A CENTURY and three quarters after the death of Philip Dormer Stanhope, the fourth Earl of Chesterfield, there are still familiar testimonials to the lustrous bon ton implied in his name — a sofa; an overcoat with concealed buttons and a velvet collar; and one of America’s most popular cigarettes. But Lord Chesterfield’s immortality rests, more securely, on a collection of letters: the premier textbook on an art which passionately interests a large slice of mankind — the art of worldly success.
Though written in eighteenth-century England and aromatic of their age, Chesterfield’s Letters to His Son have proved themselves adaptable to other places and other times. They have never been out of print; and they have been best-sellers in just about every major language, including Japanese. Their uniqueness — aside from their extraordinary artistic grace — lies in the fact that, not being intended for publication, they are completely free from the manifold hypocrisies in which the pursuit of success and the philosophy behind it are usually cloaked. The how-to-get-along-in-the-world manuals of a Dale Carnegie and his confreres — the middle-class Chesterfields of a society which frankly admires the go-getter -do not remotely match up to the devastating candor of the Chesterfield Letters.
A biography of the noble Earl by Dr. Samuel Shellabarger, well known for his historical novels, appeared, almost imperceptibly, in the mid-thirties, when the literary climate was foggy with Marxism; and it has been wisely rescued from premature burial. Lord Chesterfield and His World ( Little, Brown, $5.00) is a richly documented study of a fascinating man; of the beau monde of his time; and of the philosophy of worldly rationalism which, en négligé, goes by the name of common sense. The book is climaxed by a tragi-farcical drama, both poignant and instructive: the story of Chesterfield’s illegitimate son, who from infancy was educated, with meticulous planning and tyrannical love, to play a great role in public life and the world of fashion — and emerged a lubberly mediocrity.
Lord Chesterfield’s own career, though it did not quite fulfill his ambitions, brevets him a master of the art he expounds in his Letters. At twenty-one he was a Member of Parliament and at thirty-four Ambassador to Holland, where he acquitted himself with distinction. He rose to be Leader of the Opposition, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and finally Secretary of Stale. In spite of an ungainly physique, he cut a dazzling figure as a dandy, wit, and grand seigneur. His contemporaries accounted him a man of sagacity, and perhaps the most eminent orator in Parliament. He was friendly with many of the leading spirits of his day — among them Pope, Voltaire, and Montesquieu — and his name had an enviable cachet in I he leading salons of Paris. He died great ly esteemed.
Dr. Shellabarger keeps in the foreground the intimate connection between Chesterfield’s conduct and teaching, and the rationalism of his time. While not a rationalist himself, Shellabarger appreciates the fine fruits of the Age of Reason almost as keenly as he deplores its confining cynicism. His book is at times repetitious; occasionally it strikes a sententious note; and I found myself wincing at the profligate use of exclamation marks. But this is marginal. Dr. Sheila burger’s biography is an enjoyable and illuminating picture of a life whose impresario was worldly ambition.
Forward to “Overlord”
The fifth volume of Winston Churchill’s history of the war, Closing the Ring (Houghton Mifflin, $6.00), extends from the invasion of Sicily to D Day; like its predecessors, it is a majestic triumph of order imposed on chaos — the most enthralling nonfiction reading of the year. Each volume brings home to me, with a fresh sense of revelation, the stunning assemblage of qualities which make Churchill, as Isaiah Berlin said in his memorable Atlantic portrait, “the largest human being of our time.”
Churchill’s heroic attributes — his dynamic powers of leadership, which so impressed themselves upon us during the war years — have to some extent obscured other qualities of his which are often lacking in great men. His war memoirs have shown him to be singularly free from any sort of pettiness or meanness; free, also, from the facile optimism and vanity which caused Roosevelt to overestimate his ability to manipulate men and the future of nations. Churchill’s account of differences within the Allied coalition, while nothing if not forthright, is without a trace of rancor or sourness. He displays a rare capacity for getting along with and enjoying men of radically different temperament and ideas (so long as they are not defeatists ; a rare capacity for seeing a rival point of view with understanding (it is characteristic, for instance, that when writing about MacArthur’s wish to give the Pacific priority, Churchill should include the words “not unnaturally”). He is unfailingly generous about assigning credit to others. And in this latest volume he vigorously rebuts a legend about his ideas for the conquest of Europe, which, in the light of Russia’s post-war behavior, has been cited entirely to his advantage. Closing the Ring contains a reiterated disclaimer that Churchill pressed for an invasion of the Balkans in preference to “Overlord,” the trans-Channel invasion.
