Conclusions: Kosti’s Menck & Nat (Part II)

by Richard Kostelanetz (March 2015)

In memory of the great American writer Benjamin de Casseres (1873-1945), who authored Mencken and Shaw (1930)

Long interested in rewriting classic American literary works, beginning with Herman Melville’s “Bartleby” and continuing with Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” (both of mine published by Bartleby & Co. in Brussels), I discovered a fugative text produced before 1920 by my critical hero H. L. Mencken in collaboration with his sometime co-conspirator (and co-editor) George Jean Nathan. Published as The American Credo (1920), it has two parts. The first, curiously mistitled “Preface,” is longer than the second part. If the former offers a critique of American society, the latter is meant to represent Americans’ ideas. The few critics thoughtfully commenting on this book judge its first part as superior to its second. Even so, the second was more inspiring to me.

Essentially a series of extended one-liners, perhaps in the tradition of Gustave Flaubert’s legendary Dictionary of Received Ideas written in the late 1870s, The American Credo (1920) contains miscellaneous remarks that I find are sometime satirical and other times penetratingly true. This dichotomy also characterizes the Flaubert text for me.

Much as I prefer Mencken and Nathan’s aphoristic project, I found myself rewriting their sentences by shifting phrases and adding clarifiers, sometimes to be more self-satirical but more often to make them more true. My overall aim in Kosti’s Menck and Nat was to make them better, at least to me. Though I couldn’t divide the individual remarks into encompassing categories, I added individual titles, in the tradition of Gertrude Stein, and then set these titles (of mine) in alphabetical order, in part to frame but also to offer an indexing device.

I’m not aware of anyone else (re)working prose aphorsisms similiarly, certainly not with these, though perhaps someone unknown to me has. One charm perhaps in reading these is deciding which should stand as satrical and which true. My collective title, Conclusions, represents my definition of the tone of these aphorisms, in contrast to those written by others. May I venture that others might rewrite the Mencken-Nathan texts differently; and were either Menck or Nat still around a century later, each would have (re)written them differently, albeit without collaboration, as they later ceased collaborating.

--Richard Kostelanetz, FarEast BushWick, NY 11385-5751, 1 January 2015

Continued from Part I.

MAGIC Hair from a horse's tail, if put into a water bottle, will turn into a snake.

MAITRE The headwaiter in a fashionable restaurant exhibits better manners than any other gentleman in the place.

MAKEWORK Appendicitis is an ailment that must have been invented by surgeons for money-making purposes as no one, a century ago, was ever troubled with it.

MALE DISPUTE Two men seldom agree that the same woman is a knock-out.

MANICURE Nothing impels men to have their fingernails manicured more than a vanity for showing buffed fingernails.

MANKEEPING An American residing in Japan can buy for two dollars a beautiful geisha who, once legally owned, will promptly fall madly in love with him and scrupulously clean his house.

MARKED Any man with a receding chin must be a nincompoop.

MASTERING A dog fond of human infallibly signifies that his master is a good sort who can be trusted.

MAYBE Lemon juice will remove freckles.

MEASURE Just as a napkin is always wrapped around a champagne bottle for the purpose of hiding the label, so the quality of champagne may be judged by the amount of noise the popped cork makes.

MEDICALCOHOL Gin in moderation is good for your kidneys.

MEDICINE A couple of quinine pills, downed with a chaser of rye whiskey, will cure a cold.

MEMORY RUSH In the infinitesimal space of time between the springing of the trap-door and his dropping through it, a hanged man sees his entire life pass as a panorama before him.

MIRRORS In a crowded elevator, women usually usurp any looking-glass.

MISCOUNTING Weighing machines costing a penny make a fat woman lighter and a thin man heavier.

MISERS Street-corner beggars have a great deal of money hidden away at home under the kitchen floor.

MISFORTUNE Whoever breaks a mirror will have bad luck for seven years.

MISINTERPRETING When a play is performed in an insane asylum, the inmates always laugh at the tragic moments and cry at jokes.

MISSING No elevator operator ever succeeds in stopping his car on a level with the floor.

