The Peripatetic Reviewer

IN 1942, the year before his death, President Lowell would occasionally stop at my office on his way to lunch. Hands behind his back, his head bowed, he would begin that race-track encirclement of the room which seemed to give such momentum to his thinking. And the gist of what he said was this: “Now is the time to make our commitments with our Allies — now, when people are open-minded and when everyone is straining for victory. Last time we waited until it was too late. And in the aftermath when people were exhausted and suspicious, we lost the very thing we’d been fighting for. Don’t let them repeat that mistake. Don’t let suspicion get out of hand. Make your commitments now while the pressure is on.”
The attempt was honestly made and in part successful. In the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in the wonderful teamwork of British and American scientists, in the coördination of Empire and American production, the British Commonwealth and the United States came to a closer understanding than two sovereign powers have ever achieved before. And in our LendLease to Russia we made a commitment which Stalin, not at first but finally and frankly, acknowledged.
Now we find that our master stroke, the atomic bomb, has done more than bring Japan to her knees. It has blown the daylights out of international thinking. It has created a vacuum which is being slowly and dreadfully filled with suspicion. We liltle realize in this country how much fear and suspicion our power has aroused abroad. We shall walk into the Peace Conference with the greatest Navy the world has ever seen. And the greatest Air Force. We have almost all the world’s gold, in a hole in Kentucky. Measured in factories and skilled labor we have an incredible productive capacity, where our Allies have scorched earth or obsolete machines. And we have the bomb.
But as yet we have not made trustful enough commitments for people abroad to discern what we shall do. We talk as if to pacify the world. Yet in their eyes we act suspiciously. We say that Okinawa, for which we paid so bloody a price, has become so vital to us that we alone must be its trustee. Here, as in Tokyo, we demand a decisive voice and we follow that demand with General Marshall’s statement that “the only effective defense a nation can now maintain is the power of attack,” and with President Truman’s plea for compulsory military training. Since our enemies are defenseless, these displays of power seem to be aimed either at a bogeyman or at our Allies. Can they be blamed for being suspicious?
Here at home, of course, we look at things differently. We get aroused by the suspicion of others. We say we can’t trust Russia. We say she won’t meet us halfway. We say she won’t deal with us as open-handedly as we should like to deal with her. I hear people say that the choice is between democracy as we and the British know it, and democracy on the collective model as practiced in Russia. And I wonder if that choice must be pressed to the point of a new war.
Here at home you have Mr. Streit and Mr. Culbertson pleading for an Anglo-American bloc strong enough to hold the bomb in check. Strong enough to make the rest of the world suspicious?
Here at home a group of distinguished men and women meeting at Dublin, New Hampshire, has already challenged United Nations procedure. Can we then find another which would be still more trustworthy in the emergency?
Here at home an American Senator of integrity was heard to say, “Look, to stump the country for World Government with the Senate in its present mood would be political suicide. Where is the public sentiment for what you are asking?”
Here at home another Senator — Senator Fulbright — comes out with the flat statement that we, being a democracy and a country slow to go to war, would never use the bomb as a surprise weapon but that a more autocratic country would have the drop on us.
Here at home Vannevar Bush has told us that there is no possible defense against the bomb. And Einstein has told us that the “secret” cannot possibly be kept for more than a short time from another nation as powerful as ours.
Meantime we celebrate Navy Day, we take pride in a Fleet of at least a thousand ships — and General Marshall calls for new weapons. Day after day suspicion grows.
An armament race in atomic bombs is not unthinkable. It is being openly, recklessly, and suspiciously discussed today by men who call themselves tough-minded. Their line of reasoning runs like this: The bomb will not exterminate mankind. It could cripple but it could not wipe out countries of great space, like the U.S.A., like China, like Russia. Of course, having forty million people congested in cities makes us rather vulnerable. But we could begin to disperse; we could . . .
This year Beacon Hill will be again alight and the choirs massing on the steps will carol “ Peace on earth and mercy mild.” This is the month of the imperishable words: “Unto us a child is born, Unto us a Son is given, And the government shall be upon his shoulder.” Imperishable? Are you really so sure? What are you doing to make it so?

