The Peripatetic Reviewer
GREENWICH VILLAGE in the autumn of 1923 was a convenient and inexpensive Bohemia for young bachelors. It had an assortment of basement restaurants with thumb-worn menus in French and Italian; a real French bakery where one could get croissants and large square rolls with poppy seeds on top, two for five; one-man bookstores run on a very personal basis where you just might bump into Sherwood Anderson or Maxwell Bodenheim; Webster Hall, where the costume party New Year’s Eve was the nearest thing to the Beaux Arts ball; Washington Square, where you could loaf in the sunlight of a Sunday morning; the Provincetown Players on McDougall Street, where I was to see Desire Under the Elms; and it had walk-up apartments (three flights, please) such as a twenty-five-dollars-a-week man could afford. The cheapest were those whose windows gave on the Sixth Avenue El. That is where I was living with two of my Harvard classmates, Elliott Cabot, who was acting in White Cargo, and Berry Fleming, who was writing humorous sketches for Life and Punch.
I did the housekeeping, and it was a Box and Cox arrangement, for Elliott seldom returned from Broadway until long after we were asleep, and he was never up at the time that I had to leave for the office, I only saw him Sundays when we breakfasted late. Breakfast was my dish and it never varied. On my way home I would pick up the big square rolls at the French bakery. Next morning while the coffee was boiling, I’d heat them in the oven with a big chunk of butter melting in the center. On top of this I would introduce a three-and-a-half-minute egg, with paprika to taste. All on one plate and very good.
We came to gradually on Sundays, and in a bathrobe or sweater Elliott would spend some time before the mirror on facial exercises, while Berry, if urged, ‘would show me the skits he was preparing to
submit to Oliver Herford, one of the Life staff, on Monday.
Our apartment was the top floor of an old brownstone dwelling and it trembled like jelly each time the Elevated roared by. Our landlord, a mysterious Greek doctor, conducted an enormous, silent practice on the first floor. The second floor was occupied by a fading Italian countess and her professorial husband who had been reduced to serving as a translator at the near-by municipal court. Their rooms were heavy with ancient velvet: portieres, massive gilded furniture, books on shelves and on the floor, and dust everywhere. She cooked their meals on a gas ring on the window sill. The third floor was ours and, as we had an extra cot and were only one year out of college, we were a favorite last resort for friends looking for a free night.
I took the Sixth Avenue El uptown to reach Liveright’s office on West 48th Street, and at the office, where Bennett Cerf and I had desks side byside, I was beginning to know — at least by sight - some of our more famous clientele. I recognized dour Theodore Dreiser with his ponderous manner, and Ludwig Lewisohn, bright-eyed and animated, whose Up Stream had been a sweeping success and who was now about to publish his novel, Don Juan. I must have been out selling books when Eugene O’Neill called; we were publishing his plays that autumn, but if he had any business to transact, it was probably down at the Algonquin where the more desirable authors were entertained. But I did see Sherwood Anderson, who was Mr. Liveright’s latest acquisition and a legend in the Village. Anderson had soared into our thinking with his Hinesburg, Ohio, and his short stories were acclaimed even in London, where they were published by Jack Squire. Mr. Liveright coveted his future books, and he got an option on them by the simple expedient of tracing Anderson to his lairin the Village. All we knew at the time was that Horace had returned with a signed contract and a smile on the face of the tiger. The other side of the story was told to me by Mr. Anderson years later. The furnished room on the third floor back where he received the publisher was threadbare, and Mr. Liveright, a born gambler when it came to advances, lost no time.
“Mr. Anderson,” he began, “I am a great admirer of your work, and I want to make it easier for you. What I propose is to send you a check for one hundred and fifty dollars every Monday, and regard this as an advance against your royalties on your nexl novel.”
“Every Monday?" said Sherwood, thoughtfully. “One hundred and fifty dollars?”
“Every Monday,”said Horace, and the deal was made.
“That next Monthly,” continued Sherwood, as he reminisced, “I couldn’t wait for the postman, I was down there in my bathrobe when the letters came through the slot. Sure enough, there it was. The check. I certainly ate well that week, took some friends out and we had steak. The checks kept right on coming. But. somehow it would get around towards Friday, and I wouldn’t have done ev en as much as half a new chapter of Dark Laughter. By the end of the month I knew this couldn’t go on, so I went up to see Horace at 48th Street.
“‘Horace,’I said, handing him back the contract, ‘I don’t want this any more.’
“‘Who’s offering you more.’ he asked.
“’No, it’s not that,’I said. ‘I just can’t work that way. You’ll get the book, but give me back my poverty.’”
