The Peripatetic Reviewer

I RECENTLY spent three days at Pomona College in Southern California, a small friendly oasis of learning, with tall eucalyptus trees to give it shade, a fine stretch of green turf (you have to endow turf like that in California), and with views that lift the eyes to the good peaks of the coastal range. Pomona is small enough for the faculty to be accessible even to the shyest undergraduate; small enough for the alumni and Associates to see the immediate development of their yearly endowment; small enough for the whole community to take pride in the new Rhodes scholar now in his first year at Oxford, in Dr. Bradbury, the alumnus who is managing Los Alamos, and in the local boy who was running for Congress. Professor Toynbee had been there a fortnight before me, and the yeast he had left behind him was rising in some loaves and falling in others. There was a stir and integrity about the place, and the feeling of reassurance that comes from working in the close association of small classes; in this community of under a thousand there was none of that impersonality and much less of that undergraduate loneliness so prevalent in our bigger universities.
I spent much of my time with the classes in English; and one afternoon, in a session with those who were studying the short story, I found myself trying to answer that question which besets every beginning writer: “What kind of job should I work at if I want to write?” Their first impulse was to turn to editorial work, which they believed would put them on the track of experience and so lead ultimately to what in my day used to be called “self-expression.”
Editorial work, the reading or cutting or stimulating of manuscripts, has long been an avenue to literature. Meredith for many years was a manuscript reader — it was he who rejected Thomas Hardy’s first novel. Magazine editing, which moves with a faster pace and more timely demands than book publishing, has also produced its distinguished alumni: Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, and Willa Cather were all editorial associates on the staff of S. S. McClure. But the trouble with editing, as I tried to explain, is that it tends to develop your critical faculties rather than your creative. You spend your time helping to shape, polish, and clarify other people’s work rather than your own. It is absorbing work which keeps you in temptingly close touch with the printed word, and it is so exhausting that unless you be very persistent you will never do the writing you see in mind. Worst of all, editorial work walks home with you in the evening, for it is at night that most editors read the manuscripts they haven’t time for in the office.
Writing for the newspapers, I said, will certainly quicken your facility. You have to be terse, you have to be accurate, and you have to meet a deadline. There are vast stretches of boredom in newspaper work, but there is also the kick that you get out of doing the unexpected and doing it well. The best chance here is developing as a specialist, writing so well for the sport page that people begin to look for your column as they once looked for Ring Lardner, Heywood Broun, Paul Gallico, and as they look today for Red Smith. There is a good chance on the theater page if you can write with the fresh discernment and excitement of John Mason Brown, of George Jean Nathan, and Brooks Atkinson. You don’t always have to be a veteran — see what young John Crosby has done with radio and television. You have to be good. And if you are going to find your opening on the editorial page, you will need to be swift in analysis, and at the same time capable of reflection and the long view. Such are the qualities which Walter Lippmann, Simeon Strunsky, Herbert Agar, and Walter Millis, to name but four, developed first in their editorials, then in their books.
Freest of all journalists are the foreign correspondents— men like Walter Duranty, Vincent Sheean, Bill Shirer, and Ernie Pyle, whose books grew out of their dispatches. Freedom, freedom to write as you please, is what every journalist is after, but you yourself are the only taskmaster who can get it.
Most beginners come to their writing obliquely and by way of a compromise. I know a young graduate of Antioch who means to write and who is now working as an attendant in a boys’ reformatory. I remember Glanville Smith, who supported himself by carving headstones: when he had saved up enough he went traveling to the far islands which he wrote of in his descriptive essays. I think of James Still working modestly as a librarian for the Hindman Settlement School in Knott County in order to be close to the Kentucky mountains and the source material for his short stories. I remember Jesse Stuart, fresh out of school, telling his farmer father, “Some day I’m going to write like Burns.” “That’s all right,” said the old man, who couldn’t read or write, “but don’t be late with your chores.” I remember Robert Frost once telling me how three times in his life he had resisted the temptation to succeed — once as a farmer, once as a miller, and once as a superintendent of a country school — and how in each case he had turned down the advance in order to be free for his poetry.

