SINCE the discovery of the atom bomb, there has been a marked rise of interest in scientific writings for the layman. The huge success of The Sea Around Us, the publication in Life of a series of articles on the origins of the earth, are but two of many indications that the reading public is in the mood to learn more about the world we live in. This heightened curiosity can be agreeably satisfied, for by and large the popularizations of scientific subjects are of a higher caliber today than ever before. A case in point is Man, Time and Fossils (Knopf, $5.75) by Ruth Moore, a newspaperwoman. Planned as a companion volume to Gods, Graces, and Scholars, it is a lucid and engrossing account of the story of evolution, handsomely illustrated with photographs and a wealth of line drawings.
Miss Moore opens with the five-year, round-theworld voyage of the 10-ton brig, Beagle, on board of which was a young naturalist, Charles Darwin, who returned with a revolutionary theory about the origin of species. The book focuses in turn on each of the great discoverers — Lamarck; Giard, who, in teaching France Lamarck’s greatness, raised one of the major issues that have confronted evolutionists— the view that acquired characteristics are inheritable; Cope, the Philadelphian, who unearthed in the United States a vast collection of prehistoric animals; the Dutchman De Vries, whose meticulous experiments with primroses gave birth to the theory of mutations; the Austrian monk, Gregor Mendel, whose monographs on peas, rediscovered after twenty years of oblivion, set forth the principles of heredity; the Englishmen, Haldane and Fisher, and the American, Sewell Wright, who have shown that the theory of natural selection and the theory of mutation are not in opposition, and who have welded them into the modern theory of evolution.
The second half of Miss Moore’s book deals with the discoveries of the fossil-diggers, who have both corrected and corroborated the formulations of the theorists. The search for man’s earliest ancestors moves from the clay banks of Java to the caves and hills outside Peking; from the south of England to the quarries of South Africa; it is a tale of incredible patience, freakish strokes of luck, and dramatic detective work.
In the past decade, as happens at a few rare moments in the history of a scientific problem, understanding of man’s evolution has taken a momentous step forward. In 1946, there appeared the complete report of Dr. Broom’s discovery, in the Transvaal, of the “missing link” — the ape-men. Wartime advances in physics led to uranium-dating of the earth’s ago, and the redating of the last 25,000 years through radioactive carbon 14. By 1950, the physicists and geologists had established that the world is vastly older and man vastly younger than had previously been thought; and already the anthropologists have come through with persuasive answers to the problem of reconciling evolutionary theory with the shortness of man’s span on earth.
A learned Prime Minister of South Africa, the late Field Marshal Smuts, once said: “The story of evolution is perhaps the most enthralling romance in all science.” Receptive readers of Miss Moore’s book will probably agree with him.
From D Day to Potsdam
Triumph and Tragedy (Houghton Mifflin, $6.00) brings to a conclusion Sir Winston Churchill’s six-volume history of the Second World War, which has won him the Nobel Prize. It is as magnificent a narrative as the best of its predecessors. As the title suggests, the mood here is a mixture of elation as the war moves to a sweepingly victorious climax and of somber foreboding as the Kremlin’s actions lead Churchill to the conviction that Russia has become a menace at least as deadly as Hitlerism.
Poland occupies a central place in this volume, and the record of Churchill’s tenacious and heartfelt struggles with Stalin over its future should further discredit the glib thesis that Anglo-American diplomacy cynically “sold the Poles down the river.” In the first stages of the negotiations, Churchill clearly had too much confidence in Stalin. But several months before V-E Day, he had realized that the extent to which Stalin could be made to keep his promises would hinge on the military position of the American and British forces in Europe when the post-war order started to take shape. It is difficult to resist the conclusion that that position would have been vastly more commanding had Churchill’s counsels, which gave due weight to long-range political objectives, prevailed over the American doctrine that military expediency was the paramount consideration: a doctrine to which General Eisenhower and the other U.S. military leaders cleaved as rigidly as President Roosevelt.
