The Peripatetic Reviewer
OF the many singularly gifted contributors Harold Ross established in the New Yorker, I should put foremost, as masters of English prose, James Thurber and E. B. White. Thurber is the funnier, White the more serious. White is pensive, a blend of humor and melancholy; he is a brooder, a satirist, and in his sympathetic quiet way as fine an essayist as We have had since Thoreau. Many of his essays short, balanced, and provocative — have appeared anonymously in the first page of the New Yorker, Where under the caption of “ Notes and Comment “they set the tone of the magazine. The best of those pieces, with his longer signed papers and a selection of his light verse, compose his new book. The Second Tree from the Corner (Harper. $3.00), a medley of deft and penetrating writing.
“To interpret humor,”writes Mr. White, “is as futile as explaining a spider’s web in terms of geometry.”What I shall do is to interpret Mr. White in terms of his own admissions, for only by sampling can this man’s skill be conveyed. Thus in comparing himself with Kenneth Roberts, who is an industrious writer and proud of the fact, Mr. White says: “Our professional life has been a long, shameless exercise in avoidance. Our home is designed for the maximum of interruption, our office is the place where we never are. . . . Yet the record is there. Not even lying down and closing the blinds stops us from writing; not even our family, and our preoccupation with same, stops us. We have never counted the words, but we estimated them once and the estimate was staggering.”So speaks the journalist, and he speaks again in his delightfully impudent editorial on Who’s in America. “A biographee of no small inactivity ourself, we can state positively that we are under no pressure at the moment —except the tiny pressure connected with writing this ephemeral paragraph. After it is done, we intend to walk slowly to Central Park in the mild sunshine and visit the baby camel for a routine checkup, then to a saloon, where we shall pass the early afternoon hours in deep torpor over a glass of May wine — a biographee as near inert as a horned load.”
Mr. White is underestimating of course. For the pressure is not always “tiny,”nor is he always “inert.”After a remarkable correspondence which he carried on with an airline pilot about one of his editorials, Mr. White concludes: “Our own earth-bound life, we realize, is schizophrenic. Half the time we feel blissfully wedded to the modern scene, in love with its every mood, amused by its every joke, imperturbable in the face of its threat, bent on enjoying it to the hilt. The other half of the time we are the fusspot moralist, suspicious of all progress, resentful of change, determined to right wrongs, correct injustices, and save the world even if we have to blow it to pieces in the process. These two characters war incessantly in us, and probably in most men. First one is on top, then the other 7emdash; body and soul always ravaged by the internal slugging match.”That is not only a self-portrait; it is a reflection of every one of us at odds with an atomic age.
It is the moralist in Mr. White, farsighted and full of dread, who wrote the most devastating piece in this entire collection, “The Morning of the Day They Did It.”This short story with its abrasive criticism of an America given over to regimentation and fear is the most imaginative indictment of atomic rearmament I have seen in print. It is the moralist in Mr. White who takes Senator McCarthy to Walden Pond to run down that “subversive" Thoreau; and it is the same philosopher, no fusspot, who gibes at the American generation of grandstand-sitters in “The Decline of Sport.”
But that is not the only way to find him. Mr. White divides his time as most of us try to, between the city and the country: ho hibernates in a New York apartment, in the New Yorker’s office, and in the Zoo; in the open season he identifies himself with a salt-water farm in Blue Hills, Maine. He can write as warmly about an American boy (himself) at his first thé dansant, or about Dorothy Lamour or the death of a pig, or memorialize his hero, Don Marquis, or tell how it feels to lay up in a hospital in Boston. And his old, ghoulish dachshund, Fred, wanders in and out of his papers in a way which touches me affectionately. The subject he loves best is America; his mood is one of compassion tinged with anger, and his humor, when it comes, is wry and unexpected.
Mr. White’s verse, sprightly and entertaining as it is, is not of such rare excellence as his prose. A few of the war pieces are dated; one or two, like “The Hour of Letdown, “ are blown-up anecdotes, and one or two of the most recent violate that principle so impeccably enforced by Mr. Ross — they are longer than they ought to be for their own good. But these are minor complaints and are dismissed from mind in one’s gratitude for so good a book.
A pagan in New England
I want to say that I have been having a lovely time with Esther Forbes’s newest and brightest novel, Rainbow on the Road (Houghton Mifflin, $3.75). Not in many a year have I read a book so meadow-sweet, so quizzical, so full of Yankee life and talk. The story speaks out of another century, some 120 years ago, before the country had been overheated by Abolition and the Civil War; and it tells of the itinerant painter, Jude Rebough, traveling the country with his wagonload of portraits all finished save for the faces; painting his laughable murals over the mantels in village inns, some of them so shocking that curtains had to be rigged across them for conscience’ sake; making his own brushes and making them so well that he could trade his extras for the paints that came so dear; painting, traveling, courting, this slim dark-haired pagan with his sensitive hands moves discreetly, observantly, and with a jauntiness that turns his adventures into a legend. Jude is followed and judged for us by young Eddy Creamer, who attends the painter on one of his long excursions. Eddy is a worshiper at the age of eight, but as he grows older he begins to worry about his hero.
A novel which traverses the four lovely seasons of the north on the roads, in the villages, and occasionally in the deep woods, this is the living tissue of a period which seems as full of vitality as our own, and much less troubled.
