An American Saga

by Carl Christian Jensen. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. (An Atlantic Monthly Press Publication.) 1927. 8vo. viii +219 pp. $2.50.
LOVE of life is reputed to be one of the most inveterate properties of the race. Yet as one reflects on the lives of most men, the phrase must seem a singular irony. We show the love of life when, driven to some desperate corner, we fight like rats to wring some few hours more of it from unwilling fate. How often do we show it by abundant and happy living, rich in experience which we consciously enjoy as it passes and on which we afterward think with satisfaction and approval? Here is a life story in which existence is wonderful and exuberant as it flows and scarcely less exuberant in memory when it has passed; in which every episode is avidly seized and lived with a concentrated energy of mind and body, lest some drop of its precious liquor should escape down the throat untasted, or some moment that might have yielded its pungent feeling lapse in dull oblivion. And what episodes they are!
Measured in units of ordinary Christian existence, Carl Jensen has lived the lives of a thousand men. He has been a boy, born in Denmark, surrounded by grotesque peasant and sailor figures whose shapes are like the faces of gnomes on his pages. He has run away to sea, stoked ships, made his way to New York, worked as longshoreman in days whose cruelty and brute danger are renewed as he tells of them. From speaking an illiterate and inarticulate jargon of English, he has struggled through the second childhood of the immigrant untutored in his new land to an education whose first steps made him a mathematician and electrician, and whose progress took him through a Middle-Western college and finds him an established sociologist to-day. But before attaining these dignities he adopted the profession of fanaticism for a time, and peddled an uncouth volume called Doomsday Book. not to mention ornamental religious mottoes, through farming and lumbering outlands where his intrepid appetite for life found or made fruitful soil. With these religious mottoes one of his most engaging and characteristic anecdotes is connected: —
‘During a hailstorm late one night we found shelter at another bachelor’s cabin. Hail like hens’ eggs had crushed his crop. I showed the frowning host my set of sacred mottoes. When his eye fell on one. “GOD BLESS OUR HOME,”his fist fell upon it heavy and he roared: “Have you a ‘GOD DAMN OUR HOME’?" He put me up for the night. In the morning he bought “THOUGH HE SLAY ME, YET WILL I TRUST IN HIM.” ’
The period of fanaticism and Doomsday peddling melted and took flight as the sun of the sciences rose upon the immigrant’s view. The study of psychology bore fruit in sociological work in the underworld of New York and in the prison camps of the South, work which has furnished pages of pity and grim astonishment to this book. Throughout his adventures, Mr. Jensen’s course was never solitary. His own consciousness, his childlike delight in examining and applauding the dramas it enacted for him. owe half their force to his lively sense of the world of other men. His chapters are crowded with figures — the sailors of his childhood, his friends and helpers in New York, the criminals and outcasts of his labors in social reform. Loveliest of all these figures is Margaret, the childwife whom he helped through the trapdoor opening under the table of his garret room in the first days of their secret marriage, and who accompanies him in a courageous and whimsical comradeship through his career in the MiddleWestern college.
For the mass of mankind, life sinks into habit; the senses grow dull from lack of poetic exercise and, instead of reporting the glories of the visible and palpable world, report only the expected signs for the guidance of an inert personality in its familiar acts. But there are men, favorably unbalanced by an excess of vitality, to whom the sense of existence is an appetite, and the mere beating of the pulse a godlike prerogative. Such a man is Carl Jensen. His adventures are gloriously self-conscious; he carries himself in the centre of them all; his organs of perception never lose their keenness, their joy as primitive wells of exploration and discovery.
The foreboding and self-questioning of the modern world find no echo in Mr. Jensen’s book. Born a Dane he was, but of melancholy he gives us no suggestion. His volume appears in an age when the literary valuation of life is low. It is an experience of singular force, contradicting by pure infection of vitality the lacklustre intellectual spirits which, with too good reason, are often the best that the contemporary world affords, to read this autobiography of a man whose thirst for existence is not quenched, and whose life is rooted in the affirmation that consciousness itself is good.
THEODORE MORRISON