Reader's Choice

In this issue WILLIAM BARRETT,formerly an editor of PARTISAN REVIEWand now Professor of Philosophy at New York University, takes over as our literary critic, a position admirably filled by Charles Rolo for more than u decade.

In his MAJESTY AND MISCHIEF: A MIXED TRIBUTE TO F.D.R. (McGraw-Hill, $4.95), WILLIAM S. WHITE has attempted a form in which he could very easily have fallen flat on his face. The book is an evaluation of Roosevelt as a man and of his contributions as a politician, but instead of the usual straightforward historical essay, Mr. White gives us a lyrical evocation of the mood of the times, a threnody on the death of a great President.
He begins with the day of Roosevelt’s death, April 12, 1945, and the impact of this news upon those who were to inherit F.D.R.’s political legacy — Rayburn, Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, and two obscure young naval officers, Kennedy and Nixon — and he follows through the rest of the book the funeral procession from Warm Springs, where the President died, to Washington, to the final burial services at Hyde Park. The book might be described as an account of three days of national mourning interrupted by long passages of political meditation, or, conversely, as a meditation on the political significance of Roosevelt with continual flashbacks to those same three days of death and burial. This kind of dramatized historical form could have become very sticky and mawkish or degenerated into sensationalism. Happily, however, Mr. White has escaped such pitfalls and turned the difficulties of his form into a positive triumph. Majesty and Mischief is not only a very moving re-creation of one chapter of our national history, but also is perhaps the shrewdest and most balanced judgment we have yet had of the political legacy of Roosevelt.
Mr. White calls his a “mixed tribute” because he includes the negative as well as the positive in Roosevelt’s achievements. Mixed and judicious it is, but a most glowing tribute for all that; and only the mixture in eulogy of negative and positive could do justice to this most complex President.
Roosevelt produced a body of social legislation that has now become an unquestioned part of our institutional life. As a great war leader, he played a role, second only to Winston Churchill’s, in the victory over fascism. These are the great positive accomplishments. On the other side of the ledger, he left in complete disunity a party that he had held together by the baling wire of his own political genius. Truman ‘s subsequent troubles with Congress on domestic issues, in Mr. White’s judgment, were due in no small measure to the disunited party he inherited. Even graver was the damage in international affairs; concentrating on the immediate goal of winning the war, F.D.R. did not foresee and plan for the coming conflicts with Russia and world Communism that have plagued us in the last decade and a half. He might have attended to these matters had not death struck him down suddenly when the end of the war was just in sight. But facts are facts, and the historian has to describe the damage of a political legacy for what it was, however much fate and chance may excuse it.
For failing to foresee the coming struggle with the Soviets, Roosevelt was to be labeled “soft on Communism” during the disunited years of the McCarthy period, in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Roosevelt was not soft on Communism; Mr. White’s explanation of his failure here is that F.D.R. was not really an “internationalist,’ but a politician whose horizon was almost exclusively domestic. As a scion of an old family, he retained the colonial’s antiquated distrust of the British and of the Tory Churchill, so that he was not disposed to take seriously the latter’s suspicions of the Russians. Roosevelt was not an aristocrat, as is commonly thought, but uppermiddle-class gentry; and, compared with Churchill, he lacked the instinctive historical and international vision of the real aristocrat, which is, as Mr. White shrewdly puts it, “a deeply worldly quality, a profound sophistication, an informed cynicism, in the face of which Roosevelt was hardly more than a still young and eager, if incomparably powerful, man from Groton and Harvard and the Upper Hudson.”
The comparison with Truman is equally unsettling to the usual stereotypes. Truman, who had risen from the back alleys of local politics, had the better historical and international vision, and was actually hampered, during his first months in office, by the foreign policies laid down by Roosevelt. In domestic politics, on the other hand, and particularly in handling the intricacies of party machinery, the gentleman from Hyde Park was incomparably more gifted than the local politician from Missouri.
The Roosevelt paradox is further compounded by the fact that, though F.D.R. presided over a period of revolutionary transition in American life, he himself was deeply conservative in temperament. He may have used liberal formulas as political weapons, but he had no use for the liberal ideologies; he simply tolerated them. He was, if his deepest political convictions may be put in one word, a pragmatist, a man who wanted to get things done. The Depression had fallen upon the country, and he was willing to use all means and slogans to conserve this land. In the early days of the New Deal, businessmen attacked him as a country squire who “never knew what it meant to meet a payroll,” but he was to become one of the most extraordinary masters of production presiding over the greatest movement of men, weapons, and materials that the world had ever seen. Furthermore, one of the most significant results of the Roosevelt regime, Mr. White points out, was the bringing about of a peculiar merger of business and politics that was absolutely new in our national life.
Mr. White deals with matters so complex and near at hand that he is bound to provoke controversy. But whatever storms it may unleash, Majesty and Mischief is likely to ride them out safely, for Mr. White has built his book upon the sound timbers of seasoned political judgment.


