The Peripatetic Reviewer

To a boy growing up in the suburbs of New York in the early 1900s, the City had the drawing power of a gigantic magnet. Every visit was to see something special, and afterwards the event lived on in your mind. Even the approach was exciting: the train deposited you in the great lofty, smoke-filled train shed of the Pennsy, and then with your parents you hurried, you ran, down the platform and into the timbered ferryhouse (this was before Mr, McAdoo had finished the Tunnel), watching out for the horse-drawn drays which were being driven onto the lower deck. A boy’s place was forward on the top deck, pressed against the rail, where you could see everything in the harbor and, looking up, the pilot in his little house. The wind was sharp, the skyscrapers gleamed in the winter sunlight, and as you crossed the water the ferry would hoot at a passing tug and the tug hooted back; then you came wedging into the slip, with the timbers groaning and the cable wheels clanking melodiously as the ferry made fast.
You might be bound for the Museum of Natural History with its glass cabinets of animals and tiny ancient people. Or for the Hudson Fulton Celebration, that swarming river parade which I watched from the deck of the U.S.S. New York. (My uncle was the navigation officer.) As the excursion boats filed by, the White Fleet fired off blank charges, and I remember a wad from one of our guns arching over the brief interval of water into the lap of an excursionist, a fat woman in a basket hat, who became so agitated that she and her campstool collapsed. Or you might be going to the Hippodrome to see “The Fall of Port Arthur” with wounded men toppling into the water and never coming up. Later the chorus girls in spangles walked right down the stairs into that tank, and they didn’t, come up either. Every chandelier of the Hippodrome held more electric bulbs
than we had in our entire house, as I announced to Mother in a voice that carried. On the back of each seat was a metal slot machine which released a box of chocolates when a quarter was inserted. We needed these for my cousin, Alan Church, who let out a wail when the Gatling guns went off at Port Arthur and thereafter was voiceless only when he had a candy in his mouth.
The great trip with Dad was in September to see the Giants play the Athletics in the World Series. Lunch first at the Merchants Club with meringue Chantilly for dessert, then the jammed, feverish ride on the elevated to the Polo Grounds. You found your seats in the good-natured tumult; you noticed the bunting and flags, Muggsy McGraw going down to coach at third, Christy Mathewson warming up in the box, and “Chief” Meyers behind the plate. It turned cold when the sun went down, and Dad showed Rufus and me how to fold newspapers inside our coats to keep warm.
Came the year when you went in on your own. Now you were buying your own clothes on an allowance of $20 a month, and I can remember as if it were yesterday the pearl-gray double-breasted, the lavender socks, and the razor-tipped cordovan low shoes which were my first investment. I went to see Hobey Baker play against Harvard in the old St. Nicholas rink, and put on my own hockey skates in the beginning of the third period so that I could be one of the first on the hallowed ice when the game was over. I saw Montgomery and Stone in Chin Chin (“Good-bye, Girls, I’m Through”); I saw the Vernon Castles do the Castle Walk and heard Joseph Cawthorn and Julia Sanderson in The Sunshine Girl ("You Can’t Play Every Instrument in the Band”); I dropped in with apparent casualness for a chop at Keen’s Chop House, and the smell of beer was so saturating that I hoped the family would notice it when I got home. By such milestones do we grow up.

Portrait of a city

Hardly one of the landmarks of my youth is still standing in New York, so swiftly do the features of that great city change. Yet the growth and beauty of Manhattan down the centuries and in its many moods and crises are wonderful to contemplate, and we have John A. Kouwenhoven to thank for his illuminating volume, The Columbia Historical Portrait of New York (Doubleday, $21.00). This is something new in books, “An essay in graphic history,” which tells its story in nine hundred pictures and in terse, swift-flowing captions which point up the continuity and detail. Mr. Kouwenhoven has the eye of an eagle and the audacity to break away from chronology whenever it suits his purpose, as it does in the opening pages. Here are the charts, maps, and drawings of the little Hutch settlement, a place so small that every one of the structures and boweries could be identified; here are water colors by the British officers of the Revolution, and drawings of the estates which they made their headquarters; here are the people, the street scenes, the silhouettes, the pen-and-inks, and the paintings, as commerce and residence moved uptown; and here arc the very first photographs marking those brief years when the quaint and modern stood side by side. A beautiful and telling portrait of a Dutch settlement, a seaport, a country place, a mercantile center, which have merged into a city in being.

