BY WILLIAM BARRETT
In THE AMERICANS (Atlantic—Little, Brown, $6.95) OSCAR HANDLIN recounts the history of this nation from its beginnings to the present with such simplicity and ease that he may hide from some readers the bold originality of his accomplishment. Historians usually prefer the convenience of specialization; and their texts, accordingly, fall into the neat pigeonholes of political, social, economic, or cultural histories. Professor Handlin, however, has chosen to cut across these compartments; he presents American history as the story of the American people as they have met the varied challenges of daily life, of politics, economics, and culture. The final historical truth, after all, lies in the people, both eminent and ordinary, who make history.
This project is a difficult one — the stage is broad, and the action is of great sweep; but Professor Handlin has brought it off with compelling success. Only a scholar with his grasp of so many different fields could move easily from a political or diplomatic intricacy to a humble item of popular culture or to a revealing comment on a novel by Hemingway or Nathanael West. Suppressing the scholarly apparatus of footnotes, documentation, and factual catalogues, he has produced an immensely readable and engrossing narrative. At the same time, the book is one of the most comprehensive and illuminating essays on the national character that has yet appeared.
Almost from the beginning, it seems, the American has had a sense of himself as a “new man,” a member of the human community very different from his European forebears. Uprooted from the traditional and settled life of Europe, Americans were exposed to new conditions in an unknown continent that demanded constant adaptation and improvisation. Even domestic institutions like the home and family had to meet new stresses in the wilderness or on the frontier and became transformed from what they had been in the old country. Most of the settlers, from the earliest days onward, had no direct acquaintance with political power except as victims of it; they had to learn and invent unceasingly in order to forge their own democratic institutions. By the time of the Revolution, many Americans had come to feel that theirs was a new chapter in the history of mankind and one destined to offer a lesson in freedom and idealism to the other peoples of the world.
But if the American has felt himself the heir of all the ages, he has not always been sure where the American experiment was headed. His feeling of difference from the European has not always given him a sense of superiority. Professor Handlin shows that moods of selfdoubt and insecurity, far from being a malaise of recent years, have recurred throughout our history. His book strikes a fine balance between our glowing ideals and the more somber realities that have stained our history. Ours, he concludes, has not been an unqualified success story — our history has seen much violence, much injustice, much vulgarity; yet, on the whole, we have created the best environment for freedom. It is the essence of the American adventure that it should always confront a future full of promise as well as of hazard and uncertainty —now, in the 1960s, as well as when the first settlers faced the wilderness. Above everything else, Americans had sought space and the freedom to move in it; now science has brought a new space to our very doorstep, and before it we feel the same challenges and anxieties as at the beginning of our history.
Surveying our history within a much narrower range, RUSSELL LYNES in THE DOMESTICATED AMERICANS (Harper & Row, $6.50), a study of American life as it has been reflected in the styles of American houses, comes up with much the same theme of American mobility. Mr. Lynes, though not a professional historian, is an indefatigable student of American manners, and his book is studded with many entertaining facts and curiosities.
Charles Dickens, visiting the United States in 1842, observed that “all the buildings looked as if they had been built and painted that morning and could be taken down on Monday with very little trouble.” In England, of course, Dickens had been used to houses inhabited by the same family generation after generation, and even century after century. Americans, on the other hand, were used to being on the move. and this mobility shaped the styles of their houses. The log cabin, for example, could be built in a few days by a frontiersman skilled with an ax, lived in for a while, and then abandoned as the family trekked further west. The modern Techbuilt house can be delivered by truck and assembled within twentyfour hours; it can just as easily be dismantled and carted to a new site if the owner moves on. From log cabin to prefabricated house, Americans have remained locked in the circle of their own mobility.
This thesis is not new, but Mr. Lynes is a clever hand at ornamenting the commonplace with witty detail. It is a relief to learn, for example, that the log cabin was not always a hovel, and that for those Western families who lived in dugouts and sod huts it could very well have been a symbol of luxurious living rather than of humble origins. One of the more dismal chapters in the history of American housing is the boardinghouse, so dominant an institution during the nineteenth century that three fourths of the population lived in boardinghouses at one time or another. Then, as now, there was a shortage of middleincome housing (the first apartment houses were not built in New York until the 1880s, and even then were highly suspect as an import from the French), so that young married couples — and, indeed, whole families — had to take potluck at the boardinghouse, struggling to outwit despotic landladies and outmaneuver their fellow boarders with elbow and fork at the dinner table.
As the Americans tamed their continent, they in turn became more domesticated. During the latter part of the nineteenth century books on etiquette became best sellers. (They are still among the best sellers, for Americans are still eager frontiersmen in the arts of life.) Mr. Lynes has a field day rummaging among these old etiquette books, whose baroque intricacies seem to have been designed to make social life virtually unbearable.
