The Atlantic Bookshelf: Conclusion

A wrap up of book reviews from Edward Weeks

ALTHOUGH we shall never know for sure what our great-great-grandchildren will think of us a hundred years from now, I venture to predict that they will be impressed by two characteristic achievements of our age: they will applaud the great discoveries of our scientists, and they will applaud (or perhaps deplore!) the sovereignty of American women in the twentieth century. Never since Eden have women been so free to roam. The generation of Mrs. Virginia Woolf may have been happy with a room of their own, but the modern American Diana is content with nothing less than a continent. Such a one is Malvina Hoffman, who, having mastered the art of sculpture, roamed the world as the most prodigious head-hunter of our time.

In her autobiography, Heads and Tales (Scribners, $5.00), Malvina Hoffman accomplishes that difficult trick of writing a live book about art. Such volumes customarily wander off into the swamp of æsthetics and there drown the reader in sleep. But this lady, with her energetic. darting prose, keeps you alert, and amused. Malvina’s father was a boy wonder on the piano who toured the country with Jenny Lind. When his bohemian days were over he matured into a sensitive teacher and a wise musician. From him his dynamic daughter caught the independence and talent and courage which have carried her so far.

Heads and Tales is a patchwork of extraordinary experiences. There is a delicious chapter on her New York girlhood and a still better one recounting her early endeavors in sculpture, endeavors that took her to Paris on a shoestring and that finally led her to the studio of her great master, Rodin. There are patches of vivid local color recounting her friendships with Pavlova, Paderewski, and Mestrovie; there are sombre patches recording her relief work in the Balkans after the war, and an emphatic black and white section in which she describes the ardor and craftsmanship of sculpture and warns all young artists that they won’t be worth a tinker’s damn until they know their tools. Then comes her magnumopus — the five years of travel, modeling, and determination which she devoted to the more than one hundred heads that now fill the Hall of Man in the Field Museum. For this she made a world’s tour with clay, cameras, a man to make her casting, and a husband to keep her alive — a tour more sensitive, observant, and exhausting than that made by any other American woman.

That Malvina Hoffman is observant and spirited goes without saying. That she has a neat turn of prose is more surprising. Listen, for instance, to this neat paragraph: —

We were told to limit ourselves to those races that were alive to-day, and so we had to exclude the Tasmanians, who have recently become extinct, the cause perhaps being that they were never known to have broken the seventh commandment. It was a great relief to me, for they were ugly enough to make celibacy an easy task, and sculpture an impossible one.

I am glad that no ghost writer steals through these pages. And yet, for all her independence and exploration, Malvina Hoffman still suffers from that old inhibition of the sheltered female: she is afraid of time; she dislikes to hint, much less tell, her age — and thus her autobiography is, as I have said, an undated patchwork rather than a continuity.

Edward Weeks