The Peripatetic Reviewer

Two houses, one in London, the other in Boston, now stand as the last living reminders of that intimacy in publishing where authors, editors, booksellers, and publishers worked and dined, quarreled and wined together under one roof. At the crest of the hill sloping down to St. James’s Palace, a few yards removed from the fashion and traffic of Piccadilly, Number 50 Albemarle Street is a Georgian brick dwelling, strawberry red with cream trimmings, which since Napoleon’s time has borne a brass doorplate saying modestly, “Mr. Murray’s.” It was John Murray II, known to the trade as “the Playboy” and to his most famous author, Lord Byron, as “the Admiral” (because of his appointment as publisher to the Admiralty), who moved his family and his business into Number 50 in 1812. A good gambler, John the Second was introduced early in his career to Walter Scott, purchased a quarter interest in Marmion, and persuaded the novelist to support him in launching the Quarterly Review. Emboldened by this success, he made, among other long shots, an offer to print an Oriental poem by an unknown author, a narrative poem already rejected by “half the craft.” On the morning after the appearance of Childe Harold, Byron awoke to find himself famous, and John Murray II, to find himself in the chips — with which he purchased Number 50.
“My house is excellent,” he wrote later to a friend, “and I transact all the departments of my business in an elegant library which my drawing room becomes in the morning, and there I am in the habit of seeing persons of the highest rank in literature and talent, such as Canning, Frere, Mackintosh, Southey, Campbell, Walter Scott, Madame de Staël, Gifford, Croker, Barrow, Lord Byron, and others.” (Among the “others” was Jane Austen, whom he published from the first, just as his son, John III, would be the first to publish Herman Melville.) The business offices are still on the ground floor; the drawing and dining rooms, with their marble mantels, coal fires — one of which consumed Byron’s memoirs — and their famous portraits, are still the most beautiful meeting place in English letters, and in the upper stories, for well over a century, dwelt the family.
The John Murrays have been consistent in their championship of good poetry, books of travel, the best in history and biography. And so they are today. The firm is now ably directed by John V and his nephew, known as Jock, whose desire it was to bring together in the centennial issue of the Cornhill the contemporary British writers in whom the firm takes pride: Peter Quennell, the historian; John Betjeman, whose autobiography in verse, Summoned by Bells, we have recently been reading; Sir Kenneth Clark, who writes with such lucidity on the arts; Alan Moorehead, traveler and essayist; William Sansom and John D. Stewart, so expert in their short stories; Iris Origo, the biographer; Osbert Lancaster, artist and satirist — a goodly company, and some of whom you might be fortunate to meet when you stop by for tea “at Mr. Murray’s.”
The Boston landmark is in a more precarious state. It too, is of Georgian brick, built on the corner of Washington and School streets close to two hundred and fifty years ago, with small, leaded windows and a distinctive gambrel roof; and it, too, passed from a residence into literature when in 1828 it became the Old Corner Book Store. As such, for the ensuing seven decades it nourished the business, the aspirations, and the conviviality of Boston’s literati. Here were the offices of Ticknor & Fields, which published Hawthorne, Longfellow, Lowell, Dickens, Thackeray, “and others”; here, in a green-curtained enclosure on the ground floor, James T. Fields, our second editor, put together the Atlantic; here the famous Atlantic dinners were planned; and here Harriet Beecher Stowe the formidable insisted that women be included (once was enough, and a dreadful occasion it was, with wine and tobacco excluded); here Ralph Waldo Emerson conceived the Saturday Club.
Then the light went out. Publisher and periodical needed larger quarters uptown; billboards and pizza signs defaced the old sanctum; and as so often happens in our old cities, a place of history became an eyesore. Not till last autumn was it realized that the Old Corner was about to be demolished. A citizens’ committee rallied by Walter Muir Whitehill and John Codman made an urgent appeal, and $50,000 will have been raised by this month to purchase the building. This is enough to halt the wreckers, but another $30,000 must be contributed if the landmark is to be restored. Should the rescue be attempted? Why, yes, I think so. The same people who worked to preserve Beacon Hill are in this, and if you are in sympathy, checks, which are tax deductible, should be made out to the Bostonian Society (Old Corner Fund) and sent to the Atlantic, 8 Arlington Street, Boston 16, Massachusetts.

