The Peripatetic Reviewer
“WHAT does he do?” we ask about the new neighbor or the young man who seems to be taking interest in our daughter, and the answer forms our opinion. This question is an American yardstick by which for generations we have measured any man about whom we have been deeply or passingly curious. For unlike the Europeans, we hold to the belief that “doing” and “being” are necessarily synonymous. A man who appears to be doing nothing, a man who is indulgent or contemplative, has always seemed something of a misfit in a country in which so much has had to be done, and done quickly.
“What is he going to do?” each neighborhood will ask of the homecoming veteran, but this kindly curiosity will sometimes overlook the troubled hesitation of the soldier as he puts the same question to himself. Yet the nation’s immediate prosperity and our long hopes for peace hang on his finding the right answer.
War changes a man’s aim. It arouses in him an impatience with civilian habits of action and thought; it stirs in him an aspiration, more often felt than expressed, for a better way to live. He asks himself how much of his career has been misapplied or wasted. He feels older than Rip Van Winkle and a lifetime more mature than the fellow who last wore his civilian clothes. This is why the promise of going back to his old job is not necessarily an incentive. A lot better than selling apples, but not infallibly what a man really wants. What to do instead? Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., three times wounded, home to recuperate, and sick of war, was just as perplexed by that question in 1864 as your boy today. Emerson, to whom he turned for advice, could not point the way, and his father’s suggestions left him cold. Slowly and with misgivings he came to his own decision, to study law.
For the early twenties
There is no easy choice. Relatively it is the unmarried men in the early twenties, like young Holmes, who have the freest decision. In college or graduate school they can make up for their intellectual starvation and find out if what they have dreamed of doing is really what they want. I look for much more zeal than lethargy in this age. “Ignorance is to blame for this whole bloody mess,” writes a young naval officer from the Pacific. “The only thing I can see to do is to go after it on the ground floor. Think I could qualify as a teacher in the Boston public schools?" We have never had a fraction of the good teachers we need in this country. But now, if encouragement is rightly applied and the veterans have the patience for the training, there is a chance we might get them.
Like Holmes, men coming out of uniform will first want time to rest, time to look around and think it over. But when they decide to make their bid, I am sure the nature of the work will matter as much as the money in it, if not more. Civil aeronautics and soil control; television, radio, and journalism; plastics and electronics; surgery and biochemistry; oil; the metallurgy still to be applied to our undeveloped low-grade ores; city planning and management; the mediation of race and labor disputes; publishing and psychiatry; electric power, whether privately run or on the TVA scale; motors and trucking; railroads, ships, and housing — these are some of the callings that need young brains.
In terms of literature, I look for a new freshet of books about America when the young writing men at last are home. No place they have seen can hold a candle to this country in their imagination. This time there will be no flight of expatriates to the Left Bank or the Riviera. This time the place is Pittsburgh, Detroit, Dallas, Chicago, or Seattle, and the theme is Now — or as it was before they left.
For thirty and older
Men in their thirties — family men most of them by this time, with youngsters under ten — will be lucky if they have a profession which calls them and one to which they are keen to return. There is bound to be a good deal of restlessness in their ranks. Men who want to change will wonder if they can risk changing in mid-career and still pay the insurance policy. These veterans will have less choice than those in their twenties: the G.I. Bill of Rights will allow them less pause; the necessity of paying bills will goad them.
But the hardest of all decisions, I suspect, will come to those men in the forty-fifty bracket. Here are many whose self-confidence was badly shaken by the Depression, men for whom the business of making a living had begun to pale before the war called them to action. It does not lessen their contribution by a thought to say that some of them welcomed the change into uniform. Now they come back with assurance and citations, with the habit of command, a finer physique, and a strong desire not to fall back into the old ruts. What to do instead? What looks big enough ?
Men rising fifty are too old to break into teaching, too old to be accommodated in the lower levels of the State Department, even though they have the languages and the qualities diplomacy requires. Heretofore there has been very little to attract them into civil service, but today as the agencies and the bureaus are cut back or dissolved, one wonders if enough ability will be retained in Washington, one wonders if men stepping out of uniform will feel as never before in civilian life the urgency of serving one’s town or state, or of serving in Congress.