If Mr. White offers convincing testimony for the contentions that individuals make history and that politics is not understandable apart from the intricacies of personality, two recent books — THE BALANCE OF TERROR by PlERRE GALLOIS (Houghton Mifflin, $4.00) and MAY MAN PREVAIL? by ERICH FROMM (Doubleday, $4.50) — bring out the opposite side of the contemporary picture: that technology, particularly in the form of the nuclear race, tends to dwarf the fragile fact of human personality.
Each of these books is useful and stimulating in its own way, but I found them all the more stimulating when read together because they take diametrically opposed positions on the subject of nuclear arms. Evidently, it is not only East and West that are at odds; even in the West itself, men of good will cannot reach agreement about what is to be done with the atom.
Mr. Gallois is a distinguished French soldier whose book, marshaling a great number of facts about atomic power and politics, has the usual Gallic merits of crispness and clarity. Much of his material relates to the debate that raged in his own country when France chose to join the nuclear club. Fie is for nuclear power, if any position on this vexing matter may be put so baldly. Since nuclear power has already arrived on the scene, we have no choice vis-à-vis the Soviet Union except to engage in an arms race. This race, however, may have one good effect. As the weapons accumulate on both sides, they may make war itself impossible, for even a tiny war may trigger the big one, and both sides would have too much to lose. To scrap atomic weapons altogether would be to revert to the age of TNT and make the world safe for all future wars. As Raymond Aron, the distinguished French political writer who introduces the book, puts it: Was the age of TNT so wonderful that we should want to regress to it?
This clever rhetorical question seems to silence all debate until we reflect that it leaves unanswered another question not quite so rhetorical: Might not the future be more savage than the total number of savageries since the battle of Crécy, when the age of gunpowder began?
Mr. Fromm is the well-known psychoanalyst whose recent journalistic productivity seems to have established him as the John Gunther of psychiatry. (He has not yet written an Inside the Psyche, but that may come.) His present book has some of Mr. Gunther’s virtues; it covers a wide area, digests much information, and is altogether very readable. But Mr. Gunther remains just a journalist, while Mr. Fromm’s connection with psychoanalysis seems to require from him more solemn political pronouncements. He begins by applying some psychoanalytic notions to cure our political troubles. Let us be mindful, Mr. Fromm warns us, of the beam in our own eye, for there is pathological thinking — paranoid distortions, projections, doublethink — on both sides of the Iron Curtain. This is very true and worth emphasizing. Still, when one has done one’s reasonable best to cast out all projections and paranoid thinking, the hard facts of politics seem to loom on the horizon just about as they were. When Freud’s disciple, Dr. Ernest Jones, was asked by reporters whether psychoanalysis could cure everything, he retorted: “Can it cure politics?”
Mr. Fromm pleads fervently for the banning of nuclear weapons. Most of us, I think, share his longing, but he is not particularly concrete or helpful about the political means of securing disarmament. Russia, he tells us, is not bent on world domination, because Russia, far from being socialistic, is a managerial bureaucracy, and the managers enjoy too many social advantages to risk them in war. I wish I could extract as much hope from this as Mr. Fromm does. Russia is a managerial bureaucracy, no doubt, but the managers are also Marxists in the grip of an idea that insists that history must go their way. I am no expert in Mr. Fromm’s categories, but it does look to me as if he has projected the outlook of American corporation executives onto Soviet commissars.


