The Peripatetic Reviewer

IN DISTANCE this war is at least three thousand miles beyond the imagination of the American civilian. Our record of these years will be the composite of thousands of writers, recorders, cameramen, employing every new technique available. Units of our Psychological Warfare Division and units of BBC, armed with their sensitive recording equipment and mounted on jeeps, followed after the American, the British, and Leclerc’s tanks; and as French town after French town was liberated, they made recordings of the FFI, of anguished wives, of the twelve-year-old boy who cut the German mines and saved the only bridge in Rennes, of the French workers newly escaped from the slave camps, of a widow of 1870 as she saw the Americans come down the Champs Élysées.
These American and British records have been pooled: one copy of each goes into a new sound library at the Library of Congress. In time to come, I hope Congress will appropriate the funds to make reproductions available. Think what these records will mean to classes studying French and modern history.
The cameramen have been just as alert as the recorders, and even more exposed. Desert Victory, The Memphis Belle, Tunisian Victory, V-l, are classics which were made at the cost of blood and which will be reshown for twenty-five years. From the millions of feet taken by the Signal Corps for the Army’s edification, the newsreels give us glimpses of the photographic history which will emerge when the need for security is no longer. After the Civil War, Brady’s photographic plates lay neglected for decades in the attic of the War Department. Juvenile clerks used to skim them the length of the loft for the joy of the crash. That won’t happen again.
From its 138 stations overseas the Armed Forces Radio Service has been preparing and sending broadcasts to the Army and Navy. Some of these originate on the spot, so close to the lines that in one case a German plane trying to escape from American pursuits narrowly missed the antennae. Some of the programs come from an amazing library of thirty-minute disks, and some are relayed from the Army’s Los Angeles studio — special broadcasts alive with the Army’s humor and nostalgia. I wish you could hear the Command Performance for Christmas week. The American Expeditionary stations are running eighteen hours a day. The story of how the Army has used the radio in fighting and in relaxation will be fascinating to read.

History on the spot

Combat artists like Lieutenants William Draper, Dwight Shepler, Mitchell Jamieson, and Griffith Coale, all USNR, have gone out in destroyers, transports, planes, and battlewagons to paint their impressions. And for many months past, the best of our younger historians have been making notes, quarrying that source material on the spot. Commander Samuel Eliot Morison, author of The Maritime History of Massachusetts and Admiral of the Ocean Sea and now the official historian of our Navy, has seen action in the African invasion, in the Murmansk run, in the North Atlantic, and variously in the Pacific. In London, Professor Bruce Hopper has been laying the groundwork for the history of the Eighth Air Force. James Phinney Baxter, president of Williams College, has been designated the historian of Psychological Warfare. David Cohn is overseas gathering the material for his study of our Army Service Forces. Oliver La Farge has long been observing the Ferry Command. Railroad men will want the story of the Army Transportation Corps, and scientists the record of Chemical Warfare. These are but a few chapters of the most prodigious story of our times.

The peak of publishing

Fascinated and bewildered as we have been by this immensity, it is no wonder that as a people we read and distributed so many books last year. Never before has there been anything comparable to this earnest, consumption of print. Like the British and Russians before us, we found that books were a necessity, not a luxury, in warfare. Note how the demand increases for non-fiction. The sale, rushing swiftly into the hundred thousands, of tit les like The Time for Decision,I Never Left Home, and Yankee from Olympus; the outpouring of reprints to civilians (Pocket Books, the New Home Library, the Modern Library); and the distribution of paperbound books, a million a month, to the men overseas sum up an all-time high. Is this the peak of book publishing? Or will soldiers and sailors who got their first serious taste of reading in the Armed Services Editions — as thousands of them have — continue the habit on their return?
No telling how far this zest would carry us were paper unrestricted. There is plenty of it uncut in the Canadian woods, but the men are not there to fetch it — nor will they be till a year after Germany’s defeat. Meantime publishers do with what they get — and improvise with lighter paper, more words to a page, scant margins, and chapters run together. A copy of The Robe this Christmas consumed 50 per cent less paper than the first, printing of October, ‘42. The next step — England took it long ago — is to limit the sale of best-sellers. “We’ll have no more paper for Bob Hope,” Dick Simon told me with a grin, “after we’ve printed the millionth copy of I Never Left Home.” In 1945 the limitation will be much sharper than that.

Books for men and ladies

I should pick A Bell for Adano by John Hersey as the best war novel of the year. But only a few strokes behind it are a foursome, each one of which is informed with a close knowledge of what the lighter goes through: A Walk in the Sun, that novelette of the Italian invasion by Sergeant Harry Brown; Lost Island, which follows the conflict to Polynesia, by James Norman Hall; Pastoral by Nevil Shute (Commander Norway), a charming, authentic story of the men and women teaming together on a British bomber station; and Fair Stood the Wind for France by Squadron Leader H. E. Bates. Men take to these books, I know; but as for the women, I am not so sure. For I surmise that what used to be the feminine majority of novel readers are now finding a chatty relief in those fat and more or less amorous romances like Forever A mber and Green Dolphin Street, which are relaxatives with no aftereffect on the mind or morals.
I also surmise that in revulsion to war books, and in contempt of romance, certain rather lofty book reviewers have been driven to excesses of another sort. When Glenway Wescott concludes his praise of Katherine Ann Porter’s short stories with these words: “Given a good plot, I can imagine her writing a sort of War and Peace for us; ... as if she were a little daughter or granddaughter of Tolstoy, in her styleless style which is rather like translation by an angel,” or when Louise Bogan, after examining Marianne Moore’s new book of six poems, calls her “our most distinguished contemporary American poet,” thus dismissing Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Archibald MacLeish, and Edna St. Vincent Millay as in any way contemporary, you must remember that these people in their quest for style are indulging in cult talk which simply does not apply to the general reader.

