The Peripatetic Reviwer

We WERE speaking of editors, and one of us, as old as the century, opined that of all the distinguished editors of our time, the hardest to replace had been Harold Ross of the New Yorker. To this I agreed, for certainly I have never known one of greater daring nor one who followed his instincts with surer success. As the talk went on, it led me to reflect on the ripeness of a man for his opportunity. When Frank Crowninshield’s Vanity Fair, a gay showcase of the 1920s, began to fade, and when the spark had flickered out of the old Life, the stage was set for the entrance of a periodical which would be witty, urbane, and fastidious — and how delightfully Ross seized that opportunity!
Timeliness is the elixir of publishing. S. S. McClure, with his great team of muckrakers headed by Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell, was as timely as T.R.’s trust-busting. When Briton Hadden and Henry Luce brought out the first issue of Time, they surprised and then enlarged the need for a scrutinizing, informative, biographic journalism which no one had so skillfully diagnosed before. And when DeWitt and Lila Wallace projected the Reader’s Digest, it was with the quiet confidence that American ideas and homely philosophy in an abbreviated, simplified form would be relished by a mass audience which had never yet been regularly fed by any magazine. At the end of World War II, as we entered the atomic age, it was the prescience of a brilliant editor, Gerard Piel, which revived the Scientific American and made it the source of light which it is today.
The tragedy is that so few magazines can be handed on, so many of them perish with their original editor. Henry Mencken, with his magnificent prejudices and gusty encouragement, could keep the American Mercury going for hardly a decade, and Cyril Connolly, who had made Horizon into the best of the English reviews, also closed shop after ten years. Salty and quixotic as he was, Albert Jay Nock could not keep the Freeman alive for half that time. Magazines fail for a variety of reasons: because they have been edited too exclusively for one generation and have too little in common with the next; because they have kept an aging editor too long at his post (watch yourself, men), as was the case with Scribner’s; because they no longer feel the pulse of their public —for example, the Literary Digest; because their readers have outgrown them, as happened to that darling of my youth, St. Nicholas; or because, like Collier’s, they have muddied their identity in the ruck of competition. Every periodical strives to be pre-eminent and different, and when the public no longer values this difference, as happened to Century, Forum, and the Bookman — and half a hundred others — the days are numbered. Such obsolescence explains why in the English-speaking world the magazines which have been published in character and without a break for more than a century can be numbered on the fingers of one hand: in Britain one thinks of Punch and Blackwood’s, in the United States of the Atlantic and Harper’s.


Of the four men who have edited Harper’s since World War I the ablest were Frederick Lewis Allen, who held the post from 1941 to 1953, and his successor, John Fischer. From the time I was in college Fred Allen was my mentor, and the fact that we became rivals in later life can be attributed in no small part to the example he set and the training he gave me. He had what I should define as the perfect editorial temperament: unflagging curiosity, an eagerness that led his contributors to outdo themselves, an affectionate sense of humor, and a right-mindedness that guided his choice of material and his choice of English. He believed passionately in the mission of this country, and that it would never turn back, and this liberal yet critical spirit of his shines in the best of his books, notably in Only Yesterday. Few editors have the time or ability to write — Ross of the New Yorker couldn’t write worth a fig — but Fred took time off without pay to do his and came back to the sanctum refreshed by the exercise.
One of the features in Harpers which we have envied is the Editor’s Easy Chair, a distillation of candor, criticism, and pleasantry which, oddly enough, was usually written not by the editor but by a hired hand. All through Allen’s editorship the late Bernard DeVoto used the chair for his pungent, upbraiding defense of the causes that were dear to him, such as conservation. Penetrating social criticism, provocative enough to arouse the reader, is always a rare commodity, and when DeVoto died, there was no successor in sight. So the new editor, JOHN FISCHER, filled in and has continued to do so to the present. How well will be seen in his new book, THE STUPIDITY PROBLEM and other Harassments: Field Notes on American Myths, Manners, Money, Writers, Rules & Nonsexual Behavior (Harper & Row, $4.95).
A poll would show that Jack Fischer’s copy is the first thing male readers of Harper’s turn to in a new issue, for what he says and the way he says it. His spectrum of interest is astonishingly wide, and instead of hitting one over the head with a sockful of information, he entices the reader to come in and enjoy his confidence. His style is clear, his dry wit exhilarating, and he has a heaven-sent gift for exposing what is ludicrous in American behavior. His papers are segregated into four assortments: Unfinished Business, The Writer’s Trade, Politician Watching, and Legends; whether he is throwing fresh light on birth control, or nominating, with good reasons, James Gould Cozzens for a Nobel Prize, or explaining, with due deference to English teachers, Why Nobody Can’t Write Good, or nailing down the alarmingly large subsidies that go to the big farmers, or setting up a fund to examine the “nonsexual behavior of the human female,” this is quizzical common sense in the tradition of Mark Twain.


