Reader's Choice

CLEVELAND AMOKY’S new book, WHO KILLED SOCIETY? (Harper, $6.50), reads like a collaboration between an encyclopedist and a gossip columnist. Mr. Amory has scoured the archives pertaining to what the French engagingly call le Higlife, and he has interviewed just about everyone who might have something piquant to say. Among the choicer observations he collected was that of an elderly lady in Charleston, who was astonished that her grandchildren should have been awed by the painting of Whistler’s mother — “After all, she was only a McNeill of North Carolina.”
Mr. Amory’s title hardly does justice to the contents of his book, which amount to a kaleidoscopic survey of the upper regions of American society throughout this country’s history. He offers us short treatises on the Aristocracy (which he distinguishes from Society), on Café Society, and on its successor, on which he pins the awful label, “Publi-ciety”; countless profiles of grandes dames, glamour girls, and ill-starred heiresses; a 300-page history, the most interesting part of the book, of America’s most prominent or distinguished families; plus forty-eight pages of photographs.
Many readers will assuredly feel that Amory has been too thorough by hall; he has a phobia of omission so overpowering that he can’t go along with the practice of skipping Thorstein Veblen’s middle name, Bunde. But in spite of this excess of zeal, I found the book almost consistently entertaining. Amory combines a huge zest for his subject with an astringently ironic perspective, and he does a devastating job of sticking pins into highly inflated balloons — social arbiters, party givers, and the like.
Commentators on American society, from the time of Tocqueville and even before, have either asserted that there was no society in this country worthy of the name, or else that society wasn’t the splendid thing it used to be. Today, the consensus would seem to be that society has gone into a precipitous decline. It has become, says Amory, a part of “Publi-ciety” — a world dominated by “celebrities,” important people in “communications,” party givers, and the international set; a world in which the major concern is self-inflation and the yardstick of value is the publicity one receives or has the power to bestow.
Amory is not, unfortunately, of an analytic bent, and his inquiry into the causes of society’s dissolution is hardly above the parlor-game level; he makes amusing lists of the persons or things held responsible, and he comments lightly on the decline of manners, morals, and spending money. Vogue was on a more fruitful tack when it remarked, back in 1892: “Now that the masses take baths every week, how can one ever distinguish the gentleman?" For, of course, what has happened to society is the logical result of an all-embracing process of social and cultural change. Democratic ideology, economics, science, and technology have created the mass society, which takes its cues from mass communications. In this kind of world, those who control publicity are inevitably the supreme arbiters, and the remains of high society have no choice but to join “Publi-ciety” or retire to private life. Meanwhile, the aristocracy has remained where it always was: out of the limelight, and, one gathers, principally in Charleston.


The two latest books on Cuba, NATHANIEL WEAL’S RED STAK OVER CUBA (Devin-Adair, $4.50) and LISTEN, YANKEE by C. WRIGHT MILLS (McGraw-Hill, $3.95), present dramatically divergent pictures of the Castro revolution and opposite interpretations of the role played by the United States in Cuban affairs. Both are tendentious tracts, and they are best discussed together, since each tends to puncture the wilder assertions of the other.
Mr. Weyl is introduced as a former Communist who “knows his Latin America.” Neither the jacket nor the text refers to a sojourn in Cuba, and one must presume that Weyl’s exposé is written at second hand, which hardly inspires confidence. His political outlook places him somewhere in the ambience of the late Senator McCarthy; and he cannot see an inch beyond the conspiratorial view of history. A wicked correspondent, a couple of Pinkos in the middle echelons of diplomacy, a few conspirators fortified with gold — these are the forces, one is expected to believe, that decide the destiny of nations and, indeed, continents. History, present misrule and misery, the needs and aspirations of peoples apparently count for nothing.
Mr. Mills, the Angry Man of American sociology and the prophet of a “New Left,” spent August of 1960 in Cuba, where he talked for three long days with Fidel Castro and recorded interviews with Rebel soldiers, journalists, intellectuals, and Castro’s top associates. From these conversations he has distilled a book which represents “the voice of the revolution.” Mills limits his own comment to a few pages, in which he remarks that he finds the Cuban case he has presented “on the whole compelling.”This is an astounding statement, since what Mills is dishing out is avowedly the official Castro line; and I might add that he expounds it with a mixture of bluster, revolutionary rhetoric, and downright falsehood which could not be improved on by Fidel himself.
