy; how he lost his baggage between Leipzig and Berlin, and had to conduct in borrowed cuffs; how the summer boarders at Maidanovo played “Monastery Bells” on their tin-pan pianos; how that Schuft of a critic at Köln accused him of borrowing his Capriccio in G sharp minor from Offenbach; how his friend Kashkin won a hundred roubles from him at yeralash; how he cut his hand opening a can of asparagus; how melancholy it was to come to fifty-year.

This is, of course, pure sport…

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