The Peripatetic Reviewer

THE first and only time that I went fishing with my father was up the Metedeconk Creek the summer of 1911. He came down for the weekends that summer at Bay Head; and what with his tennis, bathing, and whist-and-Welsh-rabbit parties, he had little time for my younger brother, Rufus, and myself. But I must have sprung the trap when I reported at Sunday dinner that Carroll Dunn had caught a two-pound black bass up the creek.
“What did he use for bait?” asked Dad.
“Shiners,” I said. “Carroll said the bass were breaking water all over the place. He’d have caught a pailful if he could have stayed till dark.”
“That’s just what the three of us will do next Saturday,” Dad decided with that confident gesture of his right hand. “Make camp up there and then fish until dark and before sunrise. We’ll bring you back the best mess you ever tasted,” he said to Mother.
At first it sounded incredible. Dad was not the most patient of men, and when he did things with us, like the trip to Coney Island, he got exasperated fairly soon. But this time anticipation fixed everything. Our cousins, the Brewsters, agreed to sail us and our rowboat to the mouth of the creek — a distance of six miles — and to come for us after church on Sunday morning. Rufe and I sandpapered the rust off our steel rods; we questioned Carroll closely and repeatedly; and Friday night, when Dad returned, the equipment for the expedition was complete: the blankets, the bucket of shiners, frying pan, eggs and bacon, sandwiches and doughnuts, sugar and coffee, and an extra lure, for in New York Dad had purchased two dozen hellgrammites, angry-looking nippers which he said the bass would go crazy for.
“And don’t forget the citronella, Ned,” Mother reminded. “Put the bottle in your pocket so it won’t smell up the food.”
Saturday was one of those days, soft west wind, not a cloud. Sid Brewster sailed us across the Bay, the rowboat slapping along behind, and he anchored in the creek while we ferried things ashore and chose our camp site under the pines. The marsh smelled strong and the little pockets of the narrowing, twisting creek looked dark and promising.
“Well, good luck!” Sid called as he pointed for home. “See you in the morning. Perhaps I won’t have to go to church.”
Dad said it was too early to begin, so we built the fireplace, collected the wood, and tested our blankets on the pine cones, removing the hard objects beneath. We ate our sandwiches, Dad had his bottle of beer, and at last, just as the sun was sinking, we embarked, Rufe in the bow, with a shiner on his hook, Dad in the middle, and I in the stern with a hellgrammite on mine. Dad said twenty-five cents for the biggest fish, and another quarter for the most.
The pickerel, small and slimy, responded at once to Rufus, big sunnies, too; but my hellgrammite just kept roving around. Dad took the rod and said he felt something and for God’s sake stop rocking the boat! Rufe and I were slapping the mosquitoes which were hovering close to our bare legs, and each time we did the boat would make rings. Dad said to use the citronella and then we discovered that he had forgotten to bring it.
We tried likely spots, we trolled and in the gathering dark we heard the fish splash, but never a bass came our way. Dad said it was time we got some sleep and the morning was the best anyway, so we rowed back. Rufus said he’d caught the most and I was too disgruntled to argue. The wind had dropped, and even as we peeled off our socks and sneakers we heard them coming, the whiny hum of Jersey marsh mosquitoes. Swarms of them, It was too hot to hide under the blanket. Dad said, “Try spreading newspaper over your face,” but then, when you slapped, it made your ears ring. This went on until Dad said, “Oh the hell with it, we’d better row home.”
He was a big man, but six miles is a long row in the dark with three people and all that gear. When Dad’s blisters came and I took an oar, he kept pulling me around. A slow, curving, grinding progress.
Half past two when we reached the yacht club and with the rods, the frying pan, the uneaten eggs and bacon, the blankets, and the rest, started our weary walk toward the sleeping village. On East Street, Rufe lagged behind.
“What are you crying for?” demanded Dad.
“This bucket is so heavy,” said Rufe.
“Hell’s bells! Dump it!” roared Dad, which was why the Verplanks found shiners in their geranium border on Sunday.
We reached the cottage and dropping all that gear on the porch must have awakened Mother, for she called out, “Ned, is that you?” To which he replied, “Yes, dear. Who else were you expecting?” That remark never struck me as funny, then or later when it was repeated. The whole thing was a flop.

