THE methods of the anthropologist and the boundless curiosity of Americans about American life have together given birth to a novel kind of social study addressed to the general reader. In the past few years, to cite a few examples, I have read articles and books about the “folkways” of Hollywood, of the great corporations, and of the mass media, in which the authors tackled their subject in a somewhat similar spirit to that in which Margaret Mead scrutinized the Mountain Arapesh, the Mundugumor and the Tchambuli of New Guinea. Now Malcolm Cowley blends this approach with that of the cultural historian in a study of the American literary scene since the Second World War: The Literary Sitnution (Viking, $3.75),
A large section of Mr. Cowley’s book is devoted to “A Natural History of the American Writer” — how writers get started; how they earn their living; their working habits; their social life; what they wear (“no blue double-breasted suits”); their diversions (not golf or bridge but tennis or badminton or ping-pong); their vices; their public status. Occasionally, the information presented lapses into the ludicrous — “the desk, which is often a table, may be small or large” (or conceivably middlesized); but a survey of this kind makes amusing reading if one is interested in the mores of the writing tribe, and the economic facts will startle those who have any rosy ideas about the literary bourse.
In the early 1950s, the average income derived by Americans from writing books was “well below the average earnings of Southern mill hands, and not much above those of cotton sharecroppers.” Authors’ royalties, in percentage of the retail price, were a bit lower than in 1940 and much lower than in 1910. Only two poets earned a livelihood from their poems — Robert Frost and Ogden Nash. One statistic of a different nature is worth quoting: in 1953, the publishers of paperbacks issued 259 million copies and 1061 new titles.
On the critical side, Mr. Cowley opens with an unusually balanced appraisal of both the qualities and exasperating failings of the New Criticism, which has occupied a central place in the literary world since 1940; and he goes on to discuss the content and characteristics of serious post-war fiction. In the overall view, he finds that American literature since the forties has been moving from sociology to psychology, from political to personal problems — from the public to the private.
Cowley’s most interesting pages, perhaps, are about the group of sensitive and introverted novelists — Jean Stafford, Truman Capote, Paul Bowles, Frederick Buechner, Carson MeCullers — to whom he gives the awkward label “new fictionalists’" on the theory that there is some correspondence between their artistic outlook and the New Criticism. The real background of this fiction, says Cowley, is a generalized horror of contemporary reality, and its authors would like to achieve a broadly symbolic or mythical quality. But disillusionment, a sense of helplessness in the face of what is happening in the world, has led the “new fictionalists” to narrow their focus to private lives that are excessively private; and it is difficult, as Cowley states, “to create an archetype of modern life by recounting the private experience of a few isolated individuals in some untypical setting.” All in all, Mr. Cowley has done a valuable job. While closer to competence than to brilliance, his book is sensible, perceptive, and readable.
My next two titles—The Tastemakers (Harper, $3.75) by Russell Lynes and The American People in the Twentieth Century (Harvard University Press, $3.75) by Oscar Handlin — are also, in their different ways, unconventional additions to American social history.
Mr. Lynes, the managing editor of Harper’s magazine, is perhaps most widely known as the author of that memorable article, “Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow,”which forms the penultimate chapter of his present book. The Tastemakers tells the story of the people and pressures that have shaped American taste since the 1830s — in art, architecture, and industrial design; in the décor of homes, hotels, saloons, offices, railway carriages, river boats, ocean liners, and the tonier offices. Mr. Lynes sees three distinct phases in the journey he is charting. First came the Age of Public Taste, in which the tastemakers— architects, designers, merchants, and messiahs — sought to induce in the general public a higher appreciation of the arts and a greater sensibility to surroundings. Then came the Age of Private Taste, when the tastemakers concentrated on the very rich, in the expectation that they would serve as models for the hoi polloi. Now we have entered the Age of Corporate Taste: the tastemakers are working through the big corporations and the mass communications media.
