Three Lives

IT is the good life of a very real person which Sarah N. Cleghorn chronicles in her autobiography, Threescore (Smith & Haas, $3.00), It is also the life of a very real poet, as faithful readers of the Atlantic need no reminding — a poet who has produced work in three different veins, a fraction of which may be still young at thrice threescore. Furthermore, as Robert Frost points out in an introduction even more unconventional than you would expect, the real poet is a real saint — a spunky, peppery New England village saint whose prime necessities from her teens have been the virtues of ‘goodness and mercy.’ She has applied these virtues, always passionately, sometimes militantly, more than once effectually, to a succession of humanitarian Causes — pacifism, socialism, antivivisection, prison reform, abolition of capital punishment, racial justice. But she has applied them the way saints, reformers, and revolutionists generally do apply their conquering virtues — that is, without assuming any particular moral responsibility for the total meaning of a possible victory.
When, as antivivisectionist, Miss Clegliorn has once seen that it is a repulsive act to introduce pestilence into the veins of a helpless animal, she does not permit herself to see anything more. It is time then to shut her eyes and fight a horror — fight it without condition and without quarter. She wants to live in a world in which honors may not be perpetrated in the interest of future goods; a world, say, in which no Pasteur may save the flocks of France at the price of deliberately infecting twenty-five sheep with anthrax. The twenty-five have a natural right to life — and the vast flocks, inferetitially, have a like natural right to extermination without interference. It is a point of view. But is it not the point of view of a little girl playing house? She throws her whole soul into the game. But she does not have to answer to anyone for the creation of a household which will pacify real and conflicting interests, adjust the legitimate requirements of real persons, balance a real budget, and actually run. She herself is the arbitrary touchstone of reality in a play world, and we naughty children who are the objects of tier reforming zest may not even realize that we are part of her game. In Alma Mater: The Gothic Age of the American College, Henry Seidel Can by (Farrar & Rinehart, $2.50) limns the portrait of a great institution unconsciously self-dedicated to the same game of playing world. The institution is the American college of the late 1890’s and early 1900’s.
In ten reminiscent chapters which tell much bitter and salutary truth with imperturbable good humor a redeemed professor analyzes the dilemma from which he eventually escaped. The undergraduate college of his day, he shows, exposed youth to two utterly inconsistent brands of education. The more important, furnished by the students themselves, was an excellent training for the competitive materialism in which the graduates were presently to play their assigned parts. This eminently successful discipline was called college life. Its incomparably less potent rival was the education purveyed by the faculty, which was as irrelevant to the students’ realities as the Tudor Gothic architecture of the new college buildings was to the traditionary realities of America.
The college teacher of those years had either to arrange defense mechanisms against the realization of his impotence or else to recognize it and contrive whatever personal compensations he could. Either way, he was playing an effeminate part, a sleepwalker’s part, in a nonexistent America while pretending (whether to others or only to himself) that it was a man’s part in the real America.
The defense mechanism in excelsis is what confronts the student of the late John Galsworthy, a man shielded as few of his trade can ever have been from the challenge of rude, crude reality. In The Life and Letters of John Galsworthy, by H. V. Marrot (Scribners, $5,00), 800 close-packed pages assembled with pious care by an idolater give us what is essentially a selfportrait, for the chapters are made up principally of the novelist’s correspondence. The volume contains inexhaustible riches for the social and literary historian, the connoisseur of subtle relationships among the famous, the expert in suppressions, the reader between lines, the gossip, the Anglophile, the Anglophobe. But, like many another literary memorial erected in idolatry, this one has not the anticipated effect of enhancing the idol.
Galsworthy emerges in perspective as a man curiously tenacious of curious limitations. His determining attributes, of a sort which we expect in modern satiric portraits of the British gentleman, strike consternation when self-disclosed in the reformist and humanitarian writer. The moralist who decreed that our task is to outlive contempt says outright that ‘toleration’ of the lower orders of society is ‘purely æsthetic, not fundamental, at all events with me.’ By birth and class, by inherited money, by education, by the chivalrous solicitude of the most ungrudging literary friends man ever had, but most of all by the unfailing promptness of Ins own revulsions from unpleasantness, he was insulated against the common shocks of life. The lyric shimmer upon all his most characteristic pages — what is it but the poetry of pain sensed at an enjoyable remove by one so femininely hypersensitive that he would have shriveled at the ordinary man’s contacts with pain? In his snug, secure, made-to-order world he could temper anguish to a soothing melancholy; he could turn it on or off at will. And as his life was, so were his novels. If his creations fall short of long life, it will be for the reason pronounced long ago by Edward Garnett: ’You have imported too much of your mental atmosphere into their mental atmosphere.’ The treatment is ‘too soft, too hazy, too considerate.‘