The Spoor of Spooks (Knopf, $4.50) by Bergen Evans is an educational handbook guaranteed to help you lose credulous friends and influence practically nobody. Do you believe in dowsers, flying saucers, and the prophecies of Nostradamus? Would you resist evidence that Nero did not fiddle while Rome burned; that Diogenes did not live in a tub; that Dr. Guillotin did not invent the guillotine, nor the Earl of Sandwich the sandwich? Were you impressed when Whittaker Chambers announced — in a scoop secured straight from the Devil’s mouth in a New York night club (Life, Feb. 2, 1948) — that Satan’s deadliest weapons have been “rationalism, liberalism, and universal compulsory education ”? If your answers to these questions happen to be “No,” then you are likely to be charmed and invigorated by The Spoor of Spooks.
In this sequel to The Natural History of Nonsense, Professor Evans carries forward the thankless task of serving as spokesman for that minority of the human species which has been burned, racked, pilloried, and otherwise molested for possessing a bump of skepticism and a bent toward rationality. Mr. Evans is equipped with encyclopedic knowledge, a tenacious spirit of inquiry, and a prose style which punctures a balloonful of error with a most diverting pop.
His current assault on legend, unreason, cockeyed gullibility, and wishful thinking singles out a wondrous diversity of targets. Among them are the so-called “scientific evidence” in favor of telepathy and extrasensory perception; famous sayings by famous people who didn’t say them; cant notions about history, such as the currently fashionable cliché that the Middle Ages was the Age of Faith (Evans has no trouble showing that irreligion, anticlericalism, and manifold heresies were rife); homely fallacies about matters such as mothballs and mousetraps; popular misconceptions about poisons, drug addiction, aphrodisiacs; the folklore of pregnancy, crime, the law, youth, and old age. Probably the most subversive facts and figures dispensed by Mr. Evans are those pertaining to the American’s pride, joy, and necessity — his automobile. The author’s telling documentation suggests that the social effects of the automobile are beginning to rival in sheer horror those of the Black Death in medieval times.
A hero of our time
In Atoms in the Family (University of Chicago Press, $4.00), Laura Fermi gives us a wife’s-eye view of a new and enigmatic type of genius: the pioneer nuclear physicist. Born in 1901, Enrico Fermi is one of the three or four men most responsible for bringing about the advent of the Atomic Age. In 1938, he won the Nobel Prize for his studies in radioactive substances. Four years later, a telephone call to the Office of Scientific Research and Development at Harvard reported that “the Italian navigator” had reached the New World and had found the natives very friendly: under Fermi’s direction the first man-made self-sustaining chain reaction had been achieved in an atomic pile built in a Chicago squash court. In 1946, Fermi was awarded the Congressional Medal of Merit for his leading contribution to the development of the atomic bomb.
The United States owes its acquisition of Fermi’s genius to the fact that his wife was Jewish; when Mussolini started aping Hitler’s anti-Semitic measures, Fermi, himself a Catholic, decided it was time to quit Italy. The Americanization of these two remarkable people is an engaging strand in Mrs. Fermi’s book. The central drama, of course, is Fermi’s pioneer work in nuclear physics. The author recalls the excitement and the humorous sidelights of her husband’s early experiments in Rome, climaxed by the trail-blazing discovery of the nuclear reactions effected by sloweddown neutrons. She describes the dramatic triumph in the Chicago squash court, and the seventeen months which the Fermis spent at Los Alamos. She gives us her impressions of many leading physicists, including Klaus Fuchs, whom she frequently met at Los Alamos parties, and Bruno Pontecorvo, whom the Fermis knew intimately and whose disappearance behind the iron curtain utterly amazed them.
Laura Fermi’s portrait of her husband is not a portrait in depth; it reveals relatively little about the interior plane of Fermi’s life. But Mrs. Fermi has an extremely interesting story to tell, and she has told it with intelligence, skill, and an attractive common sense of feeling. I shouldn’t be surprised if this turns out to be one of the very rare instances in which a University Press publication finds its way to the best-seller list.
The Wilde centenary
Three publications commemorate the centenary of the birth of Oscar Wilde. The House of Dutton has issued in one large volume the completest collection of Wilde’s writings published in this country to date — The Works of Oscar Wilde ($4.95) edited by G. F. Maine; and Alvin Redman has compiled an anthology of The Epigrams of Oscar Wilde (John Day, $4.00). I for one am delighted to have at last a comprehensive and reliable anthology of Wilde’s memorable dicta, but it prompts me to say a few harsh words about an annoying failing which I’ve found in most books of this kind. Their editors may expend great effort on the selection of the contents, but they don’t pay sufficient attention to the quintessential requirement: that it be easy for the reader to find what he is looking for. The customary system of grouping the entries under subject headings (Mr. Redman uses fortynine) needs to be supplemented by the fullest possible alphabetical index. Take, for example, Wilde’s famous line about the English country gentleman galloping after a fox — “the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable,” After failing to locate it under the likely headings, I accidentally stumbled across it under “Health.” Anyone who remembers that Wilde’s preceding sentence was “One knows so well the popular idea of health” probably doesn’t need to look up this particular epigram in an anthology.
Son of Oscar Wilde (Dutton, $3.75) by Yyvyan Holland, though not particularly impressive strictly as an autobiography, is fascinating for the light it sheds on Wilde’s Oxford days and on his domestic life, areas which his biographers have not explored as thoroughly as they might have. This volume is garnished with a miscellany of Wildeana — four pages of selected epigrams; thirtythree letters written by Wilde to two of his Oxford friends; a reminiscence of Wilde at Oxford; several “ Unpublished Poems in Prose”; two letters to Holland from Lord Alfred Douglas; and a review of the changes in public opinion towards Wilde’s works.
