The Peripatetic Reviewer
To ANYONE, like myself, who is older than this century, there were certain manifestations of the American spirit at once so vivid and patriotic that they can never be forgotten. I was seven when my Uncle Rennie took me to see Buffalo Bill, and I have some fractured recollections: we cheered as the great scout with his beautiful mustachio came riding in, destroying with his six-shooter the glass balls that were tossed in the air.
I remember the painted Indians and how they attacked the old stagecoach — and then my memory, like myself, collapsed as I slid through the opening between the bleacher seats to land with a solid thud in the soft earth below. I was nine when Teddy Roosevelt came to my home town to visit a fellow Roughrider, and because I fought shy of the mob at the station and took my stand beside the official Pierce Arrow, he had no choice but to shake my grubby paw as he climbed into the open tonneau. I was aboard the U.S.S. New York, the flagship of the White Fleet (and really snotted by the captain’s daughter), when the water parade, led by a replica of the Clermont, Robert Fulton’s steamboat, filed up the Hudson.
I watched Governor Woodrow Wilson review our National Guard at Seagirt, New Jersey, and drank lemonade in the Little White House afterward.
The veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic were our closest link with the tragic past, and my Grandfather Suydam, who in his late twenties had risen to be lieutenant colonel of the Third N. J. Cavalry, personified for me the long, bitter struggle of the Civil War. He had had six horses shot under him. He had been rolled on and miraculously avoided being crushed. He had served as an aide to General Keyes and General Pleasonton. His great cavalry saber hung on the wall beside his commission, and beneath it, on the top of the bookcase, was the dud shell which had plowed close to him at Petersburg, the spurs which I could take down and jingle, the folding mess kit,
and the faded photographs of bearded men seated before the army tents.
Grandfather would never march in the Decoration Day parades. He felt that the old scars and hatreds should be laid away with the men who fought the war, not passed on and exulted over by the younger generation. But, if I pressed him, he would turn through the big volume of Harper’s Weekly to show me where he had been and to tell more than the woodcuts disclosed.
In a year that already threatens to swamp us with memorial volumes about the Civil War, the standout thus far is THE AMERICAN HERITAGE PICTURE HISTORY OF THE CIVIL WVIi, with
the narrative by BRUCE CATTON (Doubleday, $19.95). Mr. Catton is fair and unsparing to both sides. He finds fault with blunderers like General Pope, Joe Hooker, and Burnside. He balances the impulsiveness and the audacity of J. E. B. Stuart. He notices when Stonewall Jackson is slow to come up, but rightly places above this the almost unspoken telegraphy which passed between Jackson and Lee in moments of supreme crisis. And he bestows with justice the plaudits which are due to Grant. It has been hard — indeed, impossible—for any Southern writer to deal fairly with either Grant or Sherman.
Mr. Catton is at his best when he writes about the ordinary soldier, the foot-slogger, the boys that bore the brunt of it. What they suffered, felt, and endured comes home to us now, for this book, with its 836 pictures, some in color, some sketched on the battlefield or in the prison camps or hospitals, which most of us have never seen, gives us in their dramatic profusion the hopes and fears and the daring of this great epoch.
I know of no living novelist who has brought to his big narratives of country life such color, character, and humor as MIKHAIL SHOLOKHOV. He was blessed with his material, for the Cossack villages on the river Don, in one of which he was born in 1905, have been, in fact, as in his fiction, a scene of violent struggle and slow conversion to the Soviet system. At the age of fifteen he returned from his schooling in Moscow to witness in his home country the torn loyalties of the Civil War; the Cossacks’ stubbornness to surrender their ancient hetman leadership; the liquidation or conscription of the rich kulak farmers; and finally, the forceful compulsion of the peasantry into the unruly brigades of a collective farm. Sholokhov’s concern for all of this is that of an artist, a naturalistic painter; his sympathy is primarily for the life of the village, and he employs the technique and morality of socialist realism more as a means of underscoring. His four novels, which have been thirty-six years in the writing, beginning with And Quiet Flows the Don and concluding with HARVEST ON THE DON (Knopf, $5.00), are centered in the tiny community of Gremyachy Log, whose people long lived by a medieval ritual. The books can be enjoyed separately; taken together they form a turbulent, earthy epic of the revolution and its aftermath.