Though nothing if not tactful in the area of Anglo-American relations, Churchill’s presentation of the record reveals that his differences with the U.S. viewpoint became acute in the final stages of the war. Specifically, he lost out on at least three crucial issues. He was dead against the landings in the south of France, and fought for a concentration of strength in Italy which would enable the Allies to speed up their advance and make Vienna their target. He strongly urged on Eisenhower the importance of entering Berlin and Prague, which were both within his grasp. He pressed Truman to set an earlier date for the Potsdam Conference so that the tremendous withdrawal of the Anglo-American armies to lines agreed upon with the Russians would not take place before the conference had tested Stalin’s willingness to fulfill some of his commitments.
As in the previous volumes, any reader who has not made a special study of the war will find a host of revelations. Among other things, I did not know that when the V-1 bombardment got under way, all of London’s antiaircraft defenses were daringly transferred — in four days — to the coast, and with highly successful results; or that, thanks to a freak accident during trials of the V-2, the British obtained, via Sweden, fragments of the new rocket and knew exactly what to expect.
As Churchill’s story comes to a close, the newly won victory was already turning sour; and with a strict fidelity to historical truth the final pages of his monumental work strike a sharply accented note of anticlimax. On learning the results of the British election, Churchill tells us he was “discontented” that the power to shape the future would be denied him. When his wife remarked that his defeat might be “a blessing in disguise,” he replied: “At the moment it seems quite effectively disguised.”
Education of an American
Out of These Roots (AtlanticLittle, Brown, $4.00) by Agnes Meyer is an autobiography with several facets. It is the story of an American woman who has combined a happy marriage and the raising of five children with an extraordinarily active career. It is the account, rich in human awareness, of a “process of regeneration” which gradually changed a “priggish, introverted, and . . . not uncommon type of self-centred American girl” into a mature woman whose energies flowed into rewarding channels. There is in it, too, a tract for the times. Mrs. Meyer, a Republican and also a hard-hitting liberal, affirms that political responsibility begins with community initiative and that fierce independence, the courage to resist the current pressures for conformity, is crucial to the democratic spirit. In all of this, Mrs. Meyer strikes no jarringly sententious notes, never bogs down in stuffy platitudes. Out of These Roots is a spirited book, and if the writing is at times a trifle heavy-handed, there are times when it has a trenchant edge.
After Agnes Ernst (as she then was) graduated from Barnard, there came a stint on the New York Morning Sun, then travels in Europe on a shoestring. Married in 1910 to Eugene Meyer, who for eighteen years held a succession of important government posts and who since 1933 has been owner of the Washington Post, Mrs. Meyer has made a name for herself ns a responsible and forceful crusader — for cleaner government, decentralization, improved public education and medical care, fair play for the underdog. Her newspaper articles helped, among other things, to break the power of Boss Crump of Memphis and to free twenty-one young Negroes arrested without evidence during race riots in Columbia, Tennessee.
Out of These Roots is the memoir of a woman of wide culture. Mrs. Meyer vigorously champions the philosophy of John Dewey, her onetime teacher. She discusses her studies of Chinese art and thought (on which she has published a monograph) and their influence on her. She writes about her warm friendship with two utterly opposed giants of letters, the proselytizing Catholic, Paul Claudel, and the humanist, Thomas Mann; about meetings with Veblen, Leo and Gertrude Stein, Brancusi, Milhaud, Rodin, Steiglitz, Jung, Paderewski. She writes, too, about the importance of deep roots; the status of American women today; the lessons she learned from William L. Ward, the “good boss” of Westchester.
Mrs. Meyer’s opportunities and experience have been far richer than the norm. But her memoir as a whole transcends the particular and achieves a universal statement. Her personal history gives concrete expression to the credo that the promise of American life is most fully realized through a truly active commitment to democracy— that is, through working for “the coming into existence of the better” and through cleaving to a fearless freedom of spirit.