Probably the bravest book of the year is MISSISSIPPI: THE CLOSED SOCIETY by JAMES W. SlLVER of the University of Mississippi (Harcourt, Brace & World, $4.75). A native of Rochester, New York, he has lived in the South since he was twelve; he was educated in the public schools of North Carolina, at Chapel Hill, and at Vanderbilt, where he took his doctorate; and he has been a member of the faculty of Ole Miss and its foremost historian since 1936. Across the years his has been a moderating and creative influence on campus. He has been an inspired teacher whom other universities have tried to tempt away; a man who has shared his friendships, such as that with William Faulkner, with the students; a reader who helped to establish the browsing room in memory of David L. Cohn; and a conciliator who has expressed his temperate philosophy at the cost of whatever abuse.
Jim Silver is uniquely qualified to explain, as he does in this book, how the Civil War, which was fought in part to free the way for civil rights, was lost in Mississippi after the Reconstruction, and how the delusion of white supremacy took hold of even the most cultivated minds and grew into an obsession. Mississippians, he tells us, have long since forgotten that they were Americans before they were Southerners. Through poll taxes, residence, registration, literacy tests, and the socalled white primary, the Negro was effectually eliminated from participation in politics, and for going on ninety years the state has quietly and grimly nullified the Constitution. Even as sensitive and highly intelligent a Mississippian as William Alexander Percy “would be able to look back on ballot thievery with moral satisfaction, as a necessity.” So closed is the society, he concludes, that “in 1964 Mississippi is the only state . . . where voter registration drives have brought meager results, and where even the U.S. Department of Justice has been largely baffled.”
The first half of his book is an amplification of an address which he bravely delivered as the president of the Southern Historical Association. In the second half he reprints letters of verification which he wrote to various friends immediately following the insurrection on the campus of September 30, 1962, unimpeachable evidence of how that rioting was sparked. It is difficult for the great majority of Americans to sympathize with Mississippi, but it is highly important that we understand the reasoning of its “closed society” and what hope there may be for a reformation.


On November 20, 1648, Cromwell and his officers laid before the House of Commons their demand that King Charles I be brought to trial. Ten weeks later, on January 30, his head was struck off in the open street outside his own Banqueting House of Whitehall. The events of that fateful span, the unprecedented costs which the Commissioners followed in trying their King, the confrontation of the strong men and the caution of the weak, the courageous behavior of the King, the ruthlessness of Cromwell, and the reaction of the Londoners form the tapestry of C. V. WEDGWOOD’S A COFFIN FOR KING CHARLES (Macmillan, $5.95). This is a sequel to her earlier volumes The king’s War and The King’s Peace, and in itself is a historical narrative so full of character, so careful in judgment, and so beautifully and at times so powerfully expressed that one reads it with slow and lingering pleasure.

The year 1648 had been a dire one, with much rain, bad harvest, high army taxes, and the country restive and disgruntled by a peace that seemed frail. Charles, a prisoner on the Isle of Wight, had about reached the end of his conspiracies. Believing as he did in the Divine Right of his authority, he could not and would not accept the peace terms which the moderates in Parliament placed upon him while the army was cleaning up in the north. With Cromwell’s return, Charles was left with little doubt about what his fate would be, and before the time for his trial was set, it seemed clear that he would sacrifice his life rather than yield.
The planning of the trial in the Painted Chamber of Westminster, and the dramatic way in which it comes to its climax, Miss Wedgwood has described with a vivid sense of participation. Her skill in weighing men’s motives and in comparing what the regicides said then to the way they would behave eleven years later, when they would be squirming for their lives, gives this book the inexorable quality of justice, just as the King’s parting with his two children and the account which the Princess Elizabeth wrote down after they were separated give the story its recurring note of compassion and pity.


A source book for historians and for all students of German psychology, TERENCE PRITTIE’S GERMANS AGAINST HITLER (Atlantic—Little, Brown, $5.75) is the true story of the open and underground opposition to Hitler, of the plots entered into by generals, clergy, diplomats, and students as brave as Hans and Sophie Scholl. Mr. Prittie is today the chief diplomatic correspondent for the Manchester Guardian. His firsthand knowledge of the Nazis began in 1932; during the war he four times escaped from German P.O.W, camps, and from 1946 to 1963 he was the Guardian’s correspondent in Bonn. In that long exposure he uncovered and evaluated the courageous and futile efforts, so often ending in brutal execution, of the tiny minority who dared stand up against Hitler. As a friend of the author and the editor of his books, it is enough that I should recommend this book to those who want to know the bitter truth.