The Peripatetic Reviewer
IN Chicago I talked with an inventor who was working on a book which would read itself aloud. Simply plug it into the wall socket, sit back, and open your ears, I questioned him on the kind of literature he meant to can. Mysteries and light fiction to begin with, but eventually all kinds. Even the Atlantic, he added. Would he get voices like Paul Robeson’s and Raymond Massey’s to do the reading? No, he thought a monotone would he better. Let people supply their own feeling.
If, in the world to come, books are reduced to a sound track, and if the day’s news comes to us by television, how much future is left for the printed word? My guess would be, a big one. The truth is that, after this war, books will no longer be classed as a luxury. Some books, some authors will always be caviar, but no longer need contemporary literature be sold like vintage wine and Paris perfume to about one per cent of our population. For during the past decade and now under the economy of war, publishers have been learning more and more about how to produce—and—distribute books to a mass public. Henry Cassidy told me that the biggest queues in Russia are those in front of bookstores. Russia has never had enough books to go round. And neither have we—neither enough hooks nor enough bookstores.
How many readers?
The Retail Bookseller reports that no other book of which they have any record has traveled half so fast as Wendell Willkie’s One World. It has been running the hundred-yard dash in two seconds flat. As I write, the sale has passed 1,100,000 copies, of which approximately 900,000 were in the magazine format priced at one dollar. Count two readers for every copy and then guess how many million will have read Mr. Willkie before the year is out!
Another book whose ideas will extend like the ripples in a pond is Walter Lippmann’s U. S. Foreign Policy, Shield of the Republic. The publisher’s edition and the Book-of-the-Month Club edition (320,000 copies) will go at once to the eager reader. A fortnight later the Reader’s Digest will distribute its condensed version (23 per cent of the text) to some nine million persons.
The reviewer, the editorial writer, the radio commentator, the Council on Books in Wartime— each has the power to make a new book more imperative. Thus, if the print is compelling enough, its message will be relayed in pictures, through newspaper syndicates and documentary films, until the original word has reached fifteen, twenty, thirty million Americans. This is a new technique in publishing, hastened by the war and not to be relinquished afterwards.
Books are bullets
Today books are bullets on the home front. So they were at the time of the American Revolution. And the man who molded the best bullets for the Continentals was a cast-off Englishman, a renegade Quaker, a corset maker who had grubbed in the squalor of Hogarth’s London. Ben Franklin straightened him out of liquor and passed him into Philadelphia, where a Scotch printer encouraged him to write. He wrote the Crisis papers; he wrote a little pamphlet called Common Sense, which became the fighting credo of the Continental Army (it was the first big best-seller in America but was pirated so often the sale is unknown); he wrote: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country. . . Washington called him “Citizen Tom Paine.”
In writing his historical novel Howard Fast has timed his book perfectly. For Citizen Tom Paine (Duell, Sloan, and Pearce $2.75) was no good in peace; he was at his best only in strife and revolution. When war stirred his blood and when he felt himsell in league with mankind, he put away the bottle and on the anvil of injustice he struck sparks and hammered out words men never forgot. He was the horn rebel. Tough-minded, with a leathery body and powerful hands, he was one of our mainstays in the Revolution, “Give me seven years,” he said then, “and I’ll write a Common Sense for every nation in Europe.” Later he did try to rouse England; and still later he all but lost his life in the French Revolution. Now is the time to read his fierce and troubled story.
The novel gels off to a shaky start — I suspect because so little is known of Tom Paine’s early drudgery. He rebelled against his father, ran off to London, drank hard, was a failure at every trade and twice a failure in marriage. The book does not begin to breathe until Tom gets to Philadelphia. Here Mr. Fast encounters another difficulty common to most historical novelists, for when he draws Washington, Jefferson, and Nathanael Greene as characters secondary to Tom, he produces an effect which is a good deal less than we imagine for ourselves. It takes a Tolstoy to touch great men lightly.
Where this novel is most invigorating is in its picture of Tom with the marching, stumbling men in retreat across the Jerseys or at Valley Forge; its picture of the printshops and of how Common Sense swept like wildfire across the land; its picture of Philadelphia citizens rising in their fury against the appeasers and profiteers; its picture of Tom in his prime when his magnificent anger braced the doubting Thomases, and of Tom himself pathetically bewildered when age closed in on him in France. After reading this book I want to read more Tom Paine, applying to our present, as Mr. Fast intends we should, the truths of this fierce, lonely man whose village was the world.
