Few letters have entertained me more than this one, sent by noted writer H. L. Mencken to artist Charles Green Shaw in 1927. Written in list-form, the letter acts as a Mencken biography of sorts as he briefly — and more often than not, humorously — offers his views on a whole host of subjects, topics including religion, marriage, superstition, and money. A wonderful letter.
It’s also worth noting that this letter is featured in the equally delightful, highly recommended book, Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists’ Enumerations from the Collections of the Smithsonian Museum.
Transcript follows. Image courtesy of the Archives of American Art.
1524 HOLLINS ST.
December 2nd 1927
A few notes:
1. I bought some brown shoes six or eight years ago, and have worn them off and on ever since. I have also taken to brown oxfords.
2. I have now seen about twelve movies, four or five of them to the end. I liked them all pretty well, but am not tempted to go back.
3. My favorite drinks, in order, are: beer in any form, Moselle, Burgundy, Chianti, gin and ginger-beer, and rye whiskey. I use Swedish punch only as a cocktail flavor. I dislike Scotch, and seldom drink it. It makes me vaguely uneasy. I also dislike Rhine wine, save the very best. I never have a head-ache from drink. It fetches me by giving me pains in the legs. When I get stewed I go to sleep, even in the presence of women and clergymen.
4. Curiously enough, I greatly dislike the common American dirty stories, and avoid the men who tell them habitually. They seem dull to me. I love the obscene, but it must have wit in it.
5. As for politics, I always go to national conventions, and have missed very few in 28 years.
6. Of my inventions I am vainest of Bible Belt, booboisie, smuthound and Boobus americanus.
7. I have been in the Johns Hopkins Hospital but once, and then it was for medicine, not for surgery. I think all of the Baltimore hospitals are good, but prefer those run by nuns.
8. I changed my collar to a lower level two years ago.
9. I never use mullen on my hair. Nothing but soap and water ever touches it. George has gone gray greasing his hair.
10. I believe in marriage, and have whooped it up for years. It is the best solution, not only of the sex question, but also of the living question. I mean for the normal man. My own life has been too irregular for it: I have been to much engrossed in other things. But any plausible gal who really made up her mind to it could probably fetch me, even today. If I ever marry, it will be on a sudden impulse, as a man shoots himself. I’ll regret it bitterly for about a month, and then settle down contentedly.
11. I believe in and advocate monogamy. Adultery is hitting below the belt. If I ever married the very fact that the woman was my wife would be sufficient to convince me that she was superior to all other women. My vanity is excessive. Wherever I sit is the head of the table. This fact makes me careless of ordinary politeness. I don’t like to be made much of. Such things please only persons who are doubtful about their position. I was sure of mine, such as it is, at the age of 12.
12. Pilsner should be in Roman type, and begin with a capital.
13. I usually lie to women. They expect it, and it is pleasant to watch them trying to detect it. They seldom succeed. Women have a hard time in this world. Telling them the truth would be too cruel.
14. I am completely devoid of religious feeling. All religions seem ridiculous to me, and in bad taste. I do not believe in the immortality of the soul, nor in the soul. Ecclesiastics seem to me to be simply men who get their livings by false pretenses. Like all rogues, they are occasionally very amusing.
15. I can’t get rid of certain superstitions, and suspect that there must be some logical basis for them. My mother and father both died on the 13th.
16. I am always in trouble around Christmas, and usually about a woman. The fact makes me dread the season.
17. I have another superstition: that all men who try to injure me die. I happens almost invariably. Of the six bitterest enemies I had two years ago, five are dead, all suddenly and unexpectedly.
18. My belief is that happiness is necessarily transient. The natural state of a reflective man is one of depression. The world is a botch. Women can make men perfectly happy, but they seldom know how to do it. They make too much effort: they overlook the powerful effect of simple amiability. Women are also the cause of the worst kind of unhappines
19. I have little belief in human progress. The human race is incurably idiotic. It will never be happy.
20. I believe the United States will blow up within a century.
21. Being an American seems amusing to me, but not exhilirating. But I am very proud of the fact that I am a native and citizen of the Maryland Free State. I like to believe that I have had a hand in keeping it free.
22. I hope to write at least one good book before I die. Those that I have done are all transient and trivial: they will be forgotten in 25 years. I have ideas for five good books, but shall be content if I manage to write one.
23. I live pretty well, but am careful about money, and greatly dislike extravagant persons. I believe that it is discreditable to be needy. Economic independence is the foundation of the only sort of freedom worth a damn.
24. Most people regard me as very energetic. I am actually very lazy, and never work when I don’t want to. On most days I take a nap. I also take frequent short holidays. But I dislike long ones.
25. I drink exactly as much as I want, and one drink more.
26. I never lecture, not because I am a bad speaker, but simply because I detest the sort of people who go to lectures, and don’t want to meet them. So with the fools who go to public dinners.
27. I have been reported engaged during the past year to six women. It consoles me to reflect that all were charming, and that all save five were beautiful. The total net worth ran to $2500.
28. I dislike receiving presents, and never accept them if I can get out of it. But I like giving them to women and children. Many a worthy gal has lost a handsome beau by giving me something nifty.
29. My apologies for inflicting so long a letter upon you.