The Peripatetic Reviewer
THIS is being written at the fag end of March when the eyes and mind find their greatest refreshment in anticipation of the May to come. Signals are plentiful that it is on its way. The buds on the magnolias along Commonwealth Avenue are ready to shed their velvet hoods, and in the Public Garden there is just a shadow of green in the tracery of the beeches. The vinegar sunlight has got into the Boston pigeons, and on the window ledge they puff and bow and pair with a persistence most distracling to an editor who is dictating. The dogs feel it. In their cavorting, the Poodles bounce as if they were inflated. There is a young lady Weimaraner who shows her flirtation for my Kerry Blue by cutting a swath around him faster than I can spin and then suddenly pouncing on him with all her springing weight. If I didn’t keep him on a lead, they would be in the next county; and one way or another these cartwheels wind us into a lovely mess. Dear to me are a pair of Boxers who tow a middleaged matron through the Conimon; and if she ever makes the mistake of getting off her heels, she is accelerated through space as though she were the White Queen.
You show your anticipation by what you buy. Men buy varnish for fly rods, paint for their boats, a gay golf shirt of wool for the early rounds, a hedge clipper. If they are feeling particularly jaunty, they buy a bow tie in polka dots, and they fool around with the notion of wearing a fancy vest.
Women buy hats. You can see the glow of satisfaction on their faces as they start for home with a new hat box. Since I am still recovering from the lumps I received some months ago when I Spoke my mind about open-toed shoes, wedgies, and those other horrors of the female foot, I shall be discreet in what I say about the bonnets for spring. To men it seems strange that women are so obsessed with the front view. A good hat should be becoming from the side and back as well, but in these days of cropped hair and scraggly napes, few are. To men it seems strange that women’s hats are so typed: the short stouts have such a definite preference for inverted soup plates, the Helen Hokinsons for the high baskets, the brisk and lean for navy blue and white. Fur bands for the blondes in mink, and poke-your-eye-out feathers for those who wear bracelets by the pound.
Easter brings a change: bright spring flowers mounted on white pancakes of straw, a little difficult to balance if the brim be wide and the west wind strong, but a change and a tonic for both sexes. A week before’ Easier a man will see one or two hats so fetching he wishes his wife had bought them; and if he be a nonesuch he max actually buy one out of a window and bring it home. This has boon known to succeed.
But a week after Easter the streets are full of similarities; live women out of six are crowned with that clutch of pansies, cornflowers, roses, daisies, or xiolels: and now when the eye begins to rove, you are likely to notice a young woman, a very young woman, her hair sleek and glossy and no hat at all. Men are hard to please.
Writer on the way
Scenes and Portraits, Van Wyck Brooks’s “memories of childhood and youth (Dutton, $4.50), is a book charming and reticent by turn. Every autobiographer must determine how far he will take the reader into his confidence, and in Mr. Brooks’s case there are times when even as I applaud I wish he had told us more. Many of the places he describes are familiar to me, and I share in his nostalgia for New Jersey and, in particular, Plainfield, whore his father was one of the less well-to-do. His dearest friend was Max Perkins, who introduced him to New England, first to the Exarts homestead at Windsor, Vermont, and then to Cambridge, where they shared their undergraduate years at Harvard. New England, even when he came to write about it, was always a little “alien" to Van Wyek Brooks, and we can sec that he was not an easy man to teach. In a fine passage of self-analysis he tells us why Copey found him “wilful and stubborn,” and why he learned more from Irving Babbitt than from any of the other great teachers then in Cambridge,
Van Wyek Brooks in London after graduation was alone and on the periphery. He worked in a literary agency and he kepi his literary aspirations alive by doing the hack work of the moment — abridging the autobiography of Geronimo, writing articles on American railroads and Tammany Hall and the “Religion of Theodore Roosevelt.”He saw the great at a distance — Henry James on a lecture platform. Barrio passing him on the street; and the less great he saw and kept at arm s length. He writes vividly of the intellectuals, most in thumbnail sketches, a lew Max I’orkins, Hans Zinsser, and J. B. Veals, the Irish painter and father of the poet in affectionate del ail.
