Reader's Choice

The comic who begins to speculate about the nature of humor is likely to become self-conscious and thereby prone to lose the spark that evoked laughter in the first place. But the greatest humorists are more than jokesters, and they suffer from the lack of an informed critical response. Chaplin, for instance, worked in detachment through much of his career. From City Lights to The Countess From Hong Kong his movies encountered blank incomprehension, so that their merits became apparent only much later. The critics had no difficulty in appreciating the early comedies. But they did not know what to make of films that seemed to be more than a source of belly laughs. Perhaps also the growing heavy-handedness of such authors as Aldous Huxley and Evelyn Waugh was the outcome of a search for seriousness by artists whose audiences did not recognize the import of their early funny books.
PETER DE VRIES is a successful humorist; and THE VALE OF LAUGHTER (Little, Brown, $5.95) is his best book — but one that is neither pure nor simple. Its comic qualities will earn it readers enough who will laugh their way through its pages. But many will finish it disturbed rather than entertained, for De Vries here has intentions that run beyond amusement. Ever since The Blood of the Lamb (1962), he has been trying to get something serious across, to use his clowning as a means of commentary. He has been successful enough in this effort to make The Vale of Laughter a deeply moving as well as a very funny book.
All the familiar virtues of De Vries’s style are here, and the clowning remains fresh and original. Much of the humor derives from an impressive command of the language which sparkles with plays upon words and sputters in puns. Vaudeville-type situations stud the narrative, and there is a slight spicing of bawdiness. The minor characters are hideous caricatures — Mrs. Munkey, for instance, archetype of the loathsome domineering servant, or Ethel Weems, the sex scientist who looked like a Lesbian with doubts about her masculinity.
The story, however, is serious although its central theme is humor. There are two narrators. Joe Sandwich is a clown because he is a human being. Alive to the world about him, he is sensitive to the feelings of other people. His instinctive goodness therefore earns him endless trouble, which he can escape in no other way than by making a joke of every predicament, The hearty guffaw is the only tolerable response to a frigid wife or a business failure.
Alas, his life intersects that of Wally Hines, once his college teacher, whose interest in humor is quite different from Joe’s. Hines is a remorseless academic, a psychologist for whom humor is a subject — lifeless and sterile as he himself is. His painful attempt to carry through a joke, with which the book fittingly ends, shows his total lack of understanding. He is responsible, perhaps unintentionally, for the death of Joe, whose vitality he had always resented and whose wife he later appropriates in an empty marriage. The triumph of sterility over laughter leaves everyone content — except Joe, who is now dead.
Desperation, Joe believed, was the basic element of comedy as of tragedy. American suburbia shaped the particular form of his despair. There people existed as if in a zoo in the jungle, their days neatly ordered and their experience detached from the fierce struggle and the freedom beyond die bars. The men and women in Joe’s circle had no particular beliefs and no particular ethnic ties. They were far from poor in fact, often their only worry was the worry about worrying, which led them into vicious cycles like sneezing into a handkerchief to which one is allergic.
On the surface, the characters in The Vale of Laughter are thus far removed from the little people of earlier American comedy whose predicaments were the products of poverty or of their ethnic heritage. Yet there is a connection between De Vries’s stockbrokers and professors and the tramps, blackface minstrels, and Irish comics of the past. They all seek an accommodation of compromises and concessions amidst the human chaos within which they exist. They bend in order not to break, seeing life through by recognizing that they form only a modest part of an incomprehensible whole, yet clutching at the dignity of their own individuality. They continue to dream of islands though the mainland has been lost, and they are swept remorselessly out to sea while they spread their arms to the beautiful shore. Observing their situation, the compassionate artist laughs to avert despair.