Mr. Lynes concludes with a lament for the soulless conformity of modern suburban developments. But, judging from the vivid documentation of his own book, we can take more pride than that in the progress of American housing. A Levittown may bruise the spirit, but it does not involve its owner in the sheer struggle for physical survival. The rigors of the wilderness seem almost nothing beside the ordeals the early Americans suffered in their own homes.
ANTHONY POWELL might be described as a novelist’s novelist. He is one of that special band of performers, found in the various arts, who succeed by an economy and sophistication of means that are probably best appreciated and envied by their fellow craftsmen. Like a superb mimic, with barely a lift of the eyebrow or flick of the hand he can evoke atmosphere and character that would require much huffing and puffing by a less accomplished artist. In his first novel, AFTERNOON MEN (Little, Brown, $4.00), now made available again for the American public, Mr. Powell makes so much of little that in effect he provides a charming lesson in how to write a successful novel about practically nothing.
As the story opens, Atwater and Pringle are drinking together in their seedy club. The time is afternoon, and they are afternoon men waiting for the world of the evening. Presently they are joined by others, and all move off to a party. At the end, Atwater is seated in the same club, drinking; again, as others arrive, the suggestion is made that they shove off to a party. Between opening and close, there have been parties, more parties, weekends, some shifting liaisons, and on Atwater’s part a desultory effort at love. The nearest thing to a climax occurs when Pringle disappears from his country house, leaving a suicide note to upset his weekend guests. Here, too, however, social routine takes over; the weekend must go on, the guests are hungry and really should eat their lunch. When their host reappears the next morning, exhausted but otherwise not much the worse for wear, his mourning guests have already reached the stage of picking him apart in gossip.
Afternoon Men was originally published in England in 1931. In the light of Mr. Powell’s later Music of Time series, this first novel does not now appear thin. From the outset, his chosen subject matter was the long discontent of English life in the twenty years entre deux guerres, and his feckless young men, floating through bohemia or at the fringes of society, were not pointless caricatures but symptoms of a vast ground swell of social change that was to leave England never quite the same again.
French literature is usually prized for its qualities of classicism, restraint, and lucidity. Yet, paradoxically, another strain runs through this literature, from Villon and Sade through Baudelaire, that is obsessed with the evil and the monstrous in human life. The latest of these fallen angels of “black literature” (littér ature noire) is the dramatist Jean Genet. Like Villon, Genet has been a thief and has done time in many jails; he is sexually abnormal like Sade; but, like Baudelaire, he has an unusual sense of formal style, and he has written dramas with the classical touch of Racine, though their subject matter has been more extreme and brutal.
In SAINT GENET, ACTOR AND MARTYR (Braziller, $8.50) the existentialist philosopher JEAN-PAUL SARTRE subjects Genet’s life and writings to a curiously dramatic form of pyschoanalysis that is often more exciting than many a novel. Prolix and unpruned, it is fatiguing to read, but the reader who can wade through its torrent of rhetoric and ideas will find this a brilliant and unorthodox book, crowded with insights that will disturb and illuminate his own thinking.
Genet would be bound to fascinate Sartre since he fits in so well with the latter’s ideas. Genet is the outlaw individualist, the existential hero who lives outside the social norms that sustain more ordinary folk. He was a foundling who never knew his own parents and was raised by strangers. The child, lacking an identity, catches fleeting glimpses of it only in the objects he can call his own. He must have more of these, so he begins to steal. One day at the age of ten he is caught, and in the condemning eyes of the adult he is branded as a thief. But that at least gives him some identity; henceforth he will carry on thievery as his personal destiny. At the same time, his feelings of guilt provoke in him a strange craving for saintliness. Thrown among creatures of the underworld, he will take upon himself their sins by committing their crimes. He seems to have become an incurable jailbird; yet somehow, out of this extremity, he begins to write and in time becomes one of the most controversial and celebrated authors of his day.
Genet’s case is proof, if any were needed, that the Muse is no respecter of persons. Perhaps never has the seed of literary talent fallen upon a more prickly human soil.
