The Peripatetic Reviewer

THE round-table discussions with Soviet writers which we attended in Moscow were sensitive, contentious affairs. They began innocently enough with words of welcome in the foyer and press photographs taken as we seated ourselves; on one side, the four Americans backed by two interpreters, and, facing us, our hosts — novelists, poets, and editors of the Writers’ Union. It was clear from the outset that neither side knew very clearly what the other had been doing. The Russians, who tend to be overconfident about their knowledge of America, were quite sure that they had sampled the best of our contemporary writing in their translations of Hemingway — whom they revere above any other living American — Erskine Caldwell, Arthur Miller, and Lillian Hellman. But, on being questioned, they acknowledged that they had no novel of Faulkner’s in the works and had read little or nothing of Thornton Wilder, John Hersey, Saul Bellow, James Gould Cozzens, Eudora Welty. J. D. Salinger, and Norman Mailer.
We, for our part, were just as ignorant of their gay young satirist, Sergei Antonov, of their enormously popular war poet, Alexander Tvardovsky, the author of Horizon Beyond Horizon; we had never read the essays of Konstantin Paustovsky, a fine stylist, or the novels of Konstantin Fedin, or the comedies by Valentin Kataev. The Russians were eager for the recognition which had been denied by the Cold War; so were we (and for royalties, which up to now have been paid to very few American writers). Both groups had every intention of improving the situation, and we said so, across the table and in our toasts. But then, as we came to closer grips, a note of competition would begin to sound. Our questions would probe into areas that brought a flush; the Russians would retaliate with something equally disparaging, and in a twinkling the give-and-take degenerated into a contest in which each side tried to score against the other. I think it surprised them that, when tempers rose, we Americans should differ so openly among ourselves.
The Russians enjoy contention, they like to score points, they don’t lose their tempers, and they are masters of the art of answering the embarrassing question by asking another. When, for instance, we would press them for an explanation of why we could not buy a copy of the New York Times or the Paris edition of the Herald-Tribune in Moscow, while they could buy a copy of Pravda in Washington or New York, they would look at us reproachfully and ask, did we want them to litter up their bookstores with all of those half-naked women which they saw on the newsstands in New York?
They were franker than this when we approached a subject of vital interest to them and of great curiosity to us: the business of writing to a formula. The prescription that novelists should celebrate “a positive hero,” should be puritanical in matters of sex, should avoid criticism which reflects unfavorably on the state, and should seek for a happy, rather than a tragic, ending could be, we thought, stultifying. Russian writers have long had to contend against one form of restraint or another (we, too, as I admitted, have seen books banned, in the twenties and under the pressure of McCarthy), and to judge from Tolstoi, Dostoevski, Turgenev, and Chekhov, each of whom was censored in his day, they have done magnificently well in their statement of truth. Our question — and it was intended sincerely, not as a taunt — was, simply, how far could they go in breaking out of the current formula?
This was very difficult to phrase. “How does it feel,” said one member of our delegation, “to have to write under such thought control?" This was too much like asking a man when he had stopped beating his wife, and I was relieved when a veteran novelist, Leonid Leonov, came straight to the point. “It is neither easy nor comfortable,”he said, and he went on to tell of three occasions when he had been reproved for his writing: in 1927, with the publication of his novel The Thief; in 1939, when again he was in hot water; and, finally, his difficulties with the play which had been banned in 1947 and not produced until 1954. This was coming clean, and I admired him for it. But most of the other Russians present bridled at the question: it came too close; they took it as an insult. As one of them said to me afterwards, “This was a question we could have responded to after four hours; coming at the outset, it was like a punch on the nose.”
The Russian writers defend such compromises as being in the readers’ interest, and here again we entered an area where neither side could accept the reactions of the other. According to the Russians, the masses are and should be the final determinant of what is good, and therefore the best books would be those which evoke the greatest response from the greatest mass. A poet present told of having received forty thousand letters in response to a long and dramatic poem of his. Ilya Ehrenburg touched on the same point in our private talk at his dacha — the readers are the arbiters, their opinion should decide; it was a thesis we were to hear again and again as we talked with the Writers’ Unions in Tashkent and Kiev. This reverence for mass approval was something of which we were suspicious; it went against our grain. Moby Dick was not written, we said, with the masses in mind, nor was Life on the Mississippi, nor An American Tragedy, nor the poems of Emily Dickinson — these were the works of an individual who did not court popular approval, and they have survived because they were good.
As so often happens in round-table discussions, the truest words were spoken afterwards. While we were sampling the grapes, the poet with all those letters drew me aside. “Try to understand our relations with our readers,” he said. “During the early years, it was imperative that we reach them and sustain them, and this was increasingly so during the war. Later there will be time for latitude and experiment.”
We had the best of interpreters, idiomatic and impartial, and we soon learned how to communicate through them: we learned how much can be transmitted before a pause, and, since it requires more words to convey an idea in Russian than it does in English, we instinctively used the pauses to clarify our next point. Humor — the witticisms and gibes of Paddy Chayevsky — brought an instant smile; Alfred Kazin, our expositor, was lucid and patient and, when challenged, rose to eloquence in his affirmation of the individual’s pre-eminence in a democracy. Such group meetings are necessary, and they leave their mark, though never as congenially as a Russian picnic or a supper party in the home. But we learned from them, and I suspect the Russians did, too.

