Reader's Choice

THE qualities of Rachel Carson’s new book, The Edge of the Sea (Houghton Mifflin, $3.95), are tidily summed up in the citation which the judges of the National Book Award bestowed on its prize-winning predecessor. The Sea Around Us—“a work of scientific accuracy presented with poetic imagination and such clarity of style and originality of approach as to win and hold every reader’s attention.” I would single out “poetic imagination” as the operalive words, for Miss Carson is a scientist who is supremely aware that science, as Nurse Cavell said of patriotism, “is not enough.” Her constant effort is to transcend the presentation and classification of facts, and to bring to the reader an intuitive comprehension of the whole life of the shore—the “strange and beautiful place . . . of our dim ancestral beginnings ... a place of compromise and conflict and eternal change.” That a work of this kind, however superlatively executed, will hold “every reader’s attention" is, of course, a polite exaggeration. A discriminating colleague of mine, when he heard me saying how fascinating the book was, morosely muttered: “Barnacles . . . all about barnacles.”
Miss Carson opens with a series of personal recollections atmospheric tableaux in the delicate manner of the Japanese “floating scene.” Her second chapter focuses on the sea forces which mold and determine the life of the shore — surf, currents, tides, the very waters of the sea. Then there follows a detailed interpretation of the three basic types of shore, all of which are to be found on the Atlantic coast of the United States—the rocky shore (which stretches northward from Cape Cod); the sandy shore (which runs southward from the Cape to Miami); and the coral coast (the Florida Keys).
The edge of the sea, a region of tremendous unrest where only the hardy can survive, is crowded with plants and animals which demonstrate the amazing toughness and adaptability of life; even in most of the areas where the surf strikes with incredible violence, living things have gained a foothold. It is a truly extraordinary world which Miss Carson vividly unfolds to us and which is admirably illustrated in Bob Hines’s drawings: a world full of marvels such as the tiny periwinkle, which has 3500 teeth, and the sea pansy, which has responded to the struggle for survival by turning itself from an individual into a colony; a world in which can clearly be seen “the spectacle of life in all its varied manifestations as it has appeared, evolved, and died out.” To Miss Carson, the edge of the sea conveys a haunting sense of communicating some universal truth as yet beyond our grasp; a sense that through this region, in which Life began, we can approach the ultimate mystery of Life itself.

Great discovery

Early in 1947, a party of bedouins stumbled upon a collection of jars and scrolls in a cave on the western shore of the Dead Sea. This find and those which followed it in 1951—52 brought to light the oldest biblical texts known to date and other documents of immense significance to religious history. It was probably the greatest discovery of its kind since the Greek and Latin classics were unearthed in the Renaissance.
A tremendous amount has been written about the scrolls in scholarly journals, and now the strange and stirring story of their discovery and implications is compactly summed up for the general reader in Edmund Wilson’s The Scrolls from the Dead Sea (Oxford University Press, $3.25). Mr. Wilson has explored his subject on the spot and has put in a stunning amount of study; a number of specialists in the field have said that his report is in the main reliable and discerning. Insofar as presentation is concerned, it is certainly a splendid job. With its skillful chronicling of the intrigues and adventures that have attended the disposition of the scrolls; its vivid sketches of the leading protagonists in this resounding archaeological drama; its fascinating account of the difficulties of transcribing the scrolls and of the scholarly detective work done on them, Mr. Wilson’s book is wonderfully rich in suspense and human interest. At the same time, its crisp exposition of the contents, significance, and controversial aspects of the scrolls is remarkably absorbing stuff, even to a reader who comes to the book with only a casual interest in problems of biblical hislory.
Among the Dead Sea scrolls are a complete version of the book of Isaiah; fragments of other books of the Bible; and the literature of an early religious sect widely believed to be the Essenes, a monastic Jewish group of which our knowledge has been rather limited. It has been pretty securely established that the Dead Sea documents range from around 200 B.C. to shortly before the destruction of The Temple by the Romans in A.D. 70. Previously, our earliest text of the Hebrew Bible (except for a fragment or two) belonged to the ninth century of the Christ ian era.
The scrolls illuminate a whole missing chapter in the growth of religious ideas in the period between the Old and New Testaments. Documenting as they do a litlie-known branch of Jewish thought, altogether different from that of the Pharisees and Sadducees, they shed a startling new light on the orientation of Judaism at the time of the emergence of Christianity. On the strictly historical plane, they provide Considerable evidence that the religion of Jesus grew organically out of an apocalyptic branch of Judaism. For the “Teacher of Righteousness” of the Essenes is a gentle and persecuted prophet who would seem to be in many respects a forerunner of Christ; and many aspects of the doctrine and ritual of the Essenes are persistently echoed throughout the Gospels.
The latter points are accented in a more specialized study of the Dead Sea scrolls which has recently been published: The Jetvish Sect of Qumran and the Essenes (Macmillan, $2.50), a short essay by one of the leading French biblical scholars, A. Dupont-Sommer. Another and much fuller study by a specialist has also just been issued: The Dead Sea Scrolls (Viking, $6.50) by Millar Burrows, who was Director of the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem at the time of the 1947 discoveries and who offers us translations of five of the scrolls.