What Churchill did press for, without varying “an inch in a year,” was (1) a campaign to occupy Rhodes and the other islands of t he Dodecanese, which he hoped would bring Turkey into the war; (2) more intensive efforts to stimulate guerrilla activity in the Balkans “by agents, supplies and Commandos.” The argument over Rhodes, he says, was “the most acute difference I ever had with General Eisenhower.” In preference to the landing in the South of France, Churchill favored a right-handed movement from the north of Italy toward Vienna — an idea which was first suggested by President Roosevelt but was opposed by t he U.S. military leaders. Churchill’s intent, in sum, was not to dodge the direct blow at Germany, but to strain every nerve to mount subsidiary operations in Germany’s rear. Even this limited intervention in Eastern Europe might have substantially improved the post-war situation.
Closing the Ring brings us Churchill’s account of the Quebec, Cairo, and Teheran Conferences; t he Allied switch from Mikhailovitch to Tito; the beginnings of civil war among the Greeks; and the dramatic preparations for Overlord. Whatever the matter in hand, Churchill gives his humor right of way, as when he is advising the King of a long-delayed answer from Stalin: “I have heard from the Great Bear, and we are on speaking, or at least growling, terms again.”
Of the many human interest details that leaven Churchill’s narrative, there is one that leaves a delectable picture. During the Cairo Conference, Roosevelt gave a big Thanksgiving dinner, and after it a gramophone played dance music. Churchill’s daughter, Sarah, was the only woman present, and she had her work cut out — so, Churchill relates, “I danced with ‘Pa’ Watson.”
The Hoover Story
The first volume of The Memoirs of Herbert Hoover: 1874-1920 (Macmillan, $4.00) unfolds a classic Horatio Alger story. Orphaned at an early age, Hoover was brought up by Quaker relatives, who inculcated in him a deep respect for education, thrift, and individual enterprise. He worked his way through college and emerged with a capital of $40. Two years later, he was hired by a British mining firm, which wanted an American, skilled in gold-mining, for a post in Australia; and soon he was earning $20,000 a year. At twenty-eight, he became a partner in the firm; at thirty-four, he had a free-lance engineering business of his own, with offices in New York, San Francisco, London, and subsequently Petrograd and Paris. In the course of his fabulously successful career as a mining engineer, he worked in Australia, Burma, Canada, Chile, China (where he witnessed the Boxer rebellion), Mongolia, Mexico, New Zealand, Russia, and Siberia. He was responsible for the development of enormous mineral resources in many of these places, and he earned a considerable fortune.
This first section is the best part of the book. But it leaves a rich lode of adventurous experience sketchily exploited. Personal adventure and the way men live in remote, strange places interest Mr. Hoover less than the prosy business of recording the success of his enterprises. The tone of his Memoirs, especially after his mining career has closed, is pretty dry, stilted and without humor. The second and third sections tell the story of Belgian Relief and of the United States Food Administration in the First World War; the last two deal with post-war European relief and the peacemaking.
Mr. Hoover’s handling of food relief has received such resounding recognition that it seems unnecessary for him to accent his achievements so insistently. Self-congratulation and selfrighteousness arc distressingly obtrusive throughout the book, particularly in the chapters on peacemaking, which drearily reiterate the fuzzy clichés about Europe’s illimitable wickedness, and stand pat by the most archaic isolationism.