IS THE ICE MELTING?

The question AVERELL HARRIMAN asks in his book PEACE WITH RUSSIA? (Simon and Schuster, $3.00) is one which he is singularly qualified to consider. He went to the Soviet Union in 1926 to wind up, with profit, a large manganese concession in the Caucasus; he was sent back in 1941 with Lord Beaverbrook to negotiate a war aid agreement with Stalin, returned again with Churchill to represent FDR in the first military strategy talks, and was our ambassador to Moscow from the autumn of 1943 to January, 1946. Last spring, he and his wife traveled 18,000 miles in the Union, seeing parts of Central Asia and Siberia hitherto closed and holding extended and candid discussions with Khrushchev.
Harriman was present at the high tide of cooperation during the war; and when, in 1945, he remonstrated with Stalin for not living up to the Yalta agreements, it became all too clear to him that the Soviet government had decided to go its own way and “to press for Communist expansion wherever the opportunity offered.” His warnings to this effect were sounded early and often.
This is matter-of-fact prose; what gives it color is Harriman’s encounters with the Russian people, his comparisons between Stalin and Mr. K, his account of the advances for which the latter is responsible, and his direct intercourse with the Russian bureaucrats. He speaks of the Russian people’s yearning for peace and for friendly relations with the United States, but this sentiment, he believes, will not deflect the leaders in the Kremlin from their “firm faith in the triumphal spread of their doctrine across the globe. For a long time to come we are going to face this threat everywhere.” He thinks it remarkable that the Soviet authorities have dominated the pastoral nationalities of Central Asia without signs of friction; he is impressed by the economic developments which are prospering in those republics.
Harriman has never believed that war is inevitable, and looks for some limitation of arms “with adequate controls.” Until these have been achieved — and they must be “foolproof” — we cannot consider any relaxation in our defenses, and we must strengthen NATO “as a united and productive community.” He says nothing about the possibilities of East-West trade, for which the Russians are so eager, although some notion of the oncoming competition appears in his reference to “the high quality and relatively low cost” of the latest Soviet imitation of Leicas, and the same might be said for the Chinese Parker pens.

WALTER LIPPMANN

On September 23 at the National Press Club in Washington, Walter Lippmann, on the occasion of his seventieth birthday, received an ovation such as has never been accorded to any other American journalist. Mr. Lippmann spoke sagely and modestly about the job of a Washington correspondent and how that job has changed during his lifetime, and the questions that followed reflected the respect and affection with which he is held by his profession.
He began his column in the New York HeraldTribune in 1931, and it was approximately a year later that the New Yorker commented upon the Lippmann influence in its cartoon by Barlow of two women in a diner, with one of them remarking, “Of course, I only take a cup of coffee in the morning; a cup of coffee and Walter Lippmann is all I need.” To have maintained and amplified that influence through twenty-eight years is a unique achievement. Mr. Lippmann’s power of analysis, his self-discipline and discretion, his courage in speaking out, his changes of mind, and the judgments he arrives at in loneliness have been honestly appraised in a symposium of twelve writers, WALTER LIPPMANN AND HIS TIMES (Harcourt, Brace, $3.95), edited by MARQUIS CHILDS and JAMES RESTON. Such tributes are usually laudations unopposed; this is not. Rather, we have the good sense of Mark Childs and the hearty humor of Harry Ashmore, a tender period piece by Dr. Carl Binger, Walter’s classmate through school and college, Lippmann’s early understanding of the problem of Soviet power (19171921) by George Kennan, a scholarly estimate of Lippmann’s books and their influence by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., the critical points in The Public Philosophy, with which Reinhold Niebuhr takes issue, and the encompassing, warmhearted summing up by James Reston.

