The Peripatetic Reviewer

FORTY per cent of my class at Harvard were veterans of the First World War: we were older and, as we thought, wiser than the average undergraduate, and when 17 per cent of us made the Dean’s List (of honor students), it was realized by our elders that we were taking life seriously. Today 35 per cent of the veterans at Harvard are on the Dean’s List, and the competition, I know, is much sterner than it was twenty-five years ago. The readjustment and development of the GI’s — and their wives — as demonstrated in our colleges is one of the quiet, bright spots in this troubled year.
I wonder how much constructive criticism, how much war-bred aspiration, they will bring to the communities in which they settle. I remember a letter by a young Southerner in the Army, which I clipped from Time during the war. He wrote: “There have been a good many hours when, hanging between wakefulness and oblivion, I have allowed myself to consider the rest of my life. These are some of the tentative conclusions I have reached:—
“1. I never intend to work as hard again as I have worked during these three years in the Army. During the easiest days of training, the working day averaged better than ten hours and about the only way we could recognize Sunday was by the absence of our Catholic colleagues. My next job will have to allow time for private, personal thinking, talking, reading and writing.
“2. I intend to live in the South again. There are the usual reasons for that decision — the ties of blood that never seem important until you’ve lived a long time away from home. Then, I don’t think I’ve been really warm since I left South Carolina in 1941; in Normandy I used to sleep in a puddle and dream of the long, bright days when good Southerners sit in the shade and watch the heat waves rise off the parched red earth and feel the sweat slowly run over their ribs.
“3. I want to build a house, water a lawn, dig a can of beer out of my own refrigerator,’ get elected to a school board. I want to dig my roots into a community and regain the feeling of continuity I lost a long time ago.
“4. Some day, when the weariness has passed, I’ll want to get back into the old fight, of which this war is a military phase. I’ve come to believe that the important things, the essential freedoms, the democratic processes, are luxuries, not inalienable rights, and the price we must pay for them is high.”
It is a matter of personal and indeed of editorial curiosity for me to know whether men like that have dug their roots in and how far they have regained the feeling of continuity which they lost while in service. Evidence on this point has been slow to come into print: more time is needed before we can see these ideas at work creatively in the short story and in the novel. Meantime, for the quick contemporary report I am reminded of a recent remark attributed to John Steinbeck, who opined that the freshest talent in America today is to be found in John Hersey and Bill Mauldin.