The essence of the argument is that the U.S. State Department, in league with U.S. “monopolies,” supported Batista “up to the last minute of his gangster rule.” Then, by threatening the Castro regime militarily and by financing counterrevolution — a “plain fact” to all Cubans — it forced the regime to speak up against Yankee imperialism and to welcome the bighearted collaboration of the Soviet bloc. Weyl, in contrast, asserts that Castro has long been a Soviet agent; that his revolution “floated to power on an ocean of Communist money”; and that “pseudo-liberals” in the State Department, mightily aided by the dispatches of Herbert Matthews of the New York Times, “engineered" a Castro victory by making it known that the United States was ditching Batista, thereby shattering the morale of his armies. (Batista’s excesses, says Weyl, were not really that bad; and anyhow, he should have been defended because he was a friend.) To sustain this reading of the revolution, Weyl has to insist that Castro’s support simply came from the Soviet apparatus, “smugglers,”and criminals; but somehow a disastrous phrase slips in, to the effect that one of Castro’s assets was the enthusiasm his movement generated among “the youth of Cuba.”
Both the above views conflict, in various ways, with the course of events as established by less partisan observers. The State Department was taken by surprise by the popular support that Castro was able to corral. When his adventure assumed the form of a snowballing popular uprising, Washington refrained from helping the abominable Batista to crush it. It promptly recognized the new regime, which its investigations indicated was not Communist controlled; and U.S. public opinion was strongly sympathetic toward the young leader who had miraculously overthrown the corrupt and tyrannous caudillo. Then came American criticism of Castro’s wholesale executions, and Cuba’s rude rebuffs to Washington’s efforts to negotiate disputed issues; and the cold war was on.
The most challenging part of Weyl’s book is the evidence he produces to support his assertion that the U.S. government could have known, as early as 1949, that “Castro was ... an implacable enemy of the United States [and] a trusted Soviet agent.” He traces the curious family situation from which Castro emerged primed for rebellion, Fidel’s terroristic activities at the University of Havana, his role in the Bogotá uprising, and his other allegedly intimate connections with Communism. While I cannot judge how much of this controversial dossier is accurate, one point seems to me securely established. Whether or not Castro is a dyed-in-the-wool Communist is hardly significant, since he is unmistakably, by temperament and experience, a professional revolutionary; a man whose sights are now inevitably set on fomenting revolution in Latin America and who is therefore bound to work closely with the Communist bloc. Weyl also cites persuasive reasons for believing that Castro is a psychopathic personality.
Mills’s book more or less openly boasts that Castro is an exporter of revolution, and it urges the United States to change its ways and come out on the side of “the hungry. It charges that U.S. policy has long been blinkered by a “provincial, dead-end smugness” and that it unrealistically views all of contemporary history in terms of the Communist-anti-Communist dichotomy, thereby fatally misjudging the forces that are stirring throughout the world. Mills, speaking for himself, sees the frantic anti-Americanism of the Cuban revolution as the inevitable result of this country’s lamentable history of supporting tyrannous and exploitative regimes in Cuba and throughout Latin America. This argument, by no means new, has moderately widespread and eminently respectable backing among Americans. However, the revolutionary outlook which Mills invites us to find exciting has a decidedly totalitarian complexion. Castro’s agricultural program avowedly owes much to the example of Red China; the Cuban artist is expected to celebrate the achievements of the new regime; and so on. At one point, “the voice of the revolution” rejoices over the fact that the Fidelistas, being too young to have been scarred by Stalinism and the resulting disillusionment, are in the enviable position of being able to carry forward the revolution “spontaneously” and without crippling doubts. This amounts to saying that because one has not seen a man devoured by a crocodile, one is in the enviable position of being eager to swim in crocodile-infested waters.


ROGER VAILLAND, the author of The Law, now followed by FETE: (Knopf, $3.95), is an extremely accomplished French novelist who — unfortunately, I feel — fancies himself as an audacious moralist. His hero, Due, a successful, middle-aged writer, expounds and acts upon a philosophy of life which is, essentially, a slick pastiche of Nietzschean ideas. For Duc the supreme value is “sovereignty,” complete possession of oneself, which consists in relentlessly pursuing satisfactions of the body and the spirit, regardless of the consequences to others. Due calls this dingy morality “the art of living”; and to keep his living from getting sluggish he has immersed himself, periodically, in various forms of violently stimulating experience. In the past, he has obtained his kicks from drugs, fighting in the Resistance, Communist activity, and sex. Now he has settled for sex.
