The Peripatetic Reviewer
UNANIMITY, by which I mean the feeling of being submerged in an identity with one’s community, is a rare experience in American democracy. I was ten when I first experienced it. It must have been in 1908 that Teddy Roosevelt came to visit one of his Rough Riders in my home town in New Jersey. The whole populace from the Port to North Broad Street gathered in the approaches to the railroad station; and being small and slippery, I wormed my way into the front row underneath the arm of a National Guardsman and two jumps from the open automobile in which the President was to ride. The train arrived, the band struck up “Hail to the Chief,” T.R. with his famous grin descended the steps of the station, and a roar rose from the crowd. As he seated himself in the tonneau, the lines surged in and washed me up on the running board with my little crab claw thrust towards him. He shook it — yes, he shook it. For the rest of that day I walked on air. I carried my right flipper as if it were something sacred, and avoided the necessity of washing it until the following morning.
Here I was a small part, a small and grimy part, of a local uprising. Walt Whitman must have fell the same way when, as ;i boy in pantaloons, he joined in the great ovation which Brooklyn gave to the aged and glittering hero of the Revolution, General Lafayette. But grief binds us in a closer unity than hero-worship, as Walt knew when, on the day of Lincoln’s death, he began writing “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d. " Grief is an inseparable part of the larger dedication. My generation felt it individually in the spring of 1917 and on Armistice Day. I know of only one man who missed it on the Sunday of Pearl Harbor. You catch a glimpse of it in that
straining, heroic photograph of the flag going up on Mount Suribachi. And surely all Americans even including the bitterest eritics of the Administration — were caught up in something bigger than themselves the evening of April 12.
“What we need,” said President Everett Case of Colgate, “ is a better sense of being in the same boat.” That is a remark to hold fast to as the casualty lists come in. As the tax burden bears down (why kid ourselves that it can be lightened immediately?) and as we live through the dislocation and strain, many will have to suffer the inner loneliness of grief. For the boy “Missing,” for the husband gone, there seems at first no relief, only endless trudging through desert days. But as Lucien Price has declared in that moving little book of his. Litany for All Souls, the communion of grief is a binding force, a force as compelling as it is compassionate. “Who dare say that we who live are worthy of those who have died? Who dare say that our society is yet worthy of such human sacrifices? On us who survive is laid the solemn accountability to build a world-order that can live guiltless of innocent blood.”
A sinking people
The revulsion now sweeping the Western world as we learn the full and grisly extent of Nazi bestiality will have the effect of shutting many minds against all things German. Disgust w ill have destroyed curiosity: ! doubt if this time we shall seek a popular life of Hitler as we read Ludwig’s Wilhelm Hohenzollern, or the odyssey of an escaped Russian prisoner as we did The Case of Sergeaant Griseha, or the tragedy of the defeated as in All Quiet on the Western Front. The laughter and clowning of Private Schweik would fall on deaf ears; this time it will be difficult for the imagination to bestir quick sympathy for the Little Men, What Now.
Only a master of irony like Ludwig Bemelmans could have employed the skill and tenderness to remind us that vestiges of good, however overpowered, survive in a place like Regensburg, where Catholicism restrained the beast to some degree. His novel. The Blue Danube, is written in detestation of the Nazi — that “animal with the voice" as he calls Gauleiter Stolz — and in extenuation of the burghers of Regensburg, once free, now enslaved by the Party, the people “from whom hope had run away like a thief in the night.” In this story they still meet, the intimidated, in the shaded beer garden at the edge of the river, drinking under the watchful eyes of the S.S. and gazing out at the little island of silt and willows which the Danube has formed below the bridge. Everyone knows that the island is the last refuge of Anton Fischer, his elderly sisters, and Leni, his pretty niece, and that Anton, who once owned the town brewery and indeed the beer garden, is now reduced to growing radishes and to living on the river’s jettison. But his independence and the girl’s beauty are a challenge to the Gauleiter and so the trouble begins. Bernelmans’s scorn has the edge of a razor and with it he ‘slashes at German grossness. His picture of the old, uncorrupted town is as nostalgic as t he old waltz; and in Anton, the Bishop, and the French prisoner he shows the integrity only deat h can subdue. The little isle, soon to be inundated, becomes a symbol of a sinking people, not without pathos.
