The Atlantic Bookshelf: Conclusion
A wrap up of book reviews from Edward Weeks
THE book year reaches its climax at Thanksgiving. By that time the best sellers in fiction and biography are clear upon the horizon; we talk about them whether we’ve read them or not — and such talk makes for popularity. By November, lecturers will be rolling out their golden thunder; authors will be autographing copies in department-store windows; poets will be reading aloud; and high in Radio City, with microphone before him, Alexander Woollcott will be going quietly mad over his latest discovery. For the present we are in the lull before the storm — a good lull in which to sample those small and in their way delectable packages which the public may be too busy or too unobservant to open later.
The wittiest man in England is now, to the surprise of his friends and the confusion of his opponents, a Member of Parliament. I mean, of course, A. P. Herbert. In a preëlection letter he expressed the following aims: —
Empire: ‘I shall examine with some suspicion any proposals that may be made for the distribution of the British Empire among foreign countries, whatever their birth rate, insolence, or inefficiency.’
War and Peace: ’I am for Peace with Honour, but not War without Armaments.’
Marriage Law Refarm: ’I would make the process of divorce more humane, direct, and honest.‘
Education: ’I have recently published an educational work against the corruption of the English Language. From my place in the House of Commons I shall be able to keep a close watch upon one of the chief centres of mischief.’
The educational work he refers to is entitled What a Word (Doubleday, Doran, $2.00). In it Mr. Herbert declares war against all slovenly speakers and writers of English. His citations of ‘Jungle English’ will make you squirm — not a family, not a newspaper, but uses such barbarisms: his criticism is provocative, rollicking, and very much to the point. People who use words in public would do well to read this book: the thought of it is comforting in a campaign year when we have to put up with so much verbal hash.
It was inevitable that Leonard Bacon should be drawn into the political fray, for it is the nature of poets as well as Republicans to be dissatisfied with things as they are. With jibes, indignation, and a good Byronic twist, he aims his verses at Mr. Farley, the New Dealers, Gertrude Stein, and the lunacies which make this an unexpected world. The Goose on the Capitol (Harpers, $1.25) will bring joy to Republicans before the election and perhaps consolation afterwards: the collection is full of good witticisms, and as gusty as the west wind. Such poems as ’W.R.H.’ and ‘Incumbent the résumé, ‘ ’Thirty-Four and ’Thirty-Five,’and ‘Bedtime Story,’ are for immediate reading. Their flavor won’t keep.
Stephen Vincent Benét is another poet dissatisfied with things as they are. I wish I might persuade half those (the more intelligent half) who applauded John Brawn’s Body to read his new volume, Burning City (Farrar & Rinehart, $2.00). This is poetry of a different but no lesser order, poetry hot from the mind of title who is keenly sensitive to the exhaustion, the swift, almost electric loveliness, and the bloody brutality of city life to-day. The initial poem is such as might have been deposited in a cornerstone for the Tartars to read when they sack New York five hundred years from now. But no one of the future could savor it as we who follow every allusion and feel the compassion with which it is driven home. There are poems here for City Lovers, poems for the sleepless, poems for those who have been oppressed by the dictators of our time, and poems in evocation of the American spirit — ’Do You Remember Springfield?’ and the ‘Ode to Walt Whitman ’ — fully as stirring as the most Homeric passage in John Brown. These poems have compassion, pulse, masculinity. In Spain, Russia, Germany, and Italy, compassion is not at a premium to-day. It is well for us that we have poets such as Benét to cry out against the injustice and brutality which threaten even our life at home.
Clarence Day’s mission was not that of a poet, though he, too, wrote verse. He was a man of prose, but one who wrote with such a light and perfect touch that his sentences seem to move with the fleetness of poetry. An invalid for thirty-five years, he wrote to entertain (himself as well as you), to poke fun, to ask why, to throw new light — in short, he wrote as a shut-in, wishing to extract and then preserve the essence of his experience. In recalling his Life with Father he recreated that worthy beyond a shadow of doubt and with him those attending goddesses. Mother and the Cook. Now comes a posthumous volume. After All (Knopf, $2.50), a revision of The Crow’s Nest (originally published in 1921), with twenty-eight fresh titbits from his latter years. The essays seem to me friendly and quizzical, charming and unexpected—and yet rather too subdued. I suspect that he worked over them too much and that in the process they lost some of their juice. ‘Don’t you suppose I hate it too?’ he burst out to his wife, who had balked at listening to the revisions again and again. If only Elia had been there to tell him when to leave well enough alone.
The Atlantic’s List of Recommended Books for the last six months of 1936 will be available the day before Thanksgiving. This list will not be published in the magazine, but institutions or individuals may obtain it on application.