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The New American Credo

May 27th, 2008 · 6 Comments

[I wrote this brief appreciation of George Jean Nathan’s immortal compendium, The New American Credo, for the “Classic Bookshelf” column of “Fortean Times” back in June 2001.  I’ve pulled it from the boneyard, just so you can chew on it.]

George Jean Nathan and his fellow iconoclast H. L. Mencken spent much of the 1920s collecting the superstitions, urban legends, and stereotypes that informed the American belief system.  They published editions in 1920 and 1921; the enlarged 1927 version appeared under Nathan’s name alone.  This last contains 1,231 entries.  I’ll confine myself to quoting the first: “That the elephant tusks, swamp moss and specimens of old arrowheads periodically brought back by explorers from the African jungle are of great value in adding to the store of human knowledge.”

This is cold, funny, clearly observed stuff — even a few pages automatically foster critical thinking.  The cumulative effect is exhilarating.

The Credo has two remarkable antecedents, both worth plugging here: Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas (left unfinished at his death in 1880) and Swift’s Complete Collection of Ingenious and Genteel Conversation (1738).  These, too, were long labors of outrage, stockpiled over many years.  All three works share a bracing contempt for the lazy word and thought, and a determination to pin them squirming onto the reader’s cortex.  Many of the details are particular to their time and place; it hardly matters. 

[I’ll quote five more, just for the pleasure of it.]

70: That when a comedian, just before the rise of the curtain, is handed a telegram announcing the death of his mother or only child, he goes on the stage and gives a more comic performance than ever.

233: That if a dog is fond of a man it is an infallible sign that the man is a good sort, and one to be trusted.

441: That street-corner beggars have a great deal of money hidden away at home under the kitchen floor.

753: That most great men owe their success to their wives.

1070: That the chief pastime of young medical students is hurling human arms and legs at each other in the dissecting room.

(Posted by Doug Skinner)

Tags: Belief Systems · Forteana

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Lisa // May 29, 2008 at 2:22 pm

    So are they implying that women are never partly to blame for the success of their husbands? And that med students do not toss around limbs in the dissecting room? I beg to differ, at least in regard to the latter.

  • 2 Doug // May 29, 2008 at 8:18 pm

    Nobody says you can’t differ! What I love about the book is that it gets you thinking about whether you agree or differ. Do most great men really owe their success to their wives? In how many dissecting rooms have you seen limbs tossed around?

  • 3 mamie // May 29, 2008 at 11:16 pm

    Tossing around arms and legs? I don’t know what med school was like back in the day, but as a former medical student from the second half of the 20th century, I can tell you there was no tossing of limbs. We used pretty standard dissection technique and we never severed the limbs from the body. Anatomy can bring out a person’s dark side though. I remember many of us were worried about one particular classmate’s leanings towards necrophilia, and my own OCD was strongly activated. Any tube with matter needed to be cleaned out thoroughly before I felt at ease – the large coronary arteries with dried blood, the colon with…well, you get the idea.

  • 4 Doug // May 29, 2008 at 11:43 pm

    And there are 1,231 of them. Here’s to Nathan!

  • 5 Lisa // May 30, 2008 at 12:49 pm

    A Medical student my mom knew put some lunch meat and gravy from the cafeteria into a plastic bag and switched it out for a specimen during an exam.
    Then he ate it.

  • 6 Doug // May 30, 2008 at 1:19 pm

    Eating lunch meat is certainly disgusting. But is that a reason to stick to stereotypes? After all, many med students don’t eat lunch meat, and don’t fool around with the cadavers.

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