TO AMATEURS of choice biography I warmly commend The Reason Why (McGraw-Hill, $5.00) by Cecil Woodlium-Sraiih, whose distinguished life of Florence Nightingale was a Literary Guild selection in 1951; and A Rake and His Times (Farrar, Straus & Young, $4.00) by John H. Wilson, a professor at Ohio State University, whose scholarly Nell Gwyn, Royal Mistress negotiated the chasm between the academy and the best-seller list. Both of the current offerings have fresh and arresting subjects; both are written with telling selectivity rather than laborious inclusiveness; and both are works of serious scholarship which succeed in presenting history at its most vivid and most fascinating.
Every English schoolboy learns and remembers Tennyson’s verses on the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava,:—
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
More than two thirds of the Brigade were lost in that hopeless and glorious assault on the Russian batteries—"Some one had blunder’d.” The full story of that famous blunder and of what lay behind it is now told for the first time in The Reason Why. The author has assembled the facts entirely from the original documents, for no biography has ever been written of any of the principal figures in this celebrated episode.
Mrs. Woodham-Smith unfolds an extraordinary narrative, whose central thread is the rivalry between two men of noble birth and great wealth, who were “possibly the handsomest men in Europe.”One was James Thomas Lord Brudnell, later Earl of Cardigan; the other was his sister’s husband, George Charles Lord Bingham, later Earl of Lucan. Both were obsessed by the dream of military glory, and the purchase system enabled them to buy their way rapidly to command of two of Britain’s smartest regiments.
Lord Brudnell was a fierce-tempered, autocratic, and very stupid man, whose ruling passion was the unshakable conviction that he was at all times completely in the right. He governed his officers and men with a lunatic arrogance and brutality which precipitated a series of sensational scandals. His brother-in-law, though more intelligent, was of the same emotional stripe. Social and military rivalry deepened the two peers’ mutual dislike, and it flared into the open when Lord Lucan cut the family tie by an official separation from his wife.
At the outbreak of the Crimean War, Brudnell, now Earl of Cardigan, was gazetted commander of the Light Brigade; the Earl of Lucan, as Commander of the Cavalry Division, was his immediate superior. To the ghastly mismanagement of the Crimean campaign, these two violent, vindictive enemies added their own relentless feuding. It was the decisive factor in the incredible chain of bungling and misunderstandings which sent the Light Brigade to its doom.
Memorably climaxed by a stirring description of the Charge, this narrative has sustained color and drama — romantic scandals, courts-martial, duels, intrigues that reach into the highest places, the lurid opening of the Crimean War. Mrs. Woodham-Smith brings to us a vivid and startling perspective of an era in which the British aristocracy enjoyed privileges almost impossible to picture today. The Reason Why is a superlative job every inch of the way.
An earlier member of the Brudnell family — Anna-Maria, Countess of Shrewsbury, one of the most sumptuous and notorious beauties of the Restoration — plays the leading feminine role in John Wilson’s biography of George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham: A Rake and His Times. A handsome, merry fellow, famed for his mocking wit; an ambitious politician. a dashing man of action, and a man of intellect and talent — Buckingham was a multiple personality with prodigal gifts. He had a passion for chemistry; he played the violin with skill; he wrote satires, aphorisms, and a successful farce. In an era of religious bigotry, he courageously championed “perfect liberty of conscience.” His other great dream was that England should achieve supremacy of the seas, then contested by Holland; and this caused him to play, unwittingly, a farcical role in the secret machinations between Charles II and Louis XIV.
Buckingham was called by Dryden a “Blest mad-man”; and by another contemporary “the glory of the age.” The extravagant splendor with which he lived; his dramatic ups and downs as the King’s favorite; his long scandalous love affair with the Countess of Shrewsbury; the devious intrigues, the plots, and the disheveled mores of the Restoration — all this makes a magnificent story for a biographer. And Mr. Wilson has done it up proud.
Bouvard and Pécuchet (New Directions, $3.75), the novel on which Gustave Flaubert labored for eight years and left not quite finished at his death, is now offered to Englishspeaking readers in the first translation which comes close to capturing the flavor of the original. Its protagonists are a pair of earnest-minded simpletons who have reached middle age working as copying clerks in Paris. Bouvard, having unexpectedly inherited a fortune, retires with Pécuchet to a farm; and they zealously try out the theories prescribed in the agricultural textbooks — with ludicrously terrible results. (The melons get mixed up with the tomatoes and grow into abominable hybrids with the flavor of pumpkins.) Hell-bent on self-improvement, the two comics proceed to instruct themselves in chemistry, physiology, medicine, literature, religion, and so forth. Their attempts to gulp down knowledge and to regulate their lives by “received ideas” are a saga of frustration and disaster. In the ending planned by Flaubert, Bouvard and Pécuchct — disillusioned and impoverished —order a two-seated desk and go back to copying.
