The Peripatetic Reviewer
SPEAKING of houses, I went back to my home town a few weekends ago; and driving in from the airport, as we approached the Country Club I saw that the Dimock house, a landmark of my youth, had disappeared. It was not a historic place just a capacious family home crowning a sloping lawn, which for three generations had stood for comfort and good standards. But evidently it had become too big and old-fashioned for the younger generation. So there was the gaping hole; a couple of the big trees had been felled in the removal, and even the stables were down—and I felt the momentary twinge of an old-timer remembering the grace that was gone.
As our towns have grown, the old residences have sunk without a trace, and the change today is moving so rapidly that it is a rare thing for an American family to live for more than half a generation under the same roof. There is very little sentiment in real estate; but as I travel the country, it seems to me a pity that so few of our cities have been able to preserve even two or three dwellings out of their historic past. Richmond has, of course; and so have those sleeping beauties, Natchez and Charleston. But the old part of Baltimore has gone under, just as historic New Orleans will slip out of sight it someone does not take care. The big river mansions of St. Joseph, Missouri, are ramshackle, and the De Menil mansion in St. Louis, with its lovely brickwork and iron grille, is a solitary ghost, as lonelylooking as the tiny blockhouse at the meeting of the rivers in Pittsburgh.
Boston has been fortunate in preserving till today the Bulfinch houses on Beacon Hill, the fine brick fronts of Louisburg Square, and the Georgian (call it Federal if you prefer) symmetry of Chestnut Street; but even these will be threatened as the cost of maintenance goes up. As he walked down Mt. Vernon Street with me a year ago, Francis Henry Taylor, Director of the Metropolitan Museum, remarked that a place of such beauty and character should never be let go. “It ought to be preserved,” he said, ”by a national trust if necessary.” Preservation comes high (though not as high ns restoration) in these days of high taxes.
The Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities now cares for some fifty-seven proporties — beautiful dwellings of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a gristmill, a burying ground, a cooperage shop. And I must say I admire the spirit of the citizens of Salem who, when ( hestnut Street, where the great McIntire houses stand lawn to lawn, was threatened, pooled their interests to form the Chestnut Street Associates, pledged to keep that most beautiful street lived in and intact. In its way this seems to me quite as notable as the rebuilding of Williamsburg.
The Chestnut Street houses are going to be open to the public for one day this year, and they are a sight to see. June 25 is the date, and if, like myself, you have a hankering for places which lend themselves so beautifully to the imagination, you will be there. Chestnut Street, Salem, in the morning, luncheon on the road, and then in the afternoon a visit to Beauport at Gloucester, which some consider the most fascinating house in America. Then, while in the mood, spend another morning in Marblehead visiting the King-Hooper house and the Lee mansion, beautifully restored by Mrs. Francis B. Crowninshield; take lunch on the Newbury port Turnpike and devote the afternoon to Portsmouth, where there are nine notable houses within close radius, including the Moffat-Ladd house, the Thomas Bailey Aldrich house, the home of Sarah Orne Jewett, and on the outskirts the Jackson house, perhaps the oldest in New Hampshire.
A visit like this helps to keep each one of these mansions alive; but what is more, it preserves for the visitor the associations, the filaments of the past, which are part of our vanishing heritage. If readers are interested I will give a more specific itinerary later, in the spring.
Before yon go to Gloucester I suggest that you look at Beauport (Hastings House, $3.75), the pictures by Samuel Chamberlain, the text by Paul Hollister. This is the introduction you need to the unique house which Henry Sleeper built on Eastern Point. Mr. Sleeper began it as a threeroom summer cottage; and then, because he was a gifted architect and a magnetic collector, he went on to build a forty-room labyrinth, each room a period piece—the wainscoting, the paneling, the cabinets, mirrors, authentic down to the minutest detail. It was his genius to shape these interiors and to adorn them so that they became a breathing likeness of the early Colonial, of the Revolutionary, or of the early Republic. Best of all he built a house to be lived in, and how he lived in it is told and told affectionately — by Mr. Hollister.
