The Peripatetic Reviewer

“DEAR SIR” — so began a recent letter from a high school student who had been reading the Atlantic. “The people of the United States have gone through two major conflicts with England (the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812). It is my opinion that we have done so to widen the political schism between us and England. I think the Atlantic emphasizes England to an excess.” He was referring specifically to two articles in our June issue — “Britain’s Young Offenders" and Captain Russell Grenfell’s blazing narrative of the Hood and the Bismarck.
That letter surprised me in view of America’s concern for the delicately balanced British economy, her experiments in socialized medicine, and the prospects of the coming election. I had forgotten this age-old distrust of all things British which still lingers on in parts of the Middle West, and as I wrote my reply it occurred to me that several years have passed since I compared notes with Atlantic readers about this magazine’s policy.
Let’s dispose of this question of Britain and then move on. I explained to our young critic that the Atlantic’s affiliation with Britain has always been close; t hat England’s valiance in standing up against the totalitarian regimes of Germany and Italy gave us two years of grace in which to gather our forces before the attack which hit us at Pearl Harbor, and I added that had England surrendered and had we found ourselves surrounded by Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Mussolini’s Italy, and Tojo’s Japan, what we call Democracy would not have been happily placed.
Ever since the Atlantic was founded in 1857 our lines of communication have been open to British writers, and although their contributions seldom occupied more than a fifth of any single issue, in style, in creative effort, and in fact their papers unquestionably added distinction to our pages. This was the case at the end of the First World War when the short stories of Lord Dunsany, the essays of Graham Wallas and John Galsworthy, the poetry of John Masefieid, were appearing concurrently with articles on the “Idea of a League of Nations” by H. G. Wells, “Japanese and American Naval Power” by Hector C. Bywater, “Disarmament and the Stale of Europe” by Colonel Repington.
But these lines of communication were almost cut off during the Second World War. Creative writing, especially among the younger English novelists and poets who were standing by their guns, suffered almost total paralysis from 1940 to 1945. The elder authors, Masefield, Tomlinson, and Laurence Binyon, found the fortitude with which to write, but when I visited Britain in 1943 the only new contributors I secured for the Atlantic were Sir Osbeti Sitwell, whose Left Hand, Bight Hand! I read in proofs, and Monica Stirling, whose short, stories were recommended to me by Rebecca West long before any English editor recognized their talent.
When I flew back to London in September of 1948, the prospects both literary and economic seemed more reassuring. Marshall Aid had begun to take effect: in the City the bankers were more cheerful, on the streets the faces showed less strain, and in the literary circles of London and Dublin there was a fresh stirring. As a result of this trip the Atlantic secured articles by Geoffrey Crowther and Barbara Ward, the editor and assistant editor of the London Economist, the essays of George Santayana and Sir Max Beerbohm; and short stories by Evelyn Waugh, Sean O’Faolain, and Mary Lavin. But if the creative forces are recovering more slowly in Britain than they are here, it is because the country is living on such a narrow margin; if the field of poverty haunts English fiction, it is because Englishmen of conscience know that the country is still besieged by debt and want. England is a long way from being out of the woods, a fact of which her politicians and economists and her writers are acutely aware.

While here at home

The war paralysis which froze the creative writing in England had much the same effect in this country. The Atlantic, which in its charter year was dedicated to “concentrating the efforts of the best writers upon literature and politics, under the light of the highest morals,” had to do with less and less literature during the war simply because less literature was being written. Articles of fact and opinion crowded in on us, together with the war narratives.
In an effort to interpret the effects of the global war on those areas of vital interest to the United States, we introduced in 1942 a series of Atlantic Reports in the forepart of each issue, These Reports, which according to our readers polls were the most popular masculine attraction in the book, were the work of many hands. I have sometimes been credited with writing them all, a compliment flattering but impossible. Actually our Reports come from a roving stall of some twenty writers, a number of whom, because of the nature of their war work, had to remain anonymous. In my first letter telling our correspondents what I wanted, I referred to the political insight of Frank Simonds (the most astute American journalist in the First World War), the military shrewdness of Colonel Repington (the former military critic of the London Times); and most important of all, I asked for that independent ability to scrutinize the present and look ahead without going overboard in prophecy.
I should like to point out in passing that the Atlantic Reports were the first to judge correctly the strength of Stalingrad at a time when many American-Russian “experts” had given it up in despair, the first to state that the French people were not disposed to follow De Gaulle in his extreme swing to the right, the first by a year to predict that the Communists would lake over China. And on The Morning After when Messrs. Roper, Gallup, Kiplinger, Lawrence, among others, were recovering from their embarrassment, it might have been remarked that the Atlantic Reports were never predicated on Mr. Dewey’s election. I cite the Reports as the most succinct form of impartial information our correspondents and our staff could prepare, working under the monthly deadline.
Meantime in 1945, as we neared the end of the war, I felt sure that after the armistice there would be an outpouring of short stories from those young writers whose work had been dammed up during their five years in uniform. Accordingly we set up a series of cash awards for what we called “Atlantic Firsts,” short stories by unestablished writers who were making their first appearance in our columns. From that time to this we have published forty-nine “Atlantic Firsts.” In one memorable year (1948) three out of four of the Atlantic stories reprinted in the O. Henry Memorial Awards collection were by these newly discovered writers. Certain of our older readers may have been shocked by the unsparing detail which sometimes appeared in these stories of war and readjustment, but I for one would not have had them other than what they were, intensely felt, experienced, and in their characterizations so much more compassionate than the fiction which had come to the magazine in the last years of the Depression.
The Atlantic has not yet been able to restore that fifty-fifty balance between creative writing, on the one hand, and articles of fact and interpretation, on the other, which has been characteristic of the magazine in times of serenity. But we are reaching for it.
The issue of November, 1947, which celebrated our Ninetieth birthday, was an example of how far we have turned from the psychosis of war. The publication of poems and prose by Sir Osbert and Dr. Edith Sitwell, the short stories by Eudora Welty, Cord Meyer, Jr., James Yaffe, Truman Capote, and Godfrey Blunden, to name but five, of poems by Peter Viereck, Theodore Spencer, and Dylan Thomas, and essays by Santayana, Sir Richard Livingstone, Harry Levin — all of which have appeared since our Anniversary — are evidence that the springs of thought and feeling are flowing again.