Duc and his infinitely understanding wife, Léone, are visited in the country by a young friend from Paris, Jean-Marc, and his wife, Lucie, whom they have not yet met. Due, who is feeling thoroughly stale and in need of what he calls a “fête,” which might be rendered a “ball,” sets about seducing Lucie with no petty efforts at concealment. His campaign is observed by Léone and Jean-Marc with a singular degree of tolerance. To be sure, Jean-Marc tells Léone that he is “disappointed” in Duc, but she crisply sets him straight: “You gambled [by introducing Lucie to Duc]. You lost. Pay up.” When Lucie, after her return to Paris, arranges to go off with Duc for a weekend, JeanMarc behaves like a good sport and Léone dutifully packs a suitcase for her husband.
I must confess that I find Vailland a rather dislikable novelist: he is a show-off, and there is something phony about his posture of masterful knowingness. On the other hand, he is an enormously assured and forceful craftsman whose storytelling has a hard, polished finish. His perverse tale of pursuit and conquest, though inferior to The Law, keeps a firm grip on the reader. Peter Wiles has done a capable job of translation, but he has made one confusing slip: a quatre-chevaux is not a “four-cylinder” (nearly all French cars have four cylinders) but a tiny car with four (French) horsepower.


(Holt, Rinehart and Winston, $3.95), a first novel by ROBERT GLYNN KELLY, is a splendid comedy with an academic background. In some ways I liked it better than Mary McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe or Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from An Institution. It doesn’t have their extreme acidity or self-consciousness, and its inventions are fresher and often funnier.
Kelly’s dim antihero, Barney Stone, comes to Castleton University in 1932 with little hope of surviving, but his career is shaped by Z the logic of the Absurd. His one major asset, a genuine gift for teaching, doesn’t help him conspicuously. However, his paltry claim to scholarship, one published article on the obscure poet Christopher Mears (1580-1632), inexplicably earns him the backing of an eminent professor, who bulldozes him into becoming the leading authority on Mears. Inexplicably, too, he finds himself befriended by a glittering newcomer to the faculty who later becomes president of the university. At the end of eighteen years, Stone has muddled through to the brink of a deanship, and now his impenetrable innocence finally brings disaster. A blank slate as far as women are concerned (“He found all women so very much women that lesser distinctions of size and shape scarcely figured”), he is bowled over by the advances of a siren who is carrying out a rival’s plan to discredit him.
The portrait of Stone is a fine study of the paleface among the academic redskins, and the other characters are deft and original. Kelly has a witty turn of phrase (“He was the kind of man who could end a conversation simply by not answering, and usually did, taking his own discourtesy for a kind of strength”). And he gets cleverly suggestive effects out of the recurring appearance of Mears’s memorable line, “I’ll come a wren and rip her dainties bare.” Kelly sees the absurdities and pretensions of the academic world with the eye of a genuine comic artist. I commend his book highly to all who relish the comic spirit.
A MIDDLE CLASS EDUCATION, (Houghton Mifflin, $4.75) by WILFRID SHEED, also happens to be a comedy with an academic background. England and America are inextricably intertwined in Mr. Sheed’s biography, but as a writer he belongs squarely in the tradition of Kingsley Amis. His book centers on three middle-class Englishmen in their last year at Oxford, where they swill beer, make a great show of idleness, embroider the myths of their depravity, and regale themselves with stanchless facetiousness. Through them and around them, Mr. Sheed has painted a fine, ironic picture of the new Oxford created by the social revolution and of its new breed of undergraduates.
The first half of the novel is extremely funny. When the hero, John Chote, goes to New York on a fellowship and becomes involved with an American glamour girl, the author’s form weakens, and his ending doesn’t recapture the brio he displayed earlier. The trouble is that 425 pages is an awfully long stretch on which to sustain undergraduate comedy; pruned of a hundred pages, the novel might well have been an unqualified success. As it stands, the book shows comic gifts of a high order —a keen sense of the bogus and a derisive gaiety, backed by an ear for dialogue and a general command of language which are really first rate.