No soft soap

Neither cult talk nor the gleaming syrupy phrase so sweet to advertising was characteristic of the New York Times Book Review during the two decades of J. Donald Adams’s editorship. He took command at a time when, with the exceptions of Mencken, Canby, and Stuart Sherman, book reviewing in New York was in low health, when publishers were in the habit of “suggesting” reviewers to whom the new book might appeal, when back-scratching was the rule, not the exception. Sanely, firmly, and with eminent good temper he removed the Times from this tea party and held it up as the indispensable authority of the book trade.
Mr. Adams’s judgment, his Scotch-grained integrity, and the play of his sympathies are well displayed in his volume of essays, The Shape of Books to Come. A man of middle years, he is here concerned with the novelists, poets, and critics whose work has flourished since the turn of the century. A man of the middle of the road, he identifies his touchstone of literature and tells what he means by “realism” (his definition is borrowed from Bliss Perry: “realistic fiction is that which does not shrink from the commonplace or the unpleasant in its effort to depict things as they are, life as it is”). He shows us his respect for Dos Passos, Wolfe, and Farrell, his distrust of Joyce and Stein; he is incisive in his scrutiny of Hemingway and optimistic as he reports on the sweeping away of the mood of negation and the new note of affirmation — he dates it with Eyeless in Gaza — which he thinks will usher in a renascence post-war. Honest and unspectacular, he conveys without pedantry or pretense the pleasure and response which he has had from his books. My only criticism may be a boomerang coming from a fellow editor: I feel that he has edited himself as he edited the Times, suppressing in his fairness some of the animation, the laughter, and the garlic of good opinion.

Anything can happen

George Papashvily is a Russian from Georgia who came to this country in the steerage and who, by a happy combination of honesty, resourcefulness, and good temper, landed on his feet and kept going. Midway in his progress he met and married an American girl, and I suspect that it was she who first encouraged him to set down the embellished story of his adventures in democracy. Anything Can Happen is the fresh, lighthearted odyssey of a Russian greenhorn bouncing from job to job, from friend to friend, from state to state, with a buoyancy and protective innocence delightful to watch. His wife Helen first heard these stories and perhaps she suggested that they be set down in the broken English which gives them such a natural accent. The result is comedy rather than a social tract — and like most comedy, the first two acts are the best, the humor palling somewhat as it is prolonged.
In his new short novel, Cannery Row, John Steinbeck has written a water-front fantasy. He has woven together a happy-go-lucky collection of short stories which give us snatches of life in the sardine district of Monterey, California. The loose design and the partial philosophy are very much what you will find in his first book, Tortilla Flat. Here are the same good-humored interest in sex and alcohol, the same small-boy delight in shocking the elders, the same surpassing capacity for catching the reckless humor of brawls, the same philosophy that the best people are bums and loafers and that nothing is more delightful than to watch how they get along. For my money, the good stories in the book are the frog hunt, Doc’s expedition at low tide, and the parties at the Western Biological Lab. The best-drawn characters are Doc, with his passion for beer, music and undersea animals; Mack, the mayor of the Palace Flop House; and Lee Chong, the wonderful Chinese. The book for me is irresistibly gay reading, and if you are minded to complain of the coarse nature and dirt, please remember that it; is clean dirt, with none of that tit illation and sniggering which have recently crept into the romance for ladies.

The Navy’s voice

The Navy has reason to be fond and proud of John Mason Brown. How much his presence has meant to the ships’ companies with which he has served, the men can tell you better than I. His cheerful talents as a speaker, when dedicated to a ship’s intercom, resulted in many a tonic description of the Sicilian and Normandy invasions; his unshakable good humor made him the friendliest of censors (“I have been the static in your husband’s letters,” he said to the bride of a young fellow officer); and as I compare his new book, Many a Watchful Night, with its predecessor, To All Hands, I find that what I most respect in John is the skill with which he brings out the reflective side of men in action. It is good that men in constant touch with death should be reminded of what has been imperishable, should be reminded of Shakespeare’s Henry the Fourth and Falstaff, of what Voltaire and Rabelais and Mistinguette meant to France.
John Brown is a reflector. He is removed from the savage action, the comedy and pathos which Ernie Pyle was there to see. John felt rather than saw the tension between the British and Americans working in double harness to prepare for the French invasion, and this leads him to some wise and friendly reflections on Anglo-American relations. He reflects the close amenity of life aboard ship; he reflects the Navy’s pity for the casualties brought on from shore and the amazement at the German prisoners; and on one memorable visit to the beachhead he reflects what men of any rank feel at the sight of death: —
“In his loneliness by a foreign roadside, this man or that ceases to be Government Issue. He once again becomes man’s issue, and woman’s too. He is one life cut short and scarcely tasted; with something of that life written on the mask which is now his face; with more written there than the form telegram can hope to express which will leave his family disconsolate, with a sorrow beyond remedy, and the world how much the poorer no one will ever know.”