The Atlantic Bookshelf: Conclusion
A wrap up of book reviews from Edward Weeks
THE old year lies behind us, an avenue down which the eye can rove to pick out those literary landmarks that seem important to us however they may appear to our descendants. Surely the most memorable event of the year was the unrestricted publication ofSeven Pillars of Wisdom, by T. E. Lawrence, a book which, sadly enough, could not be released until the author’s death. When in the near future the Letters of Colonel Lawrence are made public we shall realize with finality what an extraordinary man, what a trenchant and delightful writer, was lost last May. The ranks of the poets are thinner. That beloved Dubliner, ‘Æ’ (George Russell), and Edwin Arlington Robinson are dead. Words that sing are too scarce in these economically-minded days. The year produced no work of fiction to rival the popularity of Anthony Adverse and Mr. Chips. I suspect that The Stars Look Down, by A. J. Cronin, was the most commendable English novel in 1935, Vein of Iron, by Ellen Glasgow, the most deserving on our side of the water. On the lecture platform the most magnetic words were those spoken by Gertrude Stein. How lasting was their influence is for her listeners to say. Pride and Prejudice is the literary play which most appealed to Broadway; Percy Hammond reported that in a single day the producer, Max Gordon, took in over $4700. During her lifetime Jane Austen received from all her books a total royalty of £700. Of the books best reproduced by Hollywood, I choose Anna Karenina and Mutiny on the Bounty. And of the new books promised for 1936 the nearest and the one I am most curious to see is The Last Puritan, a novel by George Santayana.
Meantime there are certain Christmas publications still to be reported on. First, that smoothgliding, highly observant story, Edna His Wife, by Margaret Ayer Barnes (Houghton Mifflin, $2.50), a novel which has Chicago for its home and all United States for its pasture. Edna, when she was twenty, was an innocently self-centred Gibson Girl: her honey-colored hair and soft prettiness made the comparison quite recognizable. Edna’s father was the station master in a small Chicago suburb, and in the ordinary course Edna’s romantic ambitions would hardly have carried her higher. But she met - luckily - a Gibson man, Paul Jones, a young lawyer, aggressive, self-possessed, very handsome; and when propinquity had done its work they found themselves climbing the American ladder together. This is the story of what happened to Edna as (reluctantly) she followed her Paul higher and higher. Edna had the right instincts, but very little gray matter. Paul had plenty of brains, a fine capacity for adaptation, and nothing, not a scruple, to hold him back —except Edna. His career has an American ring to it; seen from the outside, it is admirable. But their life together is no Gibson affair; it has a divergence, a selfishness, a lack of quality, pathetic to watch, pathetic because it is all too typical. I think this is Mrs. Barnes’s best book to date: Edna’s first dinner party in Chicago, the Eastland tragedy, Katharine Boyne, Edna’s meeting with A1 — there you have good writing. I think the novel is inexcusably long: it could easily spare 150 pages of feminine detail. The story conveys the moral, consoling in these times, that money is n’t everything. But women will read it chiefly because, pitying Edna, they will fancy how much more skillfully they might have handled the reins.
Silas Crockett, by Mary Ellen Chase (Macmillan, $2.50), on the other hand, is the story of an American family not on the rise but on the fall. For a hundred years the Crocketts kept their colors flying Down East. They were bred for the sea, and their fortunes, made when Maine shipping was at its best, began to ebb when sail gave way to steam. They took their reduction to the ranks quietly, but their loss is, Miss Chase implies, a bad thing for Maine, a bad thing for the country. By intention Silas Crockett is a biographical novel: the story is divided into four panels encompassing the four generations of Crocketts from 1830 to 1933. The method is particularly well suited to Miss Chase’s talents: it provides the leisure for those passages of description which mark the author as one of the best essayists of our time; it displays the history which she has already illuminated so affectionately in A Goodly Heritage; and, technically, it avoids the need of that machinery — the falling elm, the runaway motor - which marred Mary Peters. The method dispenses with any hero; instead it gives you the thoughts of the men, the activity and apprehension of the women, who live by the sea.
A book so nostalgic in its atmosphere inevitably provokes an answering argument from the reader. The glorification of men for their stubborn devotion to sailing has about it a trace of snobbery. Was there never a Crockett who went West, taking with him the durable virtues of his line and breeding sons who might be of service in these hard times? The presence of such a one in this story might provide that contrast, those flashes of latter-day humor and masculinity, which I feel are lacking.
Silas Crockett is a story of placid fatefulness. To see how men stand up against fate, to read of the incredible buffeting which they have to meet at sea, one turns, without prompting, to John Masefield. His new novel, Victorious Troy, or The Hurrying Angel (Macmillan, $2.50), is the contemporary account of a rugged grain ship, manned by an English crew (several of them war veterans); of how she was crippled and of who saved her. Victorious Troy does not possess the fine picturesqueness of Masefield’s clipper book, Bird of Dawning, but her crew has been endowed with that toughness, pluck, and tenacity which have never been bred out of British seamen. To portray a crew in such a savage grip of the elements is, I suspect, a task which only a man — and a wise man at that —can attempt. Masefield employs a vast vocabulary of nautical terms in this story, yet the action propels you at such speed that most readers will never take time to translate the seamanship with the glossary appended. You see what the men had to do to save their skins. Probably you won’t put the book down till they’ve done it.