The Peripatetic Reviewer
AUTOBIOGRAPHY is the oldest living form of literature, older even than the song or saga with which the wandering poet paid for his keep. “Just as I stepped out of our cave, there in my path and coming right at me and as big as a mountain was a mastodon. ... It was bull luck that he never saw me.” That is the Stone Age man speaking, and though he used a coarser, more primitive term for the snorter than mastodon, that is probably the way he began to embellish the tale for his home folks. Danger was the stimulant.
Autobiography is prompted by danger and by discovery. This is true of Hakluyt’s Voyages and equally true of some of the most adventurous writing of our time. But these of course are not the only sources. Autobiography may emerge from the quiet devotion of a country doctor in Kansas or the rounds of a country editor on Martha’s Vineyard, or it may be the life story of a woman who keeps the lighthouse off Nova Scotia. Autobiography is the taking into confidence, the sharing of experiences so universal that readers gain by seeing how others meet them. It is the participation in life in Tibet or tropical Africa or China, which we can only know vicariously; it is the exhilaration of a theatrical career such as Sacha Guitry and Noel Coward have described; it is Jacob Epstein telling of the problems and the mastery of sculpture or Agnes de Mille portraying the disappointments and defeats which a ballet dancer must suffer before she can hope to capture the Metropolitan; it is the dedication of a compassionate doctor like Edward Trudeau of Saranac or the hardihood of a brave missionary like Sir Wilfred Grenfell; it is an exploration of the human spirit and the most direct way of communicating one’s zest for life.
The freshest of autobiographies are those written about the morning of life, those books which magically preserve the elixir of youth. Two of my favorites were written for the Atlantic long ago. The first is by a Virginian, George Cary Eggleston, whose book, A Rebel’s Recollections, which we published in seven installments in 1874, did more to disarm the North than any other volume by a Southerner. He had ridden with Jeb Stuart in 1861 and commanded a battery in the seige of Petersburg, and when he returned to his family plantation in Albermarle County, he accepted defeat with no trace of self-pity. What he wrote was manly and magnanimous. The other book appeared in our columns the next year — Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain. Mark wrote it at the urging of William Dean Howells, and the pages still have on them the dew of his boyhood. In it is his nostalgia for Hannibal, that sleepy river town; there arc hints of his unhappiness at home, from which he ran away, but this is forgotten in the buoyancy of his experience as cabin boy and cub pilot on the glamorous Mississippi River boats. Books such as these are filled with an irrepressible spirit.
There is a second category — books written in midstream by men and women who have come through a unique experience so compelling, so trying, that it must be told. Such books have been plentiful in our time, because we have been living so dangerously. To list the titles is to conjure up these pages of vitality: Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T. E. Lawrence’s scaring and romantic adventures in Arabia; The Spirit of St. Louis, in which Charles Lindbergh relives the greatest flight of our era; that eye-opening book on Africa, Venture to the Interior, by Laurens van der Post; for its mercy, Three Came Home, by Agnes Newton Keith.
Finally, and rarest of all, are those books of culmination, autobiographies written in the sunset, with the mind crystal clear in its recall and wise in its judgments. The Education of Henry Adams is one such, and so is Sir Osbert Sitwell’s five-volume autobiography, with its golden imperishable picture of an England that is vanished. Of the books about writing, I should put first Anthony Trollope’s Autobiography and The Summing Up by Somerset Maugham. Of the books which I have personally edited the dearest to me is As I Remember Him by Hans Zinsser, which is on the border line between biography and autobiography. It is in its truth the telling of a career richly and fully lived, but Dr. Zinsser, like many a writer before him, had no liking for the first person singular; he wished to be free to come and go, to open some doors, to leave others ajar. He saw that Henry Adams had solved this difficulty by writing in the third person, and so he in his own way devised a style which would give him the latitude and reticence which he wanted. Dr. Zinsser, again like other writers before him, wrote with the knowledge that he had only a limited time left. When he began he was in full command, but he did not know whether leukemia would permit him to finish. This pressure brought no sign of haste to the writing, never disturbed the urbanity or shortened the humor. Rather, I think, it added a depth and a poignancy to what he said.
“BUY LAND, AND NEVER SELL”
The story of Richard King is a success story of Texas dimensions. He was the son of Irish immigrants who apprenticed him to a New York jeweler at the age of nine. When he ran off to sea, his first captain took pity on him and sent him back to Connecticut for schooling, but he ran off a second time to complete his education as a deck hand and pilot on the river boats of the Southwest. He was rugged, two-fisted, and fortunate in his friends. Captain Mifflin Kenedy, a well-educated Quaker whom he met on the Rio Grande, became his lifelong partner. And when in 1853 Captain King decided to give up boating and try his hand at cattle raising in the Wild Horse Desert — a rough and violent land — it was Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee of the Second United States Cavalry who helped him pick a site for his ranch house and who gave him the advice which became a family slogan: “Buy land, and never sell.”