The goals of life

Americans above all wish to forget what an angry poet long ago told them — that most men lead lives of desperation, quiet or not. The proposition is unpalatable in a society committed to the pursuit of happiness. Yet more than a century after Thoreau fled to Walden, the suburbs and the slums alike choke with despair. The difference between our times and his lies in the cause: the agony springs now not from fear of hunger but from an aimlessness confined to no single economic or social group.
Yet Americans, driven by a belief in the ubiquity of happiness, insist that despair is exceptional and aberrant. Since everyone deserves a prize, it is only the incomplete and the underprivileged who do not succeed: and in the 1960s, that means the Negroes. The affluent citizens who have never seen a tenement shudder at the horrors of life in the slums and readily accept a direct connection between a disorderly environment and failure. They forget that the slums do not doom every child and that drug addicts and sexual delinquents are at home in the suburbs also.
In the past few years, much of the literature on the race problem, infused with oversimplified environmentalist assumptions, has simply treated the Negro as a victim, as if his own will, intelligence, and emotions counted for nothing. I he unintentional result has been to identify the whole race with rioters, dope pushers, and perverts. And ironically, many Negroes have accepted that view of their role as a tactic in the civil rights struggle.
JULIUS HORWITZ’S THE W.A.S.P. (Atheneum, $4.95), for instance, treats its Negro characters as if they were simply creations of poor housing and prejudice. Seven years ago, in The Inhabitants, the same author painted an honest picture of the slum dwellers on welfare. The W.A.S.P. deals with much the same material. But the more recent novel, about the relationship of a white sympathizer with a Negro intellectual, lacks the power of its predecessor. People and action alike dissolve in maudlin sentimentality. Cliches remain. Here are the cute little boy murderers, the brutal police, the love-hungry Southern gal. Liberal lacings of sex fail to bring these cardboard characters alive. Their motives just do not make sense. Emerson, the central Negro figure, has it made, but then for reasons not given cannot find God in the Yale Divinity School and comes to Harlem. The account does not square with reality — Exeter, Harvard, and Yale and their Negro students are not accurately portrayed. More important, the book fails as fiction, for it does not endow its men and women with genuine personality.
The actuality of the 1960s is quite different from the situation portrayed in the Negro-as-victim books.. Most Negro Americans have steadily been improving themselves; and what is more, the overwhelming majority of them are fully aware of the gains they have made. The figures in BLACK AND WHITE by WlLLIAM BRINK and LOUIS HARRIS (Simon and Schuster, $5.95) offer convincing evidence of the trend. The book incorporates the results of an extensive public opinion poll conducted by Harris Associates for Newsweek in 1966. Among its other interesting data is the finding that fully 70 percent of all Negroes know that their situation has grown better in the past decade. The general profile of Negro attitudes is far removed from the lurid descriptions of the slum victim.
One significant fact in the survey has relevance to recent disturbances. The percentage of Negro leaders who expressed a commitment to nonviolence as the primary instrument of the struggle for equality was smaller than that of the group as a whole. The discrepancy is an indication of the gap between the leadership and its following. The thrust toward violence was not popular, widespread, or spontaneous. In a tactic that misfired, many Negro leaders hoped to press for legitimate action by identifying the violent rhetoric of extremists and the criminal activities of riffraff with the aspirations of all colored people.
The factual material in the Brink and Harris volume is a helpful corrective to loose assumptions about what black and white Americans think of each other. Yet so deep is the current belief in the inability of the Negro as a victim of society to make headway that the authors’ comments occasionally slip into the same conventional grooves.
ROI OTTLEY and WILLIAM J. WEATHERBY’S THE NEGRO IN NEW YORK (Oceana Publications, $6.00) reminds us how different were the attitudes of the 1930s. The book is a vestigial product of the W.P.A. Writers’ Project, left unfinished when the venture ended. The incomplete manuscript was long known to scholars, but is now published for the first time.
It is a singularly interesting document, and not only because such writers as Ralph Ellison and Claude McKay took a hand in composing it thirty years ago. The text and the editorial notes show that the views of the period in which the book was written were far more hopeful than those of the present. James Baldwin’s obtuse and lachrymose introduction, for instance, insists, as is the fashion of 1967, that New York’s racial attitudes were always indistinguishable from those of the South; every chapter in the volume contradicts him. And the book sweeps to a conclusion animated by the optimism of the New Deal. The record of progress toward full equality was far less encouraging then than later, yet The Negro in New York ends with a ringing affirmation. “Throughout his long American history, the Negro’s faith has been in the ultimate triumph of democracy. At no time has this goal been as visible as it is today.”
These sentences are even more relevant thirty years later. The Negroes are neither helpless within the system nor a unique element in it. Their adjustment to the difficulties of urbanization is similar to that of other peoples, and their rate of progress is no slower. The desperation of Negroes, like that of other Americans whose lives are also disoriented, arises out of an inability to define the goals of life meaningfully. The sense of purposelessness, which in the suburbs generates neuroses, in the slums breeds apathy and irrational outbursts of violence.


