The Peripatetic Reviewer
WHEN I was an undergraduate covering Harvard for the Boston Evening Transcript, I used to call each morning at a basement office in University Hall where my friend Frederick Lewis Allen would hand out the official news about the college. That was thirty years ago, and I still defer to him as the fairest-minded interpreter of what is cooking in this country. He established his reputation as a historian with his first book, Only Yesterday; he extended it in those pictorial volumes which he did with Agnes Rogers, his wife: The American Profession and I Remember Distinctly; and he broadened and made precise his knowledge of our financial structure in those vivid biographical studies, The Lords of Creation and The Great Pierpont Morgan. All this has sharpened his perception and strengthened his judgment for the writing of what is clearly his best and most searching book, The Big Change: America Transforms Itself, 1900-1950 (Harper, $3.50).
Mr. Allen begins by reminding us that “of all the contrasts between American life in 1900 and half a century or more later, perhaps the most significant is in the distance between rich and poor in income, the way of living and status in the community.” To point up the contrast, he tells us that in 1900 Andrew Carnegie’s income from steel alone — and he had other interests — ran well over $23,000,000 with no income taxes to pay. On the other hand, the average annual wage for all American workers for that year was about $450. At the rate of three of our dollars for one of theirs, you can figure out this disparity. He tells us of the Vanderbilts’ empire and of George W.’s estate, “Billmore,” at Asheville, North Carolina, which covered 203 square miles and which employed more men than were then in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He writes of the influence of J. Pierpont Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, John D. Archbold, and E. H. Harriman ; and he shows by what combinations Morgan became “the most powerful citizen of the United States.” He speaks of our huge annual import of cheap labor; of how Ricardo’s Iron Law held wages to a minimum for a ten-hour day, and of why there were ten million paupers in this country by 1904. At this rate we seemed committed to a reign of plutocracy; and by the spring of 1901 when Morgan announced the formation of the Steel Corporation, conservative citizens like President Hadley of Yale were warning of “an emperor in Washington within twenty-five years.” And conservative papers like the Boston Herald were saying editorially that “if a limited financial group shall come to represent the capitalistic end of industry, the perils of socialism . . . may be looked upon even by intelligent people as possibly the lesser of two evils.”
This brings Mr. Allen to his main thesis: how by the revolt of the American conscience; by the dynamism of invention and mass production, and by the development of our resources; how by tax laws and minimum-wage laws, subsidies and guarantees, plus labor union pressures and new management attitudes, we went to work to change things. And we changed them not by bloodshed and revolution but by a series of experimental revisions of the old system.
Mr. Allen considers the relation of these remarkable dates: in 1909 Ford went into mass production of his Model T and in 1914 announced a $5 minimum wage for an eight-hour day; in 1901 Spindletop blew in, symbolizing the new fuel for the automotive age. In 1903 the Wright Brothers were flying at Kitty Hawk and the first moving picture, The Great Train Robbery, was in production. In 1909 bakelite, from which the plastics grew, was first put on the market; and in 1915 David Sarnoff, assistant traffic manager of the arconi Wireless Telegraph Company, proposed “a radio music box.” These dates show that by invention and by stepping up the power of the machine we have been able to repeal the Iron Law, and have actually discovered a new frontier: the purchasing power of the poor. And all this has its corollary: if you bring advantages to underprivileged people, they will rise to their opportunities and become responsible citizens.
I do not want to give the impression that The Big Change is undiluted optimism. Mr. Allen is acutely aware of what the Depression did to us; he sees the danger of raising taxes to the point where they undermine incentive; he does not gloss over inflation and what a serious menace it is to our economic health. But he does insist that we have demonstrated in World War II and thereafter that business can be more resourcefully run by private managers than by government ownership; and as he considers the improved status of the Negro, the enormous advance in medicine, the readaptation of the corporation, and the economic leveling of earning power, it is his conclusion that the United States is not evolving towards Socialism but past Socialism.
A man who loved the Army
In the spring of 1946, shortly after his novel Brideshead Revisited had scored a smashing success in this country, Evelyn Waugh contributed a brilliant piece of self-analysis to Life Magazine. “In my youth,” he wrote, “I gadded about, and in those years and in the preposterous years of the Second World War I collected enough experience to last several lifetimes of novel writing.” That was one tip-off for those of us who revered his work; who felt that in Brideshead he had struck a deeper vein than he had touched in any of his earlier satires, and were eager to know what was coming next.
In Men at Arms (Little, Brown, $3.50) Mr. Waugh has written a highly entertaining novel about some of the “preposterous" experiences of the Second World War, and he has found in his hero, Guy Crouchback, a man who can be laughed at and believed in. Guy was a detached thirty-five when the war called him back to England in 1939 — detached from his wife and detached from any job that mattered. His marriage had failed; so had his farming venture in Kenya. He had been living pleasantly and inconspicuously in the family villa in Italy until Britain’s need of every man brought him home. The war gave him a chance to rededicate himself as a junior officer in the Royal Corps of Halberdiers, and overnight the Army became his second love.