Books are bullets on the home front : they penetrate the loose and fearful thinking about the war and its aftermath; they drive home the truth about our men in action. Thus far the best books about Britain’s armed forces have been published by His Britannic Majesty’s Stationery Office— which is to say, by the British government. This also is a new technique in English Letters, if not: in the U.S.S.R.
The government went into publishing after the Battle of Dunkirk when t hey had a story worth telling to an anxious nation. The English publishers believe to this day that they could have done the job quite as effectively their own way. But the government wanted the books without debate; it had the closest access to those anonymous authors, the survivors, and it knew to a nicety how much could be printed and how much should be left untold. Finally the authorities argued that if the work came out anonymously, as a composite pict ure, it would carry with it the authenticity of the RAF or whatever service was being written about. So His Majesty’s Government went into the publishing business, and to date they have sold upwards of fifteen million copies of their paper-bound war books at prices ranging from 3d. to 2s. In so doing they have made a profit of £30,000.
[At this point, common sense cocks a weather eye at Washington and asks whether Mr. Elmer Davis sees a parallel here he would like to follow. Do we want our government to go into the book business? I mean on a larger scale than it has already? American publishers are beginning to worry.]
The Stationery Office needed a master hand to interview the fighters and piece their stories together: an Englishman with a keen ear for the telling phrase, the understanding that gains a soldier’s confidence, and that capacity for understatement which makes other Englishmen purr. It is an open secret that this master hand is Hilary Aidan St. George Saunders, a ruddy, cheerful man, just my age, who won the Military Cross in the First World War, who has written historical novels and thrillers under at least two pen names, who kept his temper for seventeen years in the secretariat of the League of Nations, and who is now on leave as Assistant Librarian to the House of Commons. Mr. Saunders has one of the best writing jobs in this war, and if you care to see how proficiently—and how anonymously—he composes, read Combined Operations: The Official Story of the Commandos (Macmillan $2.00) or Coastal Command (Macmillan $1.50).
Combined Operations is the inside story of those picked men who began to harry Hitler’s outposts in the summer of 1940. England was then so short of weapons that the Commandos had not enough with which to train, and only drew their tommy guns when ready to embark; on return the arms went back to a central store.
The Commandos were picked in desperation, and the audacity and surprise with which they struck put fresh heart in the entire army. The raid on Rommel’s headquarters, the raid on Vaagsö, on Brunoval, Guernsey, and Saint-Nazaire, are here disclosed in detail. In the telling, the brutality drops out. This is like reading the sporting page about the battle of the century. Watch the timing. H.M.S. Campbelltown was supposed to ram the lockgate at SaintNazaire at 1.30 A.M., if nothing intervened. She crossed 200 miles of enemy water, came up the harbor with guns and searchlights playing full on her, and hit the lock smack at 1.34. See the teamwork: the photographs taken by the RAF in support. And score the casualties. In the raid on Rommel’s headquarters, two out of twenty-six came back. The story of Dieppe shows the price these Commandos set on their own heads — and their willingness to stay, once they have landed. But we do not know what it cost them to wrestle with the unpredictable. For this is the modest, almost too cheerful record of those who came back; how the ot her half lived will not be told until the prisoners come home from Germany.
For the dog days
In the summer when the evenings get sticky, the accustomed path of reading and thinking is hard to follow. With the body relaxed, the mind wants momentarily to ho free of war worry, free to explore a path which is different. I know this feeling well and have responded to it in other years by searching out those authors who are known for their power of refreshment. Frequently this means turning buck to a writer whom I missed when he first appeared. Frequently I make a mental note of some friend’s enthusiasm—and then taste the book for myself. Last summer, it might amuse you to know, I found particular delight in each of these three volumes: East of the Hudson, by Brooks Atkinson (this was when I was in one of my Thoreau humors); Father Malachy’s Miracle by Bruce Marshall; and the Selected Short Stories of Damon Runyon. The point is that you want books which will humor you, and since you can never be sure what the bookman’s humor will be, the best I can do is to offer this variety for the dog days ahead:—
GAY, PREPOSTEROUS, AND MOCKING is Evelyn Waugh’s satirical novel, Decline and Fall (Little, Brown $2.50), which was originally published in 1928 and which has been reprinted this year for those who ought to know this enfant terrible. In the spirit and style of his satire, Mr. Waugh reminds me of Saki, and in this particular novel he has a delightful time taking the sacred cows of Fngland for a ride. The English public school, the traditions of Oxford, British sportsmanship (try reading aloud “The Sports at Llanabba”), the house parties, the titled gentry, the remittance man, are made fun of in a burlesque that never gets too far from the truth.