THE HUNTER AND THE WHALE (William Morrow, $5.95), by LAURENS VAN DER POST, is an exciting adventure story. A boy of fourteen comes down from the South African veld to visit a school friend in Port Natal. A lucky encounter leads to an invitation to make a voyage on a Norwegian whaling ship. For the next four years, the boy becomes part of the community of hunters.
The captain’s passion for the chase is productive as long as it is channeled within the normal routine of the ship. But a meeting with an old elephant hunter dissolves all restraint. The two men strike a bargain. They join forces, and each will help the other track down an extraordinary prize. Success is almost within their grasp in the first effort, when pride leads to disaster.
The hunters know the importance of luck at sea and in the jungle. In these uncircumscribed areas of existence, man’s ingenuity and planning have only limited effectiveness. Van der Post reverts frequently to the “power of something that is beyond reason and conduct and utterly nonrational in nature and intent,” something “that imposes on us patterns of behavior which have to be obeyed.” It is therefore tempting to read the novel as an allegory, particularly since some of the whaling passages bring Moby Dick to mind. Thus regarded, the story may be understood as an exploration of the relation of the hunter to his prey. When the chase is distorted so that it becomes an end in itself rather than a means of subsistence the hunter is doomed to frustration. He will never be satisfied. Nothing makes man feel so important and full of purpose as when he is given a chance to kill: and when killing becomes an end in itself, it excludes all other purposes from life.
However tempting it may be to seek its symbolic meaning, the story remains exciting even without it. Van der Post’s descriptive power consistently sustains the narrative. The climactic chases are packed with action. But other passages depend on the author’s ability to convey, a precise, sensual impression of nature, its smells, sights, and sounds. His command of words and a style rich in allusions and comparisons bring alive the sea and the jungle teeming with life. The spout of the sperm whale, the sleep of an elephant, a ship making a turn to cross the bar, the movement of a school of sardines—these events acquire importance because they are viewed as parts of a whole nature. All matter at heart is sacred and allegorical, the ship’s cook believes; and described with that understanding, every object finds a place in a vivid panorama. Even a boy’s walk through the city down to the harbor comes alive through the exact perception of the people and things about him.

The fully drawn characters play their parts against this pulsating background. Captain Thor Larsen, the black stoker ‘Mlangeni, Jack the Zulu butler, Leif Fügelsang the ship’s cook, and even a casually encountered ricksha man are whole personalities whose appearances on the scene acquire significance from the setting. Van der Post is particularly acute in revealing the impact upon the character of his people of the diverse cultures of South Africa. Although he is never sentimental, he sympathizes with all - the Zulus, the Boers, the Norwegians, and the Indians. The only exceptions perhaps are the English, who came to exploit the country rather than to work in it and who are really out of contact with everything about them, as a dramatic and deliberately underwritten account of a race riot shows. That incident too may have symbolic significance. Whether it does or not, it forms part of a gripping story.