The three hats

For those of us who were coming of age in the 1920s, S. J. Perelman’s prose holds all the sentimentality of a wistful little bunch of violets. His loves were our loves, and today he can make us laugh aloud at their absurdity. In The Road to Miltown (Simon & Schuster, $3.50) Mr. Perelman wears a number of different hats. Under one hat he is the possessor of the zaniest Hollywood vocabulary I have ever read, and in a series of sketches entitled “Cloudland Revisited,” a playback of the great silent films, he takes the stuffing out of Cecil B. De Mille, canonizes Erich von Stroheim (“the Man You Love to Hate”), and revivifies Sam Goldwyn’s Stella Dallas in phrases which even Sam would never have thought of. There are ten of these playbacks, and if the films move you to tears today, it will be tears of laughter. I caution you, however, not to take them in sequence, but at intervals as the New Yorker has done, lest the routine become too noticeable.
Under another hat Mr. Perelman talks like an English traveler fresh home from Mandalay — with all the swagger and absurdity of a Pukka Sahib; this gives him the chance to make fun of Somerset Maugham, Christopher Morley, and others who have affected the cheerio manner, and he makes the most of it.
Under a third hat he is himself, fighting a losing battle with insurance agents (“Come On In, the Liability’s Fine” is one of the gems of this collection); going on a cruise to Catalina with Georgie Jessel; or joining an improbable committee dedicated to saving the Aragon on Washington Square. Each of these sketches is plotted with a nicety.

“Albemarle” Cushing

Before he became the beau ideal of the quiz shows, tall Charles Van Doren had collaborated with his friend Ralph J. Roske in the writing of Lincoln’s Commando (Harper, $5.00), the biography of Commander W. B. Cushing, U.S.N., the most audacious naval officer in the Civil War. Will Cushing spent his boyhood in Fredonia, New York; one of a large family, he inherited from his father a vulnerability to colds and migraine. He grew to be a wiry six-footer, with the brightest of eyes, irrepressible spirits, and the will to dare anything. Like Nelson he was coolest under fire, with that confident resourcefulness which is the essence of leadership.
During his years at Annapolis he was always on the danger line of demerits, and as a First Classman his impudence and hot temper led to his dismissal in March, 1861. He pled with Gideon Welles for reinstatement, and the Secretary of the Navy, after reading him the riot act, assigned him as a master’s mate on blockading duty off the Virginia Capes. His first experiences as a commando on the Cape Fear River steeled him for his great exploit on the Roanoke where, with a launch and cutter and a handful of picked men, he penetrated eight miles upstream to destroy the Confederate ram Albemarle with a giant torpedo which he had to trigger by hand. How he escaped with his life is a miracle, but he did. No honors were too good for him, and he became even more of a hero in the amphibious attack on Fort Fisher.
The authors are at their vivid best depicting Cushing’s exploits, a little less successful in the account of his home life and adolescence, in which his letters are quoted at too great length. Sad is the anticlimax of his life when, the war over and heroism fading, he no longer felt the urgency to dare.

How a novelist begins

It does not seem possible that thirty years have passed since I made my first train trip to Toronto, there to present the Atlantic check of $10,000 to Mazo de la Roche for her prize-winning novel, Jalna. But today there are fourteen Whiteoak novels in print and in many translations, and the manuscript of the fifteenth is all but complete. In addition I recall Growth of a Man, that robust novel of the Canadian woods which she wrote when she was trying to close her mind against the Whiteoaks; then the plays, the collections of short stories, the briefer books reflecting her love for England, and the adventures with her famous little Scotty, and now, freshly minted, her autobiography, Ringing the Changes (Atlantie-Little, Brown, $6.00).
Very clearly it was Mazo’s exposure to such an extraordinary number of ruddy, strong-willed, idiosyncratic elders which prompted her to write about family life. As an only daughter, the last of her line, she began inventing a play in which all the characters were males and only two of them were children; with it she peopled the big Victorian rooms of her childhood, and at the urging of her cousin and lifelong companion, Caroline Clement, she continued to amplify this secret world until, under the spurs of grief and need — grief for her father and need for money — she felt compelled to write. In Ringing the Changes we meet the living prototypes of the Whiteoaks, and what rich and varied folk they are! We see the nervous anguish and self-doubt which assailed Miss de la Roche as she struggled to lift her writing beyond the personal confines of her experience, and we appreciate the growth and fulfillment which she found in England and in her maturity at home.