The Atlantic Bookshelf: Conclusion

A wrap up of book reviews from Edward Weeks

SINCE the death of Ring Lardner, an element once characteristic of American fiction has been conspicuous by its absence: laughter. The short stories and the novels of our younger writers are so often pervaded by a humorless intensity or by an irony and didacticism that leave the reader cold. Now from California comes a novelist with a better balance, a shrewder skill, a more native sense of reality. His name is John Steinbeck; he has five novels to his credit. Farsighted reviewers began to spot him three years ago; the reading public, slower with its recognition, will now hurry to make amends.
John Steinbeck must have footed his way through that California which is neither movies nor real estate. He knows the wanderers — the fruit pickers, the ranch hands, the hoboes; he knows this migratory race — its pride, its humor, its gullibility and futility. New Steinbeck readers might follow this programme: first, Tortilla Flat, light-hearted, wholly delightful; next, In Dubious Battle, which, partisan though it be, is quite our most vital story of an American strike; and so coming down to his Of Mice and Men (CoviciFriede, $2.00), a short tale of two harvest hands, the one a slow-witted elephant, the other a ferret. You feel the affection that binds Lennie and George together. You hear talk as natural as grass. You recognize in them a hunger which moves all men. There are moments when the tension and brevity of the story make it read like a theatrical script: I mean that Slim’s authority and Candy’s dog mean more to me than the drama in the barn or at the pool. But, whatever be your favorite passages, here is indisputable proof of a vital and experienced story-teller.
I think I may speak for a good many of my generation when I say that Rudyard Kipling was the first prose writer to liberate my mind, as John Keats was the first poet. I had, of course, read a measure of prose before Kipling ever found me: Scott and Macaulay in school doses; Dickens and the Bible as prescribed by my family. Then suddenly out of those new brown-clad volumes of the Scribner edition appeared this story-teller who opened the gate to a world of color and spirit. His was the first set I ever read from cover to cover, book after book, in such gulps that I was for hours intellectually drunk.
Those who share anything like my gratitude will, of course, make a beeline for Kipling’s autobiography, Something About Myself (Doubleday, Doran, $2.50), a chronicle that looks back lingeringly over seventy years, a reminiscence now frank and now reticent, an apologia which other writers, however different, will study, reverence, and compare with their own, a philosophy and a style which, though times have changed, still issue a call to the blood. The Indian childhood, then the lonely boarder with that abominable Woman, then schooling with Stalky & Co., thence back to India; journalism, the beginnings of the Anglo-Indian tales, recognition, slow at first; then the open sesame of success — there are the epochs. The record is full of omissions. There is no reference to his American friends, no inkling of the gratitude (well earned, too) that once went into the dedications: instead, by implication and sly digs we feel the vindictiveness which in late years he nourished against the States. But to try to reduce to a small helping of hash the meat and savor of this book would be the worst service I could do for any expectant reader. I have only this to add: that those who want to write will do well to read this book, not once but twice over, for, unless they are obtuse, it will teach them things about their own mental processes which might otherwise take them seventy years to discover. This book is the cornerstone of that complete biography which awaits some Anglo-American architect.