Mr. Lynes, a skillful writer with a spirited and often witty touch, has made the most of his subject matter; and the forty pages of pictures form a notable contribution to the text. When the story opens, the high points of American taste were the Greek Revival house; gaudily flowered carpetings: parlors cluttered with bibelots which Mrs. Trollope disdainfully described as “pretty coxcomalities”; and modest museums whose glories were eight-footed pigs, mastodon bones, and paintings of tremendous battle scenes. Today, American museums house a sizable fraction of the world’s great art and their annual attendance is 55 million; on the other hand, the favorite paintings of Americans, sales figures show, are those of a commercial artist called Huldah — “pictures of Parisian women with big black eyes and frilly things around their necks.”
This much, however, is certain: Americans have become inordinately taste-conscious. “One of the things that is most the matter wit h American taste,” says Mr. Lynes, “is that those who worry hardest about it are not worrying about enjoying the fruits of their taste.”Twelve decades ago the cry was that most Americans were primitives in regard to taste. Now, Lynes concludes, many Americans have let themselves be tyrannized into cultivating taste merely for taste’s sake.
Oscar Handlin’s The American People in the Tirentieth Century is a study of this nation’s development in terms of the changes that have taken place in the life and thought of the minority groups; and it forcefully drives home again the truth that diversity is the very essence of American life and its chief source of strength. Professor Handlin (whose previous book, The Uprooted, won a Pulitzer Prize) has a quality that is rare among academic authors — an instinct for brevity. And he is, for good measure, an eloquent writer.
At the opening of the century, two out of five white Americans were foreign-bom or the children of immigrants; and the tide of immigration has continued to make a vital contribution to the fluidity of American society and to the expansion of the economy. The vision of the melting pot, with its ideal of inclusiveness, has often been severely challenged by bigots and xenophobes of varied stripe, and the stresses on minorities were exacerbated during the two World Wars and the great depression. But the American system has weathered these stresses with remarkable success. Ethnic societies and affiliations have been changing in character since the end of the last war. They have been losing their defensive aspects and their overtones of hyphenated nationalism. They are becoming, instead, a source in which men find pride in their antecedents and a vitalizing sense of individuality. The associations formed along ethnic lines in America, Handlin concludes, are today “adding richness and strength to its democratic way of life.”
The great debate
Realities of American Foreign Policy (Princeton University Press, $2.75) by George Kennan is a short volume notable for its sanity, its penetration, and its steadfast recognition of the complexity of issues and the inescapable limits of foreign policy. Mr. Kennan starts out with the argument that American diplomacy has suffered from self-centeredness and utopianism. We have tended to assume that our moral values, which are the product of a particular cultural tradition, have validity for people everywhere; and we have set our sights on utopian objectives such as a conflictless world produced by contractual agreements.
Mr. Kennan sees no way in which the power of Communism can be swiftly shattered that would not entail calamities far worse than those we face: it is hard to conceive how a policy of “liberation” could be properly implemented without eventually provoking an atomic war. The champions of such a policy proceed from a despairing assumption which Kennan finds questionable: namely, that Soviet power, unless it is rapidly destroyed, will inevitably expand. Kennan’s rejoinder is, firstly, that the unpredictable plays a crucial role in history; secondly, that determined resistance to Soviet expansion plus conditions within the Soviet Union could gradually cause Soviet power to recede (as it has receded in Yugoslavia, northern Iran, and to some extent Finland).
Kennan’s final chapter discusses ways in which the United States can develop itself as “the unifying factor” of the non-Communist world. If our preachment of unification to Europe is to carry any weight, we must make a resolute effort, he emphasizes, to become more outgoing ourselves (in such matters as tariffs, travel regulations, and immigration policy); and we need to cultivate a greater receptivity in the world of ideas.
