The Peripatetic Reviewer
Dixon Wecter was a broad-shouldered, sunny Texan with an unquenchable zest for research. History was his chosen field and the study of character his natural bent. Tom Wolfe, the novelist, encouraged him to write his first book, The Saga of American Society, and with its publication he was off to the races. In The Hero in America he made a study of the great personalities in American public life (presidents, generals, frontiersmen), and this was followed in 1944 by a volume, When Johnny Comes Marching Home, which traced the reaction and the history of our veterans of the Revolution, the Civil War, and the First World War after their demobilization. When two years later he was made editor of the Mark Twain estate, with headquarters in the Huntington Library, it was the happiest possible affiliation of historian and source material.
Mr. Weeter’s first task was to edit the largely unpublished love letters which Mark wrote to Livy; meantime he was familiarizing himself with the Mark Twain country: with his wife he made a river trip down the Mississippi with Mark’s pilot book to help him pick up some of the old landmarks, He followed up every family clue in Florida and Hannibal, Missouri, the villages in which Mark grew up. All this in preparation for his projected biography of Sam Clemens, the first volume of which, Sam Clemens of Hannibal (Houghton Mifflin, $4.00), he had completed before his tragic death last summer.
Sam Clemens of Hannibal is an enchanting family portrait with young Sam in the foreground, and in the background Hannibal, “the white town drowsing in the sunshine of a summer morning.” Here is the Kenlucky-born Mrs. Clemens, who married her stern, upright spouse to spite a younger beau. She, like all her redheaded family, adored the color red; she liked games and dancing, constantly had premonitions, was completely mercurial and feminine; and who shall say how much of her gay chemistry formed the writer? Here is Sam’s father, the Judge, the optimist and speculator, with his Virginian’s pride and his flair for failure, going deeper into debt as he opens one after a not her in his endless chain of general stores. Here are Orion, the earnest, humorless older brother, who put the sure kiss of death on any venture he touched; the attruclive older sisters, Margaret and Pamela; and Tom Blankenship, son of a drunkard, who lived across the street and who was the original of Huck Finn.
Hannibal itself emerges as a kind of Eden in the Genesis of the American dream; the sloppy, roomy houses with dogtrots and enormous fireplaces, and grapevine swings in the woods. The Christmas fare always included venison steaks, ducks, wild turkey, grouse, and quail. The Swiss Bell-Ringers provided their “chaste, novel and select musical entertainments” in the Second Presbyterian Church, but down in the taverns one heard the more popular tunes like “O, Susanna” and “Old Dan Tucker mixed with the luscious political oratory of the day. There was an attempted elegance in the little-used parlors, and even the traveling circus had a clown who was “guaranteed ‘a perfect gentleman.
The portrait of Sam is vigorous and understanding. Wecter shows us a charming, rip-snorting, tender-hearted boy much less predictable than his vacuous older brother. We follow Sam from his birth in the little town of Florida in 1835 (“I increased the population by one per cent ”) through his childhood; we see the Indian games on the edge of the dim woods with their hint of animal terror, and the grief of death which Mark learned early when Margaret died of “bilious fever”; we see his schooling in the village of Florida and his sunny visits to the Quarles Farm. We see Sam’s naturalness with the Negroes; we see his stubborn apprenticeship under Orion on the Journal and his assertiveness as he began to write facetious fillers: “To prevent Dogs going mad in August: Cut their heads oft’ in July.” We hear (he pledge which he gives his mother when in 1853 he quits Hannibal to find a printer’s job in St. Louis—“I do solemnly swear that I will not throw a card or drink a drop of liquor while I am gone.” A book like this is a delightful tonic to the American spirit. Its warmth its honesty, its exuberance are balm to the mind.
Hideout in Holland
When Hitler came to power in 1933, the Frank family moved from Germany to Holland, where they lived happy, normal lives — the lather a businessman, the two girls in school — until the war and the German Occupation. To escape the Nazi gas chambers, the family went into hiding in some rooms back of the warehouse in which Mr. Frank had his office. They spent the next two years in the “secret Annex" along with four others: Mr. Van Daan, a business associate of Mr. Frank’s, his wife, his sixteen-year-old son Peter, and Albert Dussel, an elderly dentist.
