WHEN at last we emerge from the steam heat of winter quarters, we look and feel like something that has been living under a board. It takes time to adjust the antennae to the outer world. But as the leaf unfolds and green comes back into our sight, the chill expectancy of April is succeeded by the sunny awareness of May: the arbutus and the lady’s-slipper in the brown woods, the flash of the bluebird, the dogwood, the shadbush, and the robin call us out of our old shells and, awake and uncovered, we begin to relish the good earth.
We seldom write down this rediscovery, since we have lost the habit of keeping journals. It is the rare fisherman like Bliss Perry, or the vigilant naturalist like the late Tom Barbour, who keeps the log of the spring and summer; and to read their words is to stir that anticipation which is so fragrant in June — the anticipation of good days, long days to come.
Every angler goes to sleep with anticipation, and with it in mind he needs no alarm clock to arouse him at 5.00 A.M. So this year, the night before I took my eleven-year-old and his friend on our first scouting of the trout brooks in Essex County, I picked up Mr. Perry’s Pools and Rippies, and turning to his essay “On Fishing with a Worm,” paused over this delicious picture:—
“‘The last fish I caught was with a worm,’ says the honest Walton, and so say I. It was the last evening of last August. The dusk was settling deep upon a tiny meadow, scarcely ten rods from end to end. The rank bog grass, already drenched with dew, bent over the narrow, deep little brook so closely that it could not be fished except with a double-shotted, baited hook, dropped delicately between the heads of the long grasses. Underneath this canopy the trout were feeding, taking the hook with a straight downward tug, as they made for the hidden bank. It was already twilight when I began, and before I reached the black belt of woods that separated the meadow from the lake, the swift darkness of the North Country made it impossible to see the hook. A short half hour’s fishing only, and behold nearly twenty good trout derricked into a basket until then sadly empty. Your rigorous fly-fisherman would have passed that grass-hidden brook in disdain, but it proved a treasure for the humble.”
At the outset this spring the brooks in Massachusetts were uncommonly low, and Eleven and I, as we stooped and poked our way through the alders and chokecherry, had our excitement again and again deflated as what looked to be a deep pool or a dark undercut bank proved only to be shallow, laughing water. Our hope led us on and on in quest of those hiding places — or, as Mr. Perry calls them, “the best rooms in the hotel.”(“Every trout fisherman knows that there are certain favorite places in a stream where the fish find the right food and shelter, and that these spots are moved into like the best rooms in a hotel. When one trout ‘checks out,’ either upstream or by capture, another promptly takes possession.”) For an instant, as I saw the boy’s tip go down in the shadow of a bridge, I thought we were in. But what came up — and it came up by hand — was a long wire, attached to the end of which was an eel trap, and in the eel trap the only speckled trout we were to see that day!
We came home, thoroughly skunked, and that evening, as we dampened fresh leaders and whistled up fresh hope for the brooks we bad not yet visited, I encouraged Eleven to explore the cartoons by H. T. Webster in To Hell with Fishing, or How to Tell Fish from Fishermen. He read aloud slowly, giving his own pronunciation to the unfamiliar words, and ns he discovered “How to Dispose of Dead Fish” his concentration dissolved and he burst into laughter. There are more ways than one to enjoy trout.
This feeling of renewal makes you alert to the adventure in your neighborhood. By preference you drive the little roads where through the budding branches you can see down the corridor of the trees and get the real lay of the land. The fish hawks’ nests are black baskets against the sky. In the woodlot, you look for deer prints and find them clear and unmistakable in the pine needles. Deer feeding this winter within twenty-six miles of the State House. As you split pine kindling from the ripe logs and savor the resinous sheen of the cleft wood, your wife begins her annual feud against the bull brier. The big steel clippers and the spray go into action. Then with trowels and peach basket we head for the swamp to transplant a new stockade of ferns for our guest house; on the way we hear the fire alarm in the village and try to count the location.
Mickey comes with us, — Mickey, our fifteenyear-old spaniel, — nose to earth and gruffing his hunter’s threats to all creation. He runs ahead and then pauses for us, head up, to make sure of our direction. As his hearing fades, I notice he is less venturesome. I notice how white is his muzzle and how the hindquarter trembles, and I feel, as only a dog’s master can, the thrust of that question, Is this his last year?
A retriever by nature, Mickey is gun-shy: the very sight of Eleven’s cap pistol starts him bellying out of earshot. But he will burst his heart to retrieve anything inanimate, anything like a stick in a brook, a cork skimming the sand, or best of all, now that his teeth are gone, apples in the October orchard. “Mick!” I call, and he watches me as I reach down into the grass. The short stick sails down the path and he after it, ears flapping. He retrieves it, tests it with his gums, rolls on it, and then at my approach he guards it between his paws, grinning, “Try and get it!”