The spirit of Kennan’s book is summed up in his statement: “We must become gardeners and not mechanics in our approach to foreign policy.” The mechanical approach asserts that if the lights went out in China, it was because those manning the generators in Washington were incompetent or treacherous; that if more coals were to be heaped on the antiCommunist furnace, the added heat would warm our friends and scorch our enemies. But the lights have gone out in Indochina, despite the presence in Washington of a new crew pledged to allow no failures of the American powerhouse; the added heat radiated by our present policies has dismayed our allies, and now we are troubled by dissension.
The moral of all this is not necessarily that our present policies are at fault, but rather — as Mr. Kennan seeks to show — that in the sphere of foreign policy, as in gardening, there are mighty forces at work which we did not create and cannot mechanically control.
Power and Policy (Harcourt, Brace, $5.00) is an arresting if controversial appraisal of the powerpolitical situation on the eve of what Thomas K. Finletter calls Phase II of the Atomic Age — the phase in which Russia will have the bombs and planes to deliver a devastating attack on the United States. The author’s thesis is that if our retaliatory power is to remain an effective deterrent, there must be a radical change in our military policies, involving the expenditure of an additional $6.5 to $8.5 billion for several years on air defense and “Atomic-Air” expansion.
But even a massive build-up of defensive and offensive weapons, Mr. Finletter argues, will not insure security in Phase III of the Atomic Age, which will be upon us around 1960; at that time intercontinental missiles with fission and atomic warheads will be available in quantity, and atomic weapons will be in the hands of countries which are not reliably on our side against Communism. How then is the search for security to be pursued? Mr. Finletter takes an uncompromising stand against the proponents of preventive warfare—a course he dismisses as utterly suicidal. His own prescription is that, while building up overwhelming retaliatory power, the United States should work with the utmost energy (a) to secure Russian acceptance of a plan of rigorously enforced disarmament administered by the United Nations; (b) to make its own citizens consent to the invasion of national sovereignty which this plan would entail.
Together with its dramatic thesis (which is rather repetitively stated), Mr. Finletter’s book has a good many persuasive and important things to say. The thesis itself is forcefully reasoned and documented, and from the standpoint of pure logic there is no contradiction in prescribing both rearmament and fresh approaches to disarmament. But pure logic operates only on the abstract or mechanical plane. If the human element is fully taken into account it. would seem utopian to expect the average taxpayer to fork out more dollars for large-scale military expansion and, simultaneously, to accept the idea of presently scrapping all the nation’s armaments.
The two novels which follow — Federigo, or, The Power of Love by Howard Nemerov (Atlantic—Little, Brown, $3.75) and Dawn Powell’s The Wicked Pavilion (Houghton Mifflin, $3.50) — are both entertainments of the higher order, in which the foibles and pretensions of sophisticated folk are punctured with wit, style, and discernment.
Mr. Nemerov’s story opens with an action of immeasurable deviousness. Julian Ghent—a New Yorker employed in the avant-garde of advertising, aged thirty-six, and seven years married — mails himself a letter signed Federigo, which reads: “A word to the wise. Your wife, sir, is too much alone. And not always alone.” Julian, whose friends find his marriage an especially good one, is suffering from boredom; and the letter stratagem is designed “to give the nature of tilings a slight push.”His plan is to leave the letter where his wife will see it, and later to use it as justification for the infidelity he has vague ambitions of committing. The letter, however, turns Sylvia Ghent’s thoughts in precisely the same direction (despite the fact that her psychoanalyst convinces her that she dreamed it). Thus Julian falteringly starts pursuing — and Sylvia hesitantly starts showing herself receptive to — the classic remedy for the seven-year itch.
Federigo is a novel with several facets — a burlesque in which there lurks a serious monograph on Manhattan madness; a farcical drama of the climacteric of middle life; a morality with the sardonic point that the quest for adultery can lead to the rediscovery of marital felicity. Even when he turns his hand to a field as heavily lampooned as advertising, Mr. Nemerov, a clever and stylish writer, manages to regale us with fresh extravagances in which there is the glint of truth. This second novel of his reveals him as a comic artist of real originality.
