MILOVAN DJILAS is in Western eyes the most brilliant and penetrating critic in Yugoslavia. Three times in his fifty-one years he has gone to jail for daring to criticize the authorities in power: his first arrest came in 1933, when the monarchy sentenced him to a three-year term. In 1956, after having served as president of the Federal People’s Assembly, he was stripped of his decorations and sentenced for a total of nine years, to the same cell he had occupied in the 1930s. His famous book, The New Class, was written while he was in this disgrace. His sentence was eventually shortened; he returned home, and while on parole completed the writing of his new book, Conversations With Stalin, the publication of which in English again led to his return to prison for another nineyear sentence. The situation adds irony to a story they tell in Belgrade. During his second imprisonment, his wife and their ten-year-old son were allowed to visit him once a month. On one such visit they shared the railway compartment with a Gypsy and her young boy, bound for the same place. “What did your father do to get in there?” asked the young Gypsy. “He wrote a book,” said young Djilas. “Don’t be silly,” said the Gypsy. “He must have stolen it” — at which point the Gypsy’s mother took him by the ear. “Listen,” she said. “There are times when a man can be sent to jail for stealing a book, and other times when he can be punished for writing a book. Now you shut up.”
The American conscience has a complacent way of saying that such things can’t happen here. But there have been too many times in my editorial career when I have seen the free enterprise of the mind denied, suppressed, or ridiculed in this country. This has usually occurred during or shortly after an emergency. I recall the Red hunt and the labor-baiting under Attorney General Palmer which came at the end of World War I. The Sacco-Vanzetti trial followed in the aftermath, and quite apart from the question of guilt or of innocence, the conduct of that trial was a travesty of justice. I remember when novels by Ernest Hemingway, H. G. Wells, Sinclair Lewis, and some sixty others were banned in Boston, and when Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy went on trial as an obscene book and was condemned by a jury which was only permitted to hear portions of it quoted from some thirty pages. I remember James Joyce’s Ulysses first being suppressed and then being liberated by Judge Woolsey in a decision which still rings. I remember the falsification of news at the time of the Spanish Revolution; the concealment of corruption in Chiang’s regime by the China lobby; and, most loathsome of all, the contemptible charge of guilt by association leveled during Senator McCarthy’s inquisition at so many who were innocent. That a public servant as loyal and resourceful as Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer should have been so scarred is a matter of public humiliation.
We are a strong body politic, and, thank heaven, when our stomachs turn we throw off these contagions as we threw off such demagogues as Father Coughlin and Huey Long, and as we shall throw off the smallpox of the John Birchers. We are the better for these purges when courage and common sense have asserted themselves. But this country still expresses its suspicion of intellect by ridiculing the egghead, and this at a time when we are short of teachers, short of scientists, short of bold leaders of the bar (the antithesis of the egghead is the blockhead or the bonehead, or in Wayne County, the ironhead, and I see no reason why we should rejoice in them).
I am not always satisfied by the performance of our intellect. I wish that our novelists were not so obsessed with the sick and depraved. I wish there were more fixity of purpose in our editorials. I wish we had more pungent, fearless critics like Henry Mencken, Bernard De Voto, and Elmer Davis. I am sorry that so few of our poets are listened to. I resent the veil of secrecy which the government throws over so many of its doings, especially in the field of atomic energy. I think it lamentable that the Congress will give so little aid or respect to our educators. Above all, I long for the day when young men in their thirties will respond to the country, will dedicate themselves to public service as young men did during the years of that great succession of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and John Quincy Adams. We forget how young they were to have done what they did. In balance, I know that the free enterprise of the mind has been untrammeled here in our finest hours — and that it could be again if we would quit being dollar-satisfied and complacent.
INSECTS AT HOME
EDWIN WAY TEALE was forty-two when he broke into the clear as a nature writer, free at last to spend his days in research and writing. For years he had maintained an insect garden in an old orchard on Long Island, planting things that would attract insects for his study, and his first book, Grassroot Jungles, was an exploration of the insect world. In the decades that have followed, Mr. Teale has extended his reach to the flora and fauna of our whole hemisphere, and his famous books, North With the Spring. Journey Into Summer, and Autumn Across America, each the result of approximately 20,000 miles of travel and observation, have made him one of the most widely read of American naturalists. Now, in THE STRANGE LIVES OF FAMILIAR INSECTS (Dodd, Mead, $4.00), he returns to his first love, and with photographs and text of superb clarity, he lights up an area about which most of us have only a rudimentary awareness.
Mr. Teale’s method is to entice us, and this he does in his first two chapters by telling us of insects embedded in amber or embalmed in volcanic ash fifty million years ago. He tells us that the silverfish, the pale wingless creature sometimes found under old piles of Weeks’s papers, is the oldest living insect. He tells us that the appetite of a growing insect probably exceeds that of any other living creature; that the mosquito that bites you is always a female; that a dragonfly can fly as fast as a mile a minute; and that bees and wasps have the best memories.
