“IT IS a difficult thing to be an American,” Archibald MacLeish observed a couple of decades ago, and apparently we still find it something of a problem, judging from the stream of articles and books explaining American life to Americans. I would wager at long odds that no other country in the free world remotely approaches the United States in its per capita production of words dedicated to probing or boosting or blasting the national way of life. Last month I paid my respects to Louis Kronenberger’s Company Manners, a sparkling inquiry into American culture with a pointedly critical accent. Now there appears another rewarding addition to the literature of self-scrutiny: God’s Country and Mine (Atlantic-Little, Brown, $5.00) by Jacques Barzun, who came to the United States from France after the First World War (“in short pants and ignorant of baseball”) and who describes his book as “A declaration of love spiced with a few harsh words.’
My declaration of enthusiasm for Mr. Barzun’s essay as a whole must be prefaced with a few harsh words about the early pages. In dealing with Europe’s anti-Americanism, Barzun sometimes slips into the key of, We’re better than you — so boo!; and his vague references to “goosestep,” “frozen hierarchies,” and “barked command” make one wonder whether he has taken a good look around Western Europe since 1945. It would have been more in keeping with the over-all wisdom and acuteness of Ids book for him to start off by reminding us that a nation which loves to preach righteousness to others should stop petulantly overreacting to foreign criticism, a good deal of which is corroborated, with minor variations, in the comments of loving observers such as Barzun himself.
Mr. Barzun, as faithful readers of this magazine know, is a scholar endowed with a lively intellect, a civilized wit, and a fluent, graceful prose style which is always a pleasure to read. His new book ranges, discerningly and entertainingly, over most aspects of American life. Many of the complaints that Americans and foreigners advance against this way of life are traceable, says Barzun, either to the forcing of the pace by machinery or the balking of the individual will by the supremacy of the many. These complaints, in effect, are bound up with the blessings of mass-production democracy; and those who simply damn American civilization out of hand are implicitly registering a preference for scarcity and hierarchy, Barzun himself finds that our society — with its philosophy of distributing goods on the largest possible scale, its basic wish to make things fair and free — is animated by a noble ideal. The human problems created by the machine are not necessarily insoluble.
Within this affirmative framework, Barzun is a trenchant critic. We have become, he observes, a society of “viewers and voyeurs"; we live in a “Guff Stream,” and are starved for entertainment with some personality and mind. He delivers telling thrusts at certain medical practices, at the postal service, at Manhattan’s Customs and debarkation procedure (“the foulest . . . the world over”); and his chapter on New York City (“a squatter’s camp”) is possibly the most devastating ribbing ever administered to that metropolis in the space of 4500 words, Barzun’s suggestions for our betterment range from the sphere of ethics to the sphere of gadgets; from railways and automobiles to, literally, the kitchen sink.
Gad’s Country and Mine is Mr. Barzun s ninth book, and it should be his most successful.
The proper study of mankind
The American passion for national self-scrutiny, which I referred to earlier, stamps us as the people in whom the spirit of the age finds its strongest expression: for this, pre-eminently, is the Age of Self-Examination in the largest sense. With a frame of reference which dwarfs that of only fifty years ago, mail is insistently examining every facet of the question: What does it mean to be a man; what sets us apart from the animal and the machine? Two recent titles explore this issue in complementary ways — one on the plane of ideas: The Measure of Man (Bobbs-Merrill, $3.50) by Joseph Wood krutch; the other more in terms of concrete individual experience: The Journey (World, $3.50) by Lillian Smith.
Mr. Krutch’s starting point is that Darwin, Marx, Freud, and their followers have bequeathed to us a heritage which has sapped man’s belief in himself: which has pictured him as the “product” of national selection or history, as the victim of repressed instinctual drives, as “nothing but” an animal or a lump of matter. Today’s thinking, says Mr. Krutch, tends to discount man’s freedom of choice and the validity of his value judgments. Krutch’s essay seeks to show the flaws and paradoxes in the assumptions on which such thinking rests, and to give cause for sustaining the belief that man, though he has his realm of contingency, also has his realm of freedom.
While I was in sympathy with Krutch’s intentions and often in agreement with his judgments, I found his book somewhat disappointing. The trouble, I believe, is that he is caught in a dilemma. He is far too sophisticated a thinker to preach salvation through Regression; at the same time he betrays a considerable distaste for most of the content and procedures of modern thought. The result is that he tends to slop short at voicing his grievances against flagrant pretensions and does not come to grips with the really complex problems. Simply to reproach anthropologists for affirming relativism while slipping into value-judgments is to leave untouched the challenge which anthropology presents to those who would uphold absolute values.
