THE windows of my Atlantic office look over the most vivacious acres of cultivated oystershell in New England — I mean the Boston Public Garden — so that as I read or dictate, my gaze is occasionally arrested by the antics of the Back Bay canines (many of them made known to me by Mickey), or of the children, in their bright worsteds, skating and tumbling on the frozen pond. Today as I worked, my senses kept reporting the blizzard’s progress: in the mind’s ear I noted the soft, announcement of the first theme as the tiny particles, widely spaced, drifted down from the leaden sky; then the snowfall was joined by the sea winds sweeping in from the harbor; the tempo rose, pedestrians tucked in their chins and braced themselves against the slanting white arrows. For a capricious interval the wind fell and the flakes were heavy, fantastic goblets.
Then we passed into the blue dusk, and as we goose-stepped our first footprints into the white paths, homeward bound, we could see in the aureole of the are lights the whirling haze which needled our faces and deepened the drifts.
There are distinct movements and melodies in this tone poem of Snow in Town. The jingle of bells one no longer hears, nor the whine of iron-rimmed wagon wheels on dry packed roads — the milk wagon at dawn. But against the hush of the white blanket other sounds stand out, — the scrape of snow shovels against the uneven bricks; the click, rhythm, and bite of the tire chains; the rumble and thud of snow falling from the gabled roofs; horns hooting as harassed motorists line up for home, the shrill of the traffic whistle and, at intervals, the crash of fender and bumper as cars collide.
Snow provides its local comedy and strife. Snow fights have been waged on Boston Common ever since the eighteenth century: the redcoats — the lobster backs — must have been a tempting target during the occupation, and after their departure
the warfare went on between the North-Enders and the West-Enders. In the Education Henry Adams gives us his unforgettable account of a fight in which he took part almost a century ago: —
“Whenever, on a half-holiday, the weather was soft enough to soften the snow, the Common was apt to be the scene of a fight, which began in daylight with the Latin School in force, rushing their opponents down to Tremont Street, and which generally ended at dark by the Latin School dwindling in numbers and disappearing. As the Latin School grew weak, the roughs and young blackguards grew strong. As long as snowballs were the only weapon, no one was much hurt, but a stone may be put in a snowball, and in the dark a stick or a slungshot in the hands of a boy is as effective as a knife. One afternoon the fight had been long and exhausting. The boy Henry, following, as his habit was, his bigger brother Charles, had taken part in the battle, and had felt his courage much depressed by seeing one of his trustiest leaders, Henry Higginson — ‘Bully Hig,’ his school name — struck by a stone over the eye, and led off the field bleeding in rather a ghastly manner. As night came on, the Latin School was steadily forced back to the Beacon Street Mall where they could retreat no further without disbanding, and by that time only a small band was left, headed by two heroes. Savage and Marvin. A dark mass of figures could be seen below, making ready for the last rush, and rumor said that a swarm of blackguards from the slums, led by a grisly terror called Conky Daniels, with a club and a hideous reputation, was going to put an end to the Beacon Street cowards forever. Henry wanted to run away with the others, but his brother was too big to run away, so they stood still and waited immolation. The dark mass set up a shout, and rushed forward. The Beacon Street boys turned and fled up the steps, except Savage and Marvin and the few champions who would not run. The terrible Conky Daniels swaggered up, stopped a moment with his body-guard to swear a few oaths at Marvin, and then swept on and chased the flyers, leaving the few boys untouched who stood their ground. The obvious moral taught that blackguards were not so black as they were painted. . . .”
Fortunately for the pedestrian the snowballing is no longer as regimented as this, now that the town has grown larger, but the sniping goes on, behind trees and up the slopes of Monument Hill.
Our corner at Arlington and Marlborough is one of the slipperiest in all Boston when there is ice under the snow. From my window one winters noon. I remember watching a man in a his fur coat as he stepped off the curb head down against the snow. I saw the taxi before he did, and the taxi driver saw him. In his panic Mr. Fur Coat lost his balance and fell flat. The driver slammed on his brakes and went into one of those unbelievable skids. Taxi and bumper came slithering toward the recumbent figure. “Throw up your legs,” shouted the driver. The man threw up his legs, caught his heels on the bumper, and was pushed like a snowplow into the middle of Arlington Street. There the car stopped. The driver helped up Fur Coat, brushed him off, and didn’t even charge him a quarter for the ride.
Snow has a way of catching you unaware. After a February blizzard, to step out of doors into the dazzling glare of the cold morning light, to feel the intense contrast of the sunshine and shadow, to draw the tonic of the winter air into nostril and throat, is to get the full charge of New England. As I was starting off dazed and tingling one morning not long ago, I paused, swept off my hat, and made a sweeping bow to my wife and daughter, framed in the dining-room window. At that moment, while I was in my courtly posture, head bent, and hat in hand, the roof let go its overnight accumulation of frosted snow and icicles, When the avalanche was over I went back into the house, roughtoweled my head, and put on a fresh shirt, trying not to listen to the whoops below stairs.
Election fever in Vermont
This is an election year, and in the hectic months ahead, we shall again be reminded of what this singular and decisive process does to individuals and to communities. In his first and pleasantly picaresque novel, The Tamarack tree (Whittlesey, $3.00), Howard Breslin takes us back to the year 1840 to show us the electioneering fever which was infecting the inhabitants of Stratton Mountain, Vermont, and how that hamlet of 200 men and women was in three days transformed into a yeasty gathering of 20,000 souls come to hear Dan’l Webster blast little Van Buren out of the White House, and to celebrate, in advance, and with plenty of hard cider, the Vermont-pledged victory of Tippecanoe and Tyler too. For then, as now, Vermont was a one-party state.
