The Peripatetic Reviewer

SOME years ago I had as a guest on my radio program J. G. de Roulhac Hamilton, Professor of American History at Chapel Hill. We discussed old manuscripts, where to find them, and how to preserve them; and I remember how, repeatedly, he inveighed against those three enemies of ancient paper — the moth, the rat, and the overconscientious housewife. Those three between them, said Mr. Hamilton, had destroyed and were still destroying an incalculable amount of our written heritage. In the latter years of his career, instead of teaching, he had devoted himself to a year-in, year-out expedition to save the documents of the Old South — diaries, letters, plantation records, manuscripts which threw fresh light on the past. From his amazing knowledge of genealogy he would figure out in what areas documents of value might still be in hiding. Then in his old Ford he would scour the back country for the plantation or farm house in whose attic — if the rats or the housewife had not beaten him to it — the records he anticipated were to be found.
It took a Southerner of great charm and reliability to persuade the daughters of the late Colonel that their relics would be safe in his hands. In some cases he was permitted to carry the originals back to the University Library: where this was delayed he used microfilm. In this way, for more than a decade, he assembled in a fireproof archive literally thousands of pages — contemporary evidence of ihe different epochs through which the South has passed.
It would have been a liberal education to have traveled with Mr. Hamilton. And a sad one too, for many times he must have visited historic homes which were on their last legs; houses
which through neglect or from pressure of progress were soon to be swept into the discard. As more and more highways radiate from our cities, the big roadside trees come down and the houses which once commanded respect are plowed under. Moving in common protest against such casualties, more than one hundred societies interested in preservation have united to form The National Trust with headquarters at 712 Jackson Place, N.W., Washington 6. D.C. ‘Their illustrated pamphlets, Preserving America’s Heritage, which I urge you to write for, show the ruthlessness against which the Trust must contend. The pictures will melt your heart and make you indignant. Here is the Belle Grove Plantation near White Castle, Louisiana, one of the handsomesl of the Delta plantations to survive the Civil War, only to go to pieces afterwvards in ruin and fire. No one cared. Here is the George W. Campbell House in New Orleans, which has been built over and defaced with its parasitic growth of quick-time shops. Here is the Captain Barnes House of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, as it was in 1936 and as it looks today after having been truncated and converted into a gas station. Here is the Medicine Creek Reservoir in Nebraska, the site of an ancient Indian village: the photograph shows how it is being leveled and cleared by bulldozers.
The National Trust is ready to intervene in order to prevent further unnecessary destruction of such buildings and sites. Sometimes the warning comes too late, as was the case with “ Visscherdaal,” one of the few remaining 18th century brick houses in the Mohawk Valley. It was owned by an engineer who spent many years restoring the house, which he used as his residence. Then the local authorities of Colonie, New York, decided that “Visscherdaal” stood in the way of a local water supply project. The house must either be moved or be inundated. The owner and his friends submitted an alternate water-productive scheme and at the eleventh hour appealed to the National Trust. The buck was passed back and forth, but the officials refused to reopen the case. “Visscherdaal” either is going or has already gone. I am afraid this is characteristic of too many American communities; we don’t know how much we are losing until it is gone.
The National Trust is a private, nongovernmental body, and if it is to hold off such In the May Atlantic the Peripatetic Reviewer made a tour of some of the literary and historic houses in New England. Reprints of his essay are available free of charge. Write The Editor, the _Atlantic Monthly, 8 Arlington Street, Boston 16, Massachusetts.
desecration in the future, it will need contributions beginning in $10 units and assuring an income of $250,000 a year. Cases, and some of them urgent, are already coming up at the rate of one a week. They need our sympathy and our ammunition.
The preservation of old houses and historic sites calls for vigilance and for sentiment. A book to stir both has been published this spring, Literary America by David E. Scherman and Rosemarie Redlich (Dodd, Mead, $5.00), a chronicle of American writers with 170 photographs of the scenes which inspired their writing. The pictures catch the mood of the stories we know; they beckon us to see for ourselves the places which seeded our finest writing — Virginia City, Nevada, where Bret Harte and Mark Twain got their start; the view of Amherst which Emily Dickinson caught at dawn; the Courthouse in Oxford, Mississippi, and the old Shipp Place, unpainted and falling apart, which might have held a Faulkner character; “Dixieland,” the boardinghouse run by the mother of Thomas Wolfe; the mountain boulder near Palenville. New York, where Rip Van Winkle slept; Jefferson’s Monticello; and the soldiers huts at Valley Forge.
Over the Fourth our migratory streak asserts itself, and many of us will be on the move to visit Plymouth Rock, Williamsburg, or Walden Pond on the outskirts of Concord. Americans are impatient, sloppy travelers. Some baboons we always have with us, and they will leave behind them souvenirs to mark their attendance at these historic spots — beer cans and pop bottles, picnic leftovers, and the sport page ready to blow. On one July morning in 1949, Edwin Way Teale, author of North with the Spring, and Walter Harding, Secretary of the Thoreau Society, made a circuit of Deep Cove, close to the site of Thoreau’s cabin. This is what they found: —
116 beer cans
21 milk bottles
7 Coca-Cola bottles
the remains of 14 campfires
a shoe box
half-eaten sandwiches
Dixie cups
cracker boxes
soda straws
cigarette packages
comic books
tabloid newspapers
playing cards
broken glass
paper napkins
mustard bottles
banana peels
orange skins
a baby-food jar
a piece of pink ribbon
the thumb of a leather glove
a flashlight battery
a dollar bill
Litter like that makes you wonder how long some people have been out of the trees! What’s the use of having a good country if we treat it that way?
