FORTUNATELY Cornelia chose to marry the wealthy and well-placed Oliver who merely liked her, instead of the young college tutor who loved her. If Oliver had lost Cornelia it is obvious that he would not have gone on loving her in pensive abnegation for twenty years, and in any case he would never have made her charming person the inspiration and the text for a review of a large section of the contemporary American scene — its literature, its husbands and wives, its parents and children, and its imperfect enforcements of the Volstead Law.
In the literary battles of the last five years Mr. Sherman has won a position of acknowledged leadership among the defenders of what has come to be called the American Tradition. It is a term used by the enemy, with a taunting emphasis on the tradition, and accepted by Mr. Sherman, with emphasis, perhaps, on the American. To people who deal in broad classifications Mr. Sherman would be the fighting Conservative as Mr. Mencken, the liveliest of his opponents, is the fighting Radical. But the present reviewer finds himself thinking that if Conservative and Radical be taken in their essence then the labels on these two men might well be reversed. If Conservatism means adherence to formula instead of to fact, the closed mind instead of the open mind, the proprieties instead of the basic values, then Mr. Mencken is the better Conservative of the two. He has his own proprieties, but he clings to them with Tory rigidity. If Radicalism means probing down to the roots and a passion for squaring faith with fact, then Mr. Sherman is the better Radical.
The American tradition which Mr. Sherman defends in his discourses with and around Cornelia is as far as may be from the usual traditionary appeal to flags and altars and hallowed graves, to eternal verities and divinely established sanctities. The outstanding merit of this brilliantly written book is precisely its power for digging down through formula to the heart of fact. In his discussion of the new morality upheld in the new fiction Mr. Sherman says pretty nearly the final word when he points out that on its own admission the new morality leads only to satiety, disenchantment, disgust, and despair. He is not dealing with preconceived standards but with the data of experience when he speaks of those of the rebel generation who are already beginning ‘to dread the bondage and guess the degradation of confinement to a single instinct.’ And ever so much nearer to reality than the popular interpretation of Volstead as an outburst of Puritan witch-hunting is Mr. Sherman’s cool definition of the Volstead Law in terms of the automobile. After so many wearisome excursions into the complexes and the repressions it is a breath of fresh air to be reminded that a people engaged in propelling 15,000,000 motor cars over the highways at American speed cannot afford to drink and lose control of the steering wheel. Not Jonathan Edwards but the ‘gas’ station made Volstead.
To the service of Cornelia has evidently been brought an exceptional talent for thinking and feeling down through mere appearance to the basic facts of American life.