It will be some time before we have a new book from Mr. Waugh, who is now serving as a captain in the Commandos.
HARD-DRIVEN AND REVEALING IN THEIR ASPIRATION are Thomas Wolfe’s Letters to His Mother (Scribner $3.00). The letters begin in 1909 and continue to the time of his death. They reveal his enormous self-absorption, his loneliness, and the help he received from women here and abroad; they reveal his thoughts about Harvard and English 47, his characterization of the books he was writing, and the million-word design for the big family saga he had projected for the future; they reveal his dislike of teaching and his increasing ill-health. And again and again they reveal how much encouragement and wise advice he received from his early editor, Maxwell Perkins.
A serious book for the literary-minded, on the same shelf with Katherine Mansfield’s Journal.
PEOPLE WHO LOVE THE SEA will read The Ship by C. S. Forester (Little, Brown $2.50). The creator of Captain Hornblower spent, weeks on a British warship learning the feel and the source material for this modern story of a light cruiser in action in the Mediterranean. I suspect the story has its genesis in the daring of Admiral Vian, who fought his convoy to Malta with a seamanship Nelson would have admired. The writing is clean, terse, unimpeachably masculine. Did you enjoy In Which We Serve? Then you will enjoy this.
ROWDY, QUICK-CRACKING AMERICAN HUMOR is the essence of Roughly Speaking, an autobiography by Louise Pierson (Simon & Schuster $2.50). The book is almost too funny to be true, but give the lady the benefit of the doubt, for few grandmothers of our time have survived so many ups and downs. A Quincy-Boston girl whose family had plenty ot money and then lost it, she studied at Simmons, worked at an incredible number of jobs, was twice married, had four children, and lives to tell the tale in grinning prose. The style is brusque, rapid-fire with little feeling but lots of wit.
Few writers in our time have been so constant as Stephen Vincent Benèt, and in his going we have lost one of our best. How much we have lost is more than speculation. For twenty years his writing shone with a steady, luminous flame. He was never blown about by fashion, never tempted to become an expatriate in thought or style. His narrative gift was strengthened by his deep love of our country and made lyrical by the native touches and that spring of poetry which he knew from within. Earlier than most, he recognized the threat coming our way from Europe and in his “Litany for Dictatorships,”which the Atlantic published back in 1935, he warned us that the halcyon days were over. With the outbreak of war he put aside, for the duration, the epic Western Star (Farrar & Rinehart $2.00), a poem more ambitious in design than John Brown’s Body, on which he had first begun to work in 1934.
Western Star was to tell of the western migration of peoples, and specifically of the pioneers who first came to America. The design was an enormous one, for the poet followed the settlement of his people at Jamestown and the Bay Colony and then inland as they spread. To tell it all would have required four, probably live Books, but today we can only conjecture the sweep and vitality of what might have been as we read the Invocation, Prelude, and Book One, which were in an almost final form at the poet’s death.
One large block of manuscript, some sixty pages, depicting the Columban voyages, the poet had already excluded. Thus Western Star becomes an epic having its taproot in London and men like Percy and Captain John Smith, Wingfield, President of the Council, and Robert Hunt, the minister of the Jamestown settlement, for its opening scenes. As the poet says, “few men have crowded more life in a life.” They saw the virgin country in the spring of the year and their hopes were high. Then followed the Indian attacks, the sailing away of the ships, the malaria, the fevered heat, the hot-blooded dissension and all that the forest-god could do to torment them before relief arrived. Here, as in John Brown’s Body, the poet accommodates his story in lines which, as Basil Davenport says, “bear the same relation to our easygoing talk that, presumably, blank verse did to the more formal speech of an earlier generation.”For the most part he uses a loose fiveor six-beat, line, breaking it to gain an occasional emphasis and turning into rhymed couplets when he speaks of the sprightly little apprentice, Dickon Heron. Poets may argue that he could have gained the same suppleness had he held himself more strictly to one form, as did Milton and Tennyson, but I doubt if lay readers will be so exacting. To them, the longer, looser lines speak directly and with naturalness. They applaud the variation which permits the poet to be now rhetorical, now personal, and now descriptive. But beyond any minor criticism is our lasting regret that the epic is unfinished.
Uppermost on the papers on his desk was found this quatrain, perhaps the last thing Mr. Benet wrote: —
Now for my country that it still may live
All that I have, all that I am I’ll give.
It is not much beside the gift of the brave
And yet accept it since ’tis all I have.
All that I have, all that I am I’ll give.
It is not much beside the gift of the brave
And yet accept it since ’tis all I have.