MISTAKE Killing a spider brings bad luck.

MONKEYING If you kiss your lover before the monkeys caged in the zoo, don’t be surprised if they then do something very embarrassing.

MOOLAH Headwaiters in fashionable hotels make $100 a day.

MOUTH SHUT No wellbred person ever chews gum in public.

MUSH As all the cheaper brands of cigarettes are fabricated with chemicals, those smoking them suffer in time some softening of the brain.

NAPPING Actors who sleep past noon then spend their afternoons calling on women.

NATURAL Cinnamon drops are colored red with dye-stuff manufactured out of cochineal insects’ dried bodies.

NEEDY The young American who plays violin solos on the local street corner is so talented that, had he the money to go to Europe to study, he would within three years be a rival to Fritz Kreisler.

NEGLECT Sexually predatory mothers ignore their children, wishing that they would die.

NIL All gamblers eventually go broke.

NOSEY all postcards do small town postmasters read.

NOURISHMENT An Italian street laborer can do a hard day's work on one large plate of spaghetti.

OBSERVING Sitting at the front of certain metropolitan cafe, you will sooner or later see everybody in the world known to you.

OCCUPYING Every American army officer serving in post-WWI France had an affair with a French girl.

ODDS If one has only three matches left, the first two will invariably extinguish themselves before the third and last will remain lighted.

ODOR No smell in the world is finer than that of burning autumn leaves.

OFFSPRING Whatever number of children a man has can, in the end, measure his reliability in business and in his community.

OLD Perhaps the Masonic order goes back to the days of King Solomon.

OUTOFSEASON Anyone eating oysters in a month not containing the letter "r" is certain to suffer ptomaine poisoning.

OVERCLASSED Only Americans travel in the first class carriages of foreign railway trains, as Englishmen always travel third class.

OVERDRESSED Slightly peculiar is a man who wears spats.

PADDING The cashier of an upscale restaurant, in totaling a customer's check, usually adds a dollar which is subsequently split between himself and a waiter.

PALLIATIVE For a snake-bite whiskey is best.

PASSION If a young woman can hold a lighted match in her fingers until it completely burns up, the young man courting her should be assured that she really loves him.

PEDAGOGICAL PREGNANCY If a pregnant woman plays the piano every day, the more likely will her baby become a great musician.

PENMISHIP Pharmacists regard legibly written prescriptions as fraudulent.

PERCIPIENT A tickling nose signifies that you’re going to meet a stranger or kiss a fool.

PERFECTLY NOSEY A bloodhound never makes a mistake.

PIDGEONHOLE Any play, novel, or short story with a happy ending is necessarily commercialized and inartistic.

PILLOWED Anyone sleeping with his head on a high pillow will be round-shouldered.

PLACEBO Nine times in ten when you are in pain, your doctor assures you that he is squirting morphine into your arm when he is really injecting is only warm water.

POISON? Anyone drinking a glass of absinthe afterwards suffers peculiar hallucinations and nightmares.

POLYGAMY All true studs still practise polygamy, despite the laws against it, employing agents all over the world for recruiting their harems.

POSTURING When a man goes to a photographer's to have his picture taken, the knowledge that he is being photographed always makes him very self-conscious, thus causing him to assume an expression that results in an inaccurate likeness.

POTION A deft mix of rocks and rye will cure a cold.

PRECOCITY A nine-year-old boy who likes to play with toy steam engines is probably a mechanical genius who should be educated to be an engineer.

PREDATORY Every female moving-picture star carries on an intrigue with her leading man and expects to marry him as soon as he can fire his poor current wife, who took in washing in order to pay for his training in acting art.

PREDICTING If, while promenading, a girl and her escort walk on either side of a water hydrant or another sidewalk obstruction instead of both walking around it on the same side, they will have a misunderstanding before the month is over.

PREDISPOSED Women with red hair or wide nostrils are possessed of especially passionate natures.

PRENATAL In the period just before a woman's first baby is born her face assumes a peculiar spiritual and holy look.