It took three summer days for the giant Meeting to run its course. To the three-hundred-acre clearing below Stratton’s summit came farmers, city folk, York Staters, and the Committee from boston, politicians, gamblers, and ten bands of musicians. They came by ox team, horse, cart, or blistered heel: they came with food and bedding; they came ready to talk, to wrestle, to dance and drink, ready to fight or to love, and to listen to Webster with unshakable opinions.
Vermont philosophy is not easily altered, but so contagious a fever in so many strangers had a sudden and drastic effect upon the citizens of the tiny hamlet, and it is this story, the impact of strangers upon native, which the author threads for us in his homely and picturesque sampler. The episodes are all stitched to the main event by his omniscient hand and with a minimum of transition.
At the outset we see the villagers undisturbed: in one of the best scenes we watch father Chittenden and his three: sons, scythes swinging as they mow the big meadow on the day before the Meeting. Charles Chittenden is in love with the minister’s daughter, Lovina: so we become watchful of her virgin beauty, and by contrast the eye is led to Zilpha Brayton, the passionate, dissatisfied wife of the village ne’er-do-well. By such easy stages we move from person to person, from home to home, now with the boys, tense with excitement, now with Peleg Nason, the old veteran of the Revolution, garrulous at the inn; we hear the clink of coins, the cynicism of the city politicians, the shrewd salesmanship of Joel Patch, the wealthy miller, out for the main chance.
For three exciting days these guarded Vermont lives are invaded by foreigners, “Doc” Merrifield in his medicine wagon, Thomas Jefferson Dunbar, the amorous pistol-shooting Southerner, and by ihe sonorous magnetism of Black Dan. The build-up and the reaction are of elementary emotions.
Mr. Breslin writes with a nice ear for idiom; his descriptions are brief and as pleasantly turned as those in LeGrand Cannon’s Look to the Mountain. But the necessity of dealing with so many people in ever shifting rotation gives one the flushed excitement of a country dance rather than the reflective probing of a country walk. This political meeting is carnival to the Vermonters and there isn’t time for the story or the philosophy to go more than skindeep.
The red plush of Glasgow
The family chronicle is a perennially endearing form of narrative and one which, if the family has enough spice, spirit, and authority, lives on in the imagination year after year, enticing new readers and rewarding the old. The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy and the Jalna books by Mazo de la Roche, two of the most successful chronicles in our time, were each written as a series of single volumes extending through two decades and commanding the loyally of hundreds of thousands of readers. Will they, one wonders, retain a perennial fragrance when in time they become “old-fashioned”?
What makes a story old-fashioned? The longwinded descriptions of Scott, the clerical controversies of Trollope, the Continental manners and snobbishness in Henry James, no longer hold the living concern which they did when they were written. Yet in each case the vitality of the author skates us over this old ice in our desire to get on with the story and know more of his people. I suggest that what we term “old-fashioned” may be a story whose indoctrination has become quaint, or it may mean a novel told in what John Marquand calls “an old and proved tradition.”
Red Plush, by Guy McCrone (Farrar, Straus. $3.50), is a Victorian three-decker which lends itself to leisurely and non-violent reading, il is a story of Glasgow in Victoria’s reign, and of the Moorhouse family who came to town from their farm in Ayrshire, who had good health and good looks, and who, following the ambitious lead of their smart brother Arthur, earned or married prosperity and position. This small Scotch clan is bound together by family loyalty, by which I mean a highly critical affection.
As we see them at their high teas and heavy dinners, in the red plush of Bel’s parlor, at their funerals and their Christmases, we note with what consistency the author brings out their predominating traits: the assurance of Arthur, the stolid countryman’s strength of Mungo, the self-conscious saintliness of Mary, Sophia who is always borrowing, and David who is as susceptible as he is good-looking. Thus the types are established, thus the inlaws are identified, and only one of the group, the little half-sister Phoebe, is unpredictable. We see her first as a girl of ten, lone, poised, and resourceful and she it is who gives to this big slow-moving, at times over-obvious book the growth and animation which make us curious.
Mr. McCrone, who spent his boyhood in the Burns country, handles the Ayrshire dialect with a beauty which makes me wish it were more employed. His etchings of Glasgow are as authentic as the comparable pages in the novels of Howard Spring. His brief interlude in Vienna has charm.
But what gives his story the “slows” is his style, which seldom hints and never says in two words what could be more easily said in six. Again and again he can draw Victorian mannerisms to the life, as in his picture of Mrs. Barrowfield “saucering her tea.” Yet in retrospect or in summary his sentences have the creaking motion of an old barouche.
I quote two passages from the second volume: —
“At all events David had made the right, honorable and profitable marriage that common sense and the family expected of him, and all was well. That benign Providence that watches over the affairs of the respectable had cracked the whip at the right moment, and he, who had threatened to stray, had been safely headed back into the heart of the prosperous flock. And now, as Bel well knew, David was much too tame, much too conventional, to do anything but stay in the fold.” And on the opposite page_ “Last evening Grace had hinted that they might both, in the natural course, be the parents of a child.”
This is Red Plush writing. You either like it or you don’t.