Bouvard and Pécuchct are not in themselves the target of Flaubert’s satire — indeed he views them with a certain affection. His explicit intent was to pillory the entire culture of bourgeois democracy; he described the novel as “a kind of encyclopaedia made into farce.”But in the writing of this complex, savage, in parts superbly comic masterpiece, Flaubert’s pessimism assumed a larger application. As Lionel Trilling argues in his valuable Introduction, Bouvard and Péuchet emerges as a despairing comment on man’s life in culture—on the incompetence of the human mind.
Anton Chekhov makes a welcome reappearance with two volumes of hitherto untranslated material: The Woman in the Case (British Book Centre, $2.75) and The Unknown Chekhov (Noonday Press, $4.50). Each volume leaves one wondering why a number of the stories in it have not been translated before. For each contains some first-class examples of Chekhov’s subtle and frustration tinged impressionism — miniature journeys into the Russian soul. Along with the tales in Chekhov’s most characteristic vein, there are some delightful pieces in which the comic spirit is dominant.
The Korean story
Syngman Rhee (Dodd, Mead, $5.00) by Robert T. Oliver is the fullest biography published to date of a major political figure whose life is little known to us; and as such, it has considerable interest. Unfortunately, as biography it is on the pedestrian side. As an appraisal of a controversial personality, it is not particularly helpful, since the authors perspective is entirely uncritical. Dr. Oliver has been closely associated with Rhee for more than a decade, and his book is the tribute of a zealous partisan.
A much more clear-eyed estimate of Rhee is contained in General Mark Clark’sFrom the Danube to the Yalu (Harper, $5,00). The General expresses a liking for Rhee personally and a great admiration for his lifelong struggle for Korean independence; but he found Rhee “as exasperating an ally as anyone could have” — stiff-necked and self-righteous; given to “outlandish demands"; determined lo go his own way; and (notably in the 1952 elections) undemocratic in his political methods. Say s General Clark: “I consider Rhee a great leader within the limits of his national aspirations. Hut these aspirations must not be permitted to hobble America’s freedom of art ton.”
Now retired from the Army, Mark Clark has written an outspoken account of his stewardship as UN Commander-in-Chief in Korea a brisk, auf horitative, and enlightening history of the last phase of the Korean War. It deals in detail with the Koje prison-camp rebellion; the amazing Communist “Sixth Column" organization among POWs; the controversy over U.S. manpower and ammunition shortages; the use of psychological warfare by bulb sides; the repatriation of prisoners and the issues it raised; the negotiations leading up to the Armistice.
General Clark is a telling critic of the “cautious" approach in fighting Communism; lie shares MacArthur’s belief that the United Nations should have gone id! out for victory in Korea. He is not, however, of the school which glibly heaps blame on a pet set. of scapegoats. At the outset, he reminds us that a major factor in opening the way to Communism’s postwar expansion was the American people’s desire to “bring the boys home” and to speed up disarmament. His book affirms a thesis which will be anathema to those neo-isolationists who claim to be the proponents of a really tough policy towards Communism. To be really tough with Communism, the United States — General Clark insists — must have available and be willing to deploy ai vast, pool of manpower trained for combat.
Major General William F. Dean’s account of Ills three years’ captivity is one of the rare “as told to" books in which there is no trace of ghost-writer’s ectoplasm: the General’s collaborator, William L. Warden, could not have served him better. General Dean’s Story (Viking, $5.00) brings us an enormously interesting close-up of the North Korean Communisls, and a modest record of how a man of steely fortitude and honor stood up to a terrible ordeal. On one occasion, the General was interrogated for sixty-eight hours, almost naked, in a freezing tent. Fora period of many months, he was not allowed to stand up, read, or own a pencil. He held on to his sanity by such devices as memorizing the squares of numbers from one to a hundred or keeping count of the hours he waited—522 was his record daily kill; his grand total, 40,671.
Captivity seems to tiring Out in men of great spirit an ability to observe human experience with a heightened curiosity and precision — with the result that, out of the boredom and horror of the prisoner’s life, there have come books whose every detail is fraught with interest. General Dean’s Story is anot her such document.
