OF THE wise and most successful book publishers in the generation before mine, I should rank, though not necessarily in the order of my affection, Ferris Greenslet, Alfred Harcourt, Max Perkins, Alfred McIntyre, George P. Brett, John Macrae, Alfred Knopf, and Harold Latham. I am not trying to draw a distinction between those who were the better editors or the better businessmen; I do say that these eight set a standard for American publishing which we juniors have not found it easy to emulate: they believed in quality, they endowed their books with the imprint of their taste and devotion, and with the exception of old Mr. Brett, their capacity for friendship made literary history. I speak of them with varying degrees of intimacy, and I should judge HAROLD LATHAM to be the most modest and the least irascible of them all. Macmillan authors found him a comfortable man to work with, and the explanation is now at hand in the portraits from memory and the genial, often acute account of his editorial experience, MY LIFE IN PUBLISHING (Dutton, $5.00).
He went to work for the Macmillan Company on his graduation from Columbia at a salary of fourteen dollars a week. The firm in its impressive building on lower Fifth Avenue was the American offshoot of the venerable English publishers, and while the ownership was then vested in London, the American director, George P. Brett, a brusque autocrat, had built up the prestige of the school and college texts and had woven together a trade list from both countries including Edwin Arlington Robinson, Vachel Lindsay, H. G. Wells, John Masefield, Owen Wister, Jack London, Albert Schweitzer, Tagore, and William Allen White, to name a few. In terms of distinction as in terms of production, the American Macmillan’s under Mr. Brett had become a formidable power with earnings which in time allowed the firm to buy out the English shares.
In his quiet way Harold Latham added mightily to that power. There is something about a fat man that invites confidence, and Harold Latham was comfortably stout: he was a sympathetic listener, and he had the gift of affiliating himself with his authors whatever their age. Hamlin Garland wanted him as a neighbor and proposed him for membership in the Onteora Club in the Catskills, and Edwin Arlington Robinson when he came to Manhattan wanted Latham to dine with him and then take him on to the snazziest musical comedy. Young Latham had early discovered that even the messiest manuscript could sometimes contain gold, and it was on a scouting trip to Atlanta that he succeeded in shaking Margaret Mitchell free of that vast suitcase full of Gone With the Wind. The story of how he did it is now a legend which only he should tell, but I think the remark which finally sprung her was made when they were motoring out to Stone Mountain: he had made some uncomplimentary remarks about some of the novels then coming from the South which he characterized as “sordid,” adding that he wished someone would write on a really big Southern theme! Another messy manuscript, and one which he had to take on faith, was the bits and pieces on which Richard Llewellyn scribbled the opening chapter of How Green Was My Valley. Those few sheets had been written on a London park bench, but there was enough talent in them to justify a sizable advance and a contract. On his annual trip to England Latham would motor up to Burcotc Brook to have tea or supper with John Masefield; and on one of his last visits, H. G. Wells insisted that he read the entire manuscript of Experiment in Autobiography under H.G.’s watchful eye, to make sure that the editor was properly appreciative!
Finally, there was his “harem,” though Harold himself would never have termed it so: in England, Vera Brittain, Phyllis Bentley, Winifred Holtby, and G. B. Stern, and with ns, Mary Ellen Chase, Gladys Hasty Carroll, Agnes Sligh Turnbull, Maude Adams, Kathleen YVinsor, and my favorite, Rachel Field, whose poem which she sent him in 1934 on the eve of his sailing for England, “ABC lor the Edification & Entertainment of a LongSuffering Editor,” is a tribute from the heart.
In his appreciation of this book, James A. Michener, whose Tales of the South Pacific was one of Latham’s discoveries, says that “Mr. Latham reminds us of the ethics that used to prevail in publishing, of the triumphs that were possible in finding and bringing to the public distinguished works of art, and of the gratification that men of taste had when they were able to work with writers who were trying to express significant thoughts.”
These may be the ethics of an age which is past, though I should hate to believe it, but certainly the patience, the sympathy, and the candor of a man like Harold Latham will be looked for in the editors of tomorrow.
LOVE IN THE MUSIC HALLS
A Yorkshireman who lives today in an elegant regency mansion named Kissing Tree House, J. B. PRIESTLEY has never forgotten his love for the West Riding and the small towns which he knew as a boy. He came down to London to make his way as a writer, and over the decades has fifty-two books and fifteen plays to show for his industry. A novelist with Dickens’ zest for sentiment and laughter, he captured his American readership with his first big novel, The Good Companions, which was published in 1929; it was a story of English actors on tour, and now, thirtysix years later, in his new novel, LOST EMPIRES (Atlantic-Little, Brown, $5.95), he has come back to the same rich and picaresque sources, the music halls of 1913 and 1914, which bred the great comedians and which were so soon to be blacked out, first by the war and then by the movies.
