The Peripatetic Reviewer


To THOSE of us who have been imprisoned in the glacier of the North, May is a fitful month. The release comes all of a sudden; and as the strings are untied, we do the darnedest things. Not in all of North America are there such hats as blossom in Boston. Puritan unrestraint and Irish ebullience burst into the open on Easter morning, and thereafter the flowerpots, birds’ nests, Chinese pagodas, feather dusters, and lettuce leaves which vie with each other in our east wind are a triumph of mind over matter.
Spring does not come to us lovingly. One day we are leaning against the raw April blast and then, overnight, the sun is looking us in the eyes; the splashes of forsythia along Jamaicaway, the heady beauty of the magnolias, the flaming beds of tulips in the Garden, are a challenge no woman can resist. Hence the hats.
To men — I am thinking of men over forty — the vernal intoxication means getting away from home, away from the city, away from the girls. One day the winter overcoat becomes unbearably heavy, and as they change into lighter clothes, they discover they want out. Curious how many business trips seem to coincide with that fortnight at Newfound Lake or Mooselookmeguntic when the ice is out and the landlocked salmon are on the surface; curious how by twos and threes the stags make for the upper Connecticut or the Kennebago. Spring means the Opening Game, with His Honor throwing in the new ball and Junior beside you munching peanuts. It means the lashing, pent-up drive from the first tee, and the springiness of the turf. It means rising before dawn, with your glasses on the green bud boughs to catch the flash of the migrants heading north (and afterwards, the arguments as to whether you really saw it). It means shining up the car and then driving down country to picnic on the dunes with the sunlight dancing pinpoints on the water. It means bare heads and a sleeveless sweater and dreamless sleep in country air.
Spring used to mean all that, and will again. If the knots will be harder to untie this year, it is because what we do, we do with half a heart, missing the men without whom there can be no rejuvenation.

Carefree or careless

Gay, lilting, unpredictable, is the tune which runs through Joseph Wechsberg’sLooking for a Bluebird. The author, a Czechoslovakian, was eighteen when he began fiddling his way around the world on the small, decrepit French liner, La Bourdonnais. Between voyages and in the winters, he worked as a second violinist in the boites de nnits and the music halls of Paris. But at the first whiff of salt air in the spring he would take to the sea again on the Porthos or the Guadeloupe, bound on a new cruise to the Orient, South America, or Manhattan. Eventually he became orchestra leader on the Red Sea route, where violins are kept in the refrigerator. His cabin mates were the cheerful, thirsty, amoral musicians who banded together at the last moment for each voyage. Occasionally one of them would succumb to a soft, wealthy widow; occasionally they would clean up a small fortune, as when they sold the ship’s liquor in the days of Prohibition. But usually they battened on the inquisitiveness and idiosyncrasy of the tourist world — whose population had been released from home ties and inhibitions and whose appetites and extravagances carried the American legend abroad. This is fresh and laughable reading.
In a blurb like a cream puff, the publishers tell us that Lower than Angels, by Walter Karig, “is a universal story and a great artistic accomplishment.”I doubt it. As I look back on the first twenty years of this century, I can think of a good many “universals” which never appear in this story. Admittedly, Marvin, Mr. Karig’s hero, has the dingiest of educations; admittedly, his parents are timid people whose intelligence is rather lower than mediocrity; admittedly, the author is writing to show us the moral impoverishment of the average city-bred youngster.
What I object to is Mr. Karig’s grim law of averages. For no American average that I have lived with on the sand lots, in the public schools, in the Army ranks, or in business is so devoid of humor, rebellion, or aspiration as this dreary household. The author is a competent reporter, although I wish he had not used the reportorial device of dating each chapter. He writes with honesty, checked by a good memory. He records the animal magnetism of floundering people. His pages have the fidelity of a dead-level macadam street. But within those delicatessens, those butcher shops and hall bedrooms, lives an American vivacity, the sound of laughter, the juice of good common talk — the stories of little people — which Mr. Karig ignores.
In Pacific Report Commander Karig has shown us what men other than Marvin could do in the face of catastrophe. I wonder why he has extinguished every spark of such spirit when he comes to write about his spineless, empty-headed German-Americans.

