The Peripatetic Reviewer

BY EDWARD WEEKS
THE problem of teaching English has been enormously complicated in our time, partly because the different bloodstreams of thirty million immigrants have carried us further and further away from our original Anglo-Saxon base, and partly because the students of today do not depend on books as we once did: they derive as much emotional satisfaction from the screen and the long-playing record as they do from the printed word. Boiled down to its essentials, the problem is this: how to convince students that correct English is not, like Latin, a dead language, and that it is truly in their interest to learn how to use it. This is no problem at all for that small fraction — perhaps 10 percent of a class — for whom reading is enchantment; they take in good English through their pores, and they build up their vocabularies the way some people build up a bank account.
But the remaining nine tenths in any English class assume an attitude like that of the heroine of My Fair Lady when she sings “Show Me! Show Me!” They need, many of them, to be shown how to read, and they need to be shown that there is a syntax, a bone structure of each sentence, without which clarity cannot be achieved. They need to know the agreement between subject and predicate, the difference between “will” and shall, and that to use the word “massive” three times in a single paragraph has less than massive effect.
During the war years, because of the shortage of teachers, the weekly theme dropped out of use, and after the war, instead of grading high school seniors or college freshmen on their capacity to articulate, it was easier to grade them on their ability to recognize fact. “Identify the heroine of Vanity Fair,” says the examination. “Identify the hero of David Copperfield,” but the examiners do not underscore in red as they once did the blunders in the writing. This sloppiness in expression has been magnified by television: America is the home of the cheap phrase, the cheap cliché, endlessly repeated; the home of bastard words like “contacted” and “winterize,” of barbarisms like “think modern” and “taste good like a cigarette should&38221; ; or of sheer nonsense hkt inegardless and “most unique.” (Unique is one ot a kind; Marlene Dietrich or Picasso is unique, and neither one needs a qualifier.) Out of all this carelessness there has developed a kind of contemptuous defiance toward good English, with the result that since the end of the war, freshman English has become one of the most detested courses in the catalogue.
Under spirited direction this disdain can be sloughed off, some of it in freshman year, some of it later. My friend Edwin Peterson has been teaching freshman English at the University of Pittsburgh for more than two decades, but it was only live years ago that he made the most audacious discovery in his career: he realized that his students looked to the screen for much of their entertainment, whether in television or movie, and that if he used the screen in his teaching, he had a better chance of reaching their minds. On an acetate base Professor Peterson has devised slides — passages from novels, poems, or from the students’ papers — and using a projector, he is able to underscore or correct these slides with a grease pencil in full view of a class of four hundred. Say, for instance, that he wishes to drill his students in the recognition and use of the topic sentence. Up will come a slide on which there are two paragraphs chosen from Donald Culross Peattie, in each of which the topic sentence is so dominant that no one can miss it. Then he will show a slide of passages from Tom Wolfe, in which the topic sentence is more concealed but still powerful, and the students themselves must find it. Or suppose that he wants to show Hemingway’s use of the verb. On the screen will appear a characteristic passage, and he can drop on an overlay that colors the verbs red or blue or green.
The breakthrough was exhilarating, and last year 97 percent of the fourteen hundred freshmen at Pitt voted that their compulsory course in English composition was one of their favorites in the freshman year. This year the Peterson slides, five hundred of them supporting the instruction for two full terms, are being used in more than a hundred colleges. It can be done.

THE MAN WHO REMADE BOSTON

BULFINCH’s BOSTON, 1787-1817, by HAROLD and JAMES KIRKER (Oxford University Press, $7.50), explains why Boston alone of our Northern cities has such a proud and comely heritage of public and private buildings representative of the first flood tide of the post-Revolutionary prosperity. The book is a social history of a lively time, and the biography of a man of rare charm and ability who transformed the town at the loss of his own fortune.
Boston, as the Kirkers emphasize, was the most conservative of the major Colonial seaports and the most homogeneous. “The Puritan ascendancy supported a spirit of suspicion and exclusiveness” ; it ruled out all theatrical productions, and its public buildings, save for an exception like King’s Chapel, were stiff and dull. The homes were mostly of clapboard, like the Paul Revere house, and were victims of intermittent fires; and the few provincial mansions, square set and of brick, belonged to the wealthy merchants allied to the Crown and were obvious targets for the Sons of Liberty. When the Tories fled from Boston in the evacuation of 1775, they left behind them a vacuum which was not to be disturbed until young Charles Bulfinch returned from his grand tour in 1786.
Bulfinch was born to wealth — his mother was an Apthorp, one of the most powerful of the Loyalist families — and he had, so to speak, a foot in each camp. When on his graduation from Harvard he went abroad for eighteen months, he visited his relatives who had found refuge in London; and although he spent many months on the Continent, it was in Georgian England, with its revival of neoclassicism, its Palladian country houses, and the exciting crescents which Robert Adam was designing in Bath, that the young dilettante found his greatest pleasure. As the authors say, he was never again to be free from these memories, and the drawings and architectural books which he brought home with him were the inspiration for the new Federalist Boston.
Until then the town had never recognized the need for a professional architect, much less the obligation to pay him a decent fee!
in thirty years Bulfinch changed Boston from a town of wood to a town of brick, and the Kirkers show how versatile was his genius. Pleasant Hill, the country place which he designed almost as a gift for Joseph Barrell, had among other innovations an elliptical center salon which was to be widely copied. His neoclassic facade for the federal Street Theater helped to dignify that form of entertainment; he remodeled Faneuil Hall; and his two most ambitious projects were the Tontine Crescent, a sequence of sixteen town houses, semielliptical, with eight identical porches (a scheme redolent of Bath), which drgve him into bankruptcy in 1794, and the Massachusetts Statehouse, which later helped to pull him out. More personal were his beautiful designs for Beacon Hill, which, like the Crescent, were only partially realized, but the homes he built for his most generous benefactor, Harrison Gray Otis, are today his crowning glory.

