Reader's Choice

OPERATING with remarkable dispatch, two newspapermen have already brought out a book which pieces together the dramatic and grimly fascinating story of Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss. Seeds of Treason (Funk & Wagnalls, $3.50) is the joint work of Ralph de Toledano, assistant editor of Newsweek, and Victor Lasky, a writer on the New York World-Telegram & The Sun, both of whom have covered this cause célèbre since it began unfolding in 1948. The preface concedes that most of the dope about Hiss comes from Chambers and Chambers’s friends, which makes the book’s subtitle, “The True Story of the Hiss-Chambers Tragedy,”a shade presumptuous.
From the story telling standpoint, Seeds of Treason is an exciting book. It is very far removed, however, from the dispassionate, probing, and wonderfully illuminating reports that Rebecca West turned in on William Joyce, John Amery, and the other British traitors. What Lasky and Toledano have given us is, more or less avowedly, something of a pamphleteering job. The authors wish to show that a large section of public opinion has been cruelly unfair to Whittaker Chambers; that the revelations he made and his conduct throughout the investigation were prompted by the highest of motives. They seek to bring home to the many citizens who entertained some sympathy for Hiss the criminal nature of their error. Finally, they play up the moral that “under cover of the flummery of cocktail parties and fancy front organizations, the real Communists were systematically betraying the United States,”and that “the real work [of smoking out the traitors] has barely begun.”
On several major counts. I found Lasky and Toledano pretty persuasive, and I imagine their book will cause a number of readers to revise, to some degree, their estimates of Chambers and of Hiss. Unfortunately, Seeds of Treason is colored throughout —and cheapened — by untrammeled zealotry and juvenile oversimplification. It is absurd to deal with two such immensely complicated men in uncompromising terms of black and white. It is rather shameful to suggest (p. 269) that all those who came to Hiss’s defense were “sponsors" of treason, “subconsciously aware that his guilt is theirs.”It is biased reporting to side-step with a few perfunctory sentences the notorious irresponsibility and headline mania of the Committee on UnAmerican Activities. When writing about Chambers’s espousal of Communism, the authors find the urge to save the world a noble one: precisely the same urge makes Mrs. Hiss an unpleasant “do-gooder.”
Seeds of Treason performs a useful service in compactly assembling the available data on the Hiss case; it provides a glimpse of the workings of the Communist underground and a fairly well documented picture of Communist infiltration into government agencies in the thirties. But Lasky and Toledano shed at best a dubious light on the human mysteries that need to be elucidated. Hiss is introduced as a calculating careerist who joined the Party principally because it was a smart move in the first days of the New Deal; later he is represented as a diehard Communist, a “ venom-filled ” unregenerate. The two views would seem to be inconsistent. Perhaps treason, as practiced in our time, is one of those realities which only fiction, and great fiction at that, can make real—intelligible in all its dimensions — to the nonconspiratorial mind.