When the Atlantic was young
James T. Fields, the second editor of the Atlantic, was a self-made man who began as an errand boy in the Old Corner Book Store at the age of fourteen, and rose to be the best loved and most influential publisher in the Golden Age of New England letters. He edited the Atlantic from the summer of 1861 until his retirement a decade later, and the story of his rise and of the success which he scored with the magazine has been admirably told by Dr. James C. Austin in Fields of The Atlantic Monthly, Letters to an Editor (The Huntington Library, $6.00).
The first editor, James Russell Lowell, a rockribbed Republican and Abolitionist, had founded the magazine in the feverish years leading to the Civil War. A scholar who set the highest standards, he was determined to keep the Atlantic apart from the New York periodicals, and he made small compromise with popularity. With Longfellow, Emerson, Hawthorne, Whittier, Holmes, and Thoreau giving of their best, he had all the Brahmins he needed. But Lowell was irked by the moral censorship of Boston and exasperated by the daily attrition of editing, and although he needed the pay, he really was not sorry to turn the job over to Fields.
Dr. Austin has arranged Mr. Fields’s extensive and lively correspondence in a series of panels depicting his relations with the major and minor contributors. If is interpolations set the scene with admirable fairness; the letters tell their own story of friendship, faction, or feud; and then Dr. Austin looks down the years to give his summing up. It is a method which makes for good reading, and it shows us the petulant Julia Ward Howe always writing “in haste,” and always wanting more money (in view of the fact that she received $4.00 for “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” her wish is not altogether unnatural). We see Longfellow, the most popular of all the contributors, and the veneration which he inspired in Fields. We see the gay, modest Hawthorne who wrote Fields; “My literary success, whatever it has been or may be, is the result of my connection with you.” We see Asa Gray accepting that stormy petrel, Charles Darwin, and on the other hand Louis Agassiz in essay after essay condemning the Darwinians’ attempt to “ belittle the Creative work.” We see the obstreperous, provocative little Autocrat, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and the trouble he caused when, during Fields’s absence in Europe, he encouraged Harriet Beecher Stowe to publish her scandalizing article in defense of Lady Byron, an article which resulted in the cancellation of 15,000 subscriptions. Dr. Austin is a sound critic with a gift for characterization, and I am very glad that these vigorous, unevasive letters were made available for his authoritative interpretation.
The Man Who Never Was by Ewen Montagu (Lippincott, $2.75) is the true, documented case of a most influential hoax known as “Operation Mincemeat,” which was perpetrated on the German Staff by British Intelligence in the year 1943. North Africa was in our hands, and the Germans and Italians were awaiting the next blow, with the finger of probability pointing squarely at Sicily, which would have to be captured before a more powerful assault could be delivered against Italy and France. The problem was how to mislead the German High Command, how to make them believe that Sicily was only a cover target for major assaults elsewhere. For this purpose, Lieutenant Commander Montagu and his anonymous friend “George” procured the body of a young Englishman who had died of pneumonia. They endowed the corpse with a new personality as Major Martin of the Royal Marines, placed in his brief case papers of the very highest secrecy, and then through the transmission of a British submarine allowed the Major, his brief case, and an overturned rubber boat to drift ashore close to the Spanish town of Huelva, where a German spy was known to be in active cahoots with the Spanish authorities.
It was no small task to win the initial approval of the British Chiefs of Staff; it wasn’t easy to find the main actor ("He does not have to look like an officer — only like a staff officer”), or to provide him with documents without causing embarrassing questions and rumors; but they were playing for huge stakes in terms of men not killed — in terms of the expected casualties in Sicily. And the secrecy, the forethought and ironic humor with which the plot was hatched are a delight to follow. Mr. Montagu writes with an agreeable understatement up until the very end, when the captured German documents showing how Hitler and Admiral Doenitz reacted fill him with glee.
A basement in Fashion Street
Wolf Mankowitz, a graduate of Cambridge University and a famous dealer in Wedgwood, has disclosed an unusual talent for fiction in his new novel, A Kid for Two Farthings (Dutton, $2.50), a fresh and tender vignette of Cockney-Yiddish London and a story of youth and age that flicks the heart.
The hero is Joe, aged six, who lives in Fashion Street in the East End of London. Joe’s father has emigrated to Africa where, as one gathers from his letters, he is not making much of a go of it. In his absence Joe stays at home in the basement while his mother works, and there he is being educated by Mr. Kandinsky, a trouser maker; by Shmule, Mr. Kandinsky’s assistant, who wrestles professionally on the side; and by Sonia, who won’t marry Shmule until he lias wrestled for enough purses for a diamond ring. Every sixpence has to be stretched in Fashion Street, and everyone who resides there lives with at least one passionate wish — Mr. Kandinsky wishes for a steam trouserpresser, Shmule for a prize so that he can buy the ring, Sonia for her marriage; and Joe and his mother of course wish to join Joe’s father in Africa. Joe thinks that at last he has found gold in the animal market. He finds a unicorn. It is a small, rather twisted unicorn which to some people might look like a kid. But in Joe’s mind there is no doubt of its true identity, and happily he brings it home; and what the wishing power of the unicorn means to them all is the heart of this short novel.