by EDWAKD WEEKS
EVEN as little as six weeks on another planet makes your native soil look different. I had forgotten what it felt like to come home. When I landed back on American terra firma it was with those mixed feelings of relief and criticism with which a native returns. What strikes you at once is that we still have so much of everything and to spare. Whether it be measured in eggs, or paper, or gasoline, or meat, or books, our ration is so much more generous than that of any other nation. What an Englishman must think of our New York restaurants, I can easily imagine. What a visitor fresh from Moscow must think as he looks at an American newsstand, I can only guess. They stand up in queues for books in Russia and they never have enough.
This mood of self-criticism stays with you for only a little, but its effect made me realize that, thanks to what Mr. Churchill calls those “respectable oceans,” we are still the least molested of all the great powers. In Russia literature, music, the ballet, and the theater are keyed to the fluctuating fortunes of war. England is so absorbed, China and dominated Europe so rent by the struggle, that books of peaceful preoccupation are almost unthinkable. Here, they are not only thinkable: they still go to press. Of course we have our war books, and their number will increase. But along with them we still harvest volumes of fiction and biography which were planted in the sunny, tranquil soil of peace. The English, missing this latitude in their writing, find ours singularly refreshing; we simply take it for granted.
The novelist has been more arrested by the pressure of events than the journalist or poet, the biographer or historian. And this is noticeable, even at our distance. A good many exiled novelists — Thomas Mann, Aldous Huxley, Somerset Maugham, to mention three — have taken refuge here, but only a fraction of them are still able to write fiction. Some American novelists have been stopped in their tracks with their books halfway to completion. Others have turned back to our American heritage, searching for stories and for a philosophy which will keep us straight as we grope our way into the unknown ahead.
In the foreword to his new novel, The Free Man (Knopf $1.75), Conrad Richter discloses the impulse which is the mainspring of his narrative. He is a Pennsylvania Dutchman whose family loyalty goes back to the Revolution, and both his heritage and his patriotism stand clear in these words: “Perhaps in an understanding of the Pennsylvania Dutch, their loyalty to democracy and their love of peace may be found the secret of a peaceful Europe in the years to come.” Now this is a difficult undertaking: it means that he is trying to use the vitality and principles of faraway characters as a guiding light in the darkness of today.
To embody his wish, Mr. Richter has selected a yellow-haired Rhine boy of the 1740’s. Henry Dellicker was eighteen years old — a sturdy, impulsive youngster — when with his parents he boarded ship at Rotterdam. His parents were Palatines with barely enough to pay their passage to Pennsylvania. We never see much of them, for on the fifty-seven-day voyage to Philadelphia they are brought down with pestilence, and die with almost incredible swiftness. Thus Henry is on his own before the ship docks. Where he picked up his English is never revealed, but he knows enough of it to resent the brutal chicanery with which he and many of his fellow passengers are sold as indentured servants. He knew the soul-seller who lied about their passage. But he was never to know who pilfered his family belongings or why the British so easily sanctioned the slavery. The first notes of this story are harsh and dissonant, for it is the theme of a wronged and headstrong boy kicking vindictively against injustice and being manhandled into submission.
Escape is in Henry’s mind from the moment he leaves the ship, yet temporarily he has no choice but to work as a redemptioner in a Pennsylvania mansion. The scenes of this rich Quaker interlude have the color of Howard Pyle. We see the apple coloring and surface hardness of Miss Amity, who baits the boy. And we have charming glimpses of the still life above stairs and the kitchen life below. Then Henry makes his break, and gains, on the edge of the Pennsylvania frontier, that reputation for freedom which was to result in his new name — Henry Free, or Frey as they spoke it in the dialect. For fifty years he lived as a respected trader with the Scotch, the Welsh, and the Irish settlers of the North Branch; and with them he fought for our independence.
For the first time in his career I feel that Mr. Richter has been inhibited by the limitation of the short novel. In his effort to impress upon us Henry’s love of freedom, and how he has had to earn that freedom the hard way, the novelist stresses what is brutal; the affection which we need to bind us to the boy is never admitted. This is, if you like, a problem of selection, and it is still more besetting in the second half, where there are too many gaps in Henry’s life for us to see him whole or to know him with familiarity. How did he really tame his Shrew? What were they like as man and wife? And why did they have no children? These are the questions we really want to see answered, and without them the story must seem cold and secretive.
A magic transformation
“Creative literature,” once wrote my predecessor, Ellery Sedgwick, “is a threadbare expression, but if there is any meaning at the heart of it, it is as an individual, following the course of his own adventures, spiritual and temporal, plots the large human fields, and I am not sure whether the real measure of the greatness of a book is not this special and poignant appeal to people far removed from the kind of life and the kind of experience which the author has made his own.”