PREPARATION Sedulously to her piano lessons a young girl ought to devote herself since, when she is married, her playing can greatly comfort her husband.

PRESOBERING Swallowing an ounce of olive oil before going to a banquet will keep a normal person from getting drunk.

PREVENTION Anyone wearing lightweight underwear winter and summer, the year 'round, will never catch a cold.

PREVENTION Consider that ten drops of camphor in half a glass of water will prevent a cold.

PROFESSIONALISM Even if a veteran comedian, just before the rise of the curtain, receives a telegram announcing the death of his mother or his only child, he delivers on stage a performance more comic than any ever before.

PROFIT-MINDERS Notwithstanding their religion, Quakers have been very sharp traders who have a great deal of money stashed away in banks.

PROMISCUITY Every roving bachelor conducts illicit affairs with widows in nearby cities and by them fathers illegitimate children.

PROPHYLACTIC Whenever one leaves house with an umbrella, it won't rain.

PUNCTURE Anyone sitting upon an old-fashioned horsehair sofa will find one of the protruding sharp hairs stabbing through his union suit.

PUZZLE A railroad timetable is, unless familiar, very difficult to decipher.

QUACKERY When a doctor finds there is nothing askew with a new patient who has come to consult him, he never frankly tells the man that he’s okay but instead always gives him placebos.

RABID RABBITS The reproductive instinct in rabbits is so compelling that two normally loving rabbits can produce as many as 265 offspring in a single year.

REINTERPERTING A rich man’s wife, reconsidering her past, wishes she had married a poor man.

RECOVERY A cat falling from the twentieth story of a building will hit pavement on its feet uninjured, as frisky as ever.

REFRESHMENT Liquid in the speakers' platform pitcher should always be ice-water.

REGENERATION Certain animals are so tenacious that if an appendage is amputated a new one will grow in its place.

REGRESS  Children were always better behaved twenty years ago than they are today.

RELAX Celery is good for the nerves.

REPELLENT A piece of camphor worn on a string around the neck will ward off disease.

REPELLENT Pennyroyal oil will drive away mosquitoes.

RESIDUE A bride wearing an old garter with her new finery will have a happy married life.

RESPECTING A woman who has led a loose life is so grateful for the respect shown her by the man who asks her to marry him that she makes for him the best kind of wife.

RISK  When shaving on a railway train or an airplane, a man invariably cuts himself.

RISKY Lighting three cigarettes with one match will bring some terrible calamity upon one or other of the three smokers.

RUGGED Paderewski, during his piano-playing days, wore a wig though he was actually as bald as a coot.

RUMOR At least to men, all French women seem very passionate, sacrificing everything to love.

SADISM Some theatrical producers teach their actresses how to express emotion by knocking them down and pulling them around the stage by their hair.

SAFE The security of a bank is proportionate to the solidity of the bank building.

SAFEKEEPING Wealthy society women never show their pearl necklaces in public, instead keeping them at home in safes and wearing indistinguishable imitations.

SAINTLY Every uniformed nurse, however ugly, always looks lovely to the sick man.

WOOZY Everyone crossing the English Channel in rough weather becomes impossibly seasick.

SEDUCTION When certain girls enter hospital work as nurses, their primary object is to capture a doctor.

SEDUCTIVE A bachelor expecting a feminine visitor stinks up his rooms with perfume.

SELF-CENSORSHIP Newspaper reporters hear every day a great many whopping scandals that they refrain from printing for all sorts of discouraging reasons.

SELF-IMAGING Those most vociferously applauding the playing of "Dixie" publicly are all Northerners who have never been further South than Allentown, Pa.

SELF-INFLICTED A great many of serious women's diseases are due to high heels.

SELF-SCRUBBED As coal miners get so dirty and wash so often they become the cleanest working-men in the world.

SEX FOOD Oysters are a great aphrodisiac.

SHADE Awnings keep rooms cooler.

SHREWD All the Jews drafted during the late war were, on account of their extraordinary business acumen, put into the Quartermaster's Department.