Here again the answer will be determined as much by the nature of the work as by the money in it, and here again we encounter the age-old shortcoming of American democracy: the refusal to pay our political representatives enough to attract the best. A Congressman’s salary is $10,000 a year, and yet a recent and careful survey showed that it was costing the average Congressman $13,000 a year to live in the Capital and represent his district. What do those figures mean to a veteran with a wife and family to support ?
One wishes that the leadership in these three groups could be brought into focus. One wishes that it could exert its force upon the dissident home front. We are certainly more unified than in those days of faction before Pearl Harbor. But in all of us are prejudices deep-laid which no indoctrination has yet been able to uproot. The leadership coming out of the Army could be our shield against the Red-baiting and the race riots, the anti-Semitism and the antiCatholicism; could be our safeguard against irresponsible Labor as against recalcitrant Management; it could hold up that steady, undeviating light by which we might come to see our true relationship towards other nations in a shrinking world. On the one hand, there is our national need of leadership. On the other, there is this huge reserve of potential leaders, men for whom leading a machine-gun platoon or a PT squadron or a formation of B-29’s was an inevitable assignment, a risky preliminary which had to be lived through before they could be of use in peace. How will we use them?
The love of migrating and the love of mixing with people are inseparable in the American character: they have made us at once the most gregarious and the most easily prejudiced people on earth, a fact made known to Wallace Stegner on his travels. Born on an Iowa farm in 1907, Stegncr spent impressionable years following his family in search of the millennium, a quest which led from Oklahoma to North Dakota, thence to the State of Washington, Saskatchewan, back to Montana, and finally to Utah. He went to grammar school in Saskatchewan, high school in Great Falls, Montana, and by 1935 he had taken his A.B. at the University of Utah, his M.A. and Ph.D. at the University of Iowa. Since then he has established himself with his novels, On a Darkling Plain and The Big Rock Candy Mountain; he has taught at Harvard, and is teaching today at the University of California. As much as any writer I know, he has the open-handed, open-minded resourcefulness of the West.
It took Mr. Stegner well over a year to sift, the evidence, draw up the conclusions in his prose, and secure, with the assistance of Look magazine, the photographs which in his new book, One Nation, tell the story of the racial strains in this country. These strains were implicit in our make-up from the start, and they were dangerously intensified by the forced immigration which was pushed with such diligence after the Civil War, when American industries were vying with each other for cheap foreign labor and when the Chicago stockyards boasted that their gates were besieged each morning by five to six hundred men clamoring for the few available jobs.
As Dr. Alice Hamilton demonstrates in her valiant book, Exploring the Dangerous Trades, we have come a long way from those days when men were cattle; from those days when an employer would write off his responsibility for accidents or sickness in the plants with words like these: “ What can you do with a lot of ignorant Dagoes, Wops, Greasers? You couldn’t make them wash if you look a shotgun to them.” That Bourbon ruthlessness did not prevail, thanks to the labor unions and to investigators with the courage of Dr. Hamilton.
But the prejudice behind those words lingered on after the stream of immigration had been shut off; and thanks to Hitler’s assistance and racial antipathies as old as time, it has seeped down to the very lowest, level of American life. With us, racial prejudice is like kerosene, slowly soaking through the fabric of American democracy. There are two obvious dangers: the danger of sparks flying off from our economic anvil, and the danger that comes from complacence— the complacence which says in effect, “These people are foreign and poor. They don’t belong and they won’t assimilate. Keep ’em apart and let’s hope for the best.”
The purpose of Mr. Stegner’s book is to remind you that hope in itself is not good enough. Here, say his vigorous prose and the telling pictures, is the dividing line between the exclusive and the excluded: on the one side the white, Protestant, Gentile majority; and on the other, those who because of color, religion, or cultural background are not yet American citizens in full acceptance. “In many ways, he writes, “ a time of racial tension is a time of hope, for it means that instead of being submissively held down, [the submerged] Americans are exerting an irresistible pressure upward.” This pictorial atlas of our Filipinos, our Nisei, and our Chinese, our Mexicans and Indians, our Catholics, our Negroes and Jews, is evidence that we have no easy or final solution; it is proof of how far the sublimation has led to a fair, firm warning that mob prejudice, which is so inflammable in the aftermath of war, must not be allowed to check the democratic process at this critical time.