War marriage

As a roving reporter in the Pacific, John P. Marquand had the same opportunity of living and talking with the GI’s and the Navy, the same opportunity of watching an assault at close range, that Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck had in the European theater. A man in his early fifties, a writer without a deadline to meet, he must have felt at times, as I suspect all war writers have felt, protected, out of touch with “the kids,” humble and perhaps a little useless in the given situation. I say this not to disparage Mr. Marquand’s fine capacity as an observer, but rather to establish the mood in which his new short novel, Repent in Haste, was written.
I am not taking liberties with the story when I suggest that William Briggs, the war correspondent in it, experienced pretty much what the author himself went through, whether at Pearl or on the beach at Iwo Jima. The longer Briggsie stays in the Pacific, the more he feels his age; and the fact that the young officers call him Pops is indicative of the abyss of time between them. Pops would like to bridge this, and he does manage to get fairly close to Lieutenant Boyden, one of the naval aviators on the carrier Rogue River. From the start this is the story of men groping toward each other through that bewilderment between generations which has always fascinated Mr. Marquand. Pops gives us the tipoff in these words: —
“Just before he had left New York, when he had come back to the apartment at five one afternoon, he had found his daughter Clara giving a tea-party for her dolls, and she had asked him to sit on the floor beside the little table. Curiously enough, he was now experiencing the same sense of unreality, the same embarrassed effort to adjust himself to the unfamiliar, the same attempt to recapture something which he had lost. Now, instead of a doll’s teacup, he was holding half a glass of raw rye whiskey. Instead of dolls, he was on a bed beside two insensible young officers. Instead of Clara, he was talking to a drunken lieutenant.”
The character of Boyden, the American fighter who has come through again and again and in whom the rubber is wearing thin, is superbly drawn. We never see him in action. We see him as Pops saw him, at press conferences, at mess, in the bull sessions as they drink together. His life, the life of the sound, normal 20-20 kid still proud of having played that last quarter against Summit High, is revealed to us entirely through the dialogue. Boysie’s wish to get in touch with his war bride, the sleazy blonde who was supposedly keeping the home fires burning, is the responsibility which the war correspondent faithfully discharges when he comes back on leave. And thereby hangs the tale.
Mr. Marquand likes to lampoon, but his parody of war correspondents — of how Briggsie wrote — is so slapstick that I read it with a hollow laugh. He is at his best in this book when he tells the story straight. On his return Pops goes first to see the aviator’s parents, and then the bride. The contrast in welcomes is beautifully done. So is the reunion of the two men in Hawaii, just after the Rogue River has taken her shellacking. Fast, vigorous writing on a theme about which we shall certainly hear a great deal more in the next two years.

Beach red

Beach Red by Peter Bowman is a novel of Pacific combat written in a form which has been measured to look like conversational blank verse. Like A Walk in the Sun by Harry Brown or Into the Valley by John Hersey, this is the narrative of a small group of men, part of an assault wave, who are isolated on a dangerous mission. The story begins on a transport, works its way ashore under fire, and then follows a small patrol inland, led by Sergeant Lindstrom, whose mission it is to warn of Jap infiltration or counterattack. When Lindstrom is wounded, the command passes to the nameless “you” of the chronicle, and he and Eagan are followed to the end.
Whether for novelty or emphasis, the author has chosen to block out his novel in a mathematical arrangement: ten words to the line, sixty lines to the chapter, and each chapter representing a minute of the action. Mr. Bowman avoids monotony by shifting the internal rhythm of his line. He picks his verbs for their power. He injects the note of irony by leading off a stanza with an italicized line from the Psalms: —
He leadeth me beside the still waters (You are passing a sluggish stream hiding its brackish content under slimy plants . . . .
And when he begins to ride his metaphors, you know that he feels poetic, even though the steer bolts away with him. For example: —
and nights when fear would come to bed with you,
stroking your face with hot fingers, urging her thighs close
while her head hung down heavily on your convulsing throat
and her hair caught in your breath and you choked.
Or take: —
There is the rich, resonant cough of the navy’s guns
as trim cruisers and destroyers clear their throats and spit,
streaming their shattering saliva into the turbulent
cuspidor curving ahead.
It is hard for me to see why Beach Red should have been printed as poetry when all its good points are those of prose. Mr. Bowman has a good ear for dialogue, and in a scene like the wounding of Lindstrom he packs the action and tension of men who are both hurt and lost. He has an eye for the right word, but more often than not the right word militarily is certainly not the right word for poetic effect.
Be careful. The danger of a counterattack is always present.
The Japanese system of defense is based largely on maneuver.
They do not resist energetically, but yield with the blow,
intending to hit back unexpectedly and decisively when the attacker
has been disorganized by the extent of his own penetration
is prose, no matter how you slice it. Mr. Bowman’s technique is most natural and least pretentious in the account of the fighting, the resting, and the walkie-talkie. But when it comes to the death throes (one of the longest monologues in war literature) the imperative mood seems to me too ostentatious for pity.