TWO NOVELS

FULL FATIIOM FIVE, the short novel by JOHN STEWART CARTER (Houghton Mifflin, $4.95), is what used to be called a housemaid’s delight. But since that species is extinct, it will be enough to call it a romantic story about a very rich American family who have had the money and license to do what they please for three generations. The narrative comes to us through the eyes and emotions of Tom Scott, a poet and the grandson of the founder. Tom has been keeping a mental tally on everyone, and in a style which is lustrous at best and fruity at worst, he fits together the peccadilloes of his uncles; his grandmother’s passion for Edward Sciarrha, the operatic tenor; that same Edward’s seduction of Tom’s favorite cousin, Corinne; and other private affairs. To the extent in which you believe in Tom you accept the validity of what is going on.
Writers like Joseph Hergesheimer could have a lot of fun describing the superficial pleasure of spending money, but there was always one risk involved &emdash the risk of sounding pretentious. Mr. Carter is guilty of pretense, and it shows up again and again as a soft spot. He has a gift for description and a sure touch for the sensual detail, as in young Tom’s first evening at the Folies Bergère, but he goes too far. Edward’s speech at the dinner party following his triumph at La Scala is supposed to be poignant and a key to the whole chapter, but it goes on so long that it becomes tedious, and I cannot imagine why it wasn’t cut. Again, in the first chapter we have Uncle Tom, a playboy and a Navy pilot in the First World War, whom the young narrator worships. Uncle Tom, after an assortment of girls, drifts into banking; he never reads, and he can’t spell at forty, yet at sixty in some preposterous way he is hard at work in a university extension program writing a thesis on the restricted vocabulary in Racine and Hemingway. Young Tom with his emulation of Scott Fitzgerald is a bundle of pretensions, but I have never yet found a poet in fiction who rang true.
A COVENANT WITH DEATH by STEPHEN BECKER (Atheneum, $4.50) is a novel about the murder of the most attractive woman in Soledad City, a small town close to the Mexican border; about the suspicions that inflame the little town in the midst of its hottest summer; and the trial which follows. In its ironic way the story embraces the entire community and is told with a pepper-and-salt naturalness which I find most agreeable. The year is 1923, and the narrator is young Judge Lewis, a war veteran who is twenty-nine, half Mexican, as amorous as a tomcat, and well supplied with brains. He has been untested until the killing of Louise Talbot, but it falls to him to render the final charge and verdict, and in the agonizing process he proves his fitness. The story does not dig as deep as Anatomy of a Murder, but the characterizations are deft, Tom’s maturing is plausible to watch, and his Mexican mother is a circus.

TO KEEP YOUR MARRIAGE BRIMMING

The competition, the laughable habits, and the cooperation inherent in a marriage of whatever length supply the themes for the OGDEN NASH MARRIAGE LINES (Little, Brown, $3.95), whose voice of experience, with its oddball rhymes and inveterate good humor, keeps diverting one from the expected with lines like
She goes walking in the Bois
With elegant young men who are not moi.
The funniest, cleverest statement of the eternal differences is the poem “I Do, 1 Will, I Have. The poet elfects a neat surprise in venting his weary complaint at feminine delay in “I’m Sure She Said Six-Thirty,” and his love lyrics to the Over Insured and to husbands who are iikely to get “drunk and disordelaise” on too much Cordon Bleu cooking are satire fresh and accurate. When one plays the game with Mr. Nash, one is supposed to close an eye and try to anticipate the preposterous rhyme that is coming up. But one can never miss or say so well his common sense:
To keep your marriage brimming
,
With love in the loving cup,
Whenever you’re wrong, admit it;
Whenever you’re right, shut up.