Harvest on the Don is laid in the summer of 1930, a turning point in the collectivization of the village. The anti-Red resistance had been driven into a few pockets: in Gremyachy it is directed by two former officers, Captain Polovtsiev and his Polish lieutenant, who in the opening scene are holed up in the guest room of an ex-kulak’s house, polishing their weapons, griping, and conspiring in a most futile manner. It is hard for me to believe in their concealment and the damage which they are credited with. Their villainy is a secondary theme and never very plausible.
Opposed to them is the Party hero, Davidov, the Haltic sailor who has been sent inland to organize and direct the new collective farm. The opposition he encounters in the traditional suspicion, the laziness, and taunting inefficiency of the peasantry is real beyond question and dramatically conveyed. Davidov is a bachelor of thirty-nine and vulnerable to Lushka, the village temptress; he is too impulsive in his planning and too little suspicious, but he does know men, and his dedication is solid silver. Once he has been tested and reproved by the district inspector, he moves with increasing confidence, and his frailties and blunders personify in their way the weakness to be overcome by the Party.
It is Sholokhov’s genius to incorporate in his story the ruddy, primitive vitality of the village: the wonderful folk tales of Shaly, the smith, and Arzhanov, the ancient horseman; the lusty comedy of the fat cook who needs “two and a half men to embrace her”; the lazy reprobate Shchukar, sleeping in the ravine; Trofim, the sly, contentious goat; the sparrows on the eaves, who scatter as the argument rises; the black eagle of the steppe, so marvelously etched against the sun. Such warmth and comedy are essential.
In the translation by H. C. Stevens, what is essential does come through. The Russian sayings, sprinkled through the text like paprika, are recognized for their wit and shrewdness; only the idiom of the villagers has defied Mr. Stevens’ best efforts — their talk is wooden and without the lively give-and-take of reality.
A master of mosaic, KUMER LOUDEN prefers to tell her story within the circumference of the short novel, where the power of suggestion and precise beauty of the detail make every line meaningful. In CHINA COURT: THE HOURS OF A COUNTRY HOUSE (Viking, $4.50), she is piecing together the doings — the contentions, the^courtships, the infidelities, the loyalty and idiosyncrasy — of a Cornish family down to the fifth generation, and inasmuch as there were nine children born to Eustace and Adza Quin after their marriage in 1838, the reader must sort out and identify a good many names and personalities as the story is gleaned from the snatches of conversation, the evocative bits of gossip from belowstairs, and the tart comments and wisely hinting anecdotes which come from old Mrs. Quin. Mrs, Quin is the central figure, whose experiences and whose facets, like the diamond in the brooch, reflect all that has happened: she came to the square granite homeliness of China House a thin, neglected, shabby little girl; she leaves as its mistress, herself a grandmother in her eighties.
It is in Mrs. Quin’s mind to pass on her heritage, China Court, its memories and mementos, and Penbarrow, the adjoining farm, to Tracy, her granddaughter from America, and to Peter, the diffident, difficult young aristocrat whom she has lured back from London. The plan naturally does not appeal to Mrs. Quin’s married daughters, who for selfish reasons would prefer to sell the old house, and the resolution of this conflict makes the story.
The novelist skillfully shuttles us from the past to the present and back again; she identifies the sounds of the house when it is full of children, the smell of the kitchen in the morning light, the songs of the different generations, and in such scenes as Peter’s first encounter with Tracy and Mrs. Quin on her knees in the garden as the news is brought to her of her son’s death, the heart beats faster. This is lovely romantic writing.