WHEN I was a boy growing up on the New Jersey coast in a gang known as The Booze Beers (sheer boast, the beer we drank was Root Beer), we had a saying which, like twelve-year-olds now or then, we all used on provocation: “Great Day in the Morning!” To us it celebrated the utmost of anticipation. The Dunns were giving a marshmallow roast with hot dogs and corn on the cob, or you were asked to go on a weekend cruise to Barnegat Inlet on Commodore Cattus’s big yawl — and out it came: “Great Day in the Morning!”
The best that happens has a fresh taste at that age, and as one looks back, so much seems to have been caught and fixed in the early morning light. I used to go down to the beach before breakfast looking for moonstones when the tide was low. The pebbled walk on East Street was still damp with the dew, the morning-glories and sweet peas on the trellis at the south side of the cottage were moist and fresh, and the ocean as you squinted at it from the boardwalk was so alive with sun points that it hurt your eyes. I remember the early morning at the Fish Pound when the boats were just in from the nets and when you could buy a good blue or bonito for 25 cents, and those other dawns when you were cruising down the Bay and were awakened by the gentle lap, lap, lap of the waves against the hull; it was still gray and the dew was so cold on the deck that you shivered in your birthday suit and took your plunge. And later as you clambered in over the stern, Mario was heating the coffee, and eggs fried in bacon fat were coming up — Great Day in the Morning!
Even now when I am in the mid-fifties and citybound, the same restlessness arouses me early, and as spring approaches I feel the same desire for the fresh sights and sounds on a bright morning. The birds tip me off—a flight of duck seen over the Esplanade or the grackles chattering in the budding beech as I come home through the Public Garden. We get the car out and drive down country to open the cottage, and there we hear the chickadee calling; the jay has recaptured his bugle note, and the whitethroat makes much of his “Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.” Come May and the mother robin has begun once more and defiantly to build her house above the screen door of our guesthouse, and in those first May mornings one is conscious of being awakened before sunrise by the clamor of the warblers and orioles before one drifts back to sleep again.
As the summer advances, I go out for the Great Day with a fly rod, fishing the valley of the Battenkill before the sun has touched the water and feeling through my waders and woolens the sheer cold of the stream. At Dam Camp on the Northwest Miramichi, I have been roused by the waterfall as early as 3.30 and, finding it impossible to go back to sleep, have dressed and gone down to sit on the big boulder high above the Home Pool. The morning mists were like a fog bank close to the surface, and as they dispersed I went to call Howard and, with his eyes to guide me, let my line torpedo out at a length and in a current where only the salmon could hook himself. So often in the north woods the early risers will detect the deer, and in that changing light no Kodachrome could catch the true color of the green grass and those russet saddles of the buck and two does which we spotted on the riverbank just as the sun’s finger fell on them.
Emerson, whose one hundred and fiftieth anniversary we celebrate this May, has this to say about my Great Day in the Morning. In his essay on Nature he writes: “The tempered light of the woods is like a perpetual morning, and is stimulating and heroic. The anciently-reported spells of these places creep on us. The stems of pines, hemlocks, and oaks almost gleam like iron on the excited eye. The incommunicable trees begin to persuade us to live with them, and quit our life of solemn trifles. . . . How easily we might walk onward into the opening landscape, absorbed by new pictures and by thoughts fast succeeding each other, until by degrees the recollection of home was crowded out of the mind, all memory obliterated by the tyranny of the present, and we were led in triumph by nature.”
Education and size
On my last visit to Ohio State University I had a talk with the head of the English Department, Professor James Fullington, who is an old friend of mine; and in the course of our conversation we looked ahead to the 1960s when the present crop of GI children who are now approaching high school age will be in college, and when, if expectations are fulfilled, a big state university like Ohio State will probably number as many as 25,000 undergraduates. “How in the world,” I asked, “do you teach English A to a Freshman class of 7500? How many section instructors will you need?”
This problem of size is creating more and more strain on our system of public education, and nowhere is this more true than in our high schools, which are overcrowded today and which, unless we take precautions, will be bursting at the seams in less than a decade.
It seems to me that James Bryant Conant has faced us up to an educational emergency in his concise and courageous short book, Education and Liberty (Harvard University Press, $3.00). This is an attempt to compare the secondary education which has flourished in the United States for one hundred and twenty-five years, following the reforms of Horace Mann, with that which exists to a much less general extent in England, Scotland, Australia, and New Zealand. His inquiry is based upon the realization that “in the United States, less than a third of the boys and girls 16 to 17 years of age are not attending school,” whereas “in the four British countries, less than a third of the same age group are attending school.” It is based upon the irrefutable fact that as the result of the increase in our birth rate since the war, “fifteen years from now there will be 65 per cent more youths of college age than at the present time.” There is size for you — and how in the world are we going to distribute this new huge load in our schools and colleges?
