The Peripatetic Reviewer

LORD DAVID CECIL, in his patient, sensitive, stylized biographies, has established himself as one of the most understanding of literary historians. He won critical acclaim with his first book, The Stricken Deer, a study of the poet. Cowper. Since then, he has written of Sir Walter Scott, of Jane Austen, of Hardy the novelist, of Gray the poet, and of that most valiant courtship of Dorothy Osborne and William Temple.
Lord David’s most ambitious undertaking, the life of William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, was interrupted by the Second World War. The first part of it: — the gay, dancing story of Lord Melbourne’s youth when he was one of the most eligible, if indolent, men in London society — was in print in 1939. Then the Blitz descended, the Melbourne papers were hidden away out of reach, and a full decade intervened before the scholar, now mature, could resume the intimate study of his hero statesman. At last the story is finished, and the American publishers are to be congratulated for having printed the complete biography — the two books in one— the years of exuberance and those of mellow maturity, in so handsome a format: Melbourne by Lord David Cecil (Bobbs-Merrill, $5.00).
Lord Melbourne does not rank among the more powerful of British Prime Ministers, but he was certainly one of the most urbane and independent. He gravitated towards politics after his domestic life had gone on the rocks. His wife, Caroline Lamb — vivacious, impetuous, light-minded — had become the mistress of Lord Byron; the experience unsettled her and a separation was inevitable; his son was feeble-minded, and from this wreckage Melbourne took refuge in his library and in an existence quite different from that which he once enjoyed at Holland House and the London clubs.
It was the French Revolution which called out Lord Melbourne from his retirement. The spectacle of what was going on across the Channel gave chills of apprehension to the wealthy Britons and especially to the elder statesmen in the Whig Party. Melbourne, who had the capacity to sit solid and remain calm, was recommended to a timorous cabinet. They sent him as Secretary of State to Ireland, which was then in a prickly condition, and in Dublin he conducted affairs with such force and common sense as to be marked for still higher places. When he became Home Secretary, with his stolidity he quelled the uprising in Dorset; as Prime Minister, it was his responsibility and his delight to steer Victoria, then eighteen, through the opening difficulties of her reign. The loyalty between the young Queen and her sage, courtly counselor has a roses-in-December fragrance — she in her twenties and he fifty-eight; of all her Ministers, “Lord M” was her favorite to her dying day. In the most glowing passages of this book we see why —• with what infinite tact he guided her in her relations with her people, Parliament, and with that difficult woman, her mother. We see him intervening again with a steadying, masculine touch when Prince Albert was installed and reaching for political activity.
American readers do not take easily to English politics, but this is a story which far transcends the infighting of the House of Commons. It is a story of the great town and country houses of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and of hospitality, flirtation, and gambling on a lavish scale. It is a story of a whirlwind courtship gone wrong. It is a story of what retirement did to solidify a man’s knowledge and strength. It is the story of the women who comforted him and of the brilliant, strong-willed young Queen whom he presented to her realm and served with such loyalty and adoration.

Americana

Americana — meaning anything salty pertaining to America, and in literature a book which could not possibly have been written anywhere else. Richard Bissell, for instance. He is an Iowan who went from Exeter to Harvard, where he took bis B.S. in 1936. That was the year when Polaroid was in the news, and Dick got a job as a salesman for Polaroid instruments in Manhattan. For seven months he rode the subways and tramped the streets and in all that time sold not five cents’ worth of the new invention. So for a change in 1937 he signed on as an ordinary seaman with the American Export Lines bound for the Mediterranean. Five years later he transferred to our inland waterways, where he found a berth as a deck hand; the life appealed to him, and he enjoyed the challenge of naviguting the big rivers, in storm and in flood, (He is the only American writer since Mark Twain to hold a pilot’s license on the Upper Mississippi and Monongahela.)
Bissell came ashore in 1945; no longer the rover, he became superintendent and stylist in a men’swear factory in Dubuque. The factory belonged to his family and the job should have been a sinecure, but there was a chemistry in his blood stirring him on to write, and about the time his children began to be noisy, Dick Bissell was lighting for enough quiet in which to finish his first book, A Stretch on the Tiver, a novel laid aboard a coal barge, Inland Coal. The critics liked it and enough readers bought it to give him encouragement.
A second novel is usually a sterner test than the first. Mr. Bissell’s second was about a strike in a pajama factory: 7 1/2 was was the increase the union asked for and that became the title of the book which was chosen by the Book-of-the-Month Club. George Abbott, the producer, wished to turn it into a musical comedy., and with the author’s help it was converted into The Pajama Game, a Broadway hit.
This is the kind of success story which makes writing so endlessly attractive; and as his Editor, I naturally take a godfather’s pride in Dick’s success, I will not try to discuss his new book objectively for I am partisan. Enough to say that High Water (Atlantic-Little, Brown, $3.75) is the story of a remorseless deadly swelling flood in the inlands. The dialogue is juicy; the ship and the atmospheric pressure the real thing. It delights me to see the devious way that Bissell has come to his writing: and what could be more natural than that his next manuscript, the one he is working on now, should be about show business.