Men at Arms has none of the ponderous detail, none of the piled-on brutality, which have made so many war books a heavy burden. Waugh’s sharp wit and sure touch of satire are always at work, creating memorable characters like the ferocious one-eyed Brigadier Ritchie-Hook, a Cyclops of war, performing bloodthirsty acts in defiance of staff orders; or Apthorpe, the burly, garrulous veteran from Africa with his incredible stories and gear. The episodes are alive with suppressed laughter; the regimental dinner which degenerates into a football game, Guy’s near calamity when he mistakes two fellow officers for German spies, Apthorpe’s pride in his private, folding latrine which he calls “the thunder-box” — these are a few of the more unconventional aspects of Army life which I delight in. Here one is tempted to think that the author is drawing from some of his own personal experiences
as a Commando and junior officer of the infantry.
Yet Lieutenant Crouchback, his hero, is not a person of mockery, but a sensitive, likable man. He is mild and good-humored, quixotic in his sense of dedication, compassionate and wondering, and at bottom deeply disturbed. The Army becomes his be-all and end-all; for it he does his best. He is obedient though never a blind follower; he earns the affection and trust of his fellow officers, most of them younger than himself, and it is impulsive kindness which in the end betrays him.
Mr. White’s wonderful barn
We are indebted to E. B. White for a number of good things: for his “Talk of the Town,” the wittiest and most thoughtful columns in The New Yorker; for his delightful collection of essays, One Man’s Meat; and for the imagination and skill with which he has devised two perfect books for children — Stuart Little and now, this fall, his new one, Charlotte’s Web (Harper, $2.50). Like most of us, Mr. White is a divided personality. He prefers to winter in the city, but as soon as the snow is gone he yearns for his salt farm on the Maine coast. Stuart Little, the story of an articulate citified mouse, is a winter fantasy, whereas Charlotte’s Web originates in the fragrance and conviviality of Mr. White’s barn down East.
The story begins with Fern, eight years old and a farmer’s daughter who in a frenzy hangs on to her father’s ax as he is about to dispatch the runt of the litter. The little pig is turned over to her; she christens him Wilbur, rears him on a bottle, and takes him for walks in her doll’s carriage. All very normal. Then at the age of five weeks, when his appetite is becoming expensive, Wilbur is sold to Fern’s uncle and goes to live in the manure pile in the cellar of Zuckerman’s barn. Fern has the run of the place and here after school she likes to sit, watching Wilbur with parental pride and listening to the talk of the sheep, the geese, and Templeton, the rat. The brains of the barn is Charlotte, a big gray spider whose web occupies the upper part of the doorway. Wilbur, who cries easily, is dissolved when the old sheep warns him that he is certainly being fattened for Christmas; this angers the spider, who intercedes and promises to save him. She uses her web as a bulletin board, and word soon gets around that a miracle has taken place at Zuckerman’s.
It is fun to see what makes this all so plausible and endearing. Mr. White reassures the senses as he describes the sounds and smells of a barn on a summer’s evening — and if you have never heard a goose or a rat talk quite that way, it is probably because you were never there to listen. Fern’s mother is alarmed by what Fern tolls her of the conversation, but not the family doctor, nor Fern’s father. The story moves with a happy certainty, guided by that wise and charming creature, Charlotte; thore arc plenty of laughable moments— as when Wilbur trios to spin a web, and when Templeton visits the flump and the Fair. Mr. White is quietly but firmly on the side of Fern and Wilbur and against the adult world; and when, at the book’s close, Wilbur, as he thinks of Charlotte, says to himself, “It is not often that, someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer,”the reader can only add, “Bravo!"’
The gambler in Hollywood
For his big, engrossing novel, The Magic Lantern (Holt, $3.95), Robert Carson has picked up a theme which has been King in full view these many years in Hollywood, wailing for a writer to bring to it the magnetism, thorynicism and rivalry, the gambling spirit, and the gusto which taken together have made the story of the movie industry such a bewitching, flashy picture of American enterprise. Mr. Carson has done the book which Scott Fitzgerald saw in his imagination but did not live to finish, which Bemelmans reduced to mockery, and which Budd Schulberg wrote with skill and angry impatience. But Mr. Carson is not in a hurry and he is not satirical. He sees the pioneering of Hollywood as a story of men and women, most of them gamblers, capable of infinite invention and the hardest bind of work, and he tells it in the compass of a single family, the Silversmiths.
Frank Silversmith, actor and rolling stone, got his start in ihe movies in the first crude experiments in Fort Lee, New Jersey; he finds a partner in Ben Malzoth and he then moves his company into the glass conservatories in Los Angeles, where the sunlight is more durable and the populace more coöperative. Frank was one of the first to build up his “stars,” one of the first to gamble on a four-reeler (his colossal production of Iranhoe look every penny he coqjcl borrow and in the end netted Silversmith Productions nine million). His company is ingenious and well depicted: Teddy Marvel, his star, and Brand Mathewson. his juvenile lead: Dick Shires, producer and master cutter: Larry Packer, who had taught himself to do anything with a camera; and Lily Hatfield, who could steal and improvise the scripts. The experience comes to us through the voting hut critical eyes of Ellie, Silversmilh’s only son, a good-looking youngster who has liille love for his father fait plenty of curiosity about what is going on, Ellie I find a little too precocious to be plausible, and his passions, Toddy and Honey, leave me cold — I find it hard to believe in their attractions. But Frank Silversmith, ihe elder, is a domineering character, and it is his driv e and fev er which give such compulsion to the hook. The technical scenes at the production end have I he color and ring of authentieity, and not unnaturally, for Carson has spent most of his life in Los Angeles and has written screen plays for almost every major company in Hollywood.