The Peripatetic Reviewer

THE essay is as unpredictable as it is endearing. It is a thing of moods, gay, laughing, or satirical; it can be as highly serious as T. S. Eliot, as didactic as Machiavelli, as cool as Francis Bacon. It can be a confession of self; or a swift elucidation in biography; or Virginia Woolf contemplating a moth. In happy, relaxed times it is man employing his senses to the nth degree, as when W. H. Hudson, with eyes closed, walked about London guided by his sense of smell. It is as critical as Edmund Wilson and as full of will and wish as William James. It is Emerson, Thoreau, William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, or E. B. White. It is of such calm, touching beauty that the eyes can hardly read it aloud without weeping; it is as derisive as Henry Mencken and as sardonic as James Thurher at a cocktail party; it is one heart speaking to another.
Can it be all these things and still be a disciplined form of writing? It can. It is much more imaginative than its hard-working cousin, the magazine article; it does not deal in statistics or belabor an argument as does a magazine article. It does not depend on a cast of characters and a contrived ending as does a short story. The essay is an experience which you the reader share with the writer — you share his laughter, delight, or pity; you share a deepened understanding or a quickening of the spirit in a style that does not date. If an essay has found truth, that truth lives on as it does in a poem; and what Hazlitt has to say about an actor is as true of Edmund Booth as it is of Charles Laughton or Alec Guinness.
The essay max be the result of long brooding, but in the writing it is short. This limitation imposes upon the essayist the necessity of winning the confidence of the reader in a very few sentences: the first two pages set the subject and evoke 1 lie mood. ‘The opening is decisive.
Dr. Johnson defined the essay as “a loose sally of the mind/ and the early exponents of the art, from Montaigne to Robert Louis Stevenson, addressed themselves to the reader in a personal and familiar way. Thus the familiar essay was established as the classic essay, charming or pensive, confessional or in protest or exhortation. The joy of the medium is that it offers such a limitless variety to the writer. Charles Lamb can write wistfully of Dream Children, the children whom, because of the insanity of his sister, he never had; Macaulay can flash on you his strongly, brilliantly opinionated judgment of Lord Clive; Evelyn can tell you of his Garden, and Henry Thoreau explain why he has renounced Concord and the larger universe for a hut beside Walden Pond. ‘The one constant in all this is that each page is indelibly marked with personality. Style is at once the man himself and the shimmering costume of words which centers your attention. I can think of ranking novelists — Theodore Dreiser is one—whose style was as commonplace as a newspaper article; but I cannot name a single essayist who has survived without 1 h is evocative magic. Style is the very breath of the essay; it is an invitation and an enchantment; it is that skillful and disarming use of words which makes friends out of strangers — which makes you the reader say to yourself, “Now there’s a writer I’d really like to know. It would be fun to live with him.” And then you do live with him, for a time, vicariously.
Since 1814 a note of anxiety has been struck with increasing frequency — anxiety about the present and apprehension of the future. As writers became more worried, they abandoned the light play of ideas; they became more objective, more formal, and they took themselves more seriously. Bertrand Russell was awarded the Nobel Prize in large measure because of his piercing, provocative essays; and if you will read his volume entitled Unpopular Essays, you will hear with great preciseness this note of anxiety and warning.
As disturbance followed disturbance — war, dictatorship, the uprooting of peoples, the collapse of empires — Americans especially realized they were uninformed about a vast new range of subjects. They turned to magazines and to books for the information and the guidance which they needed. In these recurring crises, the informative article with its statistics, dogmatic opinion, and tightly drawn conclusions crowded out the essay. The essayist of today is facing a much more ruthless competition than those of the nineteenth century — and he knows it. He is fighting, or it would be fairer to say he is writing, for the very life of his medium. And in this state of tension what he writes is more intense, more hilarious, more serious, or more fanciful than what he might have written in a kinder time.
Two anthologies of the essay have appeared which refresh our interest and remind us of the extraordinary penetration and power of this seemingly innocent excursion. The first, A Century of the Essay, edited by David Daiches (Harcourt, Brace, $8.00), has the greater range in subject and style; and while the Americans in it —Thoreau, Emerson, John Jay Chapman, Frank Moore Colby, H. L. Mencken, and Edmund Wilson, to name a few — are well represented, in any strict, comparison I should be inclined to give the palm to the English. The second volume, Highlights of Modern Literature, a collection of critical essays drawn from the New York Times Book Review and edited by Francis Brown (Mentor, $.35), contains some of the very best literary evaluation of the past five years. Here my favorites are Elizabeth Bowen on Virginia Woolf, Christopher Morley on John Masefield, V. S. Pritchett on George Orwell, Robert Hillyer on Edna St. Vincent Millay, Stephen Spender on the Modernist Movement, Katherine Anne Porter on Willa Gather. Personal appraisal and thoughtful criticism which lift the essay above journalism.