A reminder that the world of the Marxist is a very different one from our own comes from inside Russia itself in the form of a remarkable literary essay, ox SOCIALIST REALISM, by ABRAM TERTZ (Pantheon, $2.95). Tertz is the pseudonym of a Russian writer living in the Soviet Union. His book was written during the thaw that followed the death of Stalin, but it could not be published in Russia and was smuggled out to France. A short novel by Tertz,
The Trial Begins, followed the same secret journey into the West, was published here about a year ago, and was widely praised — perhaps somewhat overpraised, as it is our tendency to do with any glimmerings from behind the Iron Curtain. The present essay seems to me more significant than the novel. Strictly as a literary essay, it is an outstanding study of one aspect of the tradition of Russian literature; it is also quite remarkable when one considers the historical conditions under which it was produced and the light it sheds on those conditions.
Socialist realism, the official literary doctrine under Stalin, was defined in 1934 as “the basic method of Soviet literature and literary criticism. It demands of the artist the truthful, historically concrete representation of reality in its revolutionary development.” This ukase resulted in the appalling monotony and boredom of Soviet letters, in which “good guys” and “bad guys” were as sharply separated as in any American Western, and the good guys — the Party men on the side of “reality in its revolutionary development” — always triumphed. Compelled to be “positive,” writers outdid each other in glorifying the Stalinist regime and the personality of Stalin himself. Technically, this literature was without invention and could produce only the most plodding stereotypes of nineteenth-century realism.
Tertz writes as a man bitterly disillusioned with the course of things since the Revolution: “So that prisons should vanish forever, we built new prisons. So that all frontiers should fall, we surrounded ourselves with a Chinese Wall. So that work should become a rest and a pleasure, we introduced forced labor. So that not one drop of blood be shed any I more, we killed and killed and killed.”
But it would be a mistake to think that this disillusionment means that the author is ready to defect to the West. Though he cannot be published in his own country, Tertz clearly remains within the intellectual circle of Communism and is possessed by the faith that only Marxism provides a rational vision of mankind’s future. He himself, to be sure, is an idealist and humanitarian, but the same total and utopian faith working in the men who wield power is not likely to engender the reasonable complacency of corporation managers in the West.
From a literary point of view, the most significant parts of this essay are the sections that trace the role of romantic irony and the figure of the “superfluous man” — or, as we might say, the outsider — in Russian literature before the Revolution. The figure of the outsider became for some of the older writers an image of Russia itself, which seemed to stand then, as now, outside the rest of humanity. With the Revolution, however, this superfluous man — the individual — disappeared from Russian writing, and Soviet writers vaulted over the heads of their fathers back to the age of Catherine the Great, when their grandfathers produced stiff and turgid odes to Holy Russia and its Czarina.
Tertz concludes with a call to Soviet writers to abandon the flat methods of realism and turn to fantasy, irony, and the grotesque, which were once the methods of the great Russian writers. For the Western reader, long used to the superseding of strict realism, all the way from Kafka to Faulkner, this call will not sound like the note of a new avant-garde; but in Russia it may well mark the ground swell of new and dissident movements in art and literature. The existence of a literary underground, however, hardly portends an immediate crack in the political structure.


The vein of fantastic and grotesque comedy is worked by JOSEPH HELLER in a first novel, CATCH-22 (Simon and Schuster, $5.95). Mr. Heller’s book deals with a bomber squadron based on a Mediterranean island during World War II. Everybody in the squadron is quite crazy, but cannot be retired from combat because the Colonel, craziest of all, keeps raising the number of compulsory missions. “Catch-22" is the rule that prevents the soldier from being discharged: no matter how crazy his behavior, if he asks to be retired from combat, his fear for his own safety indicates that he is of rational mind. Even the wildly inventive mind of the protagonist, an improbable Assyrian named Yossarian, cannot get around this catch. When he presents himself stark naked in the ranks as he is about to receive a medal from the commanding general, the general simply goes ahead and awards the medal.
The book is mostly very funny and exciting to read, and I suppose one ought to accept such rare offerings without cavil; but Mr. Heller’s talents for comedy are so considerable that one gets irritated when he keeps pressing. His standard gag is the kind of baffling ricochet of misunderstanding with which Chico Marx in the old comedies used to drive Groucho frantic; but without Chico’s wonderful timing, these gags are not always funny set down on paper. And when Mr. Heller does produce some good comedy, he has a tendency to carry it so far that it becomes mechanical. There is a difference, after all, between milking a joke (the great gift of the old comedians) and stretching it out till you kill it. Mr. Heller has enough verve not to have to try so hard to be funny.
Another newcomer to the field of fiction is JOHN A. WILLIAMS, author of NIGHT SONG (Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, $3.50). Mr. Williams is a young Northern urban Negro whose characters speak the jive talk of the big city, and his material generally has the desolate emptiness of warehouses and tenements seen at dead of night in east Greenwich Village, where much of the novel’s action takes place.
Night Song deals with the life and death of a Negro jazz musician, Richie Stokes, who seems to be modeled after the late Charlie Parker (in the novel, Stokes is called “Eagle”; Parker was “the Bird”). But the human elements of the novel are two young people — Keel, a Negro, and his white girl, Della, who are in love with each other but caught in the paralyzing stalemate of the impossibility of their relationship. What comes across in the relationship oi this pair is neither warmth nor love but an agonizing void.
Because the Negro writer can hardly escape being possessed by one theme, the problem of his own place in American life, he is always in danger of becoming abstract. This abstractness resembles, though it is far more humanly authentic, that of the proletarian novels in the thirties. Mr. Williams, for example, has the inevitable scene of the policeman, with no cause but his own insecurity, beating Stokes over the head with his club. It is not that such things do not happen; the trouble is that they have happened so often that they have become a cliché that must overpower a talented young writer like Mr. Williams, limit the possibilities of his imagination, and not permit him a place in the artistic sun, which his talent demands.