Chicagoans as Cicerones
FIFTEEN years ago two graduates of the University of Chicago decided to take up newspaper careers. They were close friends, unlike in everything except a zest to see the world and report it. Their names: John Gunther and Vincent Sheean. Not many years elapsed before they had scaled the top of whatever peak is dedicated to journalism. They became correspondents abroad, and aces, too. But, without wasting time in enjoying their fame, they then took a shot at the greater eminence of Parnassus. It was an unsuccessful assault in their initial attempts. Both have been guilty of some inferior novels. Now, however, they have found their métier, Gunther as reportorial encyclopædist and Sheean as pioneer in personal histories. John Gunther’s Inside Asia (Harpers, $3.50) and Vincent Sheean’s Not Pence But a Sword (Doubleday, Doran, $2,75) are their newest contributions.
John Gunther is still what Robert Burns calls ‘a chiel amang ye takin’ notes.’ He remains the newshound. I have read the 600 pages of his Inside Asia, but I doubt whether I could tell you what he thinks. He strives consciously for objectivity. And he brings to the quest wits and eyes which have been sharpened by years of practice as correspondent lor the Chicago Daily News and a judgment of the trustworthiness or otherwise of the facts which has been calibrated by the same experience.
All this was proved by his successful Inside Europe. For Inside Asia Gunther was not so well equipped by actual contact with Oriental events, and, being a modest man, he tried without avail to persuade his publisher to label his observations Outside Asia. But his training, coupled with a twoyear journey covering 30,000 miles, has come to the aid of his unfamiliarity with, particularly, the Far Eastern scene. And it is a competent job he has done, There will be no hesitation on the part of those who, like this reviewer, have lived in several of the reported countries in recommending Inside Asia as a guide to the stay-at-home inquirer after the whys and wherefores of the changing East.
What one admires most about John Gunther is his ability to skim the most complex phenomena and get out of them a gist of their true inwardness. Notebook in hand, he darts from country to country like the man on the flying trapeze. Stylistically, too, he translates it all with the greatest of ease. While he doesn’t quarry far below the surface of events, nevertheless he goes deep enough not to leave grave misunderstandings, at least about the countries of which this writer has any knowledge. Occasionally, it is true, he slips in his history. It is misleading, for instance, to give the impression that the British war on China a hundred years ago was primarily, let alone wholly, an opium war. John Quincy Adams said that the causa causans was the ‘kowtow ' that the Chinese forced from the ‘outside barbarians,’ and that is nearer the truth, I suggest. But such lapses are astonishingly few.
Inside Asia is an entertaining way of treating contemporary history. It is an even more entertaining way of reading contemporary history. The tome is personal, anecdotal. His stories illuminate the truth.
Perhaps a deeper knowledge than he possesses of the Oriental background is necessary in generalizing from his multitudinous reportage. In this regard I personally think he is inexact in some of his conclusions on the SinoJapanese conflict. He wisely refrains from calling the Japanese an imitative people. But he doesn’t say that their strength arises from a superb eclecticism. The Japanese don’t take pride in their eclectic quality. As Mr. Gunther says. ’They resent violently their obligation to the Chinese,’ though it is a moot point whether this is ‘a dominant psychological reason for the discord.”In reality they are a nation with an inferiority complex. and the sadism of the soldiery in China would, I suggest, prove it.
Vincent Sheean, before he had long been covering the world, turned from reporter to knightAs the author of Personal History, he us how ardently he wished to remould the scheme of things nearer to the heart’s desire. He is still in pursuit of the Holy Grail, but bitterly. There’s a worm in his passions nowadays. A fact remains a point d’appui for a moralization. and he is satirically impatient with those who don’t see with him the cosmic need for knight-errantry.
Withal the literary excellence of the Sheean style saves his book from harshness. It isn’t clipped like the newspaper man Gunther’s, but is rounded like an artist’s work. He wants the woman shopper in Oxford Street to realize that the Ebro flows through Oxford Street, but the point is contained in a charming account of a trip on a London bus. He coats a blistering picture of the latrinal sadism of the Nazi régime in a chapter of discursive philosophizing. And there’s a good deal of expert reporting of the war in Europe.
The sombreness of the Sheean account is, of course, centred on Nazi Germany. There’s just one ray of hope in the Sheean morgue. And that is that the whole of the German population hasn’t yet been anaesthetized to the brutal ruthlessness of Hitlerism. But it is only a ray as Sheean sees it, and he doesn’t exclude the possibility of an outbreak of mass murder within Germany itself. One puts down Not Peace Hut a Sword with the disquieting wonder whether a virus can be appeased.
H. B. ELLISTON