The book shows us how a young teacher, critic, and interpreter summoned the resolution and ability to free-lance. His nostalgia is sometimes exaggerated, as when he tolls us that there were more than a hundred millionaires living in PlainHeld; his English sometimes spotty, as when he writes of Max Perkins’s office: “two pictures always faced him on the wall behind the desk ; the personal connections sometimes vague, as in the long dim account of Madame Ruttkay — but these vagaries are counterbalanced by the clarity and eloquence with which he approaches his first important book, America’s Coming-of-Age.
A floating factory
To anyone who has seen or smelled a dead whale, a book about whales, blubber, and the Antarctic will seem pretty lugubrious unless in it one is made privy to the real story of the men who do the whaling. In 1950, Dr. R. B. Robertson, who has just published hiis Of Whales and Men ( Knopf, $4.50), accepted an appointment as the Senior Medical Officer for a pelagic whaling expedition which would take him to the Antarctic on a voyage of not less than eight months. He was a Scot, thirty-seven years old, a veteran of two wars, and he know how to handle men although unfamiliar with the Norwegians who formed such a large part of his crew.
Dr. Robertson had medical and psychiatric eases different from anything he had known in Libya or Abyssinia. His floating factory was a lummox of a ship, not much smaller than the Queen Mary, with a stern runway up which tho blue whales (a poor day’s catch worth $72,000) would be hauled and liven be dissected and stuffed into stevvpots. He would cover some 48,000 miles and in the course of the voyage would come to know as intimately as only a doctor can the good ones, the bad ones, and the mediocrities in this extraordinary gang of seamen, harpoon hunters, hone-saw men, chemists, and engineers. There were fifty gallons of ethyl alcohol in the laboratory stores, which he was advised to keep away from natural-born bootleggers; there would be gales, icebergs, and injuries to contend with; best of all, there would be human nature — hardy, resourceful, gutty, and sardonic — to observe and to record. Dr, Robertson could never have written this breezy book had he been less well liked by the crew.
Ideals in education
In his Essays on Education (Yale University Press, $2.75) A. Whitney Griswold, President of Yale, shows himself to be humane and witty, eager and firm-minded. His papers are stiffened with solid facts and a scholar’s indignation. He denounces the prevailing attitude that the liberal arts, and in particular the humanities, are a luxury in our time of crisis. On the contrary, he argues, they are “the stimulus and discipline of the mind that best fits it for individual responsibility.”The key word here is “individual,”for President Griswold repeatedly asserts that individual intelligence, individual achievement, individual dignity, are our brightest objectives and that our civilization cannot survive if these are suppressed.
He blames the lack of money and an ambivalent public altitude for much of the trouble in our schools. We prize and distrust scholarship; we will not pay for decent classrooms and adequate teaching m our public schools; we are deluded by a narrow vocationalism, and confused as to the real purpose of a university. We ask for athletic entertainment and social advantages; we infringe upon the college’s freedom of inquiry. constantly, wo do not always receive genuine education.
His ideal is the whole man, who knows how to enjoy the leisure which machines have given him, “who prefers the better because he understands the worse,” who knows that privilege means responsibility. This idealism he has transmitted to the reader in essays that are genial, practical in their recommendations, and admirable in purpose.
An Antilles legend
Patrick Leigh Fermor’s the Violins of SaintJacques (Harper, $2.75) is an elegant, baroque fantasy, filled with brilliant color and lush detail, ending with a display of fireworks and yet maintaining an effect of reality most unusual in a novel of this type. It purports to account tor an Antilles legend of music undersea, and t he author keeps perfect balance between the fairy-tale glitter proper to a half-legendary story and the human details which turn legend into fact. The volcanic island of Saint-Jacques in the French Antilles is described by Berthe de Rennes, who went there as a young woman at the turn of the century to be governess and companion to the daughter of a distant cousin. She found the island, her charming, gently eccentric relatives, and the lazy, luxurious colonial life equally enchanting. Even the difficulties of a society much given to intrigue and brawls were of small moment, although they make for lively reading. The final explosion, human and volcanic, is a fascinating business. Berthe pays the traditional price for a trip into magic country — that is, she can neither return nor settle back comfortably in the normal world. The reader, luckily, can have all the fun while remaining safely on solid ground.