by William Beebe.New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 1925. 8vo. viii+200 pp. Illustrated. $3.00.
Atlantic readers, remembering his delightful letters from the Guiana jungle, will rejoice that in this volume Professor Beebe has returned to that mysterious enchanted land. Jungle Dags contains ten papers from the Guiana laboratory describing the various manifestations of life and death, the various epic histories of jungle creatures ranging from the Anaconda or the Sloth to the little Thrips who burrow in the wood of fallen trees. To the telling of these histories Mr. Beebe brings not only his really exquisite power of observation, that sensitive keenness of perception which can follow the flight of an insect or distinguish the different small noises made by falling leaves, but also a constructive imagination, a quick sense of the humor and tragedy of life, and an inquiring, searching mind. Other naturalists are perhaps equally gifted in the attributes of a scientific observer, but no other American that we know is both so obviously intelligent in his specialty and so thoroughly equipped to interpret that specialty into literature. We have not yet fully recognized that Mr. Beebe is a man of letters of very high quality, that his prose is vivid, delicate, and strong. The downright interest of his observations tends perhaps to obscure the sure dexterity and color of his style. With Maeterlinck and Fabre and W. H. Hudson, he is both observer and artist; he studies and catalogues life in its scientific divisions and then transmutes his observations into literature.
He has the power to argue from the particular to the general which is the basis of the philosophic mind; and, without a certain sense of philosophic values, comment on nature can hardly become literature in the deeper meaning of the word. This sense is always present in Mr. Beebe’s work. The architect ure of a bird’s throat and the curious perfection of a beetle’s wings are to him in themselves facts of supreme rightness and beauty, but behind the specific example is always a feeling for the general scheme, for this universe of infinite, bewildering complexity, for the tiny throb of each morsel of life as part of the immense vitality and urge of a world swinging always in precarious, nice balance between life and death.
From his jungle laboratory table he writes: —
‘And so, as I sit at my table, my little cosmos of space and time presents deaths by violence, and lives of quiet, unperturbed peace; acrid, burning odors and smashing, sweeping brilliancy of color; living skin soft and smooth as clay, or fretted like shagreen; voices almost high enough to become visible; comedy so delicate that appreciation never reaches laughter, and tragedy so cruel and needless that it stirs doubts of the very roots of things. All these, and many more, begin, occur, and pass before me — things which go to make up a world.’
To all those who appreciate good-tempered speculative thought based on the acutest observation, who feel the texture and color of an author’s style, the ten essays in this volume will make a decisive appeal. Jangle Days is a more delightful, though perhaps a less ‘important,’ book than Galapagos. It is Mr. Beebe in his easiest manner, and, to my mind, his best. He has not ‘written down’ to an ignorant public; rather he comes to you with a frank, infectious enthusiasm, as if he said, ‘Here is an interesting thing: see how curious and fascinating this little beetle is! Do you know that when men were living in trees, or just rising above the brute, the ancestors of this beetle were exactly similar to him?’ And then in clear, lucid, vivid sentences he tells us how and why.