BY OSCAR HANDLIN
UWE JOHNSON’S TWO VIEWS (Harcourt, Brace & World, $4.50) is one of the finest novels to come out of post-war Germany. At its simplest level, it is a gripping story with a somewhat unexpected denouement. But without deliberate didacticism it conveys deeper meanings.
A boy and a girl think they are in love. They are ordinary people; he is a photographer in a small town near Hamburg, she is a nurse in East Berlin. They meet casually and arrange to see each other again. Then the Wall separates them. Their personal fate becomes entwined with that of the divided city. Before, they had given no thought to their relationships with society; both had accepted the regimes under which they lived as a matter of course. The Wall forces them to consider the consequences for their own lives of the kinds of government which rule them. Ultimately she decides to flee to the West, and an elaborate escape permits her defection.
A simple narrative device carries the story forward. The boy and the girl, whose paths do not intersect again until the end, are described separately; a chapter on his actions alternates with one on hers, so that the setting moves back and forth across the Wall. Gradually, peripheral characters and places become familiar— the head nurse, the bar, the town, and the hospital.
Johnson makes no effort to describe either the East or the West in general terms. Instead, an accumulation of incidents and observations subtly reveals the interpenetration of the social system and personal character. The nurse only obliquely discovers the restrictions which surround her. She learns, without being aware of doing so, to pretend to be someone else when she is with people connected with the state, people recognizable by their vocabulary, manner of posing questions, insignia, uniforms, and behavior. In time she also learns the meaning of fear, the sense of being painfully awake, alert as never before.
The photographer exemplifies the aimless freedom of the West. He embarks upon frequent, pointless plane rides to Berlin and then back to Hamburg. He is perennially short of money, yet wastes the windfall a lucky accident brings him. He wanders into bars, meets girls, gets drunk, all without purpose. In a curious but credible way his love for the nurse is confused with his fascination with his sports car; toward the end when his nerve fails under the pressure of waiting for the escape, he hastens to the factory to get his new auto.
In a sense, Johnson’s novel falls within the pre-war German tradition of the romance of the little man. Two Views rises above that tradition by the eschewal of sentimentality and by tautness of style. There is no waste of words or ideas. The direct simple sentences, hard in detail, force the reader to live the story.
VIEWS OF URBAN LIFE
The city, which presents us with some of our greatest challenges and opportunities, fixed the attention of creative artists before it became an object of study by social scientists. In the relative anonymity of its dense population, men could escape convention, tradition, and communal ties. The uppermost groups did not feel the responsibility they did in more orderly settings, the lowermost escaped the restraints. Painters and poets perceived the effects on passions and appetites sooner than did sociologists or historians.
London was the first great modern city. Once it recovered from the fires and plagues of the seventeenth century, it spread beyond the old limiting walls to house a rapidly growing multitude. Nurtured in the eighteenth century by an expanding empire, it developed earlier than any of its rivals the disagreeable as well as the pleasant attributes of urban life. Its modernity lay not only in its size but also in the density and variety of the hordes of men and women who crowded into it from the countryside. Its nervous, unsettled life in many ways early anticipated that of the metropolis of the twentieth century.
Through these crowded streets passed William Hogarth, his inquisitive eye taking it all in, his magic pencil setting it all down. A native of the place and an artisan by background, his instinctive sympathy reached out toward the human beings struggling against the harsh conditions of this environment. In the 1730s he began to fashion his series of superb engravings of London life.
THE WORLD OF HOGARTH (Houghton Mifflin, $12.50) contains good reproductions of some of these pictures. But its great value lies in its publication, for the first time in English, of the commentaries by Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, translated by Innes and Gustav Herdan. In this case, the text illustrates pictures; together they form a superb introduction to urban life at the beginning of the modern period.
Lichtenberg was a brilliant professor of physics at Gottingen University. Crippled in his youth, he led a rather cloistered life. Yet he was a man of learning, wit, and deep human compassion. He visited England twice in the 1770s and became intimately familiar with the London Hogarth had described forty years earlier.
The commentaries are not, technically speaking, criticisms of the engravings. Nor are they literally accurate interpretations of what Hogarth had in mind. They are, rather, imaginative evocations of the setting and the people. The pictures stimulate Lichtenberg’s thoughts, and he wanders off in a narrative of what the story might be. Yet he is spared the plunge into fantasy because he keeps coming back to the details of the engravings, which he explains and amplifies out of a memory stocked with information about his subject. The result is a view of London society, and particularly of its lower sectors, as vivid as that which Hogarth left.