The Year of the Lion (Macmillan, $3.00) by Gerald Hanley is the story of a twenty-year-old Englishman who goes to East Africa to learn fanning. The novel has three effectively integrated strands. It is a book about a young man s first tormenting love affair; an account of a long, terrible limit for a man-eating lion; a thoughtful and sensitive picture of the drama of Race and change in the frontier land between the advancing civilization of the West and the vestiges of the age-old tribal Africa. While the handling of the love affair is not as impressive as the other components, the novel as a whole is a superbly effective performance. In the crisp, sharply individual characterizations; the vivid, enthralling hunting scenes; the projection of the mysteriousness, the instinctual need to kill, of primitive Africa, Mr. Hanley displays a masterly touch. This is the finest novel by a young author that has come my way this year.
The Bad Seed (Rinehart, $3.00) by William March centers on a little girl of eight who is as cute as a button and as deadly as a cobra. Rhoda Penmark is sweet-mannered, poised, a bundle of charm. But there is something very wrong with her — site is totally without moral sense or feeling for anyone. To get a pendant which she covets she pushes an old lady over a banister, and for the sake of a medal she drowns a small schoolmate. The realization that her child is an accomplished murderess confronts Mrs. Penmark with an agonizing moral dilemma, which is intensified by the discovery of a hideous secret about her own heredity. What follows keeps the reader in a state of horrified fascination all the way to the infinitely appalling conclusion. Mr. March unfolds this tale of pure evil in a cool, matter-of-fact tone that has a chilling impact. Granted certain improbabilities, The Bad Seed is an almost impeccable novel of suspense.
Either the Spring Lists have been unusually strong this year or else (which is less likely) my conscience has grown more sensitive: the fact is I’m troubled by the number of Spring titles still on my shelves which deserved attention and were denied it by that inexorable enemy—lack of space. To catch up with a few of these books as best I can, I’m going to wind up with a potpourri of capsule reports.
From the House of Knopf, two warmly recommended items: The Spanish Temper ($3.75) by that admirable writer, V. S. Pritchett —a knowledgeable, penetrating, and richly allusive travelogue; and The Heart of Africa ($5.00) by Alexander Campbell, the best up-to-date survey of Africa, south of the Sahara that I’ve encountered. Mr. Campbell achieves a wonderfully readable and enlightening blend of solid factual reporting, vivid interviews, personal experience, and sharp, swiftly sketched profiles.
The Oxford University Press has made a dashing sortie into the middlebrow market with The Relaxed Sell ($3.50) by Thomas Whiteside of the New Yorker, who has been investigating such phenomena as the Lucky Strike commercials, Elsie the Cow, Captain Video, and the pollsters who will “pre-test" anything from a gag to a novel. These dead-pan monographs on the antics and rites of the advertising jungle left me wondering whether Homo Huckster, circa 1950, is much of an improvement on his ancestor, Australopithecus, the South African Ape-Man. Also from the Oxford University Press, there comes an impressive little book, Love, Power, and Justice ($2.50) by Paul Tillich, an outstanding religious thinker who is deeply sensitive to contemporary trends in philosophy and psychology. Dr. Tillich presents here seven challenging papers affirming the basic unity of love, power, and justice, and exploring the ethical implications of this viewpoint.
In The Seduction of the Innocent (Rinehart,$4.00),Fredric Wertham, a psychiatrist, turns in an encyclopedic report on the contents of the comic books (not to be confused with newspaper comic strips), which are now selling to the tune of 60 million copies a month. The author’s thesis is that the comic books are peddling a diet of crime, sadism, and horror, cunningly laced with sexuality, and thereby making a handsome contribution to juvenile delinquency and the “moral disarmament” of the young. Wertham has assembled much interesting material and he makes a telling case for legal regulation of the so-called crime comics. His report, unfortunately, is rather clumsily written and highly repetitious.
Jordan County (Dial, $3.50) — the fifth book by a gifted young Southern writer, Shelby Foote — is described by the author as “a novel with Place for its hero and Time for its plot.”It consists of seven separate narratives which have a common setting, Jordan County, Mississippi, and which lead back in time from 1950 to 1797. The narratives are uneven, and I don’t feel that the book comes otf as a cohesive portrait of Place — but parts of it are admirable.
The “Play for Voices” completed by Dylan Thomas shortly before his death — Under Milk Wood (New Directions, $3.00)—is an earthy, rollickingly humorous, and brilliantly original work. We shall return to it more fully next month.