The Peripatetic Reviewer

A Friends of my boyhood in New Jersey, DeWitt Clinton Jones, has sent me half a dozen picture post cards, photographs taken on the beach at Bay Head in the summer of 1907. I was then one of the small fry, a skinny nine-year-old, with big cars, and I find myself one of a group in bathing suits photographed at the water’s edge, hair plastered down and eyes squinting against the bright morning sun. Most of us were members of a semifraternal order known as The Booze Beers. (Actually beer, when we tried it, was much too bitter for our taste, but the name sounded sophisticated.) To my left and still dressed for church in a Peter Thompson sailor suit stands Hump Jones, at my shoulder is Ed Bonnell, and towering above us one of the older Davison boys; beyond him Ford Birchell, Peanuts Stewart, and Bill Studderford. I can’t remember posing for this shot; what I do remember is how brown we were, and how the tan showed in the bathhouse mirror when we stripped off our suits. I can remember the smell of the sea breeze, and I can tell from the surf in the background that this was one of those days when you had to dive in under the breakers or otherwise they would roll you right up the beach.
Our bathing suits were two-piece with the shirt worn outside to show its gay banded bottom, and my trunks always gave me trouble. If I knotted the strings too tight, they cut into my waist, and I’d have to spend furious minutes struggling with the wet knot. If I tied them comfortably, there was always the danger that they would slip down. When this happened, I would clutch them up, turn my back on the giggling spectators, and stagger back into the deeper water to re-dress in decency. Was there ever such a feeling of well-being as surged through us after that hour of sand, sun, and salt water? It opened every pore: you carried the salt with you, flecks of it to be felt in your eyebrows and on your arms; you were totally relaxed, and so ravenous that you could hardly wait for the Sunday dessert of fresh peach ice cream and chocolate layer cake. The chocolate icing had bite to it and was chewy even in the layers.
These browning photographs were taken on a Sunday when the men were more plentiful, and in one group I see the collegians who were my heroes, Collie Bergwin, Rufford Franklin, Joe Rowland, and Buck Bayne. They wore dark blue sleeveless jerseys, blue flannel trunks with a button-down pocket, and white canvas belts with a metal buckle. The broader the shoulders the thinner seemed the straps, and on the shirt over the heart was of course your fraternity pin. (The members of St. Anthony were said to hold the pin in their teeth when they took off their underwear.) This display of the pin was as modest as wearing your college numerals or your letter on your back with the sweater turned inside out. You didn’t mean to boast about it, but the girls were supposed to notice and they did. So did the small fry.
A Sunday morning at Bay Head half a century ago really began with the church service. The bells began calling at 10:15, and dressed in your summer’s best with Mother with her parasol and Dad with his polka dot tie, you went crunching along the sandy walk to the Episcopal church trying to keep the dust off your newly polished shoes. I remember the varnished interior, the sunlight streaming through the half-opened windows, and the fresh cut summer flowers on the altar. The minister who came from Newark trimmed his sermon to fifteen minutes; he was thought to wear his bathing suit under his surplice and was the first man of the congregation in the surf when the service was over.
The ladies of course took longer for they dressed to bathe in those days. My mother, who was one of the slimmest, had a black silk costume with a white sailor collar and an ample skirt, black silk stockings, and black satin bathing slippers. Underneath of course she wore a corset, and underneath that a black shirt. Mother weighed less than a hundred pounds when wet and she was once reprimantled by her older sister, my Aunt Margaret, for allowing herself to be photographed in the company of three friends, Mrs. Cattus, Mrs. Bonnell, and Mrs. Nimick, whose combined bulk must have outweighed hers six to one. “Rica, don’t you ever do that again on this beach,” admonished Aunt Margaret. “You stood there looking like a black hatpin beside those ample friends of yours.”
There were no cocktail parties in those days, but here on the boardwalk at Sunday noon would congregate the more debonair of the elders and chief among them Johnny Montgomery. He wore shoes of white soft buckskin, white flannels immaculate, a double-breasted coat of blue serge with a knot of bachelor buttons in the lapel, tie and hatband of his old club at Princeton. Johnny — “Mr. Montgomery” to us — would stand there surveying the scene and letting off comments. He used to have fun with my uncle, Jamie Brewster, and he was always amused at watching the Nimicks. The Nimicks had the most capacious and hospitable cottage on the water front and they filled it well, what with their eight children and their guests. The Nimicks were big people, big in heart, big in heft. “When the Nimicks go bathing in a body,” Johnny would remark, “the sea level rises by a foot.”
After dinner the entire village would make for the yacht club. With luck, I would be included with the grown-ups, in the capacious cockpit of Harry Buxton’s Pastime. She was the fastest catboat on the bay, and when her big canvas filled and she heeled over, you felt the greyhound in her come to life. To a nine-year-old a party means food. I knew that there were bottles of grape juice and sarsparilla in the Pastime’s icebox; I knew that Mother had brought along a basket of Helma’s crisp French doughnuts; and I had seen — who could miss it — that tartan box of Huyler’s Scotch kisses. Appetite was a sweet thing in those days, and when we were becalmed at sundown I knew there would be eats and singing, too, with Mother’s clear soprano leading the rest. We’d be late, but who cared? We were living for the fun of it.