With this preparation he leads us into the minute and fascinating life stories of fourteen familiar insects; the mayfly, the dragonfly, the cricket, the praying mantis, the monarch butterfly, the papermaking wasp, and the ant are for me the highlights. I enjoy his account of the spectacular nuptial dance of the mayfly. I am surprised by the two lives of the dragonfly, first in its underwater life as a voracious nymph, which may last as long as five years and during which it consumes nothing but animal food; then, as it molts, the dragonfly is transformed into the glinting, darting creature of the air of such incredible color, speed, and grace. My favorite, because it is Mr. Teale’s, is the praying mantis. I admire it for its patience and its courage. Each mantis is a lone wolf and seems afraid of nothing; it will box with a kitten, attack and rout an English sparrow, and capture hummingbirds or a shrew. The last phase of its adult life is the most remarkable, when the female devours her husband, and he not seeming to care. The hardy girls, says Mr. Teale, have been known to devour as many as eight suitors; husband or lovers down the hatch, they then set about producing their froth-cases of eggs.
HARVARD WITH LAUGHTER
YOU CAN ALWAYS TELL A HARVARD MAN (McGrawHill, $5.00) by RICHARD BISSELL is at times a very amusing book indeed. The author, one of several generations of Bissells who have made the trek from Iowa to Exeter to Cambridge, regards his alma mater with that skeptical irreverence one remembers in John Marquand; he is quite aware of the image which Harvard has imposed on the Philistines without, so well epitomized by that captain of Marines who said to Marquand: “You really wouldn’t be a son-of-a-bitch at all if you weren’t a Harvard man.” Bissell knows that “ Harvard indifference,” which is another way of saying Harvard latitude, is at once the envy and irritation of other institutions; that Harvard has had men named Percy playing on its football team (Percy Haughton was one of them); and that despite the hexing of the Chicago Tribune, there have been no more Communists in the Harvard Yard than on the campus of Northwestern — which is to say, very few. He takes it for granted that Harvard is our oldest university, and in some ways our best; what concerns him is the character of this independent, ever-changing community.
Bissell’s method is to make a series of sallies around the walls of Jericho. In one chapter he takes the quaint or historical approach, telling how in 1638 the son of a London butcher left four hundred books and half of his estate (including the Queens Head Tavern in Southwark) to the struggling little college with its nine students, and how in 1640 Henry Dunster, aged thirty and the most brilliant of the early presidents, gave it its lease on life. In another he writes about Harvard “Sports & Pastimes” in words profane to Frank Merriwell. He quotes an undergraduate diary of the 1930s reminiscent of Charles Flandrau’s Diary of aFreshman and gives us a delightful slice of his own autobiography in a chapter entitled, “The Author in the Guise of an Anthropologist.” The Harvard Crimson, the girls at Radcliffe, the competition (not always athletic) with Yale, the Hasty Pudding, famous alumni like Thoreau, Agassiz, and the Roosevelts, the conglomerate Harvard architecture — all come in for their random lampooning, and though the walls of Jericho do not exactly tumble down, there is a good measure of salty truth here mixed in with the spoofing.
LOVE, HOT AND COLD
I have come to think of HAN SUYIN as a novelist who draws more transparently upon her emotions than on her intellect. In A Many-Splendored Thing, her best book, she was outgiving: the love story she proclaimed and celebrated was evocative, fullhearted, and poignant, TWO LOVES ( Putnam, $4.50) is a smaller performance — two novellas, each of which seems to have been composed in a resentful mood. The author is a Eurasian; her early education was in China, but she studied for her M.D. in London while her first husband was military attaché to the Chinese embassy. She writes as a dweller in two worlds, and her English is facile, if at times effusive; but her allegiance to the Orient is primary, and when it is challenged, she hits back.
“Cast But One Shadow.” the first and more attractive of the short novels, is the harrowing and occasionally pathetic story of a French family in Cambodia which, living in luxury on its rubber plantation, is surprised and ravished by the invading Japanese. The parents are murdered, but their two children survive. Philippe, then twelve, after being shamefully abused, is revived by the natives and spirited away to France. Sylvie, his comely younger sister, is hidden from harm in the forest; protected by Maté, her native foster mother, and renamed Devi and also Moen the Lovely, she accepts the village life and is about to accept Maté’s son as her lover. Then, in her sixteenth year, Philippe reclaims her; she is returned by the police to Paris; and it is this uprooting which sets in train the dramatic action. The fate of Sylvie is disclosed in a long, overblown discourse with a Cambodian astrologer who speaks with the wisdom and poetry of the East. And Maté, when summoned, is fiercely realistic. But the Europeans in the interview — Philippe, the infatuated; Anne, his shrewish wife; Roger, the incredible doctor —speak like nothing human, but as symbols, perhaps, of a hate-ridden and selfish colonialism.
The concluding tale, “Winter Love,” is the tawdry recital of a London lesbian, of how she got that way and of what finally provoked her into marrying. Neither the cast nor the process is inviting.