Soldier celebrity

For Bill Mauldin the war ended with a Horatio Alger flourish. Here was an apple-cheeked youngster who was eighteen when he enlisted and who looked to be not a day older when five years later he passed through the separation center at Camp Dix. As an infantryman he had seven ribbons and an overseas bar to show for those five years; as a combat artist whose cartoons were the most popular in the Army, he had a Pulitzer Prize and wide syndication through the newspapers at home; he was to write a best-seller in his book Up Front, and land a contract with Hollywood, earning him over $400,000 in his first two years as a civilian.
It is to Mauldin’s credit that he outlived the celebrity. There was an occupational risk in all this which Ernie Pyle himself foresaw when, in Italy, he remarked to the youngster, “I’m going to have to get rid of my house in Albuquerque, and buy one off in the sticks where I can stay until people forget Pyle the Great and I can become a working reporter with a typewriter again.”
“I suspect,” Mauldin adds, “that if Pyle had lived to come home and continue writing, he would have done a wise thing, because he knew the score. He would have seen how fast he could get rid of the pile of money that came in from his war stuff, and when he was good and broke he could have gone right on working as he used to, meeting the people he liked to meet, and doing the things he liked to do.”
There is all the difference in the world between the blacks and whites in which Mauldin emphasizes the smoldering resentment of Willie and Joe and those “cheerio” cartoons in which Bruce Bairnsfather bespoke the optimism of World War I. I think the greatest compliment that I could pay Mauldin as an artist is to say that he served the GI as Pyle served him as a writer — both one-of-a-kind chroniclers of the man in the ranks. The success of Mauldin’s cartoons is due to his willingness to face up to the irony and cynicism with which the GI’s regarded the campaign in Italy and wars in general. Such irony may have been unpalatable to the flag-wavers, but it carried truth to the men in service who in time passed on their endorsement to a sizable part of the home public.
Mauldin applied the same technique to the United States, which was ready to pose for him in 1945; and in his new book, Back Home, he gives the illustrated, pugnacious record of an amateur citizen who did not like what he found at home and was not afraid to say so. “Almost from the moment I came home from overseas,” he writes, “I had to start worrying about cartoon material.” The syndicate was his taskmaster, and neither the syndicate nor the public took kindly to some of his more angry drawings. The first protests came in from the women when Mrs. Willie began to express her disappointment that Willie had not returned as an officer with a riding crop and pink trousers. “In my replies,” Mauldin says, “I tried to explain that a cartoon is necessarily ridicule, not praise.” But not all of the ladies were mollified.
A few months after they became civilians, Mauldin put, Willie and Joe to work in a gas station, and there they had the chance to roast the shysters who were gypping the veteran with those second-hand, fifth-hand jalopies. That led the artist to the housing shortage, thence to the GI’s in college, and then to the American Legion (the professional veteran). In Hollywood he let go at the movies (“I felt that every war picture I had seen was an insult to the soldiers it was supposed to portray”), and when, on the West Coast, he ran into old friends of the Italian front who were trying to do what they could for the families of the Nisei, his mind opened to the full force of racial intolerance and he blazed away in a new series. He came down on the California fruit farmers and on anti-Semitism, He ridiculed the Congressmen of the Dies cast, and his cartoons of the Negro problem were drawn with the belief Gunnar Myrdal had expressed, that “the American Negro problem is a problem in the heart of the American.”
Mauldin writes as he draws. He can be malicious, as in his drawing of Major Wilson, and frothing, as in his diatribe against Pegler. But for the most part his exasperation and ridicule and his irony ring true. His irritations and his sympathies are those of an eager, inquiring veteran with an honest angry core.