On our way home we smell smoke. As we turn up the drive, there is Eleven, eyes smudged and the whole boy voluble. “Smell this,” he demands and obediently I bend down and sniff his sweater. “Wood smoke. And embers! Boy, what a fire! The Chief said it might have spread through the whole woods. Must have been fifty of us fighting it. He said, ‘Don’t let it get underground: beat it out with anything.’ Gee, Dad, once I nearly got cut off. And when I left he said I was O. K.”
In such small adventures the nearness and mortality of what is dear to us come home — the oaks and beech that might have caught, the small frame shacks, the dog, the boy. Is renewal such as this, I wonder, possible for the Dutch as they drain the salt from their inundated land? Is it possible for the embittered Greek and the disillusioned Italian? Is it possible for the men and women rebuilding Stalingrad? Or has the fire of suspicion already eaten so far underground that men who are now boys will not be able to put it out?
Those who follow the woods
“The trouble with cooking,” said a friend who had been doing the housework for her husband and three children, “is that it’s so daily.” We who are nurtured in the city like to imagine the rustic beauty of this country before it was cut and plowed. We picture the blazing hearth and the snug resourcefulness of the winter-bound kitchens, and we totally underestimate the fear and the labor which were the daily burden of those making a home in the wilderness. To recall this is the responsibility of the historical novelist.
A gifted and responsible narrator, Conrad Richter has spent years familiarizing himself with the outer aspects and the living core of early American life. Richter’s roots go deep in Pennsylvania. He was born in a small town which his greatgrandfather, the tavernkeeper and veteran of 1812, had helped to found. From family hearsay, as from his father, an itinerant preacher, young Richter acquired a knowledge of the village and mountainside and the incentive to re-create the life and speech of those hunters and settlers who opened America. “My purpose,” he once wrote me, “was not to write something lively with plot to sell on its own, but rather to start with an early American woods character who knows only a rude hunter’s cabin and existence, and to take her, together with the great region in which she lives, from wilderness to cultivated fields to town, where in the end she dies, a leading citizen of her Ohio city and one who has seen all the historic changes.”
In The Trees, which was published in 1940, he introduced us to the Lucketts, a family “that followed the woods as some families follow the sea": Worth Luckett the hunter, the father lightly and unwillingly bound by family ties; Jary his wife, already spent by childbirth and malaria; Genny, Wyitt, Achsa, and Sulie, their woods-wild children, and Sayward Luckett, the oldest girl, the ageless little reliant on whom the cares of the family descend when the mother dies and the hunter takes to the woods.
But these are not the woods as we know them, nor as their descendants might imagine them in the Ohio of today. These are the uncut, virgin forests, dark, massive, and fearsome, a forest so oppressive that the chopping and burning of a lifetime could hardly admit enough sunlight and security for the family cabin. Never has the power of the great trees been so well described in American prose, and when little Sulie, the young girl, disappears into their shadow (was she carried off by the Indians?) it is suggestive of the fate which befell so many a cabin.
In The Fields, Mr. Richter carries forward the story into the early 1800’s. The Lucketts have won their first battle against the Trees, and now, on the claims staked out by the old hunter, Sayward is raising her own family. Her husband, Portius, is not a natural woodsman, but an Easterner, a lawyer and recluse drawn by the call of the new country, a man as skilled with his words as he is awkward with his hands, a man of ideas who, as the community takes root, becomes its spokesman in famine, in education, in town taxing. The Fields tells us of the backbreaking work it was to raise a large family, to plan for the sawmill church, bring food in when starvation stalked the winter, and still find time to establish Portius’s school. The story acquires warmth and unity from Sayward’s pulsing vitality; it gathers humor and fidelity from the pioneer speech which Mr. Richter has so skillfully assimilated, and it is sustained by the American strength of unceasing endeavor.
In this year of blowsy, loose-lipped fiction, the unspectacular truth of Mr. Richter’s prose is like the restrained character of a New England meetinghouse. There is of course a calculated risk in publishing these two books — and the third to come — at such long intervals. To a degree our interest in the second generation of Lucketts depends upon our remembrance of the first; our feeling for Sayward’s children is intensified if we remember what happened to Sayward’s brothers and sisters when first they entered the gloom of the giant trees. But when the two books are read in sequence, as they should be, we appreciate the cause and effect, we salute the courage and respond to the heart which bound this little clan together.
“Love that Soap”
In the stimulated economy which we have devised for the United States, radio is at once the newest, the liveliest, and the most unashamed form of salesmanship. The industry has much to its credit — the swift spotting of news, the reproduction of good music, the mass production of vaudeville, and of education by debate, and all this credit is paid for by an advertising revenue which in some stations has jumped 3000 per cent since 1940.The Hucksters, by Frederic Wakeman is the first, clever, chromium-plated story of the boys in radio advertising who make the wheels go round and get fortunes, mistresses, and ulcers in the process.