Women in the smooth
The MGM studio has paid Josephine Pinckney $125,000 for the right to film her new novel, Three O’Clock Dinner; and in so doing, it has rewarded a Southern author who has heretofore been better known for her poetry than for her prose. Be it said at once for Miss Pinckney’s originality that she does not touch those heartstrings which have throbbed over the works of so many Southern novelists. Three O’Clock Dinner has nothing to do with the Civil War, nothing to do with plantations or with Massa Tom. Rather it is the All-American theme of democracy by marriage enacted against the charming background of Charleston, S.C., a city every aspect of which the author loves as only a native can. I suspect that the studio made its choice because of the situation out of which the story develops; because Charleston, unlike Atlanta, has not yet had its day in Hollywood; and because of the realization that a good script writer could give Miss Pinckney’s dialogue the pace and colloquialism which it lacks in print.
Three O’Clock Dinner tells the contemporary story of a Charleston family of faded vitality whose only surviving son, Tat Redcliff, a rebel against Southern Tradition, has had the luck to fall in love with a robust German-Irish redhead, granddaughter of immigrants. We watch the affair through the eyes of Judith, the widow of Tat’s older brother, and we watch it with the protesting elderly resistance of his father.
This marriage across the tracks, this love affair of kids growing up in a changing neighborhood, is typical of any American town, and more typical than ever today when the war has swept away the fences which in the last century might have separated the Redcliffs from the Hessenwinkles. Such a situation is full of possibilities, full of as much humor, spark, and exasperation as the temperaments involved. And if the affair fizzles in this book, it is because Tat is not the man he thinks he is.
Tat considers himself a Liberal. He has no use for the Big Houses. He works in a filling station because gasoline, as he explains to his parents, is “an essential industry.” And when he propositions Lorena, he does so in those words: “Why, you know how I feel about that, Rena. The trouble is marriage has been debased in our society by conventional morality; we’ve let it become commercial, barter and trade, a price set on love. The Russians are doing it better, they’ve put the relationship between men and women on a higher plane. What’s really immoral is for people to go on living together after they’ve stopped loving each other. I love you terribly — there’s nobody else for me, and if you could learn to love me, we’d live together with dignity, in a free relationship that would last because we’d want it to last.”
These sentiments might have been expressed in Greenwich Village of 1922, though even then, I think, they would have been spoken with more character; but I simply cannot credit them to a young radical of 1939. The trouble is that the Redeliffs - Tat, his father, and his uncle—all talk in stilted, verbose accents that might he a family failing, and again might be Miss Pinckney’s. Our inability to accept Tat on Miss Pinckney’s terms means that we also disbelieve in Lorena, who for a short time thinks she loves him. You have to take the pair with a pinch of salt, and there is not enough salt in the writing to make their story either as violent or as subtle as the blurb promises. For me it tastes like agreeable fruitcake.
What redeems the book is its Old World flavor, which is conveyed by Miss Pinckney’s poetic descriptions of Charleston and by her Old World character, Judith, the grief-centered widow. Judith lives more than half-time in the past, conning over and over the scenes of her marriage with Fen; her loneliness and her physical handicap are made poignant, and the solace which she finds in her gardening and in her appreciation of the seasons as they pass over Charleston and its harbor contain the most authentic writing in the book. Judith is believable; she has a vitality which none of the men possess. She wears the pants of the book.
Women in the rough
Women Homesteaders have been a specialty of the Atlantic. Early in his editorship, my predecessor, Ellery Sedgwick, brought into print Letters of a Woman Homesteader, by Elinore Stewart of Burnt Fork, Wyoming, and a great feature it was. A decade later he made a second strike with The Stump Farm, by Hilda Rose, those letters from the Peace River country which carried such an irresistible appeal to the more sheltered Americans. Eleanor Risley, who wrote from her apple orchard in the Ozarks, and Caroline Henderson, holding tenaciously to her Oklahoma farm in the Dust Bowl, are others I remember. And to my desk came Old Jules, by Mari Sandoz, that unbeatable biography of Nebraska in which the copper-wire strength of the author gleams so attractively. More recently, when humor of any kind has been as scarce as hens’ teeth, I have had the fun of first placing in print We Took to the Woods, by Louise Dickinson Rich, and The Egg and I, by
What commends all of these personal chronicles is, first, the variety and the cussedness of the work which these women stand up to; secondly, their relations, effectual or otherwise, with the males in their neighborhood; and, in every case, the humor and spirit with which they contend against the unexpected. There is plenty of the unexpected in that delightfully autobiographical book, The Egg and I.