The Prince Regent
The Great Corinthian (Oxford University Press, $3.50) by DorisLeslie — a portrait of the Prince Regent, George Augustus Frederick, heir of George III — is popular biography of the highest order. It is first-rate historical writing and choice entertainment, a stylish work whose scholarship is invested with color and movement and wit. Around her flamboyant central figure, Miss Leslie has painted a vastly animated canvas of the period — the period of Beau Brummel and the Regency Rakes; of awesomely high stakes at the gambling table and abysmally low morals in the grand monde; the period, too, of the Napoleonic wars and of popular stirrings which were to set England moving on the path of reform.
When Prince George was still a boy, a certain bishop observed: “He will probably be the most polished gentleman or the most accomplished blackguard in Europe. Possibly both.” The “both” was prophetic; and Miss Leslie keeps live two facets in perspective as she chronicles the career of the bewitching young prince who was to become, at fifty, the caricaturists’ fat figure of fun. It is a garish tale of lifelong conflict with his father, debauchery, debts, a succession of intense liaisons attended by scandal and hysteria, a secret illegal marriage to Mrs. Fitzherbert which was supplanted by a catastrophic marriage to Caroline of Brunswick, mountebank tricks, lapses into dishonesty, and touches of paranoia. But the youthful frequenter of the Duke of Cumberland’s saturnalia was also the friend of Charles James Fox, Burke, and Sheridan; the lecherous glutton was an impassioned lover of art; and some of the charm and graces of “The First Gentleman of Europe” continued to glint through his progressive grossness.
With an unobtrusive use of modern psychology, Miss Leslie suggests the inner springs of the Prince’s character and conduct. Idolized by his mother as a child, and later bitterly rebellious against the stern authoritarianism of his lumpish father, George set his face against everything the King stood for and, in his pursuit of love, repeatedly sought out a “mother image.” Until middle age, he was most profoundly stirred by women older than himself. When he forsook the matronly bosom of his infinitely beloved Mrs. Fitzherbert it was to surrender himself to a spritish grandmother, Lady Jersey; and after returning to Maria Fitzherbert, he was again torn from her by the irresistible enchantments of another grandmother.
Miss Leslie’s biography ends with the Prince’s accession to the throne. As George IV, he vanishes from live historical limelight. As Prince Regent, “he represents an era unique in its splendor and essentially his own.”
My lack of enthusiasm for most historical fiction — and it has just been powerfully reinforced by sampling a couple of the best-selling maestros — unfortunately caused me to by-pass H. F. M. Prescott’sThe Man on a Donkey, which was, according to critical consensus, one of the superior literary products of 1952. Miss Prescott, a professional historian who has lectured at Oxford, is now represented by the expanded version of a biography, Mary Tudor (Macmillan, $5.00), which was published in a small printing in 1940 by the Columbia University Press. It is a full-dress study of the Queen and her era —not a book one restfully consumes in a few evenings. But judging from the considerable success of The Man on a Donkey, there must be a good many readers who would find this distinguished biography a rewarding discovery.
The salient aspect of Miss Prescott’s book is its attempt to correct — through understanding, compassion, and a fuller reconstruction of Mary’s unhappy story — the damning legend summed up in the nickname, “Bloody Mary.”
At the age of eleven, Mary was separated from her beloved mother, Katherine of Aragon, whom Henry VIII set about divorcing after two decades of marriage. Her adolescence was poisoned by news of her mother’s persistent persecution and humiliation; by the spite of Anne Boleyn; and by her father’s treatment of her as a bastard daughter. At twenty she was compelled to recognize publicly her illegitimacy and to repudiate, against her deepest principles, the Roman Catholic Church.
Not all persecuted children grow up into persecutors. But Miss Prescott makes one feel, in Mary’s case, a necessary and inevitable connection between the miseries of her early years, the forced betrayal of her faith which scarred her conscience, and the dark course which she pursued as Queen with the passionate intent of redressing past wrongs and restoring the Roman Catholic religion.
Miss Prescott writes with a magnificently fluent command of detail, a nice sense of drama, and imaginative power. She is a scholar with an outstanding talent for bringing history vividly to life.