Spoofing the Air Force

There are several ways in which a writer can find his material in Army life — with graphic irony as did Bill Mauldin, or wit h innocent comedy as in The (load Soldier Schieeilc; with anger and frustration as in From Here to Eternity, or with the cool detestation of a Wilfred Owen.
Mac Hyman is a Georgia boy who was drafted in 1943; he passed into the Air Corps and as a photo navigator eventually flew twenty-three combat missions over Japan. After the war he returned to Duke University and began to write; married his childhood sweetheart; found that writing was a frail support: worked as a shipping clerk; tried teaching school; and, when desperately broke, reenlisted in the Air Force.
He, too, came into print in an oblique way, for it was not until his second tour of duly that he got the clear perspective for his chuckling narrative.
No Time far Sergeants (Random House, $3.00). Here are the adventures of a draftee, Will Stockdale, a Georgia hillbilly who had sot his heart on the Infantry but somehow got sidetracked and classified in the Air Force. Will, who tells the story in a backwoods dialect which is naive but never tedious, is of uncommon strength, quizzical nature, and not nearly as dumb as he looks. He has a congenital contempt for Yankees, a total disregard for Army regulat ions, and a disposition which is patient and slow to anger. He finds as his sidekick a small, wizened, overserious Southerner called Ben. He likes to do things with Ben and, when necessary, to protect him, and the effect of their teamwork on Sergeant King is laughable to behold. The book is as unsublle as here Mable; the Sergeant is the natural bull, and the game is to see how often and how unpredictable Will can compel the Army to do thinngs his way.
Will’s appetizing performance on KP, his ingenuity as a latrine orderly and his guileless exhibition of that latrine when the Colonel comes round on inspection; Will’s interview with the psychiatrist, his test with the headset, and his reaction to the Negro lieutenant — these are just a few of the unexpected moments in a delightful spoof. Mac Hyman writes with the deceptively easy touch of a natural humorist.

The terrible Miss Dove

For each of us there is one unforgettable teacher in school. They are usually women; for me, it was Miss Harriet Budd of the Seventh Grade in Pingry. She commanded us by her dignity, a sense of justice, and impeccable standards. She won us with her occasional warm smile of recognition. Every school in this country worth its salt has in some degree its Miss Budd and we cannot afford to let them become a rarity.
Good Morning. Miss Dove by Frances Gray Patton (Dodd. Mead, $2.75) is a short, affectionate novel in honor of the old-fashioned teacher. For thirty years and more Miss Dove has been teaching geography to the first six grades at the Cedar Grove School in Liberty Hill, a small fresh-water town— small enough for everyone in it to know and be known by the others. She is so engaged on a Wednesday morning in mid-April, having a small clash of wills with David Burnham, the profane young son of the minister, when a sudden searing pain down her spine and along her right leg lowers her into her chair and sends David running for the doctor. Using this circumstance as a pair of needles, Mrs. Patton begins to knit the story of what. Miss Dove — the terrible Miss Dove—has meant to the town and to those who now come to assist her.
In her bearing and her clothing and her bony structure; her sharp-pointed nose, her thin unpainted mouth, pale complexion, with her hair twisted back in a meager little old maid’s knot, Miss Dove suggested that “classic portrait of the eternal teacher" that small fry draw generation after generation. And it took the emergency to bring out the indelible marks of character which she had left upon person after person — on young Thomas Baker, the doctor; on Bill Holloway, the policeman; on Billie Jean McVay, the nurse — men and women whom she would always read as two people, the youngsters she had trained and the adults whom life had marked.
In most cases 1 he mystic symbols which she had entered after their names in her ledger still applied. The commonest letter in the ledger was T for Tractable; there were A’s for Awkward; B’s for Babyish; O’s for Originality (she had given one to Geoffrey Lyons, the playwright), and for boys as trustworthy as William Holloway, S for Satisfactory.
With that relativity which Thornton Wilder applied so successfully in Our Town, Mrs. Patton passes swiftly from past to present and back again as she describes in her deft and telling phrases the teacher-town relationship which is so fundamental in our democracy. The author makes us see education for the dedicated task it is. She lets us touch the strands of loyalty and tradition which we have all felt and sometimes resisted. There is no villain in this piece and the unpretentious heroine is someone you care for and respect.
I round out my quartet of Americana with an autobiography, Stars at Noon by Jacqueline Cochran (Atlantic-Little, Brown, $4.50), Just as Miss Dove in her rubber-heeled ground grippers is a woman of composure, making her influence felt in a small community, so Miss Cochran is a woman of action, seeking the furthest horizons.
Hers is a rags-to-riehes story, beginning with a miserable and neglected childhood in a Florida lumber camp. She does not know who her parents were. “Until I was eight years old,” writes Miss Cochran, “I had no shoes . . . my bed was usually a pallet on the floor . . . food was the barest essentials , . . sometimes nothing except what I foraged for myself.”She had a year and a half of schooling and left to work a twelve-hour shift in a cotton mill. At thirteen she was an expert operator in a beauty shop, and in time she moved on to Antoine’s in New York, to the ownership of three cosmetic firms, and to being voted The Business Woman of the Year in 1953.
But flying is her aspiration and her passion, and she was the first woman to fly faster than the speed of sound. She started flying in 1932; since then she has won over two hundred awards and trophies. She has broken men’s and women’s records for jet and piston engines, and in 1937 she was given the General Billy Mitchell Award as the person who contributed most to aviation that year. Hers is a story of tenacity, courage, and faith. It is a story that keeps looking up.