The Peripatetic Reviewer

THERE is a propensity in as all to live vicariously in a vanished age. Across the centuries another time and place stand out in sunny relief; to have lived then we think, so kindly is our reading of history, would have been to touch greatness. Life then was more dedicated and more rewarding. Those who believe in transmigration would say that we actually did live at such times and that a part of us still responds to that ancient inheritance. Thus Flaubert writing to George Sand says, “I am not overwhelmed as you are by the feeling that life opens before us an entirely new experience. It seems to me, on the contrary, that I have always lived; and my memory goes back to the Pharaohs. I can see myself so clearly in past ages, engaged in different trades with such varied fortunes. I am the sum of those vanished personalities. I have been boatman on the Nile, leno in Rome during the Punic Wars, and then Greek rhetorician in Suburra, where I was eaten up by bugs. In the crusades I died of eating too many grapes on the Syrian coast. I have been pirate and monk, coachman and clown. Perhaps even Emperor of the East.”
In my travels I have had the prickly sensation of having been there before, and that what I was seeing held a dim familiarity. I felt this, for instance, on my first visit to Fountains Abbey. There are times when the multiple selves in all of us reach out for other vocations. I think I should have served loyally as a monk in the monastery of St. Columba in County Meath at the time the Book of Kells was being illuminated; I might have acted with Garrick; I could have been a captain in the New Jersey Infantry, a veteran of Trenton and Yorktown the evening Washington took farewell of the officers at Fraunces Tavern. I think I should have prospered as a gambler on a Mississippi River boat, and earned my keep as a Secretary at the White House under Lincoln.
From Walter I). Edmonds, who has his roots in Boonville, New York, I received a picture book which puts me pleasurably in mind of what it was like to live in the canal country of upstate New York a century ago. Black Colton Stockings (Country Books, $5.00) has been compiled and edited by Ron Ryder with the photographic, collaboration of Jim Fynmore. The pictures, which tell the homely Tom Sawyer story of any American small town, were found in private collections, on the old glass plates of a photographer’s shop, and in many an attic. The earliest go back to the 1870s: the trained bear on his hindlegs being led up Main Street: the balloon ascension at the country fair; the family groups, names long since forgotten; the deer shoot with four does, three bucks, and two rabbits which hang from a log; the six brand-new model A’s without windshields or mudguards, lined up before the automobile supply shop; the mess of trout; the canal boats; the balky new mule having his tail twisted; and the beautiful Lansingkill Gorge as seen by a canawler.
Two chapters particularly deserve praise: the first describing the country hardware store owned and operated by Mr. Ryder’s father, and the festive account of the Comstock Opera House with pictures and clippings of what, went on there. This is a more leisurely, less anxious America than we know, and I much enjoyed my momentary life there.

Greek tragedy in Washington

The Day Lincoln Was Shot by Jim Bishop (Harper, $3.75) has the inevitability and the emotional wallop of a Greek tragedy. Here hour by hour is the gripping, remorseful story of Lincoln’s last day; the chronicle is built on facts assembled from a multitude of sources. The details are semihumorous, as in the incidents with which Lincoln regaled the Cabinet meeting in the morning; portentous in the conflict between Stanton and Lincoln; mystifying in the hold which John Wilkes Booth had over the conspirators (the most vague and speculative part of the book); fortuitous in the ease with which Booth made his way to ihe State Box in Ford’s Theatre; deeply pathetic as the news went home to the country. You know the ending before you begin, and would prevent it if you could, but instead you are swept along in the mounting tension and tumult of this tragic and costly day.
In his modest foreword Mr. Bishop claims no more than the skill of an assembling journalist, but one should add that he has been slowly and patiently gathering this material for twenty-five years, and that his sense of order and his selection of what is telling and relevant, make this a document of irresistible authenticily.

Chaucer’s England

Plantagenel England in the fourteenth century was a country in the midst of violent change. Feudalism still preserved the ancient loyalties of king, noble, and serf, but Parliament was beginning to challenge the absolute power of the throne, and the people cried out against the ceaseless fighting in France. The castles, with their oriel windows, exquisite carving, and tapestries, were more comfortable than those of an earlier day, but they could not shut out the black Death which struck and would strike again with decimating effect. The knights who won their spurs at tilling rode off to their death in Europe leaving the manors untended. The serfs were restive, and under the excitable leadership of Wat Tyler and John Ball were to rise in the Peasants’ Revolt. At court Geoffrey Chaucer, King’s messenger and diplomat, was commemorating the age in his ruddy poetry. And in the walled town of London in his great white palace, the Savoy, lived John of Gaurnt, Duke of Lancaster, the most admired and feared of the King’s sons. John’s story, his aspiration to be King, and his love for Katherine Swynford, the mistress whom be eventually married, form the basis for an historical romance, vivid, partisan, and picturesque, Katherine, by Anya Seton (Houghton Mifflin, $3.95).
Miss Seton tells her story through the impressions, the passions, and the remorse of her heroine, Katherine. We see Katherine first as a fifteenyear-old, fresh from a convent and on her way to Court whore her older sister Philippa is serving the (Eicon. The April countryside is fresh and smiling, the rude inns in sharp contrast to the pomp of Windsor Castle, where the impressionable girl first watches the King and his sons at dinner in the Great Hall and marvels at the richness of the women’s gowns. Here it is that her unsuspected beauty first begins to attract men, among them the stubby Saxon knight, Sir Hugh Swynford. Katherine’s glimpse of this lustrous world is cut short by her swift and brutal marriage to Sir Hugh; the isolation which follows in his cold, barren manor in the Lincolnshire fens is a prison from which she is finally rescued by the compassion of John of Gaunt. What begins as pity soon leads to love, so Katherine begins her ten years in thrall.
The novelist has created the verisimilitudeof that distant century in a dialogue which is nicely shaded for cleric, noble, and commoner; by description — the Black Death at Bolingbroke, the Tournament at Windsor, the Coronation of Richard 11, the storming of the Savoy — scenes which are as rich as tapestry; in her deft recording of little things; and most of all by the naturalness and force of her characterizations — the brusque Hugh; Gibbon, the ailing overseer; Brother William, the leech and confessor; Geoffrey Chaucer, Katherine’s brotherin-law; the Gascon bodyguard, Nirac; Lady Blanche, so regal even on her deathbed; and the unforgettable John and Katherine. She defends her lovers from the vilification of the chroniclers, and by her skillful narrative she brings to life a distant past.