For a season haunted by droughts, civil riots, and Vietnam, when each day’s news is as bleak as the next, Lost Empires is the happiest kind of distraction. Mr. Priestley, who was born in 1894, knows from first impressions the theater life, out front and backstage. His characters, dancers, comedians, jugglers, dwarfs, and magicians have the quaintness of the period but not the innocence of the picaresque. Mr. Priestley is a master of episodes, and they flow with variety and vividness. As his four leads he has chosen Nancy, the actress in spite of herself, for the ingenue; Julie Blanc, the Julie of Show Boat, for his temptress; Dick Herncastle, a good-looking hero straight out of Horatio Alger; and for the control of his narrative, the cynical magician, Dick’s uncle, Ganga Dun.
The story is told through the eyes of Dick, a young man of taste, unused to the stage and unversed in sex, hence an appealing interpreter of the loves and feuds in which he is soon immersed. Dick’s real ambition is to paint landscapes, and he is serving his apprenticeship in vaudeville so as to have money enough to study at the Slade. Meanwhile, he learns about women from Nancy, who rebuffs him, from Julie, who intends to be his instructor, and from Gissie, his uncle’s mistress, who can never keep any confidence to herself.
There is nothing very subtle in Mr. Priestley’s capacious stories; everyone warns Dick that lie is to be undone; the only question is how Julie will manage it, and we read on with plausible curiosity. Similarly, there is never any real question that Dick will find Nancy in the end and be forgiven just as he would in any well-drilled musical comedy. He does, and she does, and so goes a pleasant evening!
THE HEROIC BLUNDER
In the spring of 1915 the major powers at war had every one of them been defeated in their initial objectives: the Germans had failed to take Paris, the French had failed to recapture AlsaceLorraine, and the Russians had lost a million men and a million rifles at Tannenberg. Early that winter the British Cabinet, one of the most intelligent assortments ever to gather about the green baize, sought an alternative to the stalemate in Flanders; and driven by the enthusiasm of Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, with the tentative backing of Lord Kitchener, whose judgment carried more weight than that of Prime Minister Asquith, plans were made for a naval assault on the Dardanelles. At the outset it was to be exclusively a naval engagement, but despile the fact that in the preliminary bombardment a lucky hit blew up the magazine of one of the Turkish forts, the British ships took such a pounding that the admiral lost his ardor. The minefield could not be cleared by the slow trawlers, and eventually Kitchener relented and agreed that troops should be sent too. So the Marines, the Anzac Corps, the veteran Twenty-ninth Division, and a French division were dispatched for an attack on Gallipoli which it was hoped would change the nature of the war.
Ehus began a most poignant, provocative campaign which with its blunders became infinitely more costly than the charge of the Light Brigade, for the blundering and fighting of the next seven and a half months were to cost nearly half a million Allied and Turkish casualties. There is no disputing the audacity of Churchill’s plan, which he sprang on the Cabinet at the end of a long dull day, nor the fact subsequently confirmed by German and Turkish sources that had the amphibian assault been vigorously pressed soon after the bombardment and before the end of February, it might well have succeeded. Many have explored the big if’s of this heroic undertaking, but I think the nearest thing we shall have to the final word, a graphic, judgmatic narration remarkable for its insight and characterization, is GALUPOU: THE HISTORY OF A NOBLE BLUNDER (Macmillan, $12.50) by ROBERT RHODES JAMES. This is more accurate than Alan Moorchcad’s wellassimilated volume and more exciting.
With access to the documents from both sides, with his close knowledge of the terrain, his interviews with the survivors, and his acumen in cutting through the special pleading of all who have testified— from Winston Churchill in The World Crisis to the memoirs of the officers engaged Mr. James has underscored the loose planning that went on in Whitehall and fateful divergencies such as those between Churchill and Admiral Fisher or between the cautious Admiral de Robeck and his impetuous chief of staff, Roger Keyes. “Keyes,”a fellow officer wrote, “was not capable of cool reasoning. The most dangerous way was best to him. Surprise and the offensive spirit has, and might have, achieved a miracle, but he thought it the answer to every problem. . . . Keyes was too much of a visionary, and in London the Cabinet felt the same about Winston.”
How close that vision came to success! By March, long before the first troops had landed, the Turks had expended half their ammunition and were still reeling from the effect of the naval guns, but the fatal weakness of the divided British command led to endless delay: sixty-five days elapsed between the opening of the naval attack and the landings on April 25, and in thaL interminable interim, the Turkish defenses were transformed: the Turks called in the German strategist General Liman von Sanders to take command, and when at last the Australians and the gallant Twenty-ninth flung themselves ashore on cliffs carpeted with wild flowers, they were mowed down by the withering fire. The firsthand accounts of the punishing landings remind me of Pickett’s charge as we saw it in The Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, and Mr. James’s remarkable analysis of character lays bare the secret reservations and the passionate differences among the leaders which, with the best of intentions, led men to their death and defeat.
We know now, thanks to the author’s retrospect, when the Turks were most in peril, and that had there been a young Marlborough instead of an Ian Hamilton in command, Churchill’s dream might have come true.