The Universal Church

As most readers must, know by now, The Cardinal (Simon and Schuster, $3.50; in soft-covered binding, $1.00) is a long novel about the life of an American priest who eventually becomes a Prince of the Roman Catholic Church. The author, Henry Morton Robinson, is a man of startlingly varied interests. An editor of the Reader’s Digest, he has coauthored that erudite piece of Joycean exegesis, A Skeleton. Key to Finnegans Wake, and has to his credit a raft of books, three of them poetry.
The hero of The Cardinal, Stephen Fermoyle, is the son of a Boston trolley driver. As a student for the priesthood, Stephen’s consecration and intellectual brilliance win him four years’ special training in the North American College in Rome, from which he returns in 1915 to become a curate in a suburb of Boston. Through a misunderstanding he incurs the wrath of Cardinal Glennon, the irascible Archbishop of Boston, and he is banished to a desolate rural parish on the Canadian border. Eventually, his stewardship at Stonebury so impresses the Cardinal that he makes Stephen his secretary. In 1922, Father Fermoyle accompanies the Cardinal to Rome for the papal election, and there Pius XI appoints him to the Vatican Secretariat of State, with the title of Monsignor. For a short time, Stephen circulates in the brilliant world of the Roman aristocracy: and he is fiercely tested by his love for the Contessa Ghislana Falerni. Weathering this critical period, he returns to the United States as special adviser to the Apostolic Delegate. Later he becomes Archbishop of Hartfield, and on the eve of the Second World War is nominated Cardinal.
Mr. Robinson’s novel is a vast and intricate tapestry crowded with charactersof every estate, and with a host of individual dramas hinging on love, on money, on politics, and on faith. The reader comes to know, intimately, the grueling routine of the parish priest. He is initiated into the executive machinery and fiscal operations of the Catholic Church. He sees Vatican diplomacy in the making. Through Stephen Fermoyle, he approaches the altar as a celebrant, enters the confessional as a looser of sins, and sits in the Sistine Chapel as a Cardinal-elector.
The author has woven into his story much embattled exposition of Catholic doctrine and scathing attacks on such practices as birth control. There is the essence, here, of half a dozen tracts, and some nonCatholic readers may find the book’s militancy sometimes disconcerting.
Urom the standpoint of craftsmanship, The Cardinal is a performance of remarkable virtuosity. Mr. Robinson moves with equal assurance over the ground traveled by a Boston curate and through the inner precincts of the Vatican, and he has skillfully welded materials of great diversity into a very readable book. I could not, however, see in The Cardinal any real literary quality. As a piece of fiction, it seemed to me shot through with unreality and lacking in any depth.
The characterization is almost unfailingly flawed by sentimentality, and Stephen Fermoyle himself never fully came alive to me: he holds attention by virtue of his office, but not as a fictional creation. Virtually every episode in the novel is, in effect, a slick magazine story with a “happy ending” that is improbably pat. And the book as a whole has a strong Horatio Alger flavor. It failed, as far as I was concerned, to project creativeh any vital sense of religious experience. This criticism is in no way related to Mr. Robinson’s theology. One need not share the author’s viewpoint to lind imaginative truth in a work of the imagination.

Martinis and martyrdom

One of the tests, in fact, of a fictional work’s imaginative vitality is its ability to make ns tacitly accept, “for the duration,”the values of its creator. It seems to me somewhat doubtful whether The Cocktail thirty (Harcourt. Brace, $3.00) — a didactic religious play in verse by T. S. Eliot — succeeds in fully imposing that acceptance, at any rate on I he skept ically inclined reader. It is obviously an arresting work, intellectually and artistically, and an entertainment ofgreal sophistication. I confess, though, that the climax stirred questionings about the play (which I am speaking of, here, front a reader’s standpoint; on the stage it is distinctly more compelling). In the final scene, Mr. Eliot invites us to join in celebrating the proposition that to be crucified by savages and then devoured by ants is a triumphant destiny for a young woman of the Mayfair smart set who, after the failure of a love affair, finds herself burdened with guilt and eager to be delivered of “a craving for something I cannot lind. Before pursuing this point, I’d bolter try to sketch the situation which Eliot has devised.
The Cocktail Party, to simplify things drastically, is principally concerned with Edward and Eavinia Chmberlayne, whose marriage is loveless and faithless on both sides; and with Celia Coplestone, Edward’s mistress, who makes the disillusioning discovery that she hits projected perfection onto a spineless egotist.
The play opens with a cocktail party at which there is a mysterious stranger who later turns out to be Sir Henry Harcourt-Rcilly, the “doctor to whom the two Chamberlayncs and Celia take their problems. Reilly convinces the Chamberlaynes that they must stick to each other, He makes Edward realize that he is incapable of loving and Lavinia I but she is unlovable, which at least gives them a common bond of isolation — “The best of a bad job is all any of us make of it / Except of course, the saints.” To Celia, whose deep consciousness of sin and hunger for perfection will not be stilled, Reilly prescribes the saint’s road to salvation, and Celia joins a missionary nursing unit. At a cocktail party given two years later by the Chamberlaynes, now adjusted to each other, we learn of Celia’s martyrdom on an Asiatic island.
It is presumptuous, I’m afraid, to try to locate imperfections in a work by Mr. Eliot, but then presumption is the “original sin” of book reviewing, and timidity is not the road to virtue. Mr. Eliot, as I said earlier, did not wholly make me his disciple in the play — especially in the mystical conclusion — because, I believe, he fails to induce in the reader a sufficiently exalted mood: he fails to transport him fully front the plane of reason to the plane of faith.
This weakness is traceable to two sources. In the interest of realistic characterization, Eliot has been sparing of poetic eff eels. The blank verse and the language, though they tire wonderfully good, maintain for two acts a rather cerebral and mundane tone: and t he more poet ie tone of the hist act is still not suflicient ly intense. Secondly, Eliot’s mouthpiece, Reilly
at once psychiatrist and priest — contains a slightly troubling contradiction in his dualism. By presenting Reilly (though never explicitly) its a psychiatrist, Eliot weakens his authority as a priest like exponent of God’s will. Reilly’s professional status has strong connotations which do not jibe wit h Eliot’s myst ice I Anglicanism. While in Reilly’s consulting room, I couldn’t help thinking, disconcertingly, that Celia’s tormenting guilt and perfectionism, which to Reilly make her a candidate for martyrdom, might equally well make her a candidate for the analytic couch.
All this may smack of quibbling, and it is a measure of the impact of The Cocktail Party that it prompts endless discussion, ranging from thoughts about the nature of salvation to fascinated wonder why Reilb takes water in his gin. Mr. Eliot has achieved an extraordinarily provocative fusion of drawing-room comedy. psychological study, and morality play suffused with symbolism and ritual. ’The Cocktail Party is at once sardonic, effectively playful, and charged with telling human insights as well as with religious feeling.