On the surface, there appear to be several paradoxes in Hoover’s career. It is remarkable that anyone could have seen so much of the world and yet have remained so parochial in his outlook. It is rather surprising that the engineering “doctor” who found his deepest satisfaction in turning sick concerns into profit-makers — in demonstrating to the world American know-how — should later have been so consistently defeatist about combating the world’s political infections (except for preventing starvation). It is puzzling that the humanitarian who worked so strenuously to get food to the hungry in Europe should view the Europeans with such striking incomprehension and dislike. In this connection, Rebecca West once wittily remarked: “We have been bitten by the hand that fed us.”
Hoover’s Memoirs suggest an answer to these contradictions. He seems to be one of those people whose attitude towards life is fully formed, and assumes inflexible contours, before they reach manhood. The apparent paradoxes in his career stem from, and indeed his whole career bears witness to, an undeviating adherence to the ideals, strong prejudices, and simple, black-and-white moral outlook of his youth.
How right was MacArthur?
The General and the President (Farrar, Straus & Young,$3.75) by Richard H. Rovere and Arthur M. Schlesinger. Jr., is a cool down-tothe-record book about a while-hot, up-in-the-headlines subject —General MacArthur, the Korean War, and China Policy. Messrs. Rovere and Schlesinger start off with the premise that MacArthur is human and therefore not infallible; and even that, these days, is a highly controversial point. When MacArthur made his address before the Joint Meet ing of Congress, Representative Dewey Short paid him this tribute in the Congressional Record: “We saw a great hunk of God in the flesh, the voiee of God.” M hat the Rovere-Schlesinger book offers us is a great hunk of facts and the voice of reason, with witty writing thrown in as a bonus. The authors set forth a meticulously documented account of the General’s career, especially its latest phase; and they attempt, as they go along, to evaluate his achievements and his errors, his qualities and his failings.
When a section of the book appeared in Harper’s, the authors were inevitably denounced by zealots as a pair of scurvy pro-Communists. They are, in point of fact, a pair of militant anti-Communists. Mr. Rovere writes the “ Washington Letter" in The New Yorker and he was for a time the book critic of Harper’s. Mr. Schlesinger, whose Age of Jackson won a Pulitzer Prize, is Associate Professor of History at Harvard. The two of them make a richly endowed partnership, out of which has come an important contribution to the MacArthur controversy. The net result might be roughly summed up by saying that the legend of MacArthur’s military infallibility and superior wisdom about the Far East emerges badly tattered. It would take several pages to cite even the major entries on the credit and debit sides of the ledger. Here are just a few of the book’s noteworthy contentions: —
1. Almost the only American official who was alarmed about Korea long before the invasion was Dean Achoson, who in 1948 testified that the Republic would be a push-over unless it received stronger American support, and who unsuccessfully pressed Congress to increase American aid. 2. MacArthur’s Intelligence discounted a report that the North Koreans would attack in June; he was as much surprised by the invasion as anyone else. 3. MacArthur was asked whether he recommended the use of U.S. ground troops in Korea, and it was on his advice that Truman made the commitment. 4. Two weeks after warning the UN that the Chinese Army, if it joined the Korean war, threatened “the destruction of my command,” MacArthur launched an offensive that led straight into a trap prepared by the Chinese. 5. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, contrary to MacArthur’s assertion, were vehemently opposed to his plan for bombing China and using Chiang’s troops, which would have involved a largescale war with China and left us vulnerable in Europe.
In view of the role played in the MacArthur controversy by the charge that our present troubles in the Far East were caused by past appeasement of Chinese Communism, the following item, not familiar to many people, is perhaps the most arresting point in The General and the President: on December 7, 1945, the State Department received a proposal that U.S. aid to China “be made available as a basis for negotiation by the American Ambassador to bring together and effect a compromise between the major opposing groups [the Communists and Chiang] in order to promote a limited democratic China.” The author of this was General MacArthur.
While I was in Sweden last summer, I heard it said that the likeliest candidate for the next Nobel Prize in Literature was Pär Lagerkvist, who in last year’s balloting ran second to William Faulkner. Of Europe’s major literary figures, Lagerkvist, a sixty-year-old Swede, is probably the least known to Americans. Until recently, only one book of his, The Dwarf (1945), had been published in this country. Now he is represented by a short novel, Barabbas (Random House, $3.00), and it is, by contemporary standards, a small masterpiece.
