I DON’T think I’ve been able to get through a book in the past six months,” a friend said to me the other day, an executive who up to recently has been one of Charles Wilson’s assistants in Washington. “I haven’t, enough patience for a novel,” he went on. “When I read — well, I want something practical; say, a book on gardening, something t hat will take my mind off this endless debate. Call it escape — but that’s the way I feel.”
That remark speaks for a good many of us this season. If the American body politic could be stretched out on the analyst’s couch, I think the first symptom to disclose itself would be that blend of anger and fear with which wc have lived since the attack on Korea. Then for the first time in living memory the realization swept over us that we were vulnerable to forces outside this country. France has been jumpy about this ever since 1870; England since the Blitz. But we lived behind ocean ramparts, and the belief that we were impervious to any form of invasion was part of our birthright. This is so no longer.
Our first reaction was to spur our defenses and meantime to probe and to criticize with emotions at the highest pitch. The newspapers with their columns and columns of testimony have been required and anxious reading. The uncertainty about our sons is an anxiety that walks in our shadow. When evening comes, il is a release to dig in the garden, 1o wander with the dog, to get out one’s fishing gear, to do anything to lull (he mind.
No wonder that people have been more interested in nonficlion than in novels. In a time of vigilance, which this certainly is, readers are looking for the most reliable explanation; they are taking fresh heart from the reading of biography; they are finding quiet solace in the more refreshing books observant of American life.
Every bookman knows that there are times when he would rather dip in and out of half a dozen titles than slog all the way through a volume from which the mind plays truant. This is not hing to be ashamed of; it is simply a different way of reading, and one which seems to me peculiarly adapted to this month of July. The books which I shall mention are like a salt-water swimming pool on the North Shore where I cool off after office on these dog days; each of them is available either for the quick dip or the long drift which cools the blood.
The eyes of Texas
The Texas of Roy Bedichek is not the country commonly seen by the visitors to Dallas, Houston, and Fort Worth. He prefers the unfrequented spot; and since he is a wise and perceptive naturalist, it is an adventure to follow him wherever he leads. In his new book, Karánkaway Country (Doubleday, $3.50), he explores that section of marshland, lying “slaunchwise of the compass” between Galveston and Padre Island, once inhabited by a fierce and giant tribcof godless Indians, and still a wildlife refuge for some of our nearly extinct species like the whooping crane. Mr. Bedichek has the swift observance of an Audubon and with it an altogether fascinating knowledge of the past. He knows the earliest chronicles of the conquering Spaniard and missionary; he knows what the lay of the land was before oil began to contaminate the shore and the water life; he deplores the recklessness with which we Americans rip up our resources; he writes to defend and to arouse, for he believes we can still strike that balance between commercial exploitation and the preservation of living assets which this country so badly needs.
The diversity of his interests makes his pages of constant surprise. He writes of the droughts in Southwest Texas where, as the local humorist puts it, bullfrogs are often three years old before they learn to swim, and he tells how the earlier settlers were fortified against these droughts when a university-trained German, after studying the crosssection of a 130-year-old post oak, proved that “moisture is the only cause of variation in treerings.” There had been droughts here before, many of them in the life of this tree, but they had been followed by rain — so the settlers stayed on. He speaks in a firm, temperate way of the competing interests, and of how the gulf-land oil with its poisonous “slicks” has smothered shrimp, fish, and oysters until the oyster production has dwindled to one-fifth what it was a few years ago. The fish and oyster Industry, he reminds us, if properly practiced, is self-renewing, though not under present conditions. He speaks again and again of the Karánkaways who lived mainly on fish and oysters. He tells their pitiable history as they were decimated by the bullet, the bayonet, and whiskey; of the small number of them who were baptized in articulo mortis; and of how the last remnant of the tribe was finally moved to Mexico a hundred years ago. There were then eight individuals left; now they are gone for good, and only bitter memories of them remain.
Mr. Bedichek has eyes for natural phenomena great and small, for the wolves and the coyotes, the wild hogs and the snakes, but the birds arc his heart’s delight. His account of the meadow larks on a spring morning is Texas poetry of ihe best — so is his affectionate observation of the scissortails. With Tom Waddell, the game warden, he watches the courting of the prairie chickens, and then Tom begins to speak of the “grand free-for-all competition” in killing ihe prairie chickens which was part of the frontier Fourth of July and which still persists in modified form. When Mr. Bediehek writes that the whooping crane has a voice which carries three miles and a wingspread measuring seven and a half feet, he tells me something new, but when he tells me that there are only thirty-six of them left and that, like the Karankaways, they will soon be extinct, the story takes on poignancy. In short, this is an observant, telling book, salty with experiences but made deeply sympathetic by a man who rebels against the ruthless destruction of American aborigines.
Reaching inland from ihe Gulf coast in a great crescent of southeastern Texas lies the King Ranch. With its 900,000 acres it is an American principality one-third larger than Luxembourg; with its 500 windmills and artesian wells, its 85,000 head of cattle, and its 3000 line-bred horses, it is the largest, some say the best-run, cattle factory on the continent. Richard King who staked out this huge domain a century ago was a riverboat captain who began to make his fortune on the Chattahoochee and the Rio Grande in the days of Texas independence. He and his partner Kenedy once owned as many as 26 steamboats, and the firm flourished through the Civil War. The partners began buying cattle land from the Mexicans, sometimes for not more than 4 mills an acre (two and a half acres for a cent), and they had a small nation under their ownership when the Texas cattle began to be decimated by the dreaded fever tick. In 1867 their partnership was dissolved, and thereafter Captain King with an able young lawyer, Robert J. Kleberg, continued to build the dynasty.