The amiable and eccentric
Columbus is the quintessence of the Middle West. It is also the birthplace of James Thurber, whose
drawings and stories in the New Yorker have established him as the funniest American in print. The Thurber Album (Simon and Schuster, $3.50) I should call his most endearing book: portraits of his mother and father, recollections of his huge clan of Fisher and Jackson relatives, the account of his boyhood in Columbus, of his favorite professors at Ohio State, and of his cub reporting under Kuehner of the Columbus Dispatch — lively and affectionate writing without a trace of softness.
Naturally one scouts these pages for the origin of Thurber’s humor. Where, for instance, did he discover those mournful hounds which he first began drawing in college and then for the delectation of us all? This source traces back to his grandfather’s house fifty years ago, where over the dining-room fireplace hung “an elaborately framed lithograph of six hunting dogs with strong muzzles, long ears, and melancholy eyes, who were to remain permanently in my memory for fond . . . reference later on.” We have assumed that Thurber’s distrust of all things mechanical came from bis failing eyesight. Not at all. It is a direct inheritance from his father, who was “plagued by the mechanical.
. . . Knobs froze at his touch, doors stuck, lines fouled, the detachable would not detach, the adjustable would not adjust. He could rarely get the top off anything, and he was forever trying to unlock something with the key to something else. In 1908, trying to fix the snap lock of the door to his sons’ rabbit pen, he succeeded only after getting inside the cage, where he was imprisoned for three hours with six Belgian hares and thirteen guinea pigs.”
We have wondered where Thurber got his genius for touching up the prosaic with such distortions and magnifications. The answer is his mother, and her portrait in the chapter entitled “Lavender with a Difference” is gusty with laughter, and as fine and touching as Bill White’s Memorial to Mary. Mother’s practical jokes and the absent-minded Effie Young; the Blind Baseball Team and their nightmare of a diamond; Grandfather Fisher, who used to walk about Columbus with a red rose clutched between his gold teeth, and Thurber’s picture of the Klansmen riding home by trolley after their “secret ” meeting in the amusement park
— these are a few of the scenes that made me chortle. Not since Life with Father have we had such a lovely picture of a roomy, free-wheeling American family when people were still able to do pretty much as they pleased, and what they pleased was largely dictated by genuine kindness and strong conviction.
Poland shall rise again
R. C. Hutchinson has a smaller following than he deserves in America. His novels are remarkable for their depth of sympathy and for the great skill with which they assimilate and illuminate a way of life foreign to Anglo-Saxons. In Shining Scabbard Mr. Hutchinson wrote of a French Army family at the time of the Dreyfus Case, and he wrote with a feeling for French custom and character which made it seem as if these people were actually speaking French. In his new novel. Journey with Strangers (Rinehart & Company, $4.00), his people are members of a Polish family, landed aristocrats, who are subjected first to the German invasion of 1939 and then to the more ruthless occupation and deportation by the Russians.
The Kolbecks had long known what it was to suffer for Poland: the old Count as a young boy had been hung by his arm for eleven hours by a drunken captor, and had twice served long sentences in Russian prison camps. His son Julius, the General, had been betrayed and sent to Siberia following the uprising of 1905. Now, as the story opens, Poland is again caught between the millstones. The lovely years of liberation are at an end and the family, under the silent, efficient command of the old Countess, begins to bury its valuables and prepare for the inevitable exodus from their beloved country house, Setory. The story comes to us through the eyes and heart of the Kolbecks’ daughter-in-law, Stefanie; she is a Ruthenian and for secret reasons is not altogether in the family trust, but she is swept along with them on the incredibly ruthless exile in Siberia; and when hope has almost been extinguished, with them she sees the light at the end of the tunnel leading to liberation in the Middle East.
Stefanie has good reasons for disliking her father-in-law, and her detachment from the clan permits her to record and at times to criticize their passionate, almost unthinking, attachment. With them she suffers the degradation which comes with I he Russians; with them learns the habit of self-subordination and the steeling of the spirit for whatever must be endured. The long, heartbreaking trek to Siberia is the more punishing to Stefanie because she is pregnant, carrying in her Victor’s son and the hope of the family. Her apprehension, her self-centered preoccupation, create a mood truly and remarkably portrayed by the novelist; and in vignettes, first within the walls of Setory, and then against the stark monotone of winter, we see Stefanie drawn ever closer to the heart of this indomitable family. As she scrubs the floors with Julius, as she has her last talk with the old Count, as she joins the dilapidated, sodden exiles in singing the Krakow Guard, as she is administered to in that dreadful flatcar by her mother-in-law and young Wanda, we see the spirit that must have carried Poles and Czechs as only yesterday it carried the old people of Budapest to an ordeal which makes the blood boil. Though the setting is drear and circumstances oppressive, this is not a degrading story; it is lit by courage and made warm by compassion of the spirit.