Two satires

Cards of Identity (Vanguard, $3.75), a novel by Nigel Dennis, is a satiric extravaganza whose theme is man’s loss of a real sense of identity in the contemporary world. Mr. Dennis is saying, in effect, either that modern man wavers between a multiplicity of selves, none of which give him a solid sense of Self; or that he settles for an artificial identity imposed on him from without and seeks to realize it symbolically—that is, by self-consciously adopting the appropriate ideas, mores, clothes, and mannerisms. This is a fruitful subject for a satirist; and Mr. Dennis brings to it a keen mind, an exuberant imagination, and a dazzling command of the English language.
His setting is an abandoned English country house where the Identity Club is holding its annual reunion. The Club is dedicated to the proposition: “Identity is the answer to everything. Its principal activity is singling out persons with identity problems and endowing them — by a gently mesmeric process of brainwashing— with brand-new synthetic identities. The action opens with the “reconstitution" of several of the local inhabitants into a stall of model servants — a missionary coup which neatly disposes of the Club’s housekeeping problems. Then a succession of imaginary case histories of “reconstituted identities” are read, in the course of which Mr. Dennis rains wittily corrosive mockery on a number of targets — people who seek an anchor for today in ritualistic regression to the past; male women, female men, and other more crazily mixed-up in-betweeners; ex-Communists who have donned the garb of holiness while working the confession racket for all it’s worth. Eventually, the Club’s president is liquidated for signs of decline in his presidential identity, and the reunion teeters to a grotesque breakup.
Cards of Identity unfolds as a succession of brilliantly ingenious vaudeville turns. As a novel, it is conspicuously lacking in narrative progression and dramatic coherence; and at times its freewheeling extravagances smack of intellectual virtuosity just for virtuosity’s sake. The main point, however, is that there is much in Mr. Dennis’s nightmarish entertainment which is both blazingly funny and savagely penetrating. The episode describing the monastery for important ex-Communists and its operations as a confession factory is one of the deadliest and most entrancing pieces of satiric writing published in the last two decades. Mr. Dennis’s satire, moreover, ranges well beyond contemporary phenomena and offers us a lapidary commentary on some of the age-old frailties of homo soidisant sapiens.
In her new novel, Mary McCarthy lets her lethal eye rove over a Bohemian sector of American society which is distinctly different from the urban garred-and-gutter Bohemia, and also from that de luxe Bohemia which is the artistic and nonconformist counterpart to Society’s international sot. A Charmed Life (Harcourt, Brace, $3.95) is a withering report on what might be described as Middle-class Bohemia.
The setting is a clearly recognizable community on the New England coast which the author has chosen to call New Leeds. The typical New Leedsians are either middle-aged or at least past the first flush of youthful promise; they usually have a modicum of achievement to their credit, sometimes an obscure fame; and they subsist largely on small private incomes fortified by the August rental of their homes. “The essence of New Leeds was a kind of exaggeration. . . . In wife-beating, child neglect, divorce, automobile accidents, falls, suicide, the town was on a sort of statistical rampage. . . . You could not lake a drink without wondering whether you might become an alcoholic. Everything here cast a menacing shadow before it, a shade of future perdition. . . . Everything in the village was relentlessly running down, buckling, warping, mildewing —including the human beings.”
Miss McCarthy’s heroine, Martha, is a fugitive from New Leeds who, after a seven-year absence, has settled there again with her new second husband, John Sinnott. An irresistible house for sale was the cause of Martha’s apprehensive return to the place identified with the unhappiness of her first marriage; the place, moreover, where her first husband and his latest wife are living. The essence of the tragicomedy which follows can be summed up very briefly. Martha is determined not to let New Leeds and its Bohemian ways make a mess of her new life. They do.
Miss McCarthy is a delightfully polished writer with a mind that is razor-sharp and with an uncanny flair for fastening on detail that has an electric impact on the reader. Her present novel does not, like some of her writing, suffer noticeably from hyperacidity; and its characterizations have no element of caricature. Especially good is the portraiture of Martha’s first husband, a dynamic, outrageously self-coniored man of letters; of Warren Coe, an artist who is trying to apply the formulas of nuclear fission to painting; and of the seedy old Vicomte de Hernonville, a reformed alcoholic who runs the local liquor store, deals in antiques, and proselytizes for the Roman Church. All in all, A Channed Life is one of the novels I have most enjoyed in this rather lean year.