With Dawn Powell, we leave behind the audacities of farce and enter the domain of comedy proper. The time of The Wicked Pavilion is 1948, the place Manhattan. Its chief motif might be described as the lastditch stand of Partisans of the Twenties against the Forties, climaxed by their final surrender, which is symbolized at the novel’s end by the closing of the Café Julien — fictional offspring of a mating between the ghosts of the Old Brevoort and the Lafayette.
The Café Julien is the novel’s focal point, a sort of unholy Holy Place presided over by the spirit of the age in which all the world was young. It is the deus ex machina which repairs a beautiful romance that has let itself get fractured. Its telephone rings, and a disconsolate young man parlays himself into obliging female company. Its marble-topped tables are the last remaining altars where the bohemian spirits who majored in Art and Free Love in the twenties can continue their tribal rites and armor themselves with illusion and bravado.
Miss Powell’s portraiture is really brilliant—deft, witty, very often deadly, but not without undertones of compassion. Among her morally disheveled cast of characters, there is a talentless painter who finds consolation in his solitary achievement: “I have failed in love and in art, but I have raised a beard “; a middle-aged millionairess who has heavily subsidized painting — not for art’s sake but to keep herself uninterruptedly supplied with her favorite brand of lovers; a Portuguese fisher boy who, after being knocked into shape as a gigolo by the sister of a Very Proper Bostonian, demonstrates that this is still the land of opportunity; a Party Ciirl, who builds a career for herself on the fact she isn’t quite pretty enough to be taken for a professional gentleman’s companion; and a celebrated restaurateur who cannot fry an egg.
The loves, quarrels, dishonorable schemes, and misadventures of Miss Powell’s people form a narrative in which the going is always lively anti unpredictable — a bitter-sweet commentary on a raffish section of -Manhattan life.
Fiction from abroad
The Tortoise and the Hare (Coward-McCann, $3.50) by Elizabeth Jenkins, a Book Society choice in England, is a novel of real literary distinction. The situation is a mordant variation on the age-old drama of “the other woman.” In this case, the wife is young, attractive, completely feminine; and the rival to whom she finds herself losing her husband, a prominent barrister of fiftytwo, is a person well into middle age, dumpy and dowdy, good at masculine sports and business — a curious combination of awkward spinsterhood, pent-up sexuality, and tenacious forcefulness of character. The story’s pace is on the slow side and its drama remains rather low-keyed, but the admirable characterization and fine craftsmanship make the book seductive reading. Miss Jenkins writes with impressive insight, subtlety of feeling, great precision and charm.
Louise de Vilmorin, who has long had a fashionable following in France, is now being introduced to American readers with a short novel, Julietta (Messner, $3.00) and a 54-page novelette, Madame De (Messner, $2.50). A crisp and economic stylist, she writes about love and the tangled web of amorous deception with connoisseurship and an astringent sense of humor. Though her impish plotting draws too freely on hackneyed twists, she has the gift of confecting a story as easily consumed as a soufflé an Grand Marnier. Both Julietta and Madame De are unquestionably slight; but they lead me to associate the word with an unassuming little ring at Cartier’s or a little black afternoon dress by Dior.
The Bridge over the River Kwai (Vanguard, $3.00) is a thoroughly unusual novel. Pierre Boulle, a Frenchman who served in the last war with a British Commando-type force in Southeast Asia, has written an exciting story of action which centers on a situation that is simultaneously droll, pathetic, and appalling. An English Colonel, taken prisoner by the Japanese, heroically resists their efforts to make his battalion build an urgently needed bridge until the Japanese commander, reduced to abject despair, concedes the Colonel’s point that captured officers are exempt from labor and entitled to supervise the work of their men. Colonel Nicholson’s devotion to his principles — the sanctity of military discipline and etiquette, and the upholding of British prestige is so deeply ingrained and so inflexible that, though he is essentially a good man, his behavior partakes of lunacy. Once Nicholson has in effect been put in charge of the bridge-building, his sole concern is to show the Japanese what superior stuff Britishers are made of by building them a perfect bridge in record time; and he frustrates an attempt by his own countrymen to blow it up. I find it hard to believe that any of the Colonel’s counterparts in real life were quite so bemused by their principles, but I may be wrong. Even if exaggerated, Nicholson is a memorable characterization of a British type which is not exclusively military, and Mr. Boulle’s novel is in every respect an admirable job.