SIGNING A dog waging its tail signifies that it is particularly happy.

SIGNS Whenever your right ear burns consider this heat to signify that someone else must be saying nice things about you. If your left ear burns, that’s a sign that someone is saying nasty things about you.

SILENCE A lover untouched will say nothing before he or stops loving.

SIZE MATTERS The larger the dog, the safer he is for children.

SIZING UP When ordering a drink of whiskey at a familiar bar, a man always instructs the barkeep as to the size of the drink he desires by showing "two fingers" or "three fingers."

SKEPTCISM A physician knowing too much about women can no longer fall in love with them.

SKIMMING Back in the last century a street car conductor assigned to collect money stole every fifth nickel.

SKIMPY All women swiming at French or Brazilian seaside resorts affect very naughty bathing suits.

SLOW After taking two days to recognize a joke, an Englishman even then invariably gets it backward.

SLOWING DOWN Anyone sojourning in Italy always feels very lazy.

SMARTS Detective work calls for exceptionally high sagacity and cunning.

SMOKESTACK General Grant never directed a battle save with a cigar in his mouth.

SMOOTH EATING John D. Rockefeller would give his whole fortune for digestion good enough to accept fried pastry.

SNIPS From the sweepings of the bakery floor are ginger snaps made.

SNOOZE A millionaire seated sat the opera always dozes off.

SNOTTY BRITS Looking down on their American employers, English butlers frequently have to leave the room to keep from laughing out loud.

SOCKING OUT The best wrapping for a sore throat is an old sock.

SOCKS Firemen awakened suddenly in the middle of the night fight fires in their stocking feet.

SOFTIES When two Frenchmen fight a duel, whether with pistols or with swords, neither of them is ever hurt half so much as an honest American wearing boxing-gloves.

SOMNOLENCE On cold nights policemen always sneak into nearby stables and, among horses, go to sleep.

SOPORIFIC So tired of drinking champagne do chorus girls become that the sound of a popping cork puts them to sleep.

SOURING A thunderstorm will cause milk rapidly to turn sour.

SOUSED Always soused during a battle, General Grant got licked on the few occasions when he was sober.

SOUSED As Frenchmen are never drunk, all the inebriates visible in Paris are Americans.

SPACEY Blondes are flightier than brunettes.

SPEECH Try to pronounce the word "statistics" without stuttering.

SPEEDY At such a gait did the late King Edward carry on in Paris that he shocked even the Parisians.

SPICS Male Spaniards are generally handsome fellows who are possessed of flashing eyes and a fiery temper.

SPIES All Japanese butlers in America are really lieutenants in the Japanese Navy assigned to read and copy all letters received by their employers.

STARING DOWN If one fixes his eye on a savage beast, the animal will remain rooted to the spot before it slinks away.

STEPPING  UP All Chicago women in have exceptionally large feet.

STINKING Some French women use great quantities of perfume in lieu of taking a soap bath.

STOLID Book-keepers are always round-shouldered.

SUBSERVIENCE Some lower classes are so servile that they say "Thank you, sir," if kicked in the butt.

SUBTERFUGE Every time a parent volunteers to take his children to the circus is merely an opportunity for going there to please himself.

SUBVERT The company’s clumsiest actress is invariably the manager's wife.

SUPERSTITION A tarantula will not crawl over a piece of rope.

SURITY Safely trust a young girl with a man who speaks well of his mother.

SURREPTITIOUS The roulette wheel at Monte Carlo is controlled by a wire as thin as a hair that is in turn controlled by a button hidden beneath the rug near the operator's biggest toe.

SURROGATE The chicken salad served in some restaurants is made instead of veal.

SUSPECT Certain successful businessmen would become fine Presidents were they not so crazy about making money.

SUSPICION If a man's eyebrows meet over his nose, he’s probably very unpleasant.

SWALLOW Drinking out of a garden hose can be dangerous, if one is likely to swallow a snake.

SWAT A horse's tail was primarily designed to flick off flies.

SWEETENING Remove onion breath by promptly drinking a little milk or eating a little parsley.