The big money

It is characteristic of the conservative temper of the nineteen-fifties that a certified intellectual such as Mary McCarthy should write a novel accenting the perils of life among Bohemian intellectuals. Whether the current reaction against the tradition of revolt and iconoclasm is a token of maturity or of cultural anemia is a question I cannot pursue here. What is certain is that, in the present social climate, novels of no special artistic merit are apt to receive the twenty-one-gun salute merely because the authors come out on the side of orthodoxy. I strongly suspect that Cameron Hawley’s Cash McCall (Houghton Mifflin, $d.95), a Literary Guild Selection, will be as glowingly appraised in many quarters as his Executive Suite was; and that certain commentators will say how wonderful it is that American business, so persistently maligned by American writers, is at last getting the literary treatment it deserves. It seems to me obvious, however, that Mr. Hawley’s treatment of American business is not, in any serious sense, literary: his novel is just an extremely competent piece of slick storytelling with a Superman hero. As for its defense of the business ethos, all it has to contribute can be summed up in the statement: “What’s wrong with making money? This is a free enterprise country.”This argument may serve to arrest creeping Socialism in the nation’s kindergartens, but it isn’t going to educate any grownup who may need educating.
Mr. Hawley’s story, while paying its dues to romantic love, revolves around an intricate deal which threatens to end disastrously for Cash McCall. Not yet forty, McCall is a self-made Philadelphia tycoon who, working in vastly anonymous and secret ways, buys and sells companies, pocketing a million dollars or so when things work out nicely, which they usually do. McCall is widely reputed to be a shady “operator,”but by the end of the story we know that he is the soul of honor, at times almost quixotic. In addition to being so dynamic, so handsome, and so damned rich, he is a thoughtful student of Oriental religions and a connoisseur of fine living. The only sad thing about Cash is that as a fictional character he remains utterly unreal —a figure of fantasy.

What is best in the novel is the sharp, authoritative documentation of the workings of the business world —its problems, tensions, rivalries, excitements. Judged as middleweight entertainment, Cash McCall is certainly a fast-moving, expertly plotted job; and I cheerfully admit that I found it quite absorbing —as absorbing as a really slick movie chockfull of intrigue and lacquered wit h the romance of t he big money.