At the end of the nineteenth century, New York experienced some of the problems which London had encountered much earlier. But the absence of an aristocracy left the American city leaderless and compounded the disorganization of its life. Manhattan was certainly the home of enough men of wealth, but they lacked either the political power or the social status to win them widespread deference. Even the four hundred families who formed the self-styled elite of the community were nervous in their roles and eager for such tokens of cultural superiority as would validate their claims to pre-eminence.
THE SMART SET: A HISTORY AND ANTHOLOGY by CARL R. DOLMETSCH (Dial, $15.00) offers a fascinating view of the tastes of that society and provides the material for an estimate of the outcome of its aspirations. The Smart Set, “the Magazine of Cleverness,” was founded in 1890 by Colonel William D. Mann, an enterprising publisher and man about town, who aimed to gratify the taste for culture of the would-be aristocracy. His deliberate intention was to make the publication a status symbol to be displayed on library tables as evidence of elegance and to supply the material for polite conversation. It survived for a quarter of a century under the editorships of Charles Hanson Towne, Willard Huntington Wright, George Jean Nathan, and H. L. Mencken, before it passed ignominiously into the Hearst empire and then faded out of existence. The New Yorker, a journal of quite a different sort, then took its place.
Professor Dolmetsch has written an illuminating history of the Smart Set. He deals lucidly not only with the internal history of the publication but also with the literary currents it reflected and the society to which it catered. He has joined to the narrative a judiciously selected anthology of the fiction, verse, and illustrations that appeared in the magazine. The volume is a strikingly useful contribution to American cultural history.
The Smart Set succeeded despite itself. Intended to cater to the rather empty cultural pretensions of the Four Hundred, it nevertheless brought to American audiences the stories of James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, D. H. Lawrence, and Anatole France, the poetry of Ezra Pound, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Robinson Jeffers, and the plays of Eugene O’Neill. The paradox was due to more than the enterprise of its capable editors. The cultural setting permitted the editors to experiment more freely than did journals with attentive readers.
The disconcerting truth was that the Smart Set, bought to be possessed rather than to be read, did not have to cater to the literary tastes of its purchasers except in the somewhat vague sense of being clever. The nouveaux riches who aped transatlantic manners were eager for imports of every sort. For a time, the Smart Set described itself as “The only American Magazine with an European Air,” and it regularly printed pieces in French which it bought wholesale from Paris. The willingness to accept novelty described as fashion and the lack of authentic standards permitted the editors to follow their own inclinations and to exploit talent that often could not get a hearing elsewhere.
Shortly after the Constitutional Convention of 1787 had finished its work, George Washington noted that it was “little short of a miracle” that the delegates from so many different states were able to reach an agreement upon a scheme of national government. The endless bickering in the Continental Congress since independence and the actual diversity of the country certainly had not encouraged hopes for such a happy outcome. Indeed, there had been grounds for the belief in the years before 1787 that the experiment in republicanism might shortly come to a disastrous end. Yet the handiwork of that convention endured; the political system there contrived outlasted that of any other modern state.
In MIRACLE AT PHILADELPHIA (Atlantic—Little, Brown, $7.50), CATHERINE DRINKER BOWEN brings that fateful gathering to life. Step by step she follows the proceedings of the men who formed the Constitution through the four months of their deliberations. She digresses briefly to survey the state of the nation during the summer of 1787; and there is a concise discussion of the complex process by which the states ratified the Constitution. But the focus of attention is on the hall in which the fifty-five delegates met. Their thoughts and actions supply the material for a dramatic story.
Mrs. Bowen is at her best in the delineation of character, and she deals here with forceful personalities —Washington, Franklin, Hamilton, Madison, Roger Sherman, and James Wilson, among others. Her account is not original; other historians have worked through the same materials. Nor is she overly concerned with political theory or constitutional law. But she has done her research thoroughly, has made herself familiar with the primary sources, and presents a lucid description of what went on, avoiding the scholarly controversies about many aspects of the subject.
That the Constitution did not spring solely from the genius of the men in Philadelphia, she is well aware. “Miracles,” she points out, “do not occur at random.”By 1787, Americans had already had considerable experience in constitution-making within the individual states. They had also inherited a body of political practices and theories from their British and colonial past. These aspects of the subject remain largely outside the scope of her book. But within her own terms, she has written a lively and informative work.
THE WAY TO PEACE
The revival of infantile leftism in recent years has returned to prominence some of the exotic characters of the 1930s. If I. F. Stone can be regarded as a serious journalist, then A. J. Muste may be accepted as a profound political thinker.