Far up the Amazon

A Princeton graduate who came to his writing after newspaper work, and then four years on Broadway as a producer (Men in White),James Ramsey Ullman is a hardy traveler. At one time or another he has mountaineered in the Alps, the setting of his first novel, The White Tower, and he has crossed the Andes to the Amazon Basin, a journey through high forests and against almost impenetrable jungle which provides the setting of his new book, River of the Sun (Lippincott, $3.50).
River of the Sun is an escape into lost horizons. The story begins in the sleepy little city of Manaos, once a rubber capital but now deserted, the end of the line for Mark Allison, a rangy Californian who had been one of the best Pan Am pilots and then the pilot of a heavy bomber in the war. Allison is now seeking to forget in rummy oblivion the loss of his wife and self-respect which humbled him after the war. But he is an incorrigible romantic. In his earlier days when he had been flying a silver Clipper his thoughts were drawn to a lost horizon, the River of the Sun, which with its fabulous gold or oil the Indians said was to be found at the headwaters of the Amazon. At the war’s end Allison himself had tried to find it in a small plane, and in the crash of that expedition his wife Joan had been killed; now when McHugh, a persuasive representative of the Southern Cross Corporation of New York, invites him to join a new party of engineers, technicians, and assorted ologists, on a well-supplied expedition, the dormant adventurer in him is aroused.
Their plans are made at the beginning of the dry season, and with the river running high McHugh decides to go upstream at once, with the main party to follow. He takes with him enough natives to establish the forward base, and these principals: Allison; Mordecai Cobb, an old jungle comber who runs the launch; Touro, an American Negro (real name Jackson) who is wanted for murder; Frei Ambrosio, a Brazilian priest; and Christine Barna, an attractive married woman of just the right age who has come down from New York in search of her husband, a famous scientist now missing for two years in the interior of Brazil. Cobb, the veteran of the jungle, and Allison are the navigators of this oddly assorted outfit.
Like all quests for El Dorado this is at its best in the early stages when the sights and sounds are most impressionable and before the pium flies and mosquitoes, the blazing sun, the cachaça (white rum), and malarial fever have worn down the individuals. At the outset greed is the leading motive, the search for oil which dominates the thinking of McHugh and Cobb and the caboclos. But this is not true of Allison or of Touro, to whom the jungle means escape; and Dr. Barna when they find him, the lean, ascetic scientist with his shock of red hair who has become a white god to the tribe of Tupari — he is the most determined escapist of them all. As the expedition deteriorates, it is this struggle between the romantics on one side and the oil seekers on the other which breaks into open violence. Christine Barna, with whom Mark has fallen in love, is the attending angel. She ministers to all as they fall by the wayside, and will evidently be the prize for the one who survives.
The scenic effects, the descriptions of the rivers and the jungle, are remarkably good; so too the friction between the men as heat and frustration rub them raw. But in matters of smell, taste, and suffering, the prose is not as graphic as I think it might be, and the mystery man in the story, Dr. Barna, is as much a mystery at the end as he was on discovery. I do not have the sense of participation which I had in reading The Worst Journey in the World by Cherry-Garrard.

Seeing and enjoying

No writer I know has a more contagious enjoyment of life than John Mason Brown. His first books grew out of his love of the theater. When he was an undergraduate those of us who were slightly his elder wondered whether John would find himself as actor, playwright, or critic. Actually when he emerged he was all three, and those one-man performances which he puts on on the lecture platform, standing there with his hand at the back of his head as it to press forward the outpouring of words, are a triple play. During the war his amphibious adventures broadened his scope, firmed up his style; and when he spoke to all hands on the Augusta, he also spoke to those at home with new force and deeper meaning. Then in 1945 he began his column, “Seeing Things,”in the Saturday Review of Literature, his appraisal of books, notables, the theater, and his children — a delightful farrago.
Still Seeing Things (McGraw-Hill, $3.75) is the third collection of such papers and I value it for the essential and springlike quality of its enthusiasm. This is a book of many likes and a few dislikes. I do not mean for a minute that it is uncritical. When Mr. Brown presents his minority or, as he calls it, his “dry-eyed report ” on Lost in the Stars, or points out some overlooked differences between Chekhov’s Russians and our Southerners to explain why The Cherry Orchard cannot be translated; when he directs his anger against the stupid and recent banning of books and plays, his thrusts are pertinent and deflating of sentimentality. But I think his essays in appraisal find him at his best. His three papers on Charles Lamb, his tribute to President Conant, his admiration for Robert Sherwood, his joy in Helen Hokinson and in her caption writer James Reid Parker, are a shrewd, happy blend of discernment, wit, and liking. His phrases have a delightful sparkle, as when he says of the Hokinson girls, “they present milliners with dilemmas and girdles with problems”; or “they were too busy babying themselves to mother anyone else”; or that they attempt “to become sylphs again by submitting themselves to I he costly Spartanism of Elizabeth Arden.” But that this writing does not How as easily as it reads, the author makes clear in his concluding paper, entitled Pleasant Agony,”in which the drudgery of meeting a dateline is painfully and honestly exposed.

Both sides of Beacon Hill

As a New Englander by marriage and adoption, Frances Parkinson Keyes knows that Boston is a city of four villages: the Boston Brahmin, the Irish, the Italian, and a special community of talented transients. Tolerance is the underlying theme of her big new novel, Joy Street (Messner, $3.00), and it is skillfully embodied in her heroine, Emily field, the daughter of Brahmins, who bucks the opposition of all her clan except her grandmother, old Mrs. Forbes, a proper Bostonian grande dame, to marry a young liberal lawyer too impecunious for the family taste. Through Roger she comes to know Brian, his sharp, tough Irish partner; Pellegrino, the sweet and sensitive Italian; and David, the smart and at times fascinating Jew. David is the great lover and Emily does not like to admit to herself how deeply she is taken with him. But after Roger’s death in 1943, it is too late, for by then David is engaged to her niece, and of necessity Emily’s tolerance leads her elsewhere.
The book is full of detail, as accurate as it is vivid. Mrs. Keyes has five very lively senses — you drool over her dinners and goggle at her rooms. She is wonderfully industrious in her observation and she writes with a temperate common sense and a coziness which gives her story a day-to-day vitality. Finally, the problems which she chooses to discuss are authentic though never too explosive — which is probably just as well in this era of increasing problems.