The book has all the novelty of a new gadget. Here is the curious new tie-up between Wall Street, Main Street, and Hollywood; here is the new slang of a new theatrical profession; here is the new fraternity of the account executives and talent scouts, torch singers and ham actors, shuttling back and forth on the Super Chief. The business has plenty of blue chips. Because he would rather be a winner than a loser, Vic Norman, on his release from OWI overseas, decides, after a mild gagging, that he can name his own terms and be his own man in handling the twelve-million-dollar Beautee Soap account (“Love that Soap”) for Evan Llewelyn Evans, the toughest tyro in radio. It takes three mistresses and a trip to Hollywood to convince him, in the trade lingo, that he is all loused up.
The clever Variety patter will carry most readers halfway through this story before certain questions become insistent. Those children Vic meets on the train. Cute talk and all, they are dreadful little caricatures. And Kay Dorrance, their mother, in whom Vic awakes the sleeping tigress. Tigress, my foot! Mr. Wakeman writes a biting line when he feels satirical, but when he is in earnest he gets soft. The love story is undevious and much too thin for any climax. Vic’s final showdown with Mr. Evans is disappointing. What we come away with is a contempt for salesmanship that can be as noisome, as double-dealing, and as successful as that in which our hero took part. Even he was disgusted.
The Droll Story of Niccolò Machiavelli
Somerset Maugham, having passed threescore and ten, is getting ready, so he tells us, to close his notebooks. The most accomplished novelist now living, he is also one of the most indefatigable. The method by which he works and the books on which he feeds he has described for us in that illuminating volume, The Summing Up. I call it a must book for any beginning writer, and I am pleased to see that Penguin Books are reissuing it this spring. In a postscript to that book, an interview which appeared in the New York Times Book Review Section of April 21, Mr. Maugham tells us that he is now at work on his last novel, and also discloses the routine under which he has lived in this country: —
“Writing has become a habit with me. But I don’t spend many hours a day at it. Only three hours each morning. . . . You see, a professional writer has a duty to himself, and wherever I’ve gone and whatever I’ve done I have kept in mind that for three hours each day I must write from 1000 to 1500 words. Fifteen years ago I set a pattern, or rather I recognized a pattern in my life, and I resolved to complete that pattern. With this book on which I’m now at work it will be completed. I don’t want to leave any unfinished work.”
On the Carolina plantation which has been his recent sanctuary, Mr. Maugham has passed the time by writing a Droll Story which would have beguiled Balzac as it will certainly beguile thousands of Americans. The book, to be called Then and Now, bears every evidence of lingering affection: it must have been fun to write. It is the saucy, worldly story of Niccolò Machiavelli, the shrewd, cynical diplomat of the Renaissance who represented the Signory of Florence at the French Court and later in some very shrewd scheming against Caesar Borgia, the condottiere most feared by the city-states.
We meet Machiavelli in the flower of his age, on the sunny side of forty, and now outward bound for Imola, which at the moment is Caesar Borgia’s capital. Marietta, his newly married wife, he has left pregnant at home. But this doesn’t concern him much. He is being sent on a most difficult mission, he has less than the purse he needs for a long and imposing stay, but he is in good voice, his wits are in order, he has a handsome young secretary to do the backstairs work, and women will be kind to him, as they always have been.
The first meeting with Caesar Borgia, still in his twenties, but as crafty as he is handsome, ends in a tempest when the military man discovers that Machiavelli has come to temporize rather than sign. But Niccolò has the long patience which diplomacy requires, and as he shifts his baggage from the gloomy monastery in which accommodations have been found for him to the cozy little cottage at the rear of the merchant’s garden, we see that he has already noted the comely bosom of the merchant’s young wife and that he intends to enjoy his visit. So the story takes you into its silken net. Mr. Maugham is the master of the seductive beginning, and this is one of his best.
It may be difficult for some readers to follow the initial intricacy of the Italian conspirators, but this is a small effort to make for such pleasure. Machiavelli is soon engrossed in two conspiracies: the one in which he is scheming for the protection of Florence, and the other and more seductive one in which he is contriving his self-satisfaction. The plots develop simultaneously and with a clarity and mystification delightful to behold. The dialogue is unstilted and as lively as if it had been spoken today, and the battle of wits in which Machiavelli imposes himself first on his eighteen-year-old secretary Pietro and then on Bartolomeo, whom he hopes to make cuckold; the guile with which he approaches the mother hen, Monna Caterina, and the audacity and control of his rapier work with Borgia — these are pages of consummately skillful writing. It is as if Mr. Maugham were reading The Prince in reverse, translating it back into the terms of Niccolò’s own existence. It is as if he were nudging you, saying, “Here is why Machiavelli became the cynic; here are the adventures and the lessons which prompted him to write.”