Slices of America
Time and performance have established Booth Tarkington as the Dean of American Novelists. I have read most of his forty-five books and to tell over the favorites like The Gentleman from Indiana, Penrod, Seventeen, Alice Adams, and The Magnificent Ambersons is to recognize the dominant qualities in his writing. It was Tarkington’s forte to catch the buoyancy of American life, to write of boyhood as it had not been depicted since Mark Twain, to see in feminine adolescence a subject that could be tender as well as mirthful, and to see in American parents people who were neither introverts nor extroverts but a little of both, a healthy average who were harassed and occasionally rewarded by the business of living. Never a Pollyanna, he believed, as did Willa Cather and Dorothy Canfield Fisher, that the positive in American life outweighed the negative: he maintained that philosophy at a time when younger men were bewailing our mediocrity from the Riviera.
I feel, however, that a note of uncertainty has crept into Mr. Tarkington’s works since the depression. Time has drawn him away from the accents of youth and from the generation which he knew so surely, just as it drew Galsworthy away from the younger Forsytes. Ideas interest him more than people and in a story like Image of Josephine his ideas have been personified in types: the managerial woman, the wealthy aesthete, the war-shocked veteran — people who seem more angular and less natural as they move to their appointed ends against that Middle West background which the Dean still depicts so observantly.
John O’Hara, one of our smoothest operators in the short story, is in the O. Henry tradition as it has been toughened by Ring Lardner and Hemingway. Pipe Night is a collection of thirty-one of his shorter pieces, and the best of them arc like burrs in the mind. There is a grip to the way he turns a situation that makes it stick in your thinking for some days after. He has a wonderfully quick ear for dialogue, and in stories like “Too Young,”“Platform,” “Free,” and “Now You Know” he gives you a snatch of American life, dramatic, coarse, and true.
Madeleine L’Engle is a newcomer and I mention her first novel, The Small Rain, because in it she succeeds in creating the character of a young artist, one of the most difficult assignments in the whole range of writing. This is the young and refreshing story of a musician growing surely with self-dedication in the midst of Bohemian New York, a realm which can so easily be cheapened, sentimentalized, or exaggerated. Her novel is written with good taste and clear understanding, and while she has much to learn in the pointing up of conversation and in the natural cutback of introspection, the undeniable vitality of her writing is good to discover.
The British Navy
In these days when every newspaper is crammed with narrative, it is easy to forget the Freudianism, the stream of consciousness, and the “social significance” which obsessed so many novelists of the 1930’s. Narrative was then out of fashion. Authors like Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall and C. S. Forester wrote against the current. The American team was never considered seriously for a Pulitzer Prize, and Mr. Forester’s gifts as a storyteller, so truly displayed in his early novels, The Gun, The African Queen, and The General, were passed over lightly. The collaboration of Nordhoff and Hall began in Tahiti with a local legend, the Mutiny on the Bounty, which turned them back for their source material to the British Navy under Nelson. It was while serving as a foreign correspondent in Spain, covering the Civil War for a London daily, that C. S. Forester first began to think of Captain Horatio Hornblower, a wiry British sea dog who would have been one of Nelson’s officers. As Mr. Forester followed the losing cause in Spain, scenes of the Peninsular Campaign arose before him, and the threat of Napoleon’s invasion came home to him as he watched the growing power of the Nazi.
Mr. Forester could not write of the eighteenth century until he knew for sure what life was like aboard a sloop of war or a ship of the line, until he understood the decorum and diplomacy of the Lords of the Admiralty, and until he had reduced to human terms the discipline and long-tested interdependence of officers and men. All this he has sublimated and then made graphic in a style as timeless and full of movement as the prose of Stevenson. But what makes his novels so winning is not so much their firm foundation of authenticity as it is the engaging, honest character of their commanding officer. Hornblower is a man to follow, no paragon but a man of contradictions, most endearing. Resourceful and a fighter of cold fury, his every victory is checked by afterthoughts of selfdoubt. Things might so easily have gone wrong. Fastidious about his body and his clothes, once ashore he is a gusty lover. Concealing his shyness with a gruff bark, he never misses the ability of his junior officers — who express their love in emulation.
In the new book, Commodore Hornblower, Sir Horatio has risen to command a fleet of his own bound for the uncertain waters of the Baltic. It is the year 1814 and Bonaparte is again on the rampage; no one can tell if he means to turn on Russia or make her his last European pawn before he invades England. Norway and Denmark are in the hands of the French, Sweden is teetering; by venturing north with his six vessels — two of them bomb-ketches, the last word in firepower — Hornblower may provide the Czar with that extra reassurance to fight. The beginning is excellent: they run the gauntlet of the straits; in Lieutenant Mound he has a gunner after his heart, and at the reception in the Peterhof the Countess Canerine proves herself a charming ally. So far, perfect. But in the second half, this book does not hold up so well as the others, chiefly because during the long siege ashore, Sir Horatio is bogged down. He is at his prime when at sea. And what I want to know is this — where was he in the Atlantic in 1812? That is the story I want told.