A Straight Deal, or the Ancient Grudge

by Owen Wister. New York: The Macmillan Co. 1920. 12mo, viii+287 pp. $2.00.
THOSE who have forgotten that Mr. Owen Wister is a lawyer as well as a man of letters will be reminded of the fact by this readable and uneasy book. Written, to quote Mr. Wister’s own words, ‘with no intention except to persuade, if possible, a few readers, at least, that hatred of England is not wise, is not justified today, and has never been more than partly justified,’ the book is, in essence, a kind of special plea.
The back-bone of the argument is historical. With huge literary energy, born of the exasperation which he feels at the long misunderstanding between England and America, — van exasperation which now and then casts a shadow on the style, — Mr. Wister ruthlessly breaks his way into the darkened house of history, and, torch in hand, hurries us down the corridors, stopping only to thrust the flare of his light into the faces of all kinds of fusty, dusty lies and errors. One can but cry ‘ Bravo! to the spirited and friendly act. But venerable lies are tenacious of life; a room cannot be cleaned with a torch; and the reader ends his pilgrimage with the hope that someone will come with the proverbial new broom.
But to return to the book as a special plea. Mr. Wister makes the best of his case. To balance George III and the royal camarilla, he calls up Edmund Burke and the parliamentary liberals; he opposes the hostility of aristocratic England to the Northern cause with the chivalrous friendship of John Bright; and, best of all, he reminds us of the more than friendly attitude of Great Britain during the Spanish War.
Occasionally, however, his interpretation of history is open to serious objections. For instance, in discussing British ‘land-grabbing,’ he declares that we are tarred with the same stick because we ‘grabbed’ our Western lands from the Indians. This is no fair parallel. The taking of the Indian lands is a grim story, but it was a colonizing exploit; a genuine settlement took place; and we developed the land by the labor of our own race. This is quite a different thing from a conquest of territory developed by the labor of another people. And does Mr. Wister actually believe that England, ‘with “French’s contemptible little army” saved France’ at the start?
American readers will find this book distinctly worth examination. Some it will infuriate, others it will please greatly. The majority, however, it will probably stir to some serious consideration of the relations between the English-speaking peoples, now as momentous a matter as any engaging the attention of the world. H. B. B.