WHEN we are young we take all natural beauty for granted. But because memory has a way of treasuring certain special moments, these come back to us unsummoned across the years. The spring robin I heard calling above a wet lawn on West Jersey Street — a shower had just passed — in 1908, I have heard a hundred times since; the sweet peas, dewfresh, on the Nimicks’ latticework which I used to pass on my way to the beach just as the July sun was warming their perfume; the moonlight which made pools of darkness under our maples on Clinton Place — I never meant to keep these, but there they are.
It is a sign of age that as our time becomes limited, so we become concerned about other objects as destructible as ourselves. It never occurred to me to worry about the elms, even in my senior year in the Harvard Yard when a blizzard turned to sleet , hung them with snow and crystal, and broke them with their weight. The damage was dismissed with the thought that you can always plant new ones. I only realized later how indispensable those old trees were in the Yard.
The American Elm is a New England character. It dates the oldest house; its wineglass silhouette is a landmark in the meadow; its branches make a summer cloister of the old streets in Williamstown, Danversport, or Salem; with the lilac bush it is the living memorial guarding the deserted farm. Or it used to be. It has been called “the patriot tree” — under its boughs treaties were signed with the Indians, Washington took command of an army, George Whitefield, the evangelist, preached to thousands on Boston Common; under it came the rushing fierce embrace of the homecomings after Appomattox. You measure trees with your eyes, and the sight of an old elm makes you feel younger, and surer that good things last.
Nearly a century ago, when the Atlantic was in its second year, the Autocrat of the Breakfast Table sent out this call for a biography of distinguished trees. “I wish,” wrote Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, “somebody would get up the following work:
Photographs of New England Elms and other Trees taken upon the same Scale of Magnitude. With Letter Press Descriptions by a Distinguished Literary Gentleman. . . .” Thirty-two years later the very book was produced, Typical Elms and Other Trees of Massachusetts, a handsome green and gold folio with superb plates by Henry Brooks, text by Lorin L. Dame, and introduction by Dr. Holmes.
A labor of love, long out of print, it leads one back to a time when men seemed to revere trees more than we do. The early settlers of New England inherited from their English ancestors a desire for shade trees. In front of the new house for the bride, the bridegroom planted the memorial elm. The elm was their first choice and the reasons, says Mr. Dame, are obvious: it is a rapid grower, requires little care, admits of the severest pruning where branches come dangerously close to the roof, and combines in a remarkable degree size and beauty and shade. The French botanist Michaux termed it “the most magnificent vegetable of the temperate zones.”
There are twenty-four superb photographs of elms here, and often we are shown two of the same tree—the one in its copious foliage, the other of its magnificent bare architecture in winter. These pictures were taken in the day of the buggy and the stovepipe hat, and they give us the feeling of another century.
There is a story about every one of these famous trees. The Whittemore Elm in Arlington was set out in 1724 by Samuel Whittemore in front of his house. A minuteman at the age of eighty, he was shot and left for dead at the roadside. But he recovered and lived on to enjoy the shade of that fine tree until he was a hundred and one. (Postscript: When they widened the road, the highway moved off to one side to preserve the landmark.) For three centuries the oldest tree on Boston Common was of course known as the Great Tree, and it was so designated on the maps. Planted about 1640, it suffered from its first major cavity a hundred years later; a tree dentist of the period cleaned out the rot, filled the aperture with “clay, and other substances,” and then bandaged it — yes, bandaged it — with canvas. The big beauty lived on until February, 1876, and when the winter gales finally destroyed it, citizens rushed to the spot and took home slabs and cuttings for table tops and chairs. The Washington Elm, which stood close to the Cambridge Common, is shown at two stages: in its full foliage in 1870, and in its spindly decrepitude in 1889 — top gone, big limbs sawed off, the stumps tarred, dying. Just worn out as most elms are that pass one hundred and fifty.
THE OPEN HEART, a collection of thirty-six informal, autobiographical essays by Edward Weeks, has just been published. Subscribers wishing to have autographed copies of the first edition can place their order with their local bookseller, or direct with the Atlantic. Price: $3.50.
Today the whole Yankee species of elms is threatened by the Dutch Elm disease. The Wethersfield Elm, the great tree of Connecticut, which stood up under the hurricane of ‘38, succumbed to the beetles five years ago. The big beauties in Williamstown are, many of them, sick; and the same ravage can be seen in Concord or on any old country road. People speak of the Pin Oak and of the Norway Maple as a better substitute for replanting, but I say, “Don’t despair.”
The blight of the elm is not as desperate as that which wiped out the chestnut. Some of the veterans have shown surprising immunity — as, for instance, the Big Elm in Framingham, not far from Route 9, said to have been planted in 1775; the Whipping Post Elm and the Signpost Elm in Litchfield, Connecticut, are both well into their second century and both immune; so are the three ancient elms in Greenwich which have withstood twenty years of the Dutch Elm contagion. The tree warden of Greenwich deserves praise for this, for he has labored mightily to preserve his more than six thousand public elms. What we need are more exacting tree wardens in every community, who will demand that the deadwood so easily infested be removed. And more spraying. For the American Elm is hardier than the European species and it is just as ideal for civilization as it once was for the country town. It stands any amount of tramping, its roots survive under pavements, its form and foliage are of a beauty that cannot be replaced. Plant on!