THE ALUMINUM COCOON

The air disasters just before Christmas grimly underscored the truth of ERNEST K. GANN’S new novel FATE is THE HUNTER (Simon and Schuster, $6.00). This narrative in the form of an autobiography tells of the training and maturing of an airline pilot who had learned to fly as a barnstormer in the 1930s, and whose serious education begins as a copilot on the DC-2s and DC-3s in the days before World War II. Mr. Gann has been through this mill himself, and what gives his pages their living, vigilant authenticity is the fact that he has drawn from his own experience and that of other professional pilots.
Mr. Gann’s hero, his alter ego, is dedicated, resourceful, and has enough restraint to accommodate himself to the idiosyncrasies of the sixty different captains under whom he serves. Closeted with them in the aluminum cocoon for thousands of hours, he learns by example; he learns to be wary, how to pacify his passengers, and how to conceal anxiety; and he learns the sweat of fear when his plane comes through by the luckiest of margins. He begins by flying the AM-21 service from Newark to upstate New York and west along the Erie Canal, and he comes to love the country, though not the airports, in the everchanging color of the seasons. When he is made captain, his orbit widens, first on delivery runs over the Andes, then in the Air Transport Command out of Newfoundland, then in Flying Fortresses across the Atlantic, and on to North Africa.
The story deals tersely with the many encounters between pilot and pilot; it catches to the life their sardonic jargon; and in its descriptions of the elements and the hazards, it holds the exuberance, the beauty, though not the mysticism, which we remember from Saint-Exupéry. I think, for instance, of the hail and lightning which almost blast them out of the sky; of the ice storm which drives them down at Cincinnati; and of the motor going dead over the Brazilian jungle — moments, as Mr. Gann says, which were “like an introduction to dying without quite passing the barrier.”The women, the air hostesses, figure very little, for the hero has no eye for them, and despite the possessive way in which the narrative seizes the imagination, it is a book which suffers from hypertension and, unhappily, from lack of comic relief.

PICTURES THAT SPEAK

HENRY B. KANE, the artistic member of the famous team which produced Cache Lake Country, one of the best of the nature books in this decade, has written for his daughter Electa THE TALE OF A POND (Knopf, $3.00). This is a perfect birthday gift for any twelve-year-old in the spring, for the text, the photographs, and the drawings alert the mind and the antennae in such a way as to make anyone watchful of the life in and near any pond on which he holds a private claim. Mr. Kane tells the story as if he were a boy and this were his pond, a boy who has the good sense and good luck to be at the right spot in time to see the goslings hatching and then nuzzling the Canada goose, to see the dragonfly as under a microscope, or the garter snake which swallows the frog and is then caught and made to disgorge it, or the underwater fight between the crayfish and the snapping turtle in which the turtle is nearly drowned.
The Sierra Club is an organization which perpetuates the spirit of John Muir and which devotes itself to expeditions to the Western peaks and to occasional boat trips on the Yampa and Green rivers in the Dinosaur National Monument. Last year the club sponsored the publication of This Is the American Earth, a prose poem with photographs by Ansel Adams and Nancy Newhall, which Justice Douglas called “one of the great statements in the history of conservation.” CEDRIC WRIGHT was a member of the Sierra Club, and in the years from 1901 to 1953, until illness laid him low, he made thirty-three High Trips, ranging widely into the big wilderness, mostly in the Sierra Nevada. A violinist by training, a poet by impulse, and a photographer of enormous technical skill, he bequeathed to the club on his death a vast collection of superb negatives, the pick of which, with his essential and moving captions, has been edited by Nancy Newhall in WORDS OF THE EARTH (Sierra Club, $12.50).
It is Mr. Wright’s gift to show us “the unmarked face of America’s wilderness” with such clarity, grandeur, or intimacy that one dwells for a time in the scene and can return to it again for refreshment. We who are icebound need the sustenance of a book like this. From the many pages that are memorable, I choose these four. The wild lakeshore with the rocks and the gnarled trees, the water sunset-calm, and opposite, the words, “In all heaven and earth, there is this one thing to do: take your time. Enjoy the perfection of what you are doing. Enjoy accomplishing it exquisitely.”The rain on the grass blades, each drop so wet you can feel it, and opposite, the words, “Trouble is a fierce rain that drives us to the shelter of our friends.” The double-page spread on the forest, with the words, “Trees tragic, trees broken by winter, trees in all stages of decay, dead branches and pine needles strewn upon the snow, in patterns dictated by subtle law: of wind, gravitation, carefree instinct. Yet each fallen bough, each dead stump, intensifies the richness of the forest.”And angler that I am, the brook flowing into the mountain pool, and the words, “simple as the voice of a child and never to be quite known.” As Ansel Adams says in his foreword, the photography of Cedric Wright “moves the spirit; then, because it is so simple and direct, it moves the mind and the conscience.”
Mark Twain, as he neared the end, remarked that he had reached old age “by sticking strictly to a scheme of life which would kill anybody else.”The year before his death from heart disease, Mark said to Albert Bigelow Paine, his biographer, “I came in with Halley’s comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it.” And so he did. Into the seventy-five years of his life he packed a career so full of tumult, so full of vitality, versatility, irascibility, and success that it must be written afresh for each generation. In MARK TWAIN HIMSELF (Crowell, $10.00), MILTON MELTZER has retold the story with more than six hundred contemporary photographs, drawings, and cartoons, pointed up by Mark’s own words, which have been drawn from the storehouse of his writings, his letters, notebooks, newspaper reportings, sketches, travel pieces, and fiction. The cub pilot, the miner in Nevada, the innocent abroad, the suitor for Olivia Langdon, the fabulous lecturer, the writer at work (“An Author for 20 years, and an Ass for 55”), the credulous inventor, and the silk-hatted old eagle at Henry Rogers’ funeral — here is the lovable, gifted, cantankerous Sam Clemens.