CHANGING RIVERS

RODERICK HAIG-BROWN emigrated from England in his teens, worked as a Canadian lumberjack, and gradually, by the combination of writing and farming, came to possess his twenty-acre home on the banks of the Campbell, famous for its steelheads, cutthroats, and salmon. Here, under idyllic conditions, he wrote his earlier books, A River Never Sleeps and Fisherman’s Winter, and, when duty called, served as a magistrate and juvenile court judge. Then, as were other streams on the Pacific slopes, the Campbell was harnessed by hydroelectric dams. The first dam directed the river into penstocks; the second raised the level of Lower Campbell Lake by fifty-eight feet and flooded out several miles of the stream; the third destroyed the whole of Buttle Lake’s beautiful shore line, and with it the main values of Strathcona Park. “The total of destruction has been prodigious, and all to produce industrial power at six mills per kilowatt, which could far better have been done with two or three strategically placed thermal plants.” In many of the river engineering projects in the United States and Canada, the giant trees were sent toppling into the stream before the angler could ask for mercy. The gloom was relieved by the fact that the fish did return, though in diminished numbers; and since a man cannot argue against six turbines in operation, the author set out to discover what the altered river was good for. Working his dry fly or a lightly greased Silver Brown, he experienced a series of adventures which make lively telling in his new book, FISHERMAN’S SUMMER (Morrow, $3.75).
In a more reflective mood, he discusses the past and the future. He remarks on how little fishing was attempted by the pioneers George Vancouver and Alexander Mackenzie, and then considers the “angling pressure” of today, when well over thirty million licenses are issued each year in the United States and Canada. He has sound things to say about the stocking of streams, the more cautious use of outboards, and the protection of the redds. Finally, as an incentive and to show the way it ought to be, he writes delectable chapters about his quest for grayling in the arctic and sub-arctic waters, his adventures on the Nimpkish, the Tsable, the Beaverkill, and the Blackhole, which should induce in any spinning barbarian a healthier respect for the preservation of fish and stream.

A FASTIDIOUS NOVELIST

William Dean Howells, an aspiring young poet from Columbus, Ohio, came East in the spring of 1860 to present himself to the Boston Brahmins. His eagerness and his charm had an instantaneous effect upon the first and second editors of the Atlantic, James Russell Lowell and James T. Fields, who sized him up as a possible assistant, and with Oliver Wendell Holmes the Younger he struck up a lasting friendship as they walked the Common until two A.M. discussing their futures. Holmes was to serve in the Union Army; Howells, who was twenty-three, had recently published a campaign biography of Lincoln, and as a reward he was appointed our consul in Venice, where he was married in 1862. This exemption from the fighting allowed him a ripening period in which to write about his Italian journeys, and when, in 1866, he was asked to join the Atlantic staff, he came as both editor and author.
In HOWELLS, HIS LIFE AND WORLD (Dutton, $5.00), VAN WYCK BROOKS introduces us to one of the friendliest and most fastidious men in American letters. It is Mr. Brooks’s gift to knit together biography and critical interpretation in such a way that we see a man developing through his books. Howells in his sunlit years was of catholic taste, zestful and perceptive in his reading, and his judgment made him unquestionably the best literary editor of his time. He brought to the Atlantic the Westerners Bret Harte, John Hay, and Mark Twain; from the South, George Eggleston’s most provocative serial, A Rebel’s Recollections; he published Henry James’s first novel, Roderick Hudson, and others; he discovered Charles Warren Stoddard and Sarah Orne Jewett. He did all the proofreading, wrote longhand to all the contributors, and in addition produced book reviews, stories, and poems for the magazine, and later a novel each year. “It seems like rather full work,” he said in a masterpiece of understatement.
Howells reviewed The Innocents Abroad, and Mark Twain, on his next lecture trip in Boston, dropped in to thank him. They took to each other on sight: they were in and out of each other’s lives constantly thereafter, and it was Howells who prodded Mark into writing Life on the Mississippi for the Atlantic’s serial beginning in January, 1875. As he read the manuscript, he remembered that it “almost made the water in his ice pitcher turn muddy.” The chapter on their friendship is one of the happiest in the book.
Howells was devoting each morning to his fiction before he resigned his editorship, learning how to fictionalize his own experience and how to delineate the young American women — the girls he had flirted with in Columbus, the daughters whom he had seen ruling their mothers in Boston. “Howells,” writes Mr. Brooks, “was never so charming as in his courting episodes, through grape-trellises, in rowboats, in the parlours of summer hotels.” He was determined to be realistic, but perhaps because of his magazine training he drew the line against what was illicit or violent. “My children are my censors,” he was to say later. “I could not have palpitating divans in my stories.” He wrote for an audience four fifths of which, as he knew, was women. He was enormously popular, a craftsman alert to the brilliance of Zola and the power and fullness of Tolstoi. In his ten best he is the American Trollope, but, as Mr. Brooks says, he wrote too much and too often, and it is sad to see him at the end of his career, stranded and in the shadows.