I found those words as I was paging through his and my correspondence with Katharine Butler Hathaway, the author of The Little Locksmith (Coward-McCann $2.50). Early in her childhood and for the rest of her life Mrs. Hathaway suffered the humiliation and discomfort of invalidism. But instead of leading a life apart, instead of making the easy surrender to self-pity, with sensitivity and great discipline she trained herself to write. In Castine, Maine, she found a house and a community which gave her the friendliness and respected the privacy which she needed. And there she began the writing of what would certainly have been two, and possibly three, volumes of her autobiography. But she lived only long enough to finish the first, portions of which appeared in this magazine in 1942-1943.
Mrs. Hathaway had it in her power to recapture a scene with an intensity of feeling and a perfection of detail. When she tells us of the treasures which meant so much to her during her horizontal childhood — the little Revolutionary bullet which she would hold up, with its leaden strength, and the sandalwood trinkets from Japan; when she tells of being brought back on a stretcher to Salem in the bonfire dusk of autumn: when she writes of the first glimpse of herself in the mirror and of the healing drives in the night with her brother Warren; when she remembers the beauty of Castine Bay and those touches of fosterparenthood which only an aunt can know, she gives us pages whose beauty and authenticity are beyond question. Like Amiel’s Journal, her book is a beautifully precise instrument with which to compare and measure human thought and aspiration. And how refreshing it is to turn away from the immensities of a world out of joint and to feel oneself gradually absorbed in this eager struggle of an individual to find her place in a not always compassionate universe. Something of Emily Dickinson walks again in this prose with its precision, its femininity, and its unimpeachable color of New England.
It reminds me of the days of Main Street and Mencken to hear the way the town is talking about John Marquand. So Little Time (Little, Brown $2.75) may not be the greatest novel of the year but it is hands down the most provoking.
Before people begin to take Mr. Marquand apart, f do wish they would give the devil his due. Consider the laughter which is in this book for anyone who will give it a chance. Of course much of it is mockery — that is what a satirist is for. But again and again the mockery arises from a sense of reality and a power of observation so clearly and sharply delineated that you snort or chuckle aloud as the shaft goes home. The Connecticut week-end, beginning with that harrowing visit with Uncle Judson who wants to be sure you wash your hands, and ending with that appalling evening in the Rumpus Room, is an easy case in point. If Mr. Marquand knew a little more about poets and poetry, the scene would be perfect.
Writing as pointed as this does not flow simply from a pen. Consider for a moment Mr. Marquand’s professional career. It took him years to master the technique of the adventure story, and when he abandoned Mr. Moto, which he did long before Pearl Harbor, it was not because he had worn out his welcome in fiction magazines; it was because of a larger ambition coming up. Like Kenneth Roberts, he wanted to write novels about New England. But it takes courage to turn away from a sure thing and set yourself to learning the disciplines of a new medium in mid-career.
The question is — and it is a fair one to ask — how far has he gone as a novelist since he wrote The Late George Apley? Apley was objective; it was a story which began as caricature but ended as characterization; there was not one live woman in the book; and since it was about the older generation, the novelist was at no time exposed to the risks which become apparent the moment he writes about his contemporaries. And Apley will aways stand apart in our remembrance because it was the first: it had the freshness of a new taste. Wickford Point was charged with a good deal more personal feeling, but had in it a temper which at times came dangerously close to vindictiveness. With H. M. Pulham, Esquire, and now with So Little Time, Mr. Marquand has made his major bid as a novelist.
Mr. Marquand’s technique — I mean the architectural device within which he fits his story is once more beginning to hamper his flexibility. His use of the switch-back method of narration is so frequent and so obvious that it will never serve him so well in the future as it has in the past. The reader begins to watch the end of each chapter for the clues of what is to happen next, and the moment one becomes conscious of such slick craftsmanship, the whole illusion of the book is weakened.
At its best Mr. Marquand’s satire is irresistibly amusing. His take-off’s of Walter Newcombe the foreign correspondent, of Mintz the film producer, of Beckie who adores interior decorating, and of her husband Fred who knows all about tax-exempt bonds, have in them the truth that really makes you squirm. At its second-best his satire can be nagging, as for instance the disparagement of Madge, which in the end becomes positively monotonous.
His hardest problem is when he handles his characters straight. Here Mr. Marquand is least sure of himself: here, I feel, he has still to learn how to make a story add up to something bigger than any individual scene. You never really accept either. And as for Jeff himself, is he not a synthetic rather than a blended personality? Could a man who handles Stan the way he did (Stan’s death, incidentally, is the best scene in the book), a man who could bring order out of chaos on the stage, a man so sensitive in his treatment of Jesse Fineman, the Jewish producer, be at ihe same time such a complete nitwit in his relations with his children and such an aching tooth of inferiority in his inner life? Jeff’s self-torture makes this story one-third longer than it ought to be and, curiously enough, it seldom builds up your admiration for him. “Some twist of cultural development,” writes Rebecca West, “has given the American people the tongue of the satirist. Nowhere else in the world is wit so general. . . . These satirists . . . jeer at the persons and institutions and ideas held up to public respect but do not spare those which deserve respect, because they do not know how that award is made. . . .”