To read the face of America
It was in Westport, Connecticut, in a cottage not far from the old post road that Van Wyck Brooks settled down for his first serious writing at the end of the First World War. He had resisted the temptations of Europe, where so many of our expatriates were then working, for like Thorcau he feared “to lose the feeling of his ‘native woods and pastures.'" This conviction that American writers flourish best on their own soil is a major theme both in his criticism and in this book. “Westport,” he writes, “was to witness many of the types of this time of discovery and youth; for there came Sherwood Anderson and Scott Fitzgerald, along with the New England poet Robert Frost. There, too, lived Paul Rosenfeld, of all our Westport circle of friends the most aware, I think, of the promise of the country.” From Westport he commuted to the offices of The Freeman, where he served as literary editor, and here in free time and the weekends he cultivated the friendships with people like Lillian Wald, Malcolm Cowley, Lee Simonson, Hendrik Van Loon, about whom be writes with such perceptive affection in the second volume of his memoirs,Days of the Phoenix: The Nineteen-Twenties I Remember (Dutton, $3.95).
His warm-spirited volume with its enndid self-evaluation is the pleasantest form of literary history. He catches the liberal fervor of The Treeman and the brilliance and perversity of its editor, Albert Jay Nock; he causes us to remember with gratitude that witty scholar and skillful translator, Ernest Boyd; he examines the motives which drew Americans like Henry James and Edith Wharton abroad, and explains why their work became orchidaceous as a result; he has a fascinating chapter on those others who had found escape in Polynesia, such as his brother-in-law John Francis Stimson and James Norman Hall; he tells of the self-doubts which he encountered as an interpretive critic of Mark Twain and Henry James; and most movingly of the irresolution and mounting pressure which resulted in his nervous breakdown in 1929. “I was always,”he writes, ‘“straining to read the face of America,’” and in this disarming and discerning book one feels how right he has been in most of his evaluations, how happy in his friendships.
In A Night to Remember, Waller Lord wrote a terse and epic account of the sinking of the Titanic; and the loss of that great ship, as he rightly says, marks the end of an era —an era of class distinction and unlimited luxury. The English heiress whose American lover had been among the drowned and who chartered a ship from Halifax in order to drop a huge wreath on the watery grave is an epitome of the extravagance and independence which were dealt a body blow by the iceberg and killed forever by the First World War. The swift, graphic detail with which Mr. Lord built up the disaster and his personal touches about the passengers and crew were a dev ice so successful that it was sure to lead to other assignments. Day of Infamy (Holt, $3.9.5) is the carefully planned hourby-hour recording of the surprise assault on Pearl Harbor, and I must say at once that it is as engrossing as the story of the sinking of the Titanic, though less romantic and more harrowing.
I remember that on Satunday night, December 6, 1941, an American admiral, who shall be nameless, delivered a lecture at a famous club in New York City in which he made it clear that the Japanese had neither the audacity nor the striking force with which to hurt us at Honolulu. The news which reached us the following afternoon put an end to that sublime complacence which seems to have imbued all ranks of all services on duty at Pearl. As Mr. Lord’s title suggests, this is a book of accusation, and the casualness and complacency of the individuals he quotes make up a damning total. Five of the battleship captains and 50 per cent of the destroyer officers spent that fateful Saturday night ashore. There were no barrage balloons and the battleships were without crinolines: the antitorpedo net was opened at 6:30 A.M., and because it was easier to keep it open for a little casual traffic, it so remained. The efforts of the Ward, which had intercepted the first Japanese submarine, to get through to Naval District Headquarters wound up in a maze. At 6:45 A.M. plots began to show up on the radar interceptor screen, but at 7:00 the operators knocked off and went to breakfast. The first Japanese bombers to be heard overhead were cursed out as buzz-happy American pilots — a man said some poor Navy pilot would get into trouble for that. And even when the bombing began and the call for General Quarters was sounded, certain officers like Commander Stout were annoyed because he had left standing orders never to test General Quarters before 8:00 on Sunday.
The bare-handed heroism with which the officers and crew rallied to their crippled and sinking ships, the plucky resourcefulness with which the Nevada was piloted into open water, the point-blank persistence of the antiaircraft crews who fought back through the strafing (the ammunition was old and there were a lot of misfires), the angry desperation of the few pilots who could get aloft— this is the pathetic last half of the story, and, as Mr. Lord tells it, the magnificent epitaph of those who went down. The multitude of personal incidents and the difficulty of distinguishing between the Japanese names make Day of Infamy a less intimate chronicle than that of the Titanic; what we feel is the overpowering sense of shock, the rising indignation, the questions that are still unanswered. Pearl Harbor, too, was the end of an era, and Americans will never be so cocksure again.