WRITER AND READER

Those of us who are older than the century were brought up in a time of innocence and security when a family’s participation in pleasure, even on the Sabbath, was a natural part of the American birthright. This has not always been so, as VAN WYCK BROOKS reminds us in one of the liveliest of the observations which compose his new book, FROM A WRITER’S NOTEBOOK (Dutton, $3.00). “I am the less inclined to like the idea of original sin because it was once the dominant idea in America and because our literature had its real beginning when we got rid of this idea. . . . Emerson said that all thoughts were ‘directed on death’ in his childhood and all the terrors of theology were employed to reinforce them. Children were ‘little fallen wretches,’ they were ‘shapen in iniquity,’ they were victims of ‘total depravity’ and ‘more hateful than vipers’; and theology, as Channing said, laboured without ceasing to crush the will of mankind to believe in itself.”
This is a volume of table talk, witty and stimulating; it reflects the wide reading and personal probing of our foremost literary historian, and as good criticism should, it enjoins the reader to match his experience and judgment with that of the critic. I have marked a score of passages for cogitation: I applaud Mr. Brooks when he rails at the sloppy usage of the American language and at the “anything goes” school of teaching; I reconsider when he attributes the “dimness” of modern poets to Eliot’s teaching. “Eliot has taught them that it is better to be a good minor poet than a bad major one, a notion that, on the face of it, is obviously true.” I delight in his description of Swinburne taking a walk up Putney Hill and pausing to kiss the toes of a baby in a pram; and I come to a forceable halt when I see this red lantern in the road: “There is no stopping the world’s tendency to throw off imposed restraints, the religious authority that is based on the ignorance of the many, the political authority that is based on the knowledge of the few. The time is coming when there will be nothing to restrain men except what they find in their own bosoms; and what hope is there for us then unless it is true that, freed from fear, men are naturally predisposed to be upright and just?”

SECOND THOUGHTS

As I rode circuit through the mid-West in early December, I had time to reread By Love Possessed and to compare my impressions with those of other readers. There is no doubt that people respond to the power of the characterization; to the mood of intimacy which Mr. Cozzens maintains, and to the skill with which the lives have been interwoven. The big scenes stand clear in mind: Clarissa undressing after her swim, Julius confiding in Arthur, the descriptions of the Ponemah Oak, the lion at bay in old Noah, Arthur’s excruciating interview with Mrs. Pratt in the garden, a comedy of champagne dryness. Mr. Cozzens’ assimilation of law and his management of Noah’s peculations are remarkably accurate. But I could wish that his people had a little more fun in life. They have so little pleasure with the children and none at all with eating and drinking. Like Arthur Winner, Jr., all their lives seem drawn tense with responsibility and beset with error. I think there is too much litigious detail in the story and, for me, too much copulation; I am irritated by the repetition of “Arthur Winner”; and as I have said before, the author’s addiction to parentheses and to qualification within qualification seems to me a hindrance. What kept me going was Mr. Cozzens’ power to generate warmth and belief in people, a power which in its dimension reminds me of Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga.