Home of the bean and the cod

Boston has a more invigorating climate and is more accessible to the sea and the open country than any other city on the seaboard. It is a place which, despite its loss of shipping and the western migration of its younger sons, has preserved in its physical beauty, as in the character of its people, a more lively heritage than New York, Philadelphia, or Baltimore. Socially and to some extent politically it is governed by its Brahmins. “What is a Boston Brahmin?” asks John Gunther in his Inside U.S.A. “It isn’t easy to define the term, since copiousness of ancestry is not, as might be expected, the chief criterion. . . .
“The Brahmins today make a wonderfully closeknit archaic group, which nothing in the United States quite rivals. Harvard and trusteeships; the world placidly revolving around Back Bay; the Apley-Pulham spirit; aridity and charm and a Bloomsbury cultivation; above all, profound family interweavings. I met one eminent Brahmin who told me that his grandfather had 226 nieces and nephews; and one gentlewoman, whose husband is absolutely beyond dispute the quintessence of Brahminism, informed me quite seriously that, though she had lived in her exquisite house in Brookline for thirty years, and borne six children into the family, she was not vet finally ‘accepted’ — because she had been born in Rhode Island! . . .
“As typical a Brahmin as any is Charles Francis Adams, the most distinguished living Bostonian, the great-great-great-grandson of President John Adams, a former secretary of the Navy, and a director of some forty corporations. . . . But the Brahmins as a whole realize that most of the finite world has passed them by. . . . There are thirtyseven Cabots in the Boston Social Register; but there are forty-one Browns and Brownes.”
The Brahmins do not think of themselves as Brahmins: the word is as antique as the wooden cod hanging in the State House. A description which comes more naturally to their thinking is that which Cleveland Amory has chosen for the title of his book The Proper Bostonians. The Lees, the Appletons, the Sears, the Higginsons, the Saltonstalls, the Lowells, the Cabots, the Lorings, and the Storeys, these are a few of the proper Bostonians. Their number is not large in an area which is now dominantly Roman Catholic. Indeed the clan prides itself on being small, as evidence of which Mr. Amory mentions the Somerset Club bachelor who always referred to the Social Register as a “damned telephone book” and regularly protested its size by making it a practice, upon receiving his annual copy, to tear it in half and return it to its New York headquarters. Boston society, according to the Boston Social Register, comprises eight thousand people, and probably less than half of them are proper Bostonians.
Young Mr. Amory is one himself. His family ties at Nahant, at Brush Hill Road, Milton, and his affiliations at Harvard make him a full-fledged, if somewhat unusual member of the tribe. For his first book he has chosen the theme that Boston, more than any other American city, owes its present to its past; and to prove his point he explores the past and the present of the First Families, their consanguinity, their resourcefulness, their outspoken courage and their irritating reticence, their saltiness, their strict code of behavior, and above all, their idiosyncrasies. He writes a smooth and witty prose, is nicely judgmatic for a man still in his twenties, and by wide reading and adroit questioning has brought together a compilation of character as rich as it is diverse.
The raisins in his pudding have juice and grit. He reminds us of the Boston lady who, at a meeting of the New England Poetry Society, when the talk turned to horticulture, remarked with quiet pride, “All lilies that grow north of Boston point south and all lilies south of Boston point north”; he reminds us of the capsule formula with which old Robert Gould Shaw made his million: “Keep one’s countenance open and one’s thoughts closed”; and of how Philip Dexter once observed, “I never invest in anything I can’t see from my office window.” Speaking of fortitude in the face of death, he tells the story of the elder Colonel Perkins, who scorned his family’s appeal that he go to bed. “Certainly not,” he replied, “I have always proposed to die dressed and sitting in my chair.” (And an hour later he did.) He cites the testimony of Harvard’s President, Jared Sparks, in defense of Professor Webster, the murderer of Dr. Park man: “Our professors,” said President Sparks, “do not often commit murder.” Speaking of Boston’s separation of the sexes, he describes the Brush Hill Bridge Club which included “just eight couples who met once a month to play bridge, all of the men at two tables at one house, all of the women at two tables in another.” He quotes these thoughtful words from Major Higginson’s dedication of the Harvard Stadium: “Princeton is not wicked, Yale is not base . . . Mates, the Princeton and Yale fellows are our brothers. Let us beat them fairly if we can, and believe they will play the game just as we do.” And he reminds us of the Boston mother who once made this complaint to the rector of Groton: “The trouble with your school, Mr. Peabody, is that it makes boys despise their parents.” “No,” said Peabody, “it makes boys anxious about them.”
The Proper Bostonians is written with enough impudence, accuracy, affection, and respect to make the First Families anxious lest there be a second volume. The material has been drawn together with fairly tenuous threads, and in it the parts are surely more entertaining than the whole. It will be read with mixed and perhaps ruffled feelings by the clan, but with chuckles by the foreigners, particularly those who have weathered at least one season in Boston.
New England, New England of the softly decaying Colonial village, is the atmosphere in which Gerald Warner Brace has placed his leisurely, charming story of three generations, The Garretson Chronicle. Ralph Garret son is the son of Randall (unpublished author and professional country squire), and Randall is the son of Theodore, who resigned from the clergy and between 1860 and 1885 made enough money from his highly moral novels to set up his family in a Colonial manse in the little town of Compton, Massachusetts. The chronicle begins with Ralph’s childhood in a town which for him is endowed with literary associations, cuts back to tell the story of his father’s futile, fumbling attempts to cope with the world, and then in a skillful transition returns us again to the conflict of Ralph’s schooling, his revolt, against his family’s tradition of literary gentility, and his eventual orientation as a carpenter and woodworker.
Nothing particularly exciting happens, the pace is leisurely, characters are drawn with a stroke much softer than John Marquand’s, but the writing is clear and clean. The first half of the book, embracing Ralph’s adventures with the Irish boys from across the track, his father’s unhappy life, and the crotchety old grandfather, entices the reader into a time and place which have been well remembered. But it seems to me that as the story moves into the twenties, the page becomes less lively, the detail and the denouement conventional. What holds the book together is its strong sense of continuity with the past, and the underlying, somewhat plaintive affection for the genteel tradition.