This America

For quite some time this nation’s most absorbing intellectual quest has been the quest to discover its own identity. I suspect that a tally would show that the United States has turned out more books in the held of national self-analysis than any other country. The latest of these conies from a distinguished historian, Henry Steele Commager of Columbia University, and it is on the whole a worth-while add it ion. The America n Mind (Yale University Press, $.5.00), “an interpretation of American thought and character since the 1880’s,” has nothing in common with those a rid and exhausting products of the academy which seem designed for no other purpose than to contribute a few footnotes to succeeding tomes of equal sterility. This is the kind of book, scholarly vet inviting to the general reader, which represents a valuable contribution to publishing from the University Presses.
Professor Commager is one of the rather small company of serious scholars who are a Iso lively writers, and one of the still smaller band who are blessed with wit to boot. Again and again, he points up a familiar idea with such epigrammatic touches as: Americans, “when they imagined heaven . . . thought of it as operating under an American constitution.” Or this, on the growth of public relations: the Churches, too, “arranged that God should have a good press.”
Commager sees in the eighteennineties a watershed in the history of American ideas: it was then that the self-confidence and orthodoxy of the nineteenth century began to crumble under the impact of Darwinism and determinism. A composite portrait of the Nineteenth-Century American opens the book, One of the TwenltiethCentury American closes it. Ihe differences show to what extent and in what ways certainty has given place to uncertainty, complacency to anxiety.
To Commager, America’s crucial intellectual struggle alter the eighties was between a brutal social Darwinism and a socially-minded pragmatism. The former preached the sanctity of laissez faire and invoked “natural law” as a justification for shoring up the status quo. The latter protested the ravages involved in “the survival of the fittest”; regarded government as an agency of social welfare, and held, with Justice Holmes, that the lifeblood of the law was not logic but experience. This is the framework within which Commager charts and interprets the evolution of the American mind as displayed in the leading ideas which have run through literalure and journalism; religious thought and practice; philosophy, economics, and political theory; architecture and jurisprudence.
Mr. Comanagers over-all view is a familiar one, and indeed there is little in his book that is original. He is not, however, reaching for novel insights but for sharper definition and sharper understanding.
His special value as a commentator is that he combines an exhilarating enthusiasm for his subject with a keenly critical veiwpoint and an absence of cant that is becoming increasingly rare where patriotism is involved. He combines, too, a readiness to commit himself to forthright opinions with a willingness to admit that some questions must be left open.
It could be objected that the diversity of this country makes some of Commager’s neat generalizations about “the American mind" distinctly arbitrare, and each reader will, no doubt, discover further grounds for controvorsy in the chapters where he is most at home. Those on literal ure seemed to me to contain a number of decidedly dubious estimates. Cabell, I felt, is taken too seriously (Commager sees in him some relation to Santayana), it is also arguable that the author goes too far in calling Edwin Arlington Robinson “the most distinguished of American men of letters of his generation.” Commager is, quite clearly, repelled by the dominant, trend in literature since the impact of Freud; and when he is dealing with ‟The psychological school . . . abandoned to irrationality" (Sherwood Anderson, Hart Crane, Gertrude Stein, Faulkner, Cummings, Aiken, and others are grouped under this banner), he is more the indignant moralist than the analytic critic which he shows himself to be elsewhere. (Surprisingly, Commager himself, in one passage, abstains from judging changes in the American character, because such judgment “implies the existence of a moral standard.”)
Considerations of this sort are a secondary matter in a book that is so extensive in sweep. A triple alliance of scholarly exposition, vigorous interpretation, and literary grace makes The American Mind a spirited and enlightening piece of history.