Such is the background for Frank Goodwyn’s homely autobiography, Life on the King Ranch (Crowell, $5.00). Frank was six months old when in 1911 his father became ranch boss of the Norias, the lower ranch as it was called. Here he was taught Spanish by Don Federico, the Mexican yardman, and here he learned to lasso the fence posts; here he saw characters like Joe One-wing and Mr. Caesar (Kleberg), who never knew they were characters; and here by the time he was twelve he was broken in as a cowboy. Actually he was a scholar in chaps, something the horses knew before his parents. Each King Ranch vaquero had ten horses “for his saddle” and they passed the word that this was a gentle boy.
His story is one of the limitless range, of the branding and roundups, of (he dipping vats and the war against the tick, of the scientific care of the beef cattle, of the introduction of the Brahma strain, and of fertilizing pastures by airplane; it is the story of outdoor men: Frank’s father and Robert Kleberg, Jr., trappers like B. O. Thomas, and a caudillo as loyal as Pablo Peña; a story of legends, campfires, and border raids with a natural Texas flav or.
Changes in the South Pacific
In his foreword to Return to Paradise (Random House, $3.50) James Michener explains why he went back to the South Pacific. What he did was to revisit Australia, New Zealand, and the Islands in the South Pacific, the ports he had known during the war, to inform himself of the changes that had taken place in five years, He writes a vivid, compact, appreciative, and critical article about each place, and then in a more leisurely style he evokes a short story about each to dramatize the present temper of the people. Of the two, I prefer the articles; ibis is travel writing of a high order, full of good characterization, as in his opening study of Polynesia; sardonic when he describes the drowning of American surplus equipment off Million Dollar Point in Espiritu Santo; nostalgic with a difference as he writes of Guadalcanal. 11 is comparison of the British and American attitudes toward the natives will be jolting to our Empire haters. His attempt to take the farsighted view of Australia and New Zealand will not be welcome to those who wish to keep the color barrier up. There is a hard-grained quality in these reports which makes the stories a little garrulous and loosely constructed by comparison.
The private school
Sixteen years ago Allan V. Heely, who had scored notable success as a young administrator and teacher at Phillips Andov er, became the headmaster of Lawrencev illc. The years that followed have been testing ones for every private school. Endowments once thought adequate have not kept pace with costs, tuitions have risen, and self-help has become ihe rule with the strenuosity that reminds one of innovations at Kent. Now as costs go up another rung, it is imperative to find an answer to the questions presented so vigorously by Mr. Heely in his book Why the Private School? (Harper, $3.00).
The book divides into two parts: the first half is for this reader the more audacious. Without mincing words Mr. Heely sets forth the inside facts of the private school’s economy, which shows that most, if not all, of them are in need of financial aid. Why should they get it, and from whom? He argues that the private schools, which have played a significant part in our education, offer at the secondary level an exceptional program for the boy or girl of exceptional native ability, He suggests that these talents cannot be as well developed in the public schools, and since the job should go on, he proposes that they continue in private hands but be financed on a federal program of national scholarships. It is difficult to see how one could justify these federal scholarships to private schools of Protestant persuasion without at the same time granting them to the parochial schools as the Catholics have long requested.
Again, the families which are currently providing most of t he pupils and most of the financia I support of our private schools are sending up boys of average-! ogood native ability, plus better than average preschool eondit ioning. Hut if exceptional ability is to be made the criterion, then surely the enrollment of private schools, it seems to me, will encounter a rather severe weather change.
In Part Two Mr. Heely discusses the more traditional issues: coeducation vs. segregated sexes, large schools vs. small schools, classical curriculum vs. the vocational or progressive; and I must say 1 like the direct and persuasive style in which the author sifts the evidence drawn from his mature experiences, and states his very reasonable opinions.
There is never much time or space for a book on a fishing trip. I usually lake with me a single volume of short, light pieces by a master angler, and this year it will be Fisherman’s Spring by Roderick Haig-Brown (Morrow, $3.00). Mr. Haig-Brown, an Englishman who moved with his family to British Columbia, is an essayist who sees this sport “in its frame, which is the whole of nature. Nothing that moves or lives or exists within range of his vision and understanding is unimportant to a fisherman.” Being a family man, his papers on Family Sortie and A Boy and a Fish Pole are endearing; his adv ice on Wading, Fly Lines and Cast ing should be practiced; and the plea he makes in f ishing and the Common Man should be distributed with every license.
In our family threesome, we take turns writing up the log, and last year in Nova Scotia we had the additional delight of finding an old charmer. The Ient Dwellers by Albert Bigelow Paine, depicting in humor that hasn’t faded what it was like to fish in those waters back in the untroubled days of 1908. We shall be rereading it this year, for it is pleasant to enjoy the continuity in a waterland that doesn’t change.