Vyvyan Wilde was nine and his elder brother, Cecil, eleven, when their father went to prison in 1895; and they never saw him again. They were rushed to the Continent, where their name was changed, and their mother’s family — Mrs. Wilde died in 1898 — dinned into them that they were pariahs and must never reveal their origin. Mr. Holland was eighteen before he learned the truth about his father. He ends his story with his last year at Cambridge, at which time he had achieved a reconciliation of sorts with the past and was beginning to take pride in his father’s literary achievement. This seems to me a somewhat inconclusive terminal point. The account of the lonely, unhappy years of growing up leave one wondering what manner of man the son of Oscar Wilde became. A “Publisher’s Note” merely supplies the bare facts — a distinguished record in the First World War; a failure in business; a literary career as biographer, playwright, essayist, and translator.
Mr. Holland remembers his parents as a “devoted couple”; and he tells us that Wilde was “a real companion” to his children — “a smiling giant, always exquisitely dressed, who crawled about the nursery floor with us. . . . He would go down on all fours . . . being in turn a lion, a wolf, a horse.” it is clear that Wilde was the kind of father children love: he mended his sons’ toys; delighted in telling them stories; took them fishing, sailing, and swimming at the seaside.
Two recently discovered collections of letters and other data presented by Mr. Holland furnish some intriguing retouches to the established picture of Wilde at Oxford. In a good many respects, he appears to have lived the life of a normal undergraduate. He played games; he flirted (an irate mother once discovered her daughter reclining on Wilde’s knees); he was eager to win honors in examinations. Though he later said, “The only possible form of exercise is to talk, not to walk,” in the Oxford years he enthusiastically devoted much of his vacation time to sport. The letters mentioned above frequently refer to salmonfishing and to his prowess at tennis and shooting. (He was also a strong swimmer.)
They provide evidence, too, that Wilde at this time was deeply attraded by the Catholic Church. He would probably have embraced Catholicism, his son says, but for the opposition of his family.
“A little glass of warmth”
In the case of S. N. Behrman’s chronicle of his childhood and youth, The Worcester Account (Random House, $3.50), the reader is not troubled by any sense of incompleteness. The book’s ending coincides with the ending of a clear-cut phase in the author’s personal history — his permanent departure from the tenement in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he grew up at the beginning of the century; and his severance from the way of life of his parents, poor immigrants from Lithuania imbued with the strictest Judaic tradition. The Worcester Account brings us a vivid evocation of that way of life — of its companionable warmth and of the “sombre fascination” of its oppressive medievalism. This is a memoir suffused with affectionate humor, tinged with sadness, and in parts uproariously funny.
The charm and vitality of The Worcester Account are centered in its portraits. There is the author’s father, owner of a small grocery store which was unable to survive his absorption in Talmudic studies and his obsessive preoccupation with the demands of a menacing Jehovah. On awakening from the nightmares which so frequently disrupted his Sabbatical naps, he would invariably cry out for a glass of tea in Yiddish words which mean “A little glass of warmth.”
There is Morton Leavitt, a dandy and a card, so sure of his hold on the belle of the younger set that he liked to pull out his monogrammed gold watch and invite love-sick rivals to hold her hand for exactly one minute. Most memorable of all is Aunt Ida, daughter of a world-famous rabbi. Despite the discouraging overture to her marriage — all present were poisoned (painfully but not fatally) at the instigation of scoundrelly butchers with a grievance against her father — she became one of the greatest crusaders of all time for matrimony. Her insatiable activity as a matchmaker (which included finding a third and fourth wife for her father after he was sixty) makes a truly extraordinary chronicle, full of the choicest comedy. On her deathbed, Aunt Ida shocked her pious friends by improvising the following tribute for her burial: “The daughter of the Great Ramaz is gone from us. He prepared people to live in Heaven, the daughter prepared them to be happy on earth.”
The flat voice
Treadmill to Oblivion (Atlantic Little, Brown, $4.00) is Fred Allen’s story of his seventeen years in radio. It brings to us selections from his most memorable programs, framed in a running commentary which shows that Mr. Allen can be as amusing between book covers as on the air and that he has relished committing to print his devastating observations about the radio business —“the only profession in which the unfit could survive.”
Mr. Allen tells how “the man with the flat voice” made his start in radio back in 1932 with the first comedy show which played to the unseen audience — the ranking radio comedians of the time went to the mike dolled up in funny costumes and played to the studio audience as though they were on stage. He describes the grueling and hectic work that, went into the preparation of his programs. He writes about his special triumphs and misadventures; about some of his celebrated guest performers; about the fortunate accident that touched off his immensely successful feud with Jack Benny (which many listeners took seriously) and the hilarious high spots in the feud’s history.
Mr. Allen displays throughout a delightfully murderous disrespect for sponsors, advertising executives, and the brass hats of the networks. “An advertising agency,” he writes, “is 85 per cent confusion and 15 per cent commission. A vice-president in an advertising agency is a ‘molehill man’ . . . a pseudo-busy executive who . . . finds a molehill on his desk [and] has until 5 P.M. to make [it] into a mountain. An accomplished molehill man will often have his mountain finished before lunch.” Another characteristic specimen of the “ miniature men ” of radio is described by Mr. Allen as “so high-strung he could have gone to a masquerade as a tennis racquet. He had a long neck that looked as though it were concealing three Adam’s apples. Actually he only had one Adam’s apple; the other two lumps . . . were olives he had been too busy to swallow as he dashed down his double Martinis at lunch.”
Besides having what it takes to convulse millions, Fred Allen is a humorist’s humorist. James Thurber, a gentleman not given to inflationary statements, has paid him this resounding tribute: “You can count on the thumb of one hand the American who is at once a comedian, a humorist, a wit, and a satirist, and his name is Fred Allen.”