The light that lives
I pity anyone who has not been touched in his formative years by the poetry and prose of Rudyard Kipling; who has not had the Just So Stories read aloud to him when a child; who has not read to himself The Jungle Books; who has not felt the magic enchantment of Puck of Pook’s Hill; who has not been moved to tears by Kim and The Light That Failed. But the giver of all this— the author of such memorable tales as “ Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” “The Maltese Cat,” “The Man Who Was”; the poet whose “Recessional" went straight to the heart of the British people—was himself a man withdrawn; and during the last two decades of his life, following the death of his only son in the First World War, Rudyard Kipling shut himself more and more away from the reading public who revered his work. He became an elusive, retiring figure, and when he died an epoch had ended. Kipling’s surviving daughter, Mrs. George Bambridge, entrusted the family papers to the English biographer, Charles E. Carrington — and what is more, gave him the far-reaching and vivid details of her own recollections. Mr. Carrington, who as a very young soldier and traveler had been brought up on Kipling, brings to the writing of his illuminating book, The Life of Rudyard Kipling (Doubleday, $5.00), warm sympathy, love for India, remembrance of England in the golden years, and a most discriminating literary judgment. The book is alive with telling and intimate scenes — Kipling’s devotion to his parents and the cruelty which they unwittingly inflicted on him when, at the age of six, they left him behind in England; “Rud’s “hardwon happiness in school, which he celebrated in Stalky & Co.; the return to India, which opened up the wellsprings of his genius; the four years in America — so productive at the outset, so full of feud at the conclusion; his happiness and prodigious power in England in the years directly before the First World War. This is a knowledgeable book, one which conjures up the past and touches the heart.
Letters profound and searching
The Letters of George Santayana, edited by Daniel Cory, his private secretary and literary executor (Scribner’s $7.50), cover a period of nearly seventy years; in style and content they are wonderfully expressive, and they speak with a warmth and affection, and at times a sharpness, which the philosopher rarely permitted in his essays. They range widely, and readers will take from them what they please: the man himself stands clear. We see him in his judgment of Boston when he defends his young friend Ward Thoron; we see him in his disappointment when he gives up the hope of advancement at Harvard and, as in his letter to Guy Murchie, prepares for his exodus to Oxford. We see him as critic and editor in his letter to Lowes Dickinson, and as a philosopher defending his “separation from the world of action" in a firm, modest note to Oliver Wendell Holmes. We see him reproaching Logan Pearsall Smith for his Trivia and setting William Lyon Phelps straight about The Last Puritan. In the very first letter of the collection he writes: “But the beauty of the thing is to be at home in the world of ideas and to remain subject to the fascination of studying the aspects of things.” It was a fascination which he never lost, and one which he had the power to transmit not only to his friendly correspondents but to those of us at longer range today.
In 1934 a new writer, MacKinlay Kantor, seized our attention with his intense, compassionate story of Gettysburg, Long Remember, and a year later he established his popularity with his endearing tale of a foxhound, The Voice of Bugle Ann, a classic of dog stories, which made its debut in the Atlantic. But the Civil War was and is his first love. He has been assimilating the details of those turbulent years for a quarter of a century, and was moved to pity by the specter of Andersonville, that pine-built stockade in Georgia where ten thousand Union prisoners within fifteen crowded acres waited or died. I think it likely that the revulsion against the concentration camps of our time was the final imperative which compelled him to write his new long, heartfelt novel, Andersonville (World, $5.00), which is the Book-of-the-Month Club selection for November.
With consummate skill he sets the scene and shows us the individuals responsible for this festering place hacked out of the wilderness beside that once tranquil stream the Sweetwater. Captain Henry Wirz, the inspecting officer of prisons, made frantic and vindictive by his wounded arm; Captain Winder, the ruthless builder, so contemptuous of what conditions might be in the blazing heat; Brigadier General Winder, the planner in Richmond, so malevolent toward all things Yankee — these malefactors, abetted by the ignorant guards and, within the prison itself, by the New York gangster Willie Collins, were the brute forces that weighted the scales for death.
Then there were the Georgians, white and black, in whose neighborhood this horror arose: people like Cato Dillard, the kindly parson; Widow Tebbs, the soft-minded village whore; and most merciful of all, the planter Ira Claffey, whose three sons have been killed in the fighting, and who is hanging on to the remnants of his place to protect his grief-dazed wife and their attractive daughter Lucy. He stands for mercy, as do Lieutenant-Colonel Alex Persons and the bespectacled, valiant surgeon Harrell Elkins. Andersonville has the smell of doom from the start, and what is so remarkable is that Mr. Kantor has made the reader so sensitive to the tenacity of the living: the grim humor and compassion which hold them together, the essential dignity and sympathy which outlast the most revolting treatment. The novelist employs a thousand different episodes to bring the war within the focus of the prison, and there are times when his power of invention leads him too far afield. In his search for the motivation of the brutal characters such as General Winder, I do not think he is unfailingly successful. But in his pictures of tenacity, endurance, and cleansing mercy he has written with truth and power.