The original purchase of 15,500 acres of wilderness (at two cents an acre) has grown to 700,000 in southern Texas with additional holdings in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Australia, Cuba, and Brazil. In THE KING RANCH (Little, Brown, 2 vols., $17.50) TOM LEA, himself a Texan, writes the biography of this great enterprise and the men who built it. It is a chronicle of the cattle industry, the history of an era, and the biography of a big man, practical, ruthless, and visionary.
The first volume is naturally the more appealing, for this is the history of the pioneering. Inevitably there are gaps in the story, for Richard King was not a journalist, but he trusted his lawyers implicitly; he had good ones, and through them the financial record could be traced. Mr. Lea has pieced together the home life picturesquely and with many a heartening touch: the taming of the Captain by Henrietta Chamberlain, daughter of the minister in Brownsville; the honeymoon in the desert; their brush with the Indians; their friendship with Colonel Lee; the courage with which Henrietta governed the outpost when her husband was away. His fortunes rose instead of declining with the Civil War, for his ranch was really “the back door of the Confederacy.” His beef fed the armies, his ships smuggled cotton through the blockade. The growth of the great herds; the private wars against the Mexican cattle thieves and the home defense against the Federal raids; the legal squabbles over the fencing and the intelligent concern for pasture, water, and a better breed “ these were the most engrossing activities of the rancho. And there was always the fear of drought. It was often uphill work, as one of the Captain’s notes describes: “Dear Rube: Where I have grass, I have no water. And where I have water, I have no grass. The Mexicans won’t work and things are getting in a hell of a fix fast.” The owner of the running W brand came to be known from the Rio Grande to Canada.
In the second volume the family holdings and the family itself begin to ramify, with a division of interest. The story is still one of growth, though the background is less glamorous. The spotlight now centers on Robert Kleberg, the son-in-law who succeeded as manager. Where King was pioneer, Kleberg was developer. His enterprise, his economy, his genius for conservation extended the operation.
Every year since 1936 the ranch has sold more than a million dollars worth of beef on the hoof, but no statistics can convey the ranch’s final meaning. Here are men in the fifth generation still doing their utmost for herds and grass. It is an American achievement, and so too are these volumes of its history, with the maps and beautiful drawings by Tom Lea, and the clear, strong typography of Carl Hertzog.
HISTORY IN THE GRAND STYLE
THE AGE OF REVOLUTION (Dodd, Mead, $6.00), Volume III of his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, is a book WINSTON S. CHURCHILL must have enjoyed writing. The three rebellions in it, the English Revolution of 1688, the American Revolution, and the French, give his political genius an ample opportunity for exercise; what is more, the fighting which preceded and accompanied these upheavals thrust into command great fighters whom he delights to honor — Marlborough and Prince Eugene. Nelson, Wellington and Napoleon. He knows their campaigns by heart, and writes of them with choice and vivid detail. Finally, in these years from 1688 to 1815, it is his pleasure to record the emergence of England as a world power and the acquisition by war and treaty, usually at the expense of the French and Spanish, of England’s greatest Empire. This acquisition is something of which he is properly proud, and the statesmen whose will and vision brought it together — Marlborough, Pitt, Clive, Edmund Burke, and the Iron Duke — are leaders whom he can assess as their peer.
It is clear from internal evidence that this book was written in 1939, when the author was out of office and totally out of sympathy with the complacency of Baldwin, which bad led to the ineptitude of Chamberlain. He says, writing of the reekless reduction of the armed forces carried out by the Tories in 1698, “In the name of peace, economy, and isolation they prepared the ground for a far more terrible renewal of the war. No closer parallel exists in history than that presented by the Tory conduct in the years 1696 to 1699 with their similar conduct in the years 1932 to 1937. . . . These recurring fits of squalor in the Tory record are a sad counterpoise to the many great services they have rendered the nation. . . .” Such judgments as these give his book a special authority.
The emergence of Great Britain; the emergence of the two-party Parliament free from corruption by the Crown; the emergence of “a Prime Minister” (Mr. Walpole was the first, and the term was used about him in derision); the acquisition of the Empire; the development of the Navy; the interminable and costly wars against France — these are themes on which Churchill plays as on an organ. He says little about the arts and the writers, and the growth of the American colonies and their breaking away is an episode which he cannot regard for long without dismay. His style, which can be as sonorous as Gibbon’s, has in it the flick of irony and the swift revelation of character, and his quotations are pert and juicy. He says, speaking of the speculation at the time of the South Sea Bubble, “One promoter floated a company to manufacture an invention known as Puckle’s Machine Gun, ‘which was to discharge round and square cannon-balls and bullets and make a total revolution in the art of war,’the round missiles being intended for use against Christians and the square against the Turk.” He says, speaking of the Scottish clans who rallied to Bonnie Prince Charlie, “The clans were always ready to Fight, but never to be led.” One looks for such plums, and they are always there.