CURIOUS, isn’t is, that after the sandy, somber literature of the Depression, we should suddenly find springs of American humor coming to the surface in a year as grim as this. Certainly we all need such refreshment. Parents who want an idea of what their selectee sons are up against will find laughter and relief from worry they can’t express in reading See Here, Private Hargrove. Those of us who are citybound but who still flirt with the prospect of retiring to the country will find immediate smiling distraction in two books from Down East, One Man’s Meat, by E. B. White, and that breezy autobiography, We look to the Woods (Lippincott, $2.75), by Louise Dickinson Rich, four chapters of which were serialized in the Atlantic. Mrs. Rich’s account of her life in Middle Dam, Maine, is written with a smile. Her words are backed up with a zest for life and a resourcefulness, a kind of Yankee can do, very good to hold on to when the mind begins to falter before this Global Uncertainty. And for those of us who have a strain of the cosmopolitan, who used to love travel, the bright lights, Paris and the easy-go of money, there is sheer gayety to be had in Ludwig Bemelmans’s I Love You, I Love You, I Love You (Viking, $2.50). His stories of the Normandie, of Paris, his daughter Barbara, the blonde widows, and the head-hunters have the dry sparkle and tender illusion of good champagne. Here are four brands of American humor — all good.
Of the many books which bear Christopher Morley’s signature, surely not one ever began with a more auspicious theme than this, his fat new one—Thorofare (Harcourt, Brace, $2,75). Here is the story of a likable little English boy who has been brought up by a bevy of aunts. From their quiddities and Victorianisms (smelling like an old garret of Dickens), he is rescued by his most enterprising uncle, Uncle Dan, an Englishman who has already transferred his allegiance to the United States and who is intent that his favorite nephew Geoffrey shall be brought up in the wider reach of the New World. The situation, as indeed the book itself, is suggestive of what is happening today to literally thousands of English boys who have left behind them the tiny Thorofares of East Anglia for the speedier traffic of New York, Toronto, and points West. What we have to give to England and what England has to give to us is an equation of instant and sympathetic concern, and I believe four out of five readers who begin this book will be strongly on Mr. Morley’s side.
Barton House, where Geoffrey lived with his aunts, the bowling green at The Crown, the stag picnic on the river, the visit to the Fens and Cambridge — these English scenes are drawn from life and they will strike an answering chord in anyone who loves England. No less accurate are the impressions of America, the subtle differences between his way and ours, which the English boy records as his new life begins on the Chesapeake. It is a remarkable blend of memory and imagination which enables Mr. Morley to be at once so true and so quizzical in these Anglo-American contrasts.
Geoffrey (who becomes Jeff on our side) is, as I have said, a likable youngster. His mind is fresh and impressionable, and if his fancies are those of a younger Christopher Morley — well, why not? Yet as the story progresses, that question begins to reassert itself more critically. Mr. Morley cannot restrain himself when he writes about Jeff. The details begin to fascinate him. He turns aside from his characters and before long he is in the midst of his story with both feet. This self-insertion is perfectly proper in an essay, but it is likely to sap the vitality of a novel. It is always a question how far a novelist may intrude upon his characters. Thackeray did it deliberately; Mr. Morley, I feel, overdoes it. The play upon words, the facetiousness which he can so seldom resist, the wit which can be either sharp or genial — too much of this is byplay interrupting the characters when they ought to be speaking and doing for themselves. What is more, this byplay slows down the action and swells up the book to a disproportionate length.
It is never easy to hold the adult’s attention to a novel which is centered in the juvenile years. Mr. Morley warns us that his story is to be read slowly. But for all its grace and sociability, is it not too discursive? And why could not the author himself have supplied the cutting and the emphasis which would have enabled us to read with a rising interest instead of at a monotone?