Mr. Krutch’s strictures on the illeffects of nineteenth-century thought reflect that very victim-of-the-past attitude which he strenuously deplores. They constitute, moreover, a one-sided, oversimplified critique. For the theories stressing the conditioning effects of childhood experience and environment have, whatever their liabilities, made a vast humanizing contribution. It is not quite enough to muster arguments showing that man has some freedom: the crude dogmas of materialism-mechanism determinism, which Krutch spends much time refuting, have been exploded, as he recognizes, by contemporary science. The perplexing problem is to arrive at a better understanding of the extent and limits of freedom of choice.
The really important point that Krutch has to make — the crux of his essay — is that the so-called social sciences are crassly behind the times in their basic assumptions. The physicists have found the atom free to hop; and Einstein, by abolishing the distinction between Matter and Energy, between the material and the nonmaterial, has suggested that the distinction between Body and Mind (or Spirit) may well be unreal. But the theories and methods prevalent among the “human engineers" remain materialistic, deterministic, mechanistic.
There its a good deal of telling stuff in Krutch’s attacks on “human engineering" and its ignoble Utopias.
In Lillian Smith’s The Journey, the author makes a return journey to her native South, a pilgrimage to her roots and to the scenes of her childhood; and out of this grows the account of a quest for human understanding, for “an image of the human being I could feel proud of . . . something that can fuse past and future, and art and science, and God and one’s self into a purposeful whole.”
Miss Smith, I need hardly say, is not offering us another of those handbooks of encapsulated Uplift and bland Enlightenment which appear to have substantiated the formula: God-plus-Freud, reduced to the specific gravity of Dale Carnegie, equals smash best seller. The insights Miss Smith offers cannot be expressed in put propositions. She uses discourse, to be sure, but essentially her method is that of the creative artist. A thought recorded by Saint-Exupéry will perhaps help to suggest the texture of The Journey: the meaning of life, he wrote, “is not something discovered; it is something molded.”Miss Smith seeks to evoke the feel of lived experience; to show us a process of molding.
In this fashion, she writes about love, responsibility, and honor; about, the meaning of prayer and the need for art; about the fears which make man build terrible defenses against truth; about the paradox that though man is separate and lonely, he achieves his integrity by reaching out for a wholeness that can never be his. From a paraplegic learning to walk, she learned the passionate meaning of movement and saw the creative spirit spelling itself out. A friend whose young son lost both of his arms, and whose husband was killed in Korea, brought home to her how amazing are the potentialities mobilized when human brokenness is faced with honesty and courage.
The Journey is a book which testifies to the dignity of man with eloquence and awe, but also with a deep sense of life’s complexity: a deep sense that anxiety and conflict are an inescapable part of the human condition.
What price desertion?
On January 31, 1945, Private Edward Slovik was executed in France by a firing squad of fellow Americans for desertion to avoid hazardous duty. Some forty thousand other Americans were adjudged deserters in the Second World War and forty-nine received approved sentences of death. But in forty-eight cases the death penalty was commuted. Thus Private Slovik has the grim distinction of being the only American done to death for desertion since the Civil War. Why Slovik?
After trying to get the Slovik story from the Pentagon for seven years, William Bradford Huie was suddenly granted access to all of the documents; and Slovak’s widow helped Huie with personal information and letters. The result is a tremendously moving book which may well make Slovak’s fate a cause célèbre — The Execution of Private Slovik (Duell, Sloan & Pearce — Little, Brown, $3.50; New American Library, paperback, 25ȼ).
Mr. Huie is a writer who has shown a fondness for the stance, J'accuse. But in this case, while exploiting to the full the elements of pathos and drama in his story, he has presented the facts with fairness to all concerned as well as with great journalistic skill; he has brought into sharp relief the element of genuine tragedy in the life and death of Eddie Slovik.
Born in Detroit in 1920, Slovik had the typical family history of the deadend kid. A series of petty thefts and other offenses eventually landed him m the reformatory for four years. His former supervisor there has stressed that Slovik was no “cop-hater,”but a weak, goodhearted kid, haunted by a sense of bis bad luck and eager to straighten himself out. After his release, he got a good job and married a partially crippled but strong-willed girl. Passionately in love with her and enchanted with their newly furnished home, he was happy for the first time in his life. Then the Draft reached out for him.
Slovik tried after a fashion to become a soldier but he just was not up to it. His letters to his wife are a chorus of obsessive self-pity — “Mommy, I can’t understand why they did this to me.” In France, on his way to join the 109th Infantry, he came under shellfire, and it was too much for him. When he got around to reporting to his company comI mander two months later, he announced that unless he was transferred to safe duty, he would desert. Twenty-four hours after running off, he gave himself up and handed in a written “confession.”Offered a second chance, his answer was: “No, Colonel. Give me safe duty or give me my court-martial.
Slovik and others deserted in the knowledge that no one was actually executed for this crime, and that it would gain them the safely of prison followed by a pardon after the war. The decision to implement his sentence wits a decision that these assumptions could not be allowed to stand.