Yet Muste’s newfound popularity is significant. Of course, his pacifism and his advocacy of nonviolent resistance attract the perennially young. For Paul Goodman, A. J. Muste “is an authentic Great Man, not a stage hero or an image of public relations.” For Nat Hentoff, Muste is an analyst “of the nature and potential of man and of society.” The subject of these encomiums is now in his eighties. His actions and his words form a substantial record against which to measure these judgments.
THE ESSAYS OF A. J. MUSTE (BobbsMerrill, $8.50), edited by Nat Hentoff, pulls together a long autobiographical statement, written about six years ago, and more than twenty shorter articles dotted across the years from 1905 to 1966. The reminiscences are the most interesting section of the book. They deal with a boyhood in Holland, migration to Michigan, and involvement in the labor movement between 1919 and 1930, when the fortunes of American workers were at their lowest.
The autobiography also traces an erratic spiritual pilgrimage. Ordained a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church, Muste found its “Calvinist dogma” untenable and moved to a Congregationalist pulpit. During the First World War, he became a pacifist and joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation, although he was also enrolled as a minister of the Society of Friends. After the war he became a member of a communal “Comradeship,” then involved himself in the Brookwood Labor College. In the 1930s he dabbled in radical politics and led a small Trotskyite sect before reverting to Christian pacifism in time to oppose resistance to Hitler.
The flat account of these peregrinations is fascinating in its total want of introspection. There is no hint of mental turmoil in the shifts that punctuated Muste’s career. Nor, by his own account, were his conversions intellectual; his “detour” into Trotskyism, for instance, did not follow a serious study of Marxist doctrine. His position at any moment rested upon an inner, emotional apprehension of the truth.
Therein lies his attraction to the radicals of the 1960s, for whom the call to action is a substitute for thought. When the objective — peace — is transcendentally correct, there is no need for ideology; there is only the obligation to do something, if only to bear witness to the truth. Above all, when the commitment to a single value such as peace is absolute, the burden of choice vanishes. England and Germany were both wrong in 1914; Churchill and Hitler were both struggling for empire in 1940; North Korea attacked in 1950, but South Korea provoked it. It made no difference who won in any of these cases, because in each, both sides erred in taking up arms.
One must question the moral coherence, not to say the good sense, of a faith that forbids the victim to defend himself against aggression arid that subordinates all other values to nonresistance. The refusal to recognize that there are degrees of guilt and greater and lesser goods and evils is possible only to those convinced that they know the true nature of saintliness. Even Gandhi, whom Muste admires, understood that the outcome of the wars of 1914 and 1939 would make a difference and therefore lent his support to the British. Muste by contrast, in the zeal of his opposition to American intervention in Vietnam, finds himself defending the not very peaceful Marshal Lin’s claims to suzerainty over all Southeast Asia.
RECENT SOCIAL CHANGES
Deprivation of the ballot and exclusion from any role in politics were important elements in establishing the inferiority of the Negro’s status in the South. The restoration of his political rights, therefore, became an important feature of the struggle for equality during the past decade. The vote, bitterly fought for and grudgingly gained, was expected to unlock all other opportunities.
NEGROES AND TIIE NEW SOUTHERN POLITICS by DONALD R. MATTHEWS and JAMES W. PROTHRO (Harcourt, Brace & World, $12.50) is the first serious effort to measure the consequences of the changes of the 1960s. Written by two able political scientists, the book draws together a great deal of important information, based upon surveys in depth as well as upon a review of the published data.
The conclusions are sobering. The vote has limitations as a political resource for Southern Negroes. In some places, they win the ballot merely to find themselves a permanent political minority. Generally, they can make their wishes effective only through biracial coalitions. The shortage of capable Negro leaders, which may become even more acute in the future, limits their capacity for action even when such coalitions are possible. In any case, the Negroes have been able to achieve their goals only when the costs of abandoning segregation have been relatively low for the white community. They have gone farthest in issues which affected the public sector of society and in which the whites have responded to the challenge to fairness and impartiality.
To deflate the exaggerated hopes attached to extension of the suffrage to the Negro is not, however, to argue that the vote is entirely valueless. Rather, it emphasizes the necessity of viewing politics in its total social context. Education, the opportunity for economic advancement, and personal security set the terms within which the vote becomes meaningful; and access to the ballot gradually improves the quality of schools, the level of available jobs, and the assurance of equality before the law. The course of action is not revolutionary, but gradual and cumulative. Meanwhile the effect of participating in the process of self-government has already worked to sustain the selfesteem and the sense of civic responsibility of the Negroes.