Suzy and the octopus

Steinbeck, the real John Steinbeck, has come home. Sweet Thursday (Viking, $3.50) is a postwar continuation of Cannery Row, every bit as juicy and relaxed as the original. Monterey and Cannery Row have suffered changes in the war, but the landmarks remain; La Ida’s cafe; the grocery (still known as Lee Chong’s Heavenly Flower Grocery although Lee himself has retired to Polynesia); the Bear Flag, now presided over by a madam nicknamed Fauna; and the Palace Flophouse, where Mack still does the planning for the boys. Monterey has a kindly constable in Joe Blaikey, an attractive new hustler in Suzy the blonde, and, best of all, Doc, the most generous guy in Steinbeck’s world, who has reopened his Western Biological Laboratories. There he plays Bach records; there he has begun work on a report on the octopus, twenty-eight of which, baby octopi, he has installed in a big aquarium. Doc says, “They’re wonderful animals, delicate and complicated and shy.”
Steinbeck’s people come to us in what they say; their talk is full of life, color, and individuality; and it is the best, dialogue of many a year. No sample will do it justice, but when Wide Ida, cursing the government, says, “Taxes, every time you get going there’s more taxes. You’re lucky, Mack. You don’t own nothing and you don’t make nothing. Until they start taxing skin, you’re safe”; when Mack says to the Doc, “Oh, 1 know what you mean, but you search your heart, Doc, and see if I ain’t dishonest, in a kind of honest way. I don’t really fool nobody—not even myself”; when Fauna throws the book at Suzy; when Doc argues with himself about his loneliness; and when Suzy tells him what she wants in a man — these are a few of the many times you feel the kick and humor of this boisterous book.
This is comedy — bawdy, sentimental, and in places implausible, as when Suzy takes to living in an abandoned boiler; but read in the spirit with which it is written, it is good fun.

Mary Anne and the Duke

Mr. Steinbeck’s story is of a girl who tried to be a trollop and emerged a respectable if profane married woman. Daphne du Maurier’s new novel, Mary Anne (Doubleday, $3.50), is of a cockney beauty who battled her way up from the London slums to become the mistress of the Duke of York (the uncle of Victoria) and then battled her way down again. The dedication to Miss du Manner’s great-great-grandmother, Mary Anne Clark, and the acknowledgments suggest a certain documentation for the story, but the blend of history and fiction reminds me of a glass of castor oil and orange juice. Mary Anne’s disgust with her mother’s rabbit warren in Bowling Inn Alley and her contempt for her stepfather, Bob Farquhar, a grimy printer, drive her to escape poverty and enjoy the best. With her wits and beauty she starts going places at the age of fifteen. Her seduction of young Joseph Clarke, the good-looking stonecutter, and her enslavement of Bill Dowler, the stockbroker who stood by her for life, were steps in the right direction; Bill took her to Brighton w here she caught the attention of the Four-in-Hand Brigade. A mother of four at. twenty-three and a self-styled widow (Joseph having taken to drink), she was ripe enough and sassy enough to captivate the Duke at their first, meeting, and her family life with him in the house in Gloucester Place, with ten in service belowstairs and her mother, her children, and her weakling brother Charles all comfortably established above, forms the gay and attractive part of the book. Trouble is the Duke didn’t give her enough; so she took to speculating in officers’ commissions as the Army was built up against Napoleon. She got in deep, and when the Duke was forced to renounce her she fought back, to the scandal of London and, alas, to the tedium of the reader. The latter half is the castor oil, or was for me, and I blame this partly on the long-drawn-out trial, partly on the unbelievable scoundrels who conspire with the vindictive Mary Anne, and chiefly on the vagueness and confusion in her own motives. The author’s effort to improvise on history does not carry conviction.