FIRST BLOOD

In my explorations of the early issues of the Atlantic I kept coming across references to President James Buchanan so furious that they made the paper scorch, but the reason for this denunciation I did not fully comprehend until I had finished reading FIRST BLOOD: THE STORY OF FORT SUMTER, by W. A. SWANBERG (Scribners, $5.95). What Mr. Swanberg has done is to build up for us in exciting, exasperating, and often pathetic detail the six months’ prelude to the Civil War. The scenes are laid in Charleston, South Carolina, and in Washington, and the protagonists arw the aging, vacillating President, the hot-headed Governor Pickens, and the cool, resolute Major Anderson whose unhappy job it was to defend the fort.
As a lame duck President whose party had just been defeated, Buchanan’s remaining ambition was to ride out his term without any further trouble. He was tired, he liked the South, he knew how resentful Southerners were at the thought of Lincoln’s inauguration, and by vacillating he hoped to maintain a truce until the Republicans took over. But the South Carolinians were too inflammatory. Urged on by such incendiaries as Robert Barnwell Rhett, owner of the Charleston Mercury, Judge A. G. McGrath, and the intemperate Governor Pickens, the little state caught fire; it would secede and having done so it could not tolerate the passive presence of a federal fort in its harbor. Day by day the fever in Charleston mounted. “South Carolina,” said Judge Petigru, “is too small for a republic and too big for a lunatic asylum,” but he was almost the lone defender of the Union in Charleston and no one was listening. Mrs. Chesnut’s Diary which Mr. Swanberg quotes from so effectively was the truer temperature chart.
First Blood is a vivid and infuriating demonstration “that, in times of great national trial and excitement, so many men do go mad, so to speak, in a quiet and private way, that madness becomes a sort of epidemic.” What makes the story infuriating, as Mr. Swanberg tells it, is the uncontrolled and shameful duplicity of Secretary of War Floyd and the ruffian skulduggery of Senator Lewis Wigfall. What gives it nobility is the vigilance and anguish of Major Anderson, an example of restraint which the historian has pieced together from the men who served under him and which finds its finest expression in Anderson’s words on the day the crumbling ruins were restored to the Union, April 14, 1865.

A PARADOX IN CHAPS

“The American genius,” writes Van Wyck Brooks, “to call it so, seems to possess a strong bent for admiring simple people and seeing in them what Emerson called ‘gods in low disguises.’ ” One of our gods in low disguise is celebrated this year in THE CHARLES M. RUSSELL BOOK by HAROLD MCCRACKEN (Doubleday, $23.50). This is a handsome album containing thirty-five of Russell’s paintings in full color, and over a hundred and eighty of his drawings, admirable halftones of his bronzes, and an endearing photograph of his wife Nancy, his mentor and chief salesman, taken in the Great Falls studio.
In the supporting biography, Mr. McCracken traces the hard and devious path which Charles M. Russell traveled on the way to the mastery of his art. There was extraordinary pioneering blood in Charlie’s veins, and it was this which made him pass up the opportunity to work in the family business. Drawing and the sculpting of small animals came naturally to him, but he resisted all schooling, both military and art, and after the family had capitulated he followed his own star to the Montana Territory. For two years he lived with Jake Hoover, the trapper, sharpshooter, and prospector, and here in their cabin on the Judith River he learned his lessons of the West. He rode as a night wrangler in the spring roundup of 1882, a job that called for nerve, expecially in the rainy weather when the nights were black and the cattle restless. Men took to Kid Russell. They liked his stories and his heartiness, and what he drew or painted for them he usually gave away. He cared nothing for shooting, but a great deal about wildlife, and it was characteristic that the first drawings which brought him into national prominence were forced out of him by the terrible blizzards of ‘86 when the cattle were dying like flies.
For more than a decade this eccentric young saddle pounder saturated his senses with every aspect of the range, and here in these lovely reproductions we see what touched him most closely: sunlight in the early morning and in the fading dusk, the purple-brown of the sage, the thunder of the buffalo, the dignity and abjectness of the Indian, the ceaseless cruelty of the hunt, the wonderful agility of the bronco, and the slam of the six gun.