Three factors appear to have caused the break with precedent to doom Slovik in particular. His written refusal to bear arms made his guilt peculiarly flagrant. His timing was unlucky: his case was reviewed at a period of crisis when brave men were fighting desperately to stem the German counteroffensive. Thirdly, his record of juvenile delinquency, blacker in print than in reality, was cited as evidence that he was not worthy of clemency.
Mr. Huie’s book puts to the reader a number of questions not easily answered. At the heart of the matter there is this dilemma: Can we, nowadays, accept killing a man like Eddie Slovik because he lacks the guts to fight? Can we, on the other band, in this age of global conflict a fiord to let soldiers refuse to face danger with relative impunity?
Philip Marlowe, Private Detective
About ten years ago. a discerning friend urged me to read a mystery writer called Raymond Chandler, and since then I have been one of Chandler’s more zealous aficionados. It sometimes saddens me to think that there are numerous persons of good taste who have not made the acquaintance of private detective Philip Marlowe, the hard-boiled chevalier sans peur ef sans reproche who, with his trusty Oldsmobile, goes out to do battle with the hard boys and the crooked cops, the dope peddlers and blackmailers and murderous sirens of Los Angeles and surrounding California — and as often as not doesn’t oven collect his $25 per diem and expenses. To those who haven’t bothered with Chandler out of a justifiable distaste for the run-of-the-mill murder mystery, I submit that his work is as superior to the aforesaid product as Beluga caviar is to salmon’s eggs. If corroboration is wanted, I can cite, for one, Mr. Somerset Maugham, who has called Chandler “the most brilliant author now writing t his kind of story.”
Philip Marlowe has just showed up again in The Long Goodbye (Houghton Mifflin, $3.00) — a little older and more prone to bitter repartee, but still as tough as they come and as rudely chivalrous behind his mask of cynicism.
Marlowe’s current troubles begin when he plays the good Samaritan to a polite drunk with a scarred face and an English accent who has been pushed out of a Rolls-Royce. There is a lost dog air about Terry Lennox that “gets” Marlowe. When Lennox shows up in a daze, not sure that he hasn’t murdered his wife, a luscious tramp with millions, Marlowe helps him do a bunk to Mexico. The cops give Marlowe the treatment, and presently he learns that Lennox has shot himself and has signed a confession. A farewell letter from Mexico containing a $5000 bill makes it look as if the Lennox ease were closed — except for the curious fact that a lot of people are going out of their way to impress upon Marlowe that the Lennox case had better stay closed, or else. Before the whole truth comes to light, two more people die; Marlowe meets the loveliest woman he has ever seen and refuses to be seduced by her; be succumbs (for the first time on record) to another temptress; and he winds up with the flat taste of another disillusionment.
The Long Goodbye has not quite the same sparkle and bounce as Chandler’s early novels, not quite the same profusion of similes that pucker the senses like an electric shock. But the somewhat quieter plotting makes for a more thoughtful tone, a deeper cut. I think that Mr. Chandler’s fans will get their money’s worth.
The hunted and the hounded
Tidal Wave (Doubleday, $3.95) consists of three short novels by Georges Simenon with an American setting. They show that Simenon, who came to this country in 1945, is almost as much of a master of background when the background is Connecticut or Arizona as when it is Paris or the Riviera.
Simenon once said that what he is trying to achieve in the novel is similar to what was done by classical tragedy. Starting at a moment of decisive crisis, he poses the problem of a man’s destiny and seeks to give an accounting of his life: with Simenon, the gradual revelation of his protagonist’s inner being is in effect the plot. He is too gifted a novelist, too much of a “natural,” to create characters that lack reality; but when dealing with Americans he is not, I feel, as powerfully possessed by and as intimately in possession of his protagonists as he is in his European stories. And his plotting, as a result, is not as consistently compelling.
In “ Belle,” a young girl, a guest of the Ashbys, is murdered in their home. In the absence of any clues, suspicion fastens on Spencer Ashby, who was in his den on the night of the crime; and we follow Spencer through the ensuing ordeal — through a somewhat dazed (and sometimes dragging) self-examination which leads up to a climax that is a tour de force. “The Bottom of the Bottle" centers on a wealthy Arizona rancher, who suddenly finds the life he has struggled for endangered by the appearance of his younger brother, an alcoholic and an escaped convict who hates him but who needs his help to escape over the flood-swollen river into Mexico. “The Brothers Rico” has a related theme, kiddie, who has found himself a cozy and safe berth with an underworld organization, is one day ordered to track down his vanished brother, and starts reluctantly to hunt for him knowing that discovery will mean his brother’s death.
These stories, as I have indicated, are not top-drawer Simenon. Even so, they generate a good deal of psychological suspense; and they dramatize, with force and with compassion, Simenon’s fundamental theme — “It is a difficult thing to be a man.”