First Person Singular
At the end of each year American booksellers vote on books which they themselves have most enjoyed. It is an inside ballot, unaffected by what the reviewers said and what their clients bought. The returns are now in for 1940. The booksellers’ favorite work of non-fiction was As I Remember Him by Dr.Hans Zinsser— a nomination with which I emphatically agree. Their favorite novel was How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn. There I disagree, for the Welsh novel was too deliberately sweet and tearful for my taste. I acknowledge the appeal, but for substance, for real core, give me Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. Then as the ‘most original book of the year’ the booksellers nominated Who Walks Alone by Perry Burgess. That is the most piquant choice of the three, and one which will assuredly arouse curiosity about the fascinating but not morbid narrative of a leper colony, of the people who do walk alone. And which of the three has the best prospects, do you think, of being remembered twenty-five years from now? For me there is only one answer.
Interesting to check our literary response in this war against what it was in 1915-1917. Thus far there has been no First Hundred Thousand, no Guy Empey, no Mr. Britling. Instead, some of us have taken Mrs. Miniver to our hearts because she stands with such spirit for the England we love, just as others have taken The Wave of the Future because it answers their longing to avoid foreign commitments and, above all, war. But that our temper is rising can be seen from the avidity with which people are reading My Sister and I, the diary of a twelve-year-old Dutch boy, Dirk van der Heide (Harcourt, Brace, $1.00). That, for obvious reasons, is not his real name; less obvious is the amount of coaching he may have needed to bring his pathetic record into English. Pathos it has undeniably, and in passage after passage the clear working of a child’s mind as he sees his home, his mother, his cosmos, Rotterdam, ‘submerged’ by the German invasion. Whether you take it with or without salt, the horror in this must be true.
Not for the Meek, by Elizabeth D. Kaup (Macmillan, $2.75), holds out relief and a liberal helping of nostalgia for those who want to turn their thoughts away from this crucial spring. Here is the story of a huge, square-cut immigrant, Martin Lyndendaal, who was born in Denmark, ran off to sea at the age of fourteen, rose from the black gang to be chief engineer, landed in America and found his feet in the Pittsburgh steel mills of the 1880’s. Martin was very much on the make. He had a magnificent body, which women never let him forget, tons of energy, command over men, and the instinctive knowledge of what people thought of him. And he had luck, plenty of it — so much so that he reminds one at times of those deserving young men of Horatio Alger’s. Martin was befriended by the men about Andrew Carnegie. His fortunes rose with theirs. He made his pile as a rugged individualist in a land of plenty where women were kind, taxes were low, and money was easy.
Not for the Meek is told from first to last in retrospect. It is the recollection, more often the unexpressed — and unexpurgated — thoughts, of Martin as he sits by himself, an old man in his seventies, ostensibly preparing the source material of his biography for a ghost writer. The backward glance gives to this story — as to How Green Was My I alley — that hazy romance, that wistful nostalgia for the rich old days. But it seems to me that Martin in his youth is much more believable than Martin in his wealth; it seems to me that too much luck softens him as it softens his story; it seems to me that his wife and her Calverton kin and her weakling Julian are caricatures, and that too often as the book proceeds there is a stagy note which jars our acceptance of the easy, colorful flow of incident.
Not the least of Mrs. Miniver’s virtues is her choice of books, and her readiness to cap a situation with the perfect quotation. In The Glass Blower and Other Poems (Harcourt, Brace, $1.50) Jan Struther steps out from behind her charming, valiant character to show us the poet of whom we had seen glints in the stories. Here are poems to which anyone can turn for sure refreshment in a sorry time. They were written before the war: they treat of love, maturity, age, the light and breath of England. It interests me to compare them with the work of Edna St. Vincent Millay — I invite that comparison by way of saying that Miss Struther deserves an eager reading. Her poems strike home with a freshness of image and phrase; they share experience without strain or distortion, and in their feeling they open up a direct line of communication between writer and reader. EDWARD WEEKS