The Atlantic Bookshelf: Conclusion

A wrap up of book reviews from Edward Weeks

LITERARY observers know that there is an atmospheric pressure to which writers are sensitive in varying degree. At certain seasons, ideas seem to gather in the air, where they threaten to be as electric or as oppressive as a thunderstorm. The technique of writing known as ‘stream of consciousness’ was not peculiar to any one country. It was prevalent, it spread with the speed of lightning. Another, if smaller, storm is now brewing on Parnassus, where poets, especially the younger, are being influenced by the imagery and new word values given currency by Gerard Manley Hopkins and T. S. Eliot. Sometimes these storms can be forecast; thus two years ago it was predicted — by myself among others — that fiction would verge more and more into the field of history and romance. This summer will see a large harvest of historical novels, most of which were begun by 1934 — or even earlier — and the best of which were written, not with any wish to emulate, but chiefly because the impulse for history was in the air.
The impulse was felt in Atlanta, where Margaret Mitchell was filling a huge manuscript with her Trojan picture of what the Civil War did to Georgia. Gone with the Wind is the title of her sturdy, highly colored novel, a book which will engender much table talk north and south of the Mason-Dixon line. Simultaneously in Boonville, New York, Walter D. Edmonds was carrying on the research so essential to his novel of the American Revolution, Drums along the Mohawk, a book which tells for the first time what a Northern farmer had to contend with when the Indians and Tories were out. Incidentally, if you are curious to see the methods by which history and romance are fused together, you must read Edmonds’s contribution to this issue of the Atlantic.
In the meantime, in Italy and London, Vincent Sheean was fusing the metal for his novel Sanfelice (Doubleday, Doran, $2.50), a story of Naples, 1798—1799, when the Parthenopean Republic, corrupt in itself, was being excited and endangered by that fateful couple, Lady Hamilton and Nelson. Sheean called this a ‘perfect theme’ when first the idea presented itself. ‘It will require,’ he wrote, ‘a year or a year and a half of work, and will take the form of a long historical novel, although what interests me in it chiefly is the ideas, characters, movements, as history — not as fiction.’ Sheean has already demonstrated that he can write Personal History with courage, continuity, and without evasion. In Sanfelice — which is romantic history—he sets the scene with a skill to satisfy any realist; he determines the course of action with the zest of a detective, and he characterizes a community as rococo as one could possibly imagine. Whether as a study of intrigue or as a characterization of a community, glamorous and tawdry by turns, this book is believable.
Napoleon was the force that overthrew the Neapolitan kingdom. Now — in a fourth historical novel — we see the forces and the personalities that overthrew Napoleon. In his streamline apartment on Sutton Place, Manuel Komroff has been poring over the Hundred Days, selecting from those crucial months the episodes which will best illustrate the collapse of the world’s greatest dictator. Waterloo (Coward-McCann, $2.50) is a bird’s-eye book: the author gives you a swift, darting view of manœuvres, diplomacy, and high command. He selects his episodes for their courage or comedy, their fantasy or horror; he reduces each to its simplest and most human terms and then relates them as a series of swift sketches.
By his design Komroff minimizes the grandeur of Napoleon’s comeback. His irony laughs at generals; his love of coincidence dismisses pain, if not bloodshed, from the battlefield. This book is like seeing a five-act play from the wrong end of a telescope. It is history — with a surprising difference.
The Atlantic’s List of Recommended Books for the first six months of 1936 is now available. This list will not be published in the magazine, but institutions or individuals may obtain it on application.