In the Dark Backward

[Harcourt, Brace, $2.50]
THERE is a type of English travel book which is utterly distinct; I refer to such books as Kinglake’s Enthen, Lawrence’s Revolt in the Desert, Hogarth’s Wandering Scholar, and Doughty’s incomparable work, Arabia Deserta. Through their differences they bear this common stamp, that they were written by highly educated men, the flower of public school and university life, who lived, however, not in study but in action, and gained thereby an immediate knowledge of lands and peoples which deepened, as it was deepened by, their inbred sense for literary style and for the past. In this line of inheritance Henry W. Nevinson’s In the Dark Backward should be set. Not a travel book, but a series of historical sketches imagined during travel, it nevertheless gains its merit from the same rare union of qualities which makes the above-mentioned books remarkable — a knowledge, namely, of character got from experience but heightened by reading, an instinct for tactics and command joined with an understanding of the ideal ends which have moved prophets and artists, a lively appreciation of barbarism together with the sense of a tradition of culture continuous since ancient times. Perhaps that humane tradition finds few nobler expressions than in the books of such combined students and men of action. Certainly Mr. Nevinson shows how imbued with meaning life may be to those for whom, through a busy life, the past and present glow in each other’s rays.
In the Dark Backward comprises sketches of seventeen widely scattered places where the author, during a long career as newspaper correspondent, saw certain events with his own eyes while with the eyes of his mind he saw yet others which occurred, often on the exact spot, in past times. Thus at Gallipoli he imagines the siege of Troy; in a retreat during the Balkan war of 1897 he sees the battle of Actium, of 31 B.C.; at Jerusalem within recent years he pictures to himself the Crucifixion. Other scenes are of a relatively recent date, as those of Agincourt near the lines in 1918 and again on an October day five hundred and three years earlier when Henry V with his yeomen decimated the French chivalry, or a village near Jena during the author’s student days and the same spot when Napoleon stood at his pinnacle of strength, or Loanda, Portuguese West Africa, as the author knew it in 1905 while investigating the covert slave trade maintained there and as Livingstone saw it in 1854, when, nearly dead with illness and fatigue, he issued from the jungle after two years where no white man had been. Other sketches still are of more recent times, as those of the Titanic and the Great War. In method some are dramatic, others descriptive, and as a whole the chapters are of a high, though not uniform, interest and vividness.
Yet to call the sketches vivid is not enough. What is truly remarkable in the book is the weight given the author’s judgments through the union of his experience and scholarship. By the former he interprets past events, judging tactics, motives, decisions, characters, Out of his own knowledge of men; by the latter he perceives the peculiar traits of past eras, never quite regained, save in the scholar’s mind, once they are gone. Full of the sense of the irony of time, yet animated by a noble sympathy with resolute action or high purpose in any age, the book is a stirring record of what a man can see on his way to and fro on the earth.