Proust revisited

Notwithstanding the immense amount written about Proust, Harold March’s The Two Worlds of Marcel Proust, published in 1948, was actually the first all-round study in English which fully incorporated the data that had filtered out during the thirties. Now a comprehensive study of Proust containing much brand-new source material comes to us from André Maurois, who has had access to unpublished memoranda and notebooks in the keeping of Proust’s niece, and to numerous unpublished letters from Proust to his parents and from them to him.
Maurois’s Proust: Portrait of a Genius (Harper, $4.50), translated from the French by Gerard Hopkins, is not another of the romantically toned Lives with which Maurois’s popularity is associated, but a serious though not austere combination of biography and critical interpretation (in roughly equal proportions). The biography is, I believe, the most fullbodied and most intimate that has yet appeared in English, and therefore thoroughly fascinnting.
The new documentation (which makes this book essential reading for the specialist) enables Maurois to tell us more about how some of Proust’s characters took shape; aside from this, the interpretative section is not notable for its contribution to Proustian criticism, It does, however, a very welcome job of restating, succinctly and tidily, what has been said in various places before, and of molding this into an enlightening study. Readers who want to know more about Proust and his work will, I should think, find themselves well served by Maurois’s intelligently conducted tour of Proust’s extraordinary world. I was occasionally embarrassed by the guide’s weakness for a pompous rhetorical touch, such as: “A number of squalid individuals, unworthy of [Proust’s] affection, raged like wild beasts in the mud of . . . one region of [his] heart.” On the whole, though, the writing leads the reader along fairly effectively.
The most arresting feature of Maurois’s Portrait of a Genius is, of course, the hitherto unpublished material. Some of it is just mildly-interesting — letters to his family during military service; letters to friends and men of letters at all stages of his life; a long and fantastically involved set of instructions to his broker, and so on. Some of it, however, contains revelations of real consequence. One letter to his mother is a uniquely literal proof of the accepted theory that Proust’s asthma was related to his obsessive need for affiction; predicting that he was about to fall ill, he wrote to Madame Proust: “I have no doubt that you will again be perfectly sweet to me as soon as I am in the same state I was in twelve months ago. ... It really is miserable not to be able to enjoy both health and affection simultaneously.”Several long memoranda bring to light Proust’s ideas about homosexuality and the secret torment it caused him: Maurois’s whole book adds greatly to our still fragmentary knowledge of this aspect of Proust’s life, and it does so with unfailing tact.
The material from Proust’s Notebooks furnishes fresh insight into his working methods, and shows the origin of certain elements in the novel and some of the changes in Proust’s plans (he first intended to put much more of himself into Swann and to write Swann’s Way in the third person). We learn from specific passages how much both the beauty and overelaboration of Proust’s style owe to rewriting: the rough drafts quoted are sometimes a bit flat, and usually more direct than the final version. No other book on Proust has given the reader so many glimpses of the actual building of the great novel. As an occasional witness of this building process and not merely an explorer of the finished work, I emerged from Maurois’s pages with a more direct and more poignant sense of the immensity and grandeur of the creative effort which Proust, truimphing over his incredible weakness of character, was able to achieve.