President Conant believes that our public schools have played a dominant role in maintaining the nature and cohesion of our democracy. He believes that they must be strengthened and not weakened in the face of these new demands; he believes that they must have a larger, not a smaller, share of the tax dollar. He says to the universities and colleges, “Stop wringing your hands and complaining about the poor preparation of the students from secondary schools; rather, lend a hand to those in charge of these schools and those teaching in them and in so doing learn something of their problems.”
He recommends a ten-point program to cope with the necessary expansion, and I must say I find it an exciting one. He suggests that we make a two-year college course (following the regular high school course) more “fashionable”; he suggests that we create “a climate of opinion in which the length of the education beyond eighteen is not considered the hallmark of its respectability”; he suggests the expansion of our junior and senior high schools to meet the new bulge in enrollments.
Dr. Conant has been bitterly attacked for his attitude toward the parochial and independent schools, but, as this book makes clear, he at no time advocates the suppression of private schools; rather he says that we must not be “indifferent to their expansion” — at the expense of the public schools. If most independent schools are running on a deficit, as is currently the case, and if the clamor continues for Federal aid to bail them out, and Congress votes it, what will this mean to the strength which for the good of the community we owe primarily to our public schools? When as much as 40 per cent of the school population are attending parochial and private schools, as they are today in Boston, what does this portend in terms of taxes and of democratic elements withheld from our high schools of tomorrow ? These are questions which every conscientious citizen must answer.
Farmer at bay
Robert Henriques, a friend of General Wingate and an organizer of commandos in World War II, is the author of No Anns, No Armour, which won the All-Nations Prize Novel Competition, and Too Little Love, which was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for 1950, Today he raises cattle on a 170-acre farm in England and there he does his writing with the sweep and lyrical beauty of a Masefield.
In his new work, A Stranger Here (Viking, $3.75), a novel of contemporary England, Mr. Henriques tells the story of two men who are brought together in antagonistic intimacy. Will Bowar, the protagonist, is a successful and ambitious farmer, the owner of a farming combine of some nine thousand acres, and still desirous of more. Will is a giant well over six feet, with broad shoulders that always make it seem as if he were stooping. He dominates every man who works for him, and although he is now fifty-seven, he refuses to slow down, and combats every encroachment of age. Will does not at first realize that his domain is being invaded by a London speculator, George Sirrier, who has turned gentleman farmer and who is determined that his son Christopher, an erotic, alcoholic survivor of a Japanese prison camp, shall find the balm he needs in the Bowar country. In the antagonism between these two men it is Will Bowar, the oak, who proves to be vulnerable.
Will is vulnerable on several counts. The love for his wife, Lucy, has turned to ashes, and in this age-old quandary, he becomes infatuated with a woman much younger than he is. He has antagonized his only son, Robin, whom he has dragooned into farming when the boy should have been encouraged to go on with his music. He has infuriated and then sacked his ablest young superintendent. Without these loyalties and in desperate loneliness Will drives himself to the losing point. This is not a comfortable story, nor everyone’s dish, for Will Bowar is brought low as much by his uncontrollable greed as by the chemistry of age. His love for Grace is never as plausible as his love of land, and the seduction of his son Robin by Christopher is not a pretty sight. But the timeless beauty of the English farms and the pity stirred by a big man sorely tried and at bay will make this for close readers a redeeming and memorable performance.
To those who love books, there is one category of which we shall never have enough. I mean those books, usually in the form of biography, which show us the education, the development, the table talk, and the literary discipline of a major author. This year we are fortunate in having two about Miss Willa Cather: the extended, detailed critical biography by E. K. Brown, which I shall discuss next month, and a more personal record, Willa Cather Living, by Edith Lewis (Knopf, $3.00). Miss Lewis met Willa Cather in 1903, and their acquaintance, which began in Nebraska, ripened in New York, where Miss Lewis proofread and edited Miss Cather’s articles on Christian Science — her first assignment for S. S. McClure — as she was to read the copy and proofs of all her subsequent books. They shared the same apartment, and their inseparable friendship lives on in the clear amber of this short and fascinating account.
I cherish most the description of Miss Cather’s girlhood in Virginia and of her painful uprooting at the age of nine when she and the younger children were transported to the limitless plains of Nebraska. Not until the family had settled down at Red Cloud two years later did Willa Cather ever go to school. She read and reread the English classics (Pilgrim’s Progress eight times in the course of one winter), and she learned to read Latin under the direction of her two grandmothers. But there was another and more extended education which she was receiving from the thinly settled countryside in her visits to the Bohemians, the Danes, and the Norwegians with whom she rode and played and whose harvests and failures became so much a part of her own concern. I am interested in everything Miss Lewis tells me about the teachers with whom Miss Cather worked at Red Cloud and at the State University; of how she herself taught and wrote in the hard penury of Pittsburgh; of her editorial services under S. S. McClure; of how she turned away from the studio to write of Virginia and Nebraska; of her most influential meeting with Sarah Orne Jewett; and of how she turned to Alfred Knopf, the brilliant but unestablished publisher. These are bright pages which send me back with fresh understanding and appetite to the rereading of Miss Cather’s novels,