Bamboo Americans

Ever since Ed Dyess escaped from Bataan we have suspected that there were not a few American guerrillas, castaway aviators, PT crews and officers, hiding in the Philippines, killing Japs, and keeping a light in the window against MacArthur’s return. We have waited for their story knowing that it would be audacity plus, and now we have it, skillfully ghost-written by Ira Wolfert.
American Guerrilla is a personal recital of Iliff David Richardson, who served in the famous “expendable” squadron, the PT boats commanded by John Bulkeley. When his boat was shot, up, he and ten other casuals took to the bamboo; shunning surrender, they attempted to escape to Australia on a banca christened Leyte Luck. When she foundered, they swam back to the Philippine shore, where they lived protected by the natives through the remainder of 1942. Richardson occupied himself in writing the log of his PT. He also fell in love. As time passed, they all began to get unraveled down there in Lotos land.
Slowly the guerrilla organization came to life. There were survivors of the Death March; there were officers MacArthur left behind — like Colonels McLish, Fertig, and Morgan; Navy officers and imperative supplies came in by sub from Australia; rebellious Filipinos joined up — so the army grew, an army of adventurers and technicians, an outfit which became deadly with “that fine feeling of controlled power Americans give anything they’re in.” Richardson was a technician and it was part of his job to manufacture gasoline and ammunition (they filed the ends of brass curtain rods into 160 bullets a day), and set up short-wave stations which would spy on the Jap shipping, and relay reports to MacArthur’s headquarters “Souwespac.” “It was strictly hambone,” Richardson says, “but it worked.”
These men lived on borrowed time. They were stalked by death. The strength of this narrative is their imperishable will to live and fight back. Its limitations are those of any ghost-written book: the simulated talk, the leg-pulling, — as when Richardson described how he shaved in the mirror of his polished boots, — and the tendency which Mr. Wolfert cannot resist to be overspectacular.

The imperturbable

“Why do you bother with that old buzzard?” asked my friend, a liberal who saw that I was reading Santayana. “His record in Italy is not a pretty one.” So we more worried mortals regard the imperturbable; so we express our irritation towards one who preferred the Rome of sunshine, even the Rome of Mussolini, to the freer rigor of London or Boston. The remark points up the difference between the moral climate in which the sage lived and that which we who are younger must suffer today. To George Santayana, who in his own words has long been indolent but meditative, “it is better to put up with things than to be responsible for them.” That is a solace which few active Americans could accept in a year as crucial as this.
Persons and Places: The Middle Span is written with the self-satisfaction of egotism and the cool breeze of serenity. It is also written with a command of English which would be pre-eminent at any time. One can only surmise when the notes for it were first begun; I suggest that some of these pages are the distillation of work begun twenty years ago. Certainly they have a closer affinity with the Soliloquies in England than with The Last Puritan. Santayana’s middle span began with his pilgrimage to Germany as a graduate student in 1886. He made but one interesting friend, the erratic Baron Albert von Westenholz. He relished the uniforms, the music, and the beer, and the lectures deepened his veneration of the Greeks, but otherwise the experiment was a failure. “I was,” he writes, “wholly incapable of taking a Doctor’s degree in Germany. The one thing for me to do was to return to Harvard and take my Doctor’s degree there, where I was at home and sure of my ground.”
Thence he crossed to England, where he instantly became enamored. He liked the people, they were so decent (he underscores the word); he thought they had the best public manners in the world. He found himself as continually amused by the sham in England’s society as he was continually gratified by the British propensity to leave a man alone. He reveled in the snobbery of the recluse. “I never studied in London or read in the British Museum . . . or gathered books, or made lasting friends. I visited nobody. . . . I was, and I liked to remain, an unrecognised wanderer.” As a wanderer, he absorbed and has now recalled some of the most lovely scenes of London, the river, the parks, and the people. And despite his carefully shielded independence, he did go halfway with several agreeable friendships. Young Earl Russell was the first Englishman he spoke to, and he with Logan Pearsall Smith and Arthur Strong, Henry James, and Lionel Johnson are recalled from memory and compared, their strong points and weak, with those Boston congenials, Mrs. Jack Gardner, Cam Forbes, and Mrs. Whitman, to whom Santayana paid his respects on his return to this side.
These characterizations are drawn with the same clear, probing, sensitive but almost impersonal touch with which he drew the portrait of his mother. First and middle, this autobiography is a revelation of a philosopher who walled himself in as he grew. It is the exaltation of the private life, the classic isolation of the ivory tower.