In a prose style that is swift, sparing, limpid, and hauntingly intense in its effects — a style whose energy and beauty the translator, Alan Blair, has magnificently preserved Lagerkvist evokes the early Christian era with a selective realism more telling than any ponderously detailed reconstruction of the past. Every image sustains the feeling, “That is the way things were”; every movement in the story has an unerring rightness. The narrative unfolds the spiritual drama of a skeptic confronted with Christ’s challenge and it does so in terms peculiarly suggestive to the modern mind. Lagerkvist’s Barabbas—brutal, solitary, incapable of belief yet haunted by the image of the rabbi who chose to die in his place—is a powerful symbol of the loveless being, imprisoned in selfhood, who can be strongly stirred only by hate and is tormented by an unconscious need for love.
Born of a mother who hated his father, never having known father or mother, Barabbas grew up among bandits and learned to live by the law of the jungle. After witnessing the Crucifixion, he returns to his old companions; but he is unable to forget, in drink and love-making, the strange light around the dying man. He questions “those crazy fanatics” about their Master and his teaching, and the things they speak of make no sense to him; the doctrine, “Love One Another,” fills him with incomprehension and disgust. Still, when the hare-lipped girl he once ill-used is stoned to death for being a Christian, Barabbas surreptitiously knifes the man who casts the first stone.
Many years later, when Barabbas is a slave in Rome, he hears the false cry that the Christians are burning the city. Unable to believe in a Son of God who preaches love, he now exultantly believes that the Son of God has returned to annihilate the odious world. In jail, awaiting crucifixion, Barabbas listens impassively as one of the true Christians explains his mistake. On the cross, speaking out into the darkness, “as though he were speaking to the darkness,” he says: “To Thee I deliver up my soul.” We do not know whether he dies believing or still wanting to believe.
They all stayed to dinner
A well-worn but still serviceable formula for a novel is to assemble a group of people in a confined space — a ship, say, or a sanatorium, or a hotel — and set them to work on each other in such a way as to achieve one or more of the following objectives: create dramatic action; reveal the inner springs of character; formulate some generalization about life. John O’Hara uses the assembling part of the formula in his new novelette, The Farmers Hotel (Random House, $2.00), but he follows through with little more than a batch of character sketches and a transcript of an evening’s talk. Most of the character sketches are first-rate as far as they go; and the talk, as always in O’Hara, is recorded with a wonderfully sensitive ear, which delights the reader with such inspired nuances as “gazzoline.” There are, however, a few bits of dialogue between two lovers — “ ‘Am I your final love?’ she said. ‘My final love,’ he said”—which seem to have strayed in, highly inappropriately, from the most recent novel by a writer whom O’Hara has called “the outstanding author since Shakespeare.”
A flash blizzard lands O’Hara’s people in a hotel which is just opening for business, Ira Studebaker’s Farmers Hotel at Rockbottom, Pa., a village some distance from the main highways. The first arrivals are a man and woman in expensive riding clothes, whose station wagon had developed engine trouble, and who turn out to be an adulterous couple with a rather subtle problem on their hands: the woman’s husband doesn’t much mind the affair per se, but he is liable to raise all kinds of hell if she fails to save appearances by lodging at a friend’s house that night. The upper-class Mrs. Paul and Mr. Pomphret are followed by two stripteasers, Paulette and Conchita, and their manager, who are on their way to perform at an American Legion Smoker in Reading. A belligerent truck-driver, Joe Rogg, a Negro bartender with a picturesque army history, and a couple of others complete the cast.
The bad weather decides everyone to stay for dinner, and later an entertainment is staged. Joe Rogg, now pretty drunk, makes a cave-man pass at Conchita, and, after an unpleasant scene, is forced to leave. Shortly afterward, the other visitors take off. The tragedy.that follows seems not so much the conclusion of a story as a fortuitous postscript to a sentence-bysentence, drink-by-drink report of an evening’s proceedings. The Farmers Hotel is a crisply written, pleasantly readable, and studiously pointless piece of fiction, which betrays the belief that a novelist’s function is to emulate a camera wired for sound.