In The Diary of a Young Girl (Doubleday, $3.00) Anne Frank records the day-to-day thoughts and experiences of a sensitive, intelligent teen-ager hiding out from the Nazis. At thirteen this child, forced into maturity by events, displays a shrewd objectivity about herself and her companions, combined with unusual sweetness, good humor, and common sense. The result is a perceptive and appealing document that tells what it is like to live in constant terror of the knock on the door.
The Diary of a Young Girl also tells a great deal about the fears, the hopes, the exaggerated sorrows, the foolish joys of adolescence. Through Anne we get a better understanding of our own children, and we remember how hard it was to grow up. Anne wanted desperately to be a writer. She was. The pity is that she did not live to see her talent flower.
Hemingway at his best
In The Old Man and the Sea (Scribner’s, $3.00), Ernest Hemingway has returned to the stripped, lean, objective narrative so characteristic of him at his best. In this short novel of an aging but still resourceful Havana fisherman there is not a waste word, not a single intrusion of the author or of a bystander who might be Hemingway. The old man, sage, tempered, and set apart by his age, has been cursed with eighty-four days of bad luck. Not a fish in that time; so the young boy who was his helper has been ordered by his parents to another and a luckier boat, and the old man must go out alone to farther, deeper waters where the bigger marlin lie. The boy Manolin still helps him when the boats are ashore — helps him get his supper, picks up the fresh bails, and helps him carry the gear, the rolls of line in the basket, the harpoon and gaff, the mast with the furled sail, down to the waterside. So it is that the old man rows out in his skiff in the dark before dawn for the most taxing fight in his long life, a struggle with a giant marlin which is to break his luck for good.
Mr. Hemingway has stripped the story to the essentials of the old Cuban. Having no family, he has few wants: lust and liquor are behind him; in his little shack ashore he has but one meal a day and lives in that borderland between reverie and sleep. But on the sea it is different; he lives for fishing and he loves la mar — “the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something t hat gav e or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them.”To his fishing he brings the instinct and knowledge of a lifetime, great courage and cunning to make up for the youth he has lost.
The old man’s response to the sea, the sureness with which he pierces its depth with line or sight, the incredible resourcefulness with which he hangs on to the giant marlin through days and nights, and the rage with which he tries to defend his prize from the sharks — these are the successive stages in a story which is beautiful in its description, and of clean thrusting power in its pursuit. Here is none of the braggadocio which made that other fisherman, Harry Morgan, something less than believable. The old man and the boy are perfectly tuned tollemingway’s purpose: their affection and utterance are true to themselves as their philosophy is true to the sea.
I have put this book on the top shelf of Air. Hemingway’s work, and 1 am grateful for it.
The lighter side
In his lighter moments Hemingway’s old man dreams about DiMaggio and the Yankees and what they will do to the Indians of Cleveland. This is something he liked to dope out for himself from the sports page. If I knew where to reach him, I would be inclined to send that old fisherman a copy of How to Get to First Base (Henry Schwman, $1.00), a picture book by Marc Simont with captions and a foreword by Red Smith. Red Smith is the best sports columnist in the business today, with an incomparable sense of humor, He in his words and Simont in his black-and-whites have produced some brilliant caricatures: Ted Williams, Leo Durocher, Casey Stengel, Bill Dickey, A ogi Berra, Roy Campanella, and scenes of the Polo Grounds in action — a gallery that makes you grin at its authenticity.
My copy of David McCord “s comedy, The Camp at Lockjaw (Doubleday, $1.7.5), bears the inscription: “To fisherman Weeks with controlled enthusiasm from David,” the “control” denoting the fact that he could not accompany me on my trip to the Canadian woods this summer, much as he ached to go along. Dave is never happier than in a fishing camp, and so it is against nature for him to have written this story of a city softie, Mr. Snivvely, who is trapped by his friends into spending a few days at their camp. At the camp everything goes wrong that can possibly go wrong: the door is locked when they arrive and they have forgotten the keys, the mosquitoes are insistent, and it comes on to rain; when at last, they have broken in, they find themselves short of matches. Mr. Snivvely gets a little tired of peanut butter, the bunks are unmerciful, and of course the fish never bite. An American Swiss Family Robinson in reverse, with not a painful detail forgotten. Strictly for those who are glad to get home.