Free and easy

When I was in England in the early golden years between the wars, I journeyed some two thousand miles on what the English call a push-bike (the push being very important on the hills). On these excursions I seldom lived on more than six shillings a day, which meant sleeping in a Temperance Hotel and lunching on bread, cheese, and bitters. I traveled as far or as little as I chose each day, and in this lean, semi-ascetic state I picked up, like an etcher’s plate, impressions of the Roman roads, York, Richmond, the West Riding, and the Lakes — memories which are priceless. And I want to do it again in Gloucestershire, in Wales, and in Ireland, now that we can once more travel without belligerency.
A book of bucolic beauty, Irish laughter, and fresh incentive has just been written and illustrated by Robert Gibbings, himself an Irishman with a knowledge of birds, a love of history, and the skill of an engraver. Lovely Is the Lee is the account of his very human exploration of the River Lee country in Ireland and of the quaint and lovely life which flows on, as if there had never been a war, in Galway, Connemara, the Claddagh, in Inniscarra, and on the islands in Lough Mask. When I traveled on my push-bike, I usually had a copy of Cobbett’s Rural Rides to guide me. Reading Lovely Is the Lee is like having an Irish Cobbett with you of an evening before the fire. It tells you of the swans that sing, of the parks and their ancient yield, of wooden goblets, bronze instruments, or of bog butter half a century old. It tells you of the Irish heart, of its generosity, its mirth, its sudden fierceness, and its love of the little people. And giving point to every story are his charming black and whites. Here is the delight of perambulating.
The Friendly Persuasion, the first volume of short stories by a talented new writer, Jessamyn West, is a healing and friendly book for the battle-scarred imagination. Miss West, who first scored several of these hits in the Atlantic, is of Quaker antecedents. She knows the Hoosier country and she imagines what it was like to live on the banks of the Muscatatuck almost a century ago when the woods were largely uncut and when the American Quaker, so we like to think, was more open and less hard-pressed than he is today. The hero of her stories — when his wife will give him the chance—is Jess Birdwell, an Irish Quaker, owner of a white clapboard house, a well-stocked barn with at least one fast horse in the stalls (for Jess loves to race), a nursery with the best stock of berries and fruits west of Philadelphia.
In the open season Jess travels the roads with his Northern Spies, May Duke cherries, and the Lucretia dewberry, — “a wonder for pies and cobblers,” — pears, currant bushes, and gooseberries, selling them to the settlers. And if he had the chance to race his mare along the way, pick up a new mare that was faster yet, or indulge his love of music which neither Eliza nor the Elders could condone, it was no more than a man of warm blood would have done. Like all ruddy men, when Jess goes down, whether at the remembrance of little Sarah or at the thought of his own decay, he goes down with a thump. But for the most part he is up, and these stories catch his American exuberance in a way that warms the heart.
Miss West’s story of first love, “Lead Her Like a Pigeon,” first appeared in the Atlantic and has since been reprinted in the O. Henry Prize Stories of 1945. Commenting on it, one of the judges, Miss Margaret Widdemer, wrote: “If recording war had not, this year, been primarily significant, I would have chosen this for first place. It has the freshness of viewpoint, the unconsciously constructive values, the vitality with balance, which I believe to be the note of the coming short story. It manages to get reality, impact, and high technical quality into a story of happiness. This is much harder to do than in stories of frustration and suffering.” To which I say Amen.