The light that never failed

Books describing the isolated and venturesome life are always appealing, and one of the very best that I have read in many a moon is We Bought an Island by Evelyn M. Richardson (Macrae Smith, $3.50). Mrs. Richardson and her husband, Morrill, are Canadians; and for generations she and her people have been lighthouse keepers. She fell in love with Morrill when she was twenty and he twenty-four; 1 hev dreaded the thought of city life, and when the opportunity offered, with their minute savings they bought the little island of Bon Portage off the tip of Nova Scotia. With Morrill’s salary of light keeper as their mainstay they planned to do mixed farming, keep a cow, enjoy the black duck when the flocks came in, and raise their children within the safety of the white tower with its sloping walls.
Bon Portage is three miles long with rocky shores, a diminutive, wind-twisted woods, and in its interior a fresh-water pond and marsh. For most of their life there they had no telephone, and their only signals of distress were a flag on the tower, a fire on the point, or spaced gunshots, none of which was certain to attract attention. They made the most of every asset and had the humor and fortitude to withstand the hardships. The care of the lamps; the tank to hold the soft rain water; the berrying; the purchase of an ox to tow their heavy work; the rescue of mariners who were washed ashore; the gunning parties in the fall; the teaching of the children through the long winter months; the heavenly respite of Christinas; the awakening to a subzero house (for they never dared to leave a fire overnight); the love of every cranny of their small world; the loss of Laurie — all this is told naturally, intelligently, and in [rages charged with affection. We Bought an Island received the Canadian Governor-General’s Award arid no honor was ever more deserved.

From Pennyslvania to China

Looking back across the Pacific from her Green Hills Farm in Pennsylvania, Pearl S. Buck tells in My Several Worlds (John Day, $5.00) of the personal experiences which tempered her philosophy, and of her findings when she returned to the United States from China and began to compare the western world with Asia. All the Oriental sections of the book are irresistible— full of sparkle and warmth, sharply drawn people, and a great rattle of incident and conversation. When she writes of Europe and the United States, Mrs. Buck becomes not exactly diffident but definitely an observer, a polite but not uncritical visitor. In the East, she is at home. Although the author doesn’t discuss it, the difference in feeling is plain to see and becomes very affecting.
I admire Mrs. Buck’s good sense, her good temper, her resolute refusal to write about her private affairs when they concern living people (she writes at great length, and charmingly, about her parents), her modesty about her work, and her statement that she thinks she’s had a fine life, on the whole. Actually, she has had a life that would have reduced a lesser woman to a pulp — long periods of loneliness and poverty, the nerve-racking death of her mother whom she dearly loved, an unhappy marriage, a defective child, the torturing worry of conditions in China and her final eviction from the country which, regardless of ancestry and politics, is her native land and always will be. She does not claim that these things did not hurt, but she refuses to whine about them, and she does not ask the reader to weep for her troubles.

Rough justice in the Southwest

Trial by Don M. Mankiewicz, the Harper Prize Novel of 1955 (Harper, $3.50), is a study of racial injustice in the combustible Southwest. Angel Chavez, a senior in the San Juno High School and leading hitter on the baseball team, ventures onto a beach where Mexicans are not allowed, especially in early June when “grunion” parties are in order. It is after dark, the campfires have been lit, the drinking has started, the lovers have begun to pair off, and Angel, half in defiance, half in curiosity, has edged his way down the long flight of steps close to the forbidden area. On a landing he encounters the younger sister of a classmate, who seems pretty and not averse to pelting; when she has had enough she strains free, starts up the stairs, and collapses. Angel can disappear or shout for help. He does the braver thing and within minutes is accused of rape.
The story is built on the contending forces in the community: the Commies, using Angel as a symbol of Sacco injustice; the rabid patriots who would like to see him hanged; and the decent, but confused liberals like David Blake. In court Angel is represented by Barney Castle, a tough-minded trial lawyer, and David, whose honesty and indignation are unavailing. David is the embodiment of the conscientious American public, and I only wish that the diary in which he records his impressions were a little less wooden. The hysteria follows a pattern which is familiar to us; the trial itself is exciting, but the characters are incredibly black and white in this social study reminiscent of the 1930s.