Here is another unusual item, morbid but moving: Joan Henry’s Yield to the Night (Doubleday, $2.75).This is an account, told as an inner monologue, of the last days in the life of a woman waiting in the death cell to be hanged for a crime of passion. I found it compelling reading.
Now seventy-seven. His Highness The Aga Khan, spiritual leader of a far-flung Muslim sect, the Ismailis, is a legendary personality who has had a remarkably full life. The publicity about him has focused on his spectacular wealth, derived from tribute paid him by his followers; on his great racing stable; on his second and third marriages to beautiful Frenchwomen. Wc are apt to forget that he has played a busy role in world affairs for half a century.
Since the age of twenty-five, when he became a member of the Viceroy’s legislative council in India, the Aga Khan has many times been involved in major negotiations between British and Indians, Muslims and Hindus, which have shaped the course of Indian history. During the thirties, he was a delegate at the League of Nations, and in 1937 was elected the League’s president. He has enjoyed the personal friendship of England’s sovereigns from the time of Queen Victoria; has known well most of the statesmen on whose decisions the great events depended, and many leading figures in the artistic world. “Never in my life,” he writes, “have I for an instant been bored.”
Readers of The Memoirs of Aga Khan (Simon & Sehusler, $6.00) will not be able to say quite as much. What could have been a fascinating story is at its best moderately interesting. For the Aga Khan has chosen to write what might be termed an “official” autobiography. The public image of him as a pleasure-loving leader of the fashionable world does not do him justice, but the image would never have arisen if his customary regime had been as hardworking and austere as he pictures it to be. His judgments of people are uniformly favorable. And he is monumentally discreet about a number of matters in which some candor would be most welcome. In the mid-thirties I spent some time in the same resort hotel in France as the Aga Khan, and he appeared to be a much less solemn personality than the figure which emerges from this rather stiff selfportrait.
An exact contemporary of the Aga Khan, born on a Texas farm, has finally come through with the story of his life, which chronicles fifty years of involvement in American politics: My Name Is Tom Connally (Crowell, $5.00) by Senator Tom Connally as told to Alfred Steinberg.
At fourteen, Connally was ready for college; at twenty-two he started law practice; and a year later, he entered the Texas Legislature. Elected to Congress in 1917, he served for twelve years in the House of Representatives, and for twenty-four years in the Senate, where he was Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee from 1941 to 1952.
The story that Connally has to tell from this strategic vantage point could hardly fail to be extremely interesting. And to those who share his passionate internationalism, his detailed account of the long, hard, but steadily victorious fight against the isolationists is stirring reading. I don’t think, however, that Connally adds anything of major significance to the record, though occasionally there is a noteworthy difference of emphasis. Connally, for instance, minimizes the contribution of the “brain trusters” to the New Deal, and stresses that Roosevelt was “his own Brains Trust.”
The Senator’s collaborator has not let Connally’s famed grandiloquence show up very noticeably in the text, but there is one glorious example of it. During the Senate debate on the United Nations charter, Connally pointed to the Senate wall and thundered: “They know that the League of Nations was slaughtered here in this chamber. Can’t you see the blood? — There it is on the wall.” Connally once told Molotov that he reminded him of a certain Texas lawyer. This lawyer was at a meeting where he objected to every proposal made. Finally, he said: “I’m going home now. It’s time for supper. And when I get home, if supper isn’t ready, I’m going to raise hell. And if it is ready, I ain’t going to eat a damn bite!”