“That crazy kid”

Cress Delahanty by Jessamyn West (Harcourt, Brace, $3.75) is the chronicle of an American family — father, mother, and daughter — living on a citrus ranch twenty miles inland from the California coast. The heroine, Cress, is entering high school at the age of twelve when the story begins and she is sixteen when it closes. As we follow her through the years of uncertainty we see the special bond between her father and herself and the baffling way she excludes from her privacy her mother; we see her in her dream world before the mirror, and in her moments of humiliation at the house party and the talent show, in the throes of vanity over That Hat, in her motherliness towards Edwin, and in her valiant hero worship of Mr. Cornelius. Cress, who is flat as a board and inconspicuous as a freshman, is determined to be noticed. What she says and does soon has the school talking about “that crazy kid,” and her reputation as a comedian takes a long time to live down.
Her true awakening is a more subtle story, and it is this half-shared, half-private life which Miss West has depicted with such delightful fidelity; for Cress does grow up and out of her moods of loneliness, affectation, and romanticism, so laughable and pathetic to observe; she emerges as a most attractive person. Her parents are well drawn and identifiable, but it is Cress herself, independent and unpredictable, who carries the book. Not since Booth Tarkington has a writer penetrated so surely and so sunnily into the adolescent world.

Food and men

In Our Plundered Planet,Fairfield Osborn, President of the New York Zoological Society and one of our leading conservationists, confronted the public with the social consequences of a failing agriculture and of modern man’s ruthless consumption of soil, timber, and minerals. In his new book,
The Limits of the Earth (Little, Brown, $3.50), he tapes his survey to the measurable areas of the Free World. He discusses the reduction in the standard of living which has descended upon Great Britain, Holland, and Italy, countries without the capacity to feed themselves. He gives us a realistic addition of the food surpluses once expected of Australia, Canada, and Argentina. He reminds us that “we Americans have used as much of the earth’s riches in forty years as all people, the world over, have used in four thousand!” He asks how much, by way of development, we can look forward to in Africa and the Amazon. He points to the recent report of the UN Food and Agricultural Organization that, for more than a decade, the world food supply has failed to keep pace with population growth (food supply up 9 per cent, population up 12 per cent); and in quiet, forceful words, with a salutary look at Sweden, he recommends what seems to him the most plausible solution.
Cool, objective, with a clear assimilation of significant figures, his is an argument — and a dilemma—hard to dodge. Our first impulse is to reach out for alternatives. How soon will man discover how to unsalt the ocean? If nitrates and plant hormones have upped our agricultural yield since the war, what new stimulants can we devise? The world, as Professor Black of Harvard recently remarked, “is not like a drove of hogs feeding from a common trough”; nations have lived by what they had, and perhaps in the future more relief than we can at present measure will come from the improved agriculture of nations now rousing themselves in Asia.

James Thurber

Despite his near blindness James Thurber continues to be a humorist of almost incomparable versatility. It is difficult to review his books, for one cannot possibly be as funny as he is, and it is murder to attempt to skeletonize his pieces. I take it you know his drawings, so it is enough to say that there is one for each of the twenty-six chapters in his new book, Thurber Country (Simon and Schuster, $3.75). Perhaps the best I can do is to enumerate the moods in which I like him. I like him when he is wryly reminiscent, as in “The Figgerin’ of Aunt Wilma,” which goes back to his boyhood in Columbus. I read and shudder at a story like “Teacher’s Pet,” which begins at one of those antagonistic cocktail parties and rapidly goes from bad to worse. I delight when Thurbcr’s correspondence gets out of hand, as it does in “ Joyeux Noël, Mr. Burning,” and “File and Forget,” the latter a lovely little stiletto for any publishing office. I take sadistic pleasure in “The Interview,” that story with its somewhat alcoholic view of a popular novelist. But I like best the informal essays like “Lady in a Trap,” when Thurber writes with such dead-pan, accurate candor about his foibles.