I have often wished Mr. Marquand would devote his very considerable talents to writing a story of a Boston rebel, of whom the supply has never ceased since the days of Sam Adams. Justice Holmes, Moorfield Storey, Isabella Gardner, and Amy Lowell each rebelled against the conventional and in so doing made the Hub a livelier place. In such a revolt there would be full scope for the novelist’s satire, and in addition he would be called upon to express more strength — more of the positive and less of the negalive — than he was ever willing to allow Henry Pulham and Jeffrey Wilson.
Something for nothing
Since his prize novel, Remembering Laughter, which appeared seven years ago, Wallace Stegner has been working nearer and nearer to his heart’s desire, and now at last he has his full say in The Big Rock Candy Mountain (Duell, Sloan & Pearce $3.00). Before he came to rest in New England, where this book was written, Mr. Stegner had knocked around quite a bit. He knows the West not as a traveling salesman but as a boy who was born there, who knows the look and smell of the Mormon country, who knows how to use his hands and where the big fish are to be caught. He has his own collection of Western ballads and songs of he plains and he sings them the way they ought to be sung. He has an unquenchable appetite for the little villages of Dakota, the deep woods of Washington, the raw spots of Saskatchewan — where our rovers still go. Out of this knowledge and zest he has been slowly accumulating first the episodes, then the framework, then the final draft of this big novel. It has been a labor of love, the writing of which has stretched over more than five years.
The Big Rock Candy Mountain is the story of an American couple. Bo Mason is one of those husky, friendly, roving American spirits who are still to be found wherever the country needs opening. He can do any kind of grunt work, and do it better than most men. He has been a lumberjack, he played professional ball until he got a mouse in his knee, he sold beer for a brewery, ran a pool parlor, and he could make anything grow, given soil and water. Bo is an American frontiersman who began his search for El Dorado in 1905 and hasn’t found it yet. There must be half a million of him in our armed forces.
His wife Elsa, in Masefield’s words, is “the woman marching by the beaten man.” Bo never knows that he is beaten. Hell, it’s only a temporary setback — he will be on his feet again in a minute. But it is Elsa who feels the bruises; she feels them in her heart and she feels them as she sees what is happening to their two boys, Bruce and Chet. For Bo, who can win any man, and most women, is too impulsive to keep the kids with him. He misses their character, and they find him out. And Elsa’s and the boys’ rebelliousness, which began so early in tears, is the second theme of the composition (as it is the second half of the book), the first, of course, being Bo’s ever hopeful, ever hopeless quest for the Big Rock Candy Mountain, where money grows on trees.
The novel is unhurried, it is never sensational, it has only a decent minimum of sex. If it grows in your mind, it is because the people in it are growing and you must read it for their sakes — or put it down. The country people, the minor characters like Elsa’s Norwegian family, have an archaic stiffness which I find rather dulling to the page. In his short novels, Mr. Stegner pared the story down to the stark essentials, and so left the scene uncomfortably bleak; now, at the other extreme, he has crowded in more detail than he needs. The many makeshift dwellings in which Bo and Elsa lived are authentic to the last detail — but there are too many details, and too little emphasis, to relay our interest from point to point. What keeps me reading is the integrity of the writing, the freshness of the Americana, and the ever deepening sympathy which I feel for the man and wife.
One of the major problems of the war is to bring home to this unmolested land of ours an unsugared realization of what our men are going through and why they have to go through it. The longer we dwell on the individual exploits of a few picked (and surviving) heroes, the longer we maintain the illusion that the fighting is really a chivalrous business in which the best — meaning our — boys win. No book can ever take the place of hurtful experience, and thus it is doubtful if more than a fraction of our people will ever feel as the Russian and the Englishman feels toward the German today.
Just as Richard Tregaskis told us so graphically as to leave no doubt what the Marines were going through on Guadalcanal, so now we shall expect to learn from Ernie Pyle and from Ralph Ingersoll the direct and undeviating story of our infantry in North Africa and in Sicily. In The Battle is the Bay-off (Harcourt, Brace $2.00) Captain Ingersoll reduces to personal and vivid terms the fighting which took place in a few square miles of the Tunisian mountains. Naturally he translates these impressions through his own senses, but his primary aim is not to write about himself but about the men with whom he served — the men who were doing the infighting. His prose has the speedy, graphic quality of television. It sees the booby traps, the shell bursts, the dive bombing. It hears the sniping, the machinegun fire and the scrappy, unaltered talk of men under fire. Strong medicine in places, but how else will you know?