Daphne Rooke spent her first thirty-three years in South Africa, and she knows the Transvaal by heart — knows its dialect, the heat of the veld, the stolid strength of the Boers, and the abasement suffered by the Kaffirs and the half-castes. Against this background, in the years leading up to the Boer War, she tells the story of two women whose lives were woven together inextricably: Mittee — Maria Van Brandonberg — gay, quicktempered, the spoiled darling of Plessisburg, and Selina, her colored maid. Selina is the narrator, and in her quick, natural idiom and with the stress of her changing emotions the novel Mittee (Houghton Mifflin, $3.00) takes form.
Selina, whose father is an English peddler, adores her “Nonnie,”but she is equally jealous of the conquests that come to Mittee so easily, and when Mittee holds off her lover, Paul Du Plessis, beyond restraint, Selina takes him. So begins the rivalry which is to poison the trust between them though it never kills their affection.
The women are drawn together by their love of Paul, by the loss of their children, and by the hardship which steals into their happy valley with the coming of the English. In all of this we follow the unpredictable play of Selina’s moods; she can be winsome or passionate, plaintive or hilarious. The author, of course, has taken poetic license in making her so articulate, indeed so lyrical, in what she says. The laughter with which she watches old Gouws oil his beard and take his pills, the rage with which she rips up Mittee’s wedding silk, the tenderness which she comes to feel for her husband Fanie, the temptation with which she torments Paul—these are the unpredictable moods which make this romance so readable.
Winds of Morning by H. L. Davis (Morrow, $3.50) is a rare narrative in any season — I like the country it is laid in, the Columbia River valley; the characterizations, which are telling; and the style, which is supple and masculine. The story is the story of a young sheriff’s assistant, Amos Clarke, who is trying to live up to the lean, hard tradition of the Northwest. He has been flimflamined by one of the big operators in this grazing country, the lawyers have made a monkey of him in court, and the jury (some of them bought) have brought in a verdict he knows to be wrong. Amos is disgusted with the law and glad to leave the courthouse on an assignment to round up some wild horses that have been loose on the railroad track. In the act he meets old Hendricks, a decent, virile guy, and before long the pair of them — the oldster and the sheriff’s assistant —are drawn back into the fight against the big operator and his crooked, ugly foreman, Busick.
The book gets off to a fast start and the pace never slows. The style is the man; and the man of course is young Amos, and you share his impressions so accurately that it is not until you put the book down that you appreciate the full force of his personality and the scope and weight of his (and your vicarious) experiences. Amos wants to believe that his part of the country can recover from the corruption eating into it, and in this he is supported by his friendship with Hendricks, who knew the land when il was virgin and who has the tenacity and wisdom of experience. The book is lull of good scenes — I remember particularly the dawn by the pond when Amos in his blankets identifies by the sounds the animals who have come down to drink; and perhaps the most stirring of all, Hendricks’s account of how he once prospered in the young country. This is pungent Americana and a hard book to beat.
The Middle West
The Middle West, in which I spend a fortnight every autumn, is a region hospitable, richly endowed, and more rigorously conservative than either of the coasts. In its political thinking it is led by Hoover and Taft and influenced sometimes more than it realizes by McCormick. Because of its conservatism it lends itself to satire quite as readily as Boston, and in his novel Jefferson Selleck (Little, Brown, $3.00) Carl Jonas has responded to this opportunity by writing the George Apley of the Middle West.
Jeff tells t he story on himself, a tape recording made in I he hospital and at home during his long convalescence from a heart attack. In his prime he had been two-fisted and popular, He had prospered in business and in Republican politics (he was in charge of “Noise" at the National Convention of 1948. He was a good soldier, a good hunter, and a good drinker, and not much given to self-questioning until his pump faltered. Then, at Doctor Crocker’s suggestion and to escape the appalling bleakness ahead, he looks back and inward to recall the high points of his life. Jeff sounds very consistent as he rambles along; his locution and, at sensitive moments, his candor are no better than they should be. The story is given further verisimilitude by the footnotes supplied by the doctor and Tom, Jeff’s son. I am not sure that Gateway City and points west will accept This portraiture as always honest and accurate, but Boston with a fellow feeling is enjoying it.