PRESIDENT WITH TWO PROFILES
Do facts ever speak for themselves? This naïve illusion is very neatly demolished by two recent volumes of reportage — JOHN F. KENNEDY, PRESIDENT by HUGH SIDEY (Atheneum, $6.95) and J.F.K.: THE MAN AND THE MYTH by VICTOR LASKY (Macmillan, $7.95) — which show clearly that management of the news is just as much a preoccupation of presidential reporters as of Presidents. Offering themselves as baldly factual, the two books give such dissimilar portraits of their subject that one wonders at times whether they are talking about the same President. Mr. Sidey is a personal, though not necessarily political, partisan of his subject. He has been covering Mr. Kennedy since 1958, and he obviously has a warm feeling toward the President, though his admiration is not in the least adulatory. Mr. Lasky’s tone, on the other hand, varies only between a growl and a snarl, and he approaches his subject with the resolute tread of a man clubbing a rabbit. It is not clear what political convictions motivate his assault, since he is willing to quote any and all sources — Eleanor Roosevelt as well as Barry Goldwater — that might throw some doubt upon the President and his abilities.
Mr. Sidey is so close to the White House entourage that his reporting has the quality of things seen at firsthand. However, there are no dazzling scoops; most of what he says has long been in the public domain through the media of newspapers and television. When he does venture into a bit of inside reporting, as in reconstructing a fragmentary version of the private conversation I of Kennedy and Khrushchev at their Vienna meeting, one can only wonder how far this allegedly factual reporter is letting his imagination roam.
Since 1960, Mr. Sidey has been the White House correspondent for Time magazine. During that period he has written millions of words of background material on the President. But if what he gives us here is typical of the copy he sent to Time, one can only wonder at the miracle of transformation that takes place in the editorial offices of that magazine. Since Time does not present itself as a journal of opinion, it is clear that factual reporting, so-called, is a very complex business. One would have expected Mr. Lasky, rather, to be shoveling the crude ore into Time’s furnace for refinement.
Mr. Lasky does not seem to have any firsthand contacts for information, but as compensation for this lack he offers us a long list — thirtyseven pages in double columns and fine print — of sources in newspaper and magazine articles. The only trouble is that most of these sources turn out to be citations of other people’s opinions. Even where his facts are not in question, they are given a curious coloring. Facts gain their significance in relation to other facts, and Mr. Lasky has a habit of offering altogether unrelated facts as if they concealed some very ominous meaning. To Mr. Lasky, for example, it seems no accident that the President’s proposal for a Department of Urban Affairs was defeated in the Senate on the same day John Glenn was orbiting the earth; and he gloats over this “simple contrast” between the astronaut’s heroism and the villainous White House politicking.
Once a valuable reporter, Mr. Lasky has become, since the decline of Senator McCarthy, an embittered and politically disoriented man. The result is that what might have been a useful critique of the Kennedys and their Administration turns into the exhibition of a wild man swinging from all directions and ultimately defeats his own purpose.
In 1919 the Chicago White Sox — or, rather, eight of them — threw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. Organized baseball never has had a more sordid scandal, yet the whole episode had so much human drama that it was able to enrich the popular language with two imperishable items: “Say it ain’t so, Joe,”a small boy’s plea for reassurance from the great outfielder “Shoeless Joe” Jackson; and the reflective lament of Buck Weaver, White Sox third baseman, “I did it for the wife and kiddies.” Though the Black Sox scandal is colorful, pathetic, and daffy enough to make a minor saga, no book had been written about it because the facts were too tangled and confused. In EIGHT MEN OUT (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, $4.95) ELIOT ASINOF attempts a brave and stubborn reconstruction of all the pieces in the plot. If his writing is sometimes clumsy and his attempts to build suspense heavy-handed, he has nevertheless a dogged sense of characterization, and having once been a minor leaguer himself, he paints his ballplayers understandingly.
The White Sox, a great team, were expected to demolish the Reds easily. But as the Series drew closer, the odds fell rapidly, and the rumor of a fix was in the air. In fact, the players had been approached by gamblers months before and had agreed to lose for ten thousand dollars apiece. Arnold Rothstein, the most fabulous gambler of the period, was almost certainly behind the plot, but even now nothing can be proved conclusively, so inept were the legal investigations. It is amazing that while newspaper reporters, innocent teammates, and even many spectators sensed that something very strange was going on, no action was taken by any authority. This was the beginning of a freewheeling and slaphappy post-war period that would not come to an end until the Crash of 1929.
A full year later, a Chicago grand jury, after sifting the evidence, was able to obtain two confessions and an indictment. However, the long arm of Arnold Rothstein reached into the sheriff’s office, and the signed confessions had disappeared by the time the players came to trial. They were acquitted, though there has never been any doubt of their guilt. The jury that brought in the acquittal had already begun the canonization of the Black Sox as heroes in that peculiarly American realm of folklore occupied by such beloved outlaws as Jesse James, Billy the Kid, and the Bass brothers. If they were a little greedy for the almighty dollar, what harm was there in that? They were just simple children of nature, victimized by gamblers. And the gamblers were never even brought to trial.