SWISS  Unique to the Swiss is the Alpine hat.

TAME The loud cats in a liontamer’s cage are always sixty years old and toothless.

TARDY Some women makes a practice of always being deliberately late in keeping her appointments with a man.

TERMINAL Almost surely death results from eating cucumbers and drinking milk at the same meal.

TEST If one holds a buttercup above a person's chest and a yellow light is reflected upon that person's chin, that becomes a sign that he likes butter.

TESTING If, after one lusty blow, a girl's birthday cake has nine candles still burning, consider that a sign that it will be nine years before she gets married.

TEXANS All Senators from Texas wear sombreros, chew tobacco, expectorate profusely, and frequently utter the epithet "maverick."

THUD No piano made today sounds as good as the old square ones.

TICKLING IVORIES A grown man playing a piano seems unmanly, save when he plays it in a bordello.

TIGHT FIT Why does a woman with a 7½-C foot always try to squeeze it into a 4½-A shoe?

TIME HALTING Certain women are as beautiful today as they were thirty-five years ago.

TOO SMART Any independently critical intellectual would encounter too much suspicion to be elected President.

TOOTHGUARD A young woman who takes an anesthetic when having a tooth pulled should be accompanied by some one, by way of precaution against the predatory dentist.

TRAMP A brass band always makes me feel like marching.

TWISTED The accumulation of great wealth always accompanies great unhappiness.

UNDIGESTION Eating ice-cream after lobster will make you double up with a bellyache.

UNWASHED Whenever gypsy children are sewn into their underclothes immediately after they leave the cradle, they never get a bath thereafter until they are confirmed.

UP All American millionaires were born in small ramshackle houses situated near railroad tracks.

UPLIFTING One measure of a gentleman is never speaking evil of a woman.

UPRIGHT What a woman should admires above everything else in a man is an upstanding character.

VAMPING Anyone who habitually clears his throat before he speaks is generally not just a self-important hypocrite but a bluffer.

VAMPIRE CATS If a cat gets into a room where a baby is sleeping, the cat will suck the baby's breath and kill it.

VODKA In the days of the czar, a Russian peasant drank two quarts of vodka a day.

VOLATILITY Red-haired girls are especially hot-tempered.

WARMTH The most comfortable room conceivable contains a great big open fireplace.

WARNING A diner who follows up a cucumber salad with an ice-cream cone will inevitably become the victim of gastrointestinal cholera morbus.

WAYWARD Something is peculiar about a man who wears a red tie.

WEARY Cloth used in English suits is so strong it never wears out.

WEATHERWOMAN An old woman afflicted with rheumatism in her leg can infallibly predict when it is going to rain.

WELCOME? The first moves made by a country bumkin when he comes to New York is to make a bee line for Grant's Tomb and the Aquarium.

WELL A doctor's family never gets sick and a dentist’s daughter never gets a cavity.

WHITE Snow arrived every Christmas until it didn’t.

WIFING A bachelor needs someone to sew the buttons on his clothes.

WISHES Whereas a man always hopes his first child will be a boy, his wife always wants a girl.

WORMS All antique furniture sold in America is made in Grand Rapids, Michigan, while the holes testifying to its age are made either with gimlets or by trained worms.

WOUNDED A fraternity party always ends with a grand free-for-all where several fighting men are slashed with razors.

WRONGSIDE Any one getting out of bed on the left side in the morning has a mean disposition for the rest of the day.

YIDS Former cloak and suit merchants now in the movie business have become millionaires.

ZAFTIG Brunettes are more likely than blondes to grow stout in later years.




Individual entries on Richard Kostelanetz’s work in several fields appear in various editions of Readers Guide to Twentieth-Century Writers, Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature, Contemporary Poets, Contemporary Novelists, Postmodern Fiction, Webster's Dictionary of American Writers, The HarperCollins Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Directory of American Scholars, Who's Who in America, Who's Who in the World, Who's Who in American Art,,, and, among other distinguished directories. Otherwise, he survives in New York, where he was born, unemployed and thus overworked. His many books are available here.


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