The lark that looked at the Queen

To those who like English history, particularly to those who have a fondness for the England of Victoria, its wealth, its manners, and its doughty, dumpy presiding genius, the Queen herself, The Mudlark by Theodore Bonnet (Doubleday, $3.00) will prove to be a very pleasant excursion. This is a novel of the comings and goings in Windsor Castle in the thirty-ninth year of Victoria’s reign. The story begins in the thick Thames fog of a November evening when a tough little gamin from London’s East End, a seven-year-old by the name of Wheeler, the Ha’penny Bit, who has come up river in a barge, finds Ins way to the castle, slips, unnoticed past one of the Guards, then through a pedestrian gate that had been left unlocked, and ventures on into a courtyard where he is nearly borne down by two great dray horses. In squirming out of their way he disappears into a coal chute from which he emerges grimy but undamaged in the labyrinth known as Underground Windsor.
Wheeler is simply traveling on his own, impelled by a Cockney curiosity that leads him far: it leads him to the Queen, and for an incredible moment even to sit on the throne itself; it leads him into the powerful clutches of Mr. Brown, the Queen’s redheaded gillie, a Highlander of extraordinary influence; it leads him behind a damask curtain when Slattery, a Fenian, is threatening to set fire to the draperies; it leads him into a headlong collision with Disraeli, who has come to Windsor with one of the most far-reaching bribes ever offered to the Queen — the purchase of the Suez Canal. To Wheeler, Windsor was “the pilothouse of the ruddy world,” and the Queen in her mourning was “the Mother of England,” a happy phrase which Disraeli makes much of when he rises to defend the intrusion in the House of Commons.
I call this book a charming play of impersonation, quite effortless to read, The courtly, sensitive relationship between Dizzy and his Queen is as Victorian as it is plausible; so too the rivalry between the other councilors and that reckless Highlander, Mr. Brown; the backstairs of the Castle itself, and the rich tapestry of its past, are well depicted. And the dialects — Scotch, Cockney, and Disraelian — ring true. Finally the romance bet ween Emily Prior, the Queen’s Maid of Honour, and Lieutenant McHatten, formerly of the Guards but soon to be exiled to India, might have been told by Maurice Hewlett.
But the author of this story is not an Englishman; he is an American who began writing the first pages of this Victorian romance when, as an artillerv sergeant, he was on a transport sailing from New Guinea bound for the invasion of Luzon, Which makes it not only an attractive book but a tour do force.

The Pulitzer Prize poet

Peter Viereck, who has been contributing to the Atlantic since he was an undergraduate at Harvard, wrote for us in 1947 — at the friendly prompting of John Finley his poem “ Kilroy Was Here,”which perhaps for partisan reasons seems to me the best single performance in his volume of verse. Terror and Decorum, the Pulitzer Prize winner for 1948. Viereck is a veteran of the African and Italian campaigns. He is a linguist, widely read, a man of zest and wit with a beautiful control of language.
The result is a collection of poems covering the years 1940 to 1948 poems at once realistic and idealistic, poems which have an inner seriousness despite a form which is often pure comedy. A perfect instance of this is his “Ballad of the Jollie Gleeman,” a poem which is written in a phony archaic language: —
He brave his swingle till it swisht the air.
Hell’s henchman wallopt he in his own lair.
Yet the poem, despite the apparent parody, has in it the true element of strangeness and terror.
The book has been skillfully arranged so as to display the poet’s talent in its various moods. A series of six theological cradle songs for his young son is followed by a group devoted to New York, of which my favorite is that dedicated to Hart Crane: Look, Hart, That Horse You Ride Is Wood.”Of the war poems, the “Ode to Throne and Altar,”“Gonvoy from New York,”and “Vale from Carthage" are the most instantly touching. I enjoyed Viereek’s lively historical sense, his love of fun, and the skill with which he restates the traditional and great poetic themes. Unlike most young poets, he is more impressive collected than when read in single poems. He seldom overextends himself in the grand effect. All in all, his book sets a consistent and remarkable high level.