Men and Memories

IN More Harbours of Memory (Doubleday, $2.50), William McFee has gathered essays and sketches of the sort one remembers in his earlier Harbours of Memory and Swallowing the Anchor. They taste of salt and smell of the oil of the engine room. Most are drawn straight from experience; a few from books. We read a typical log of a sailor’s life during a single day; reminiscences of ships, sea captains, sailor’s wives, and sailors’ grub. The mystery of the Marie Celeste is canvassed once more, and the strange adventures of derelicts. There are even two short stories of Elizabethan seamen.
Throughout, one has a comfortable feeling that the author really knows what he is talking about and a fortifying sense that he loathes nothing so much as shoddy work — unless it is shoddy writing. He admits that he is a bourgeois and even declares that the bourgeois artist is ‘ the only happy man in the modern world.’ His arguments on this thesis may not be wholly convincing, but who cares? It is refreshing to read a man who knows that there is no hokum about a fine machine and who can stomach none of the hokum in the modern talk about a machine age. There are not many men writing to-day whose subject matter is so solidly based on experience and who can write so well about it. More Harbours of Memory goes on the same shelf with Conrad’s A Mirror of the Sea and Masefield’s A Mainsail Haul.
While R. H. Bruce Lockhart’s Retreat from Glory (Putnam, $3.00) will hardly be made into a moving picture, as was his British Agent, because it lacks the excitement and suspense of the former book and because Maura, the Russian girl, appears here for only a page or two, it still has its fascinations. If you happen to be more interested in Czechoslovakia and Jugoslavia than in Russia, you may even like Retreat from Glory better, for it seems to have more ballast, even though it lacks some elements of popularity. Here you can range over Central Europe, meeting almost everyone who has appeared in the newspapers and becoming intimate with several important personages. You can enjoy yourself in post-war Prague, Budapest, Vienna, and in their concert halls, public gardens, and restaurants. You may go hunting or fishing in Moravia, the Bavarian Alps, the Erzgebirge, the Riesengebirge, and other places unknown to the most inveterate tourist. You may take flying trips to the Ruhr, Munich, Scotland, Montenegro, Belgrade, Zagreb. Or, if your taste runs to more serious adventures, you may collaborate in negotiations concerning finance in the Balkans. It is unnecessary to say that the author knows how to tell a story and how to extract the final zest from his varicolored life.
And yet it is a somewhat sobered and disillusioned Commercial Secretary who in this book, as he says, changes his profession five times and finds futility and even shame in each new experiment. He has lived among exciting scenes, but in the end they represent social and political chaos; and with all his ability to live spiritually from hand to mouth, he cannot shake off the feeling that not only he but his generation have got nowhere. This feeling is no doubt due in part to ill health and to the constant sense of unrest and of danger in the central countries, though it is also due to a kind of homesickness for the Russia which he loves best of all. The undercurrent of tension is felt throughout. Perhaps, however, it is merely the natural result of growing older; for one feels here, as one did not in British Agent, an increasing introspection, a loss of defiance, more than a tinge of melancholy.
But the book is full of humor and entertainment, notwithstanding, and I should suppose that many pages are important as history. The well-considered portraits of such statesmen as Masaryk, Beneŝ, Rasin, Svehla, Kramar, Tusar, Stresemann; the account of the AngloAustrian Bank; the interview with the ex-Kaiser at Doom; the mission to the Ruhr; the impressions of Montenegro — all these present little-known facts combined with shrewd comment. The book brings the Lockhart epic down to 1929; and so it is to be feared that we shall have to wait until the author has lived a few more years before we can look for a third canto.
The typical approach to the eighteen-nineties in books on that already quaint period has been either literary and artistic or ’tendentious and teleological’ — that is to say, such books have dealt either with the æsthetic movements of the time or with the momentous question of ‘how people got that way’ and what their effect has been upon the present. But in The Age of Confidence (Farrar & Rinehart, $2.50), Henry Seidel Canby has eschewed both of these points of view, because the vast majority of people in the nineties knew nothing about æsthetic movements and were unconscious of either their own derivations or their own tendencies. He has tried instead to recall, without recourse to documents, exactly what life was like in the days of his youth in Wilmington, Delaware, among a class of typical citizens, — what were their ideals, sanctions, opinions, and taboos, - and to do this without condescension, satire, or apologetics.
It is a book of great charm, and the charm is enhanced by pencil drawings, by Albert Kruse, of houses of the period. It is also a book to give a middle-aged reader many of the pleasures of recognition and some twinges of nostalgia. And I should call it a valuable book, because it is essentially a contrast between the family of that day and this. ‘The last epoch of American stability ’ owed much of its peace and strength to the fact that the family had achieved a measure of freedom without disruption; and, though the parents and children of our day may have attained complete freedom, they have not therefore attained happiness. ’We can put our children on wheels to see the world, but we cannot give them the kind of home that any town provided in the nineties, not at any price.’ That is really the theme of the book, and I cannot see how any parent — or any child, for that matter — can read it without profit.
The reader who is neither Irish nor a Catholic will need some mental preparation if he is to read Cardinal O’Connell’sRecollections of Seventy Years (Houghton Mifflin, $3.00) with philosophic calm. If he does not believe that every Celt is a superior being and every Roman Catholic superior to any Protestant, or if he hopes to derive from the reading any new insight into the history and present policies of the magnificent institution of which the author is so sturdy a pillar, he will be wise to adopt what certain psychologists call, I believe, a willing suspension of belief, and approach the book with the foreknowledge that it contains no argument, but merely assertion; that there is in it not a glimmer of realization that a person may be heretical or even anti-Catholic and yet be honest; and that the assumption runs throughout that everyone except the author’s co-religionists is a victim of error, if not a harborer of malice.
But if one can achieve this objectivity one will read with great pleasure this robust account of a successful life. Any man who rose from a humble environment to be Rector of the American College in Rome, Bishop of Portland, Papal Envoy to Japan, Archbishop of Boston, and Cardinal — to name only the greatest of his honors —has much to tell; and what he tells is narrated with a zest and geniality that are extremely engaging.
It is a story of dominant will, dogged perseverance, and practical wisdom, guided by such authority as exists nowhere else in the world. One must not look for subtlety or learning or exalted mysticism; but one will find ripe common sense, courage, and far-sightedness, joined to a natural joy and pride in achievement. The account of the author’s student days in Maryland and Boston and later in Rome is really delightful reading. The description of life at the American College, the professors, the course of study, the daily regimen, is especially appealing, because, one suspects, the author spent his happiest days there; and as one reads one feels the atmosphere of the marvelous city about one, palpably, and is constantly edified by the insight given into the routine of the Papal State and its devoted servants. In a time like ours of moral levity, divided aims, and dubious prospects, one reads almost with awe of the simplicity of life, concentrated effort, and unswerving devotion to an ideal described here. The thoughtful Protestant can find Very much to admire, much to reverence, and much to envy.