War objectives

The imperatives of war often obscure the objectives of peace. The purpose of the fighting seems clear —to win. Then victory raises the unexpected question: what for?
FROM THE MORGENTHAU DIARIES (Houghton Mifflin, $10.00), edited by John M. Blum, throws valuable light on the issues of war and peace between 1941 and 1945. This is the third and concluding volume of a series in which Professor Blum has skillfully fashioned a readable narrative from the notes set down day by day by FDR’s Secretary of the Treasury. As in the earlier volumes, the editor has not injected his own judgments but has allowed Morgenthau to speak for himself.
Domestic issues receded to the background after 1941. The Treasury, unable to guide Congress on crucial matters, fruitlessly opposed the Ruml plan, and after a beating in 1944, gave up the effort to control tax policy. But Morgenthau was amply involved in major questions of war and peace. As Secretary of the Treasury, he participated in the war’s financial decisions, and those inevitably affected diplomacy. The Treasury had a role in planning aid to the Allies and in deciding on the treatment of liberated and enemy territories. Moreover, Morgenthau was personally close to Roosevelt, who consulted him on a wide variety of subjects.
The diaries contain interesting reflections on relations with the Allies. General de Gaulle’s talent for treachery long antedated his senility. “With our men on the beaches of France,” Morgenthau wrote, “this fellow comes along and holds . . . a gun to our backs.” General Marshall was unwilling to reveal “what de Gaulle had been doing to hamper the invasion” lest the information play into the hands of isolationists.
Morgenthau also had doubts about the Chinese. A few covert Communists in the Treasury Department undoubtedly stimulated his suspicions of Chiang Kai-shek, but a more important source of mistrust was the general tendency of liberals to expect too much of the Kuomintang. Believing that the Chinese were “just a bunch of crooks,” Morgenthau was ready to “tell them to go jump in the Yangtse River" and “delayed substantial aid while offering token support.” In 1945, Morgenthau discovered that some of his subordinates had misled him and shifted his attitude. But it was then late.
The Secretary was also occasionally uneasy about British intentions. But his faith in the Russians never wavered. At the end of the war he was ready to cement friendship with the Soviets with a $10 billion American loan. Here, too, conventional liberal assumptions betrayed him; only working people, he thought, were sincere in opposition to fascism.
These ideas were basic to his plan to divide Germany and pastoralize its economy. Roosevelt, whose powers were failing in the last months of his life, temporized on that issue. But Truman fortunately vetoed the proposal.
MATTHEW B. RIDG WAY’S THE KOREAN WAR (Doubleclay, $6.95) touches on the resurgence of some of the same problems less than a decade later. The book is at its best in the opening chapters, which deal with the period down to the full-scale Chinese invasion. Ridgway was then attached to the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and able to see the whole conflict in perspective. After the death of General Walker, Ridgway assumed direction of the Eighth Army and later succeeded MacArthur as commander in chief, in which capacity he bore responsibility for fighting and ending the war. His discussion of the difficulties of negotiating with the Communists ought to be required reading for anyone who assumes that a will to peace could simply end the fighting in Vietnam.
Douglas MacArthur is a central character in much of the book. Ridgway has a soldier’s respect for “a truly great military man, a great statesman, and a gallant leader,” and deplores the “cavalier manner” of the General’s dismissal. On the other hand, the candid account leaves no doubt about MacArthur’s egomania and about the colossal blunders he committed after the success at Inchon. Belief in his own infallibility persuaded MacArthur to disperse his forces and led him to discount intelligence reports of Chinese intervention. Furthermore, well before the incident that led to his removal, he felt free to disobey orders from Washington. Ridgway also reveals, but underplays, the dereliction of the Joint Chiefs and of the Secretaries of State and Defense, who knew that MacArthur was headed for disaster but were afraid to face up to the prima donna in Tokyo. Ridgway properly concludes that any challenge to civilian authority in the United States military system is intolerable.
The narrative also makes clear the new type of war Korea initiated. Thereafter “it could no longer be a question of whether to fight a limited war, but of how to avoid fighting any other kind.” And in limited war, the terrifying and expensive arsenal of nuclear weapons remains in suspense because ground action alone can destroy the enemy. That is the American plight in Vietnam.
What remains unclear is the capacity of people in a democracy to endure years of indecisive conflict. They cannot accept killing as an end in itself, and without a firm sense of purpose, may be tempted to seek facile and dangerous solutions.