At the beginning, the author and her young husband embarked on what seemed to be a reasonably safe bet; they gambled their savings to set up a chicken farm — purchase price, $450-in the Northwest. Betty herself, fresh out of college, had plenty of appetite and no experience whatever to draw on for the venture. Apart from the chickens, they lived like kings. The country was bountiful They had pheasant, quail, duck, cracked crab, venison, butter, clams, oysters, brook trout, salmon, fried chicken, and mushrooms to make the juices run, and they had a delightful freedom which was only mildly interrupted by some odd neighbors and an occasional meandering bear.
The trouble was they could not keep apart from the chickens for long, and Betty, who had embarked with a kind of mild benevolence toward her feathered friends, began to find their care and feeding more than she had bargained for. For relief and for help with her own children, she turned to the neighbors — particularly the Kettles, that family which would have convulsed Mark Twain. As the smell and struggle with the chickens begin to wear her down, Betty’s eye and tongue grow sharper. She misses no detail, and if criticism begins to give edge to her laughter, it is certainly for the most human of reasons. She writes with a breezy, Western unconventionality and with a wit as quick as a needle. Her figures of speech made me laugh aloud, as I did when reading Margaret Halsey’s With Malice Toward Some. And this is the infallible test of good homesteaders: wherever Betty is, there things are happening — sometimes gayly, sometimes very personally, sometimes disastrously. But never without interest.
Editor of the London Observer, novelist and lover of poetry, especially of the Elizabethan brew, Ivor Brown found a most pleasurable distraction with which to take his mind off the blitz. He began to collect words. “My method,” he said, “has been simple, personal, and vagrant. I have noted and collected the words which caught my fancy during my wartime reading. . . . Strange, beautiful, amazing — I have made my pick for all sorts of reasons. I have not barred American or Scottish or dialect words — no rule but personal relish has guided me. In general I have chosen words which I should like to see employed more often or more accurately. . . .”
When a word pricked his fancy, he began to scout for it through English history and the pages of his favorite poets and dramatists. He marked its growth or decline as it passed from one generation to another. In the little notes of appreciation and defense which form a setting for each of his favorites, there are both verbal pleasure and a heady stimulant for those who like to write. In his double-barreled volume, A Word in Your Ear and Just Another Word, he tells us why “annoy” is so much weaker than it once was; he tells us that “aloof” is a gift from the sea, being derived from the nautical “luffing”; he tells us that, “booby” is a fruit of victory, having come in from Spain soon after the Armada, “and a fine, heavy dolt the booby is”; and he tells us why “honey” lingers on as an endearment in America though it is no longer such in England. He thinks “ leathery" is a poor word for a substance that can be so handsome, and his little essay on “lewd” should be read by the Watch and Ward Society of Boston every Sabbath.
The mouse for me
Stuart Little is a dream book. Children will go off to sleep dreaming of its minute hero, and parents who have reread it aloud for the nth time will still chortle as they find new glints of E. B. White’s matchless humor which they overlooked in keeping pace with the adventure. The magic of this story arises from its spontaneity. It begins with these words: “When Mrs. Frederick C. Little’s second son was born, everybody noticed that he was not much bigger than a mouse. . . .He was only about two inches high; and he had a mouse’s sharp nose, a mouse’s tail, a mouse’s whiskers, and the pleasant, shy manner of a mouse. Before he was many days old he was not only looking like a mouse but acting like one, too — wearing a gray hat and carrying a small cane.”
That their second son, Stuart, should be a mouse occasions neither surprise nor much embarrassment to Mr. and Mrs. Little. Their newborn has the heart of a lion and is as debonair as Beau Brummel. His only inconvenience is that, being so tiny, he is easily mislaid, and this occasionally worries his mother. Stuart is an adventurer, and the reviewer should be shot who attempts to retell his escapades. Whether he is piloting a model yacht in Central Park or a souvenir birch-bark canoe or driving that dream car whose gas tank is filled with a medicine dropper, Stuart is doing what the mind’s eye would like to have all little men do, and doing it with a gayety, an independence, that keep him traveling in the imagination long after you have finished the last page. This story is the quintessence of American humor, a lovely stretch of exaggeration told with a perfectly straight face from start to finish. Like Tenniel’s drawings for Alice, the pictures by Garth Williams catch the spirit of the book and are beautifully placed.