by Oscar Handlin
ANDREW TURNBULL’S THOMAS WOLFE (Scribner’s, $7.95) is a fully rounded biography of a man who was briefly an American culture hero. Wolfe’s two long novels sold well and met with an enthusiastic reception. He died before he reached the age of forty, and his reputation did not long survive him. Turnbull’s incisive study assembles the material for an understanding of the man and his era. It rests upon extensive research in widely scattered sources, is skillfully put together, and makes absorbing reading.
The book is particularly enlightening when it deals with Wolfe’s personal life. An excellent account of Tom’s family background and of his youth in Asheville, North Carolina, reveals, for example, that his parents were not poor or underprivileged but well-to-do by local standards, a curious circumstance in the light of Wolfe’s persistent sense of deprivation. Furthermore, he was always successful, favored by his parents, appreciated by his teachers, and recognized for his ability at Chapel Hill, at Harvard, and in the New York publishing world. Yet his attitude remained querulous, as if the world withheld his just deserts.
His financial reliance upon his family was significant, particularly since the aid was grudgingly given. Yet he felt no inner desire for independence, and in his first six months at Harvard, spent more than $2000, a large sum in the 1920s. It was as if he valued the support from others as evidence of the validity of his claims upon them.
Wolfe’s dependence was also personal. He demanded the affection of older women—his mother, his Asheville teacher Mrs. Roberts, and Aline Bernstein, the New York stage designer eighteen years his senior with whom he conducted an agonizing and tempestuous love affair. Turnbull has disentangled the details of these relationships with care and writes about them with candor.
The book also explains the extent of Wolfe’s indebtedness to the men who guided his career. He knew that he had genius and was determined to “force the inescapable fact down the throats of the rats and vermin who wait the proof.” But genius for what he was not sure. Nor was he quite certain how the genius would express itself. Already in Asheville and Chapel Hill, therefore, he looked to his teachers to help him do what he believed he was capable of doing.
The quest for some directing influence led Wolfe to Harvard and to George Pierce Baker, whose drama workshop had acquired national fame. Tom made a favorable impression, secured admission to the workshop, and for a time, struck Baker as the most promising of his students. Like many other critics, Baker was prepared to believe in the young man’s gifts, and up to a point, worked earnestly with him. But Wolfe’s talents were not dramatic; he lacked the sense of form that would make his stories manageable on stage, and Baker retained enough detachment to be able to assess these shortcomings. Without more support than his teacher would give him, Tom abandoned the drama and turned to the novel.
Maxwell Perkins, the Scribner’s editor, was prepared to play a larger role in Wolfe’s life. Perkins, who had already worked with Fitzgerald, Lardner, and Hemingway, was willing to devote inordinate time to the new writer. The great undigested batches of manuscript came into the publisher’s office, where they acquired form and coherence under the pressure of patient criticism. Turnbull’s account of the relationship is fair to both men and suggests that Wolfe not only was helped in these exchanges but in them served a personal need of his editor.
Perkins, a proper New Englander by way of New Jersey, had once told his wife that he would like to be a little dwarf on the shoulders of a great general, advising him what to do and what not to do without anyone noticing. He wished to control without bearing the responsibility for acting, to write without exposing his own emotions. In his mid-forties when he met Wolfe, Perkins hopped to the shoulders of the young giant in whose words he found an instrument with which to say what he could not himself say. And habitual dependence on others left the lonely misfit from North Carolina susceptible to direction.
Wolfe satisfied for other Americans the same need he satisfied for Perkins. The inter-war generation was burdened with self-doubt, unsure of its values, worried about whether it still possessed the vital energies of its forebears. Here came a big man who seemed all energy, who spilled over with things to say, and whose boldness and lack of discipline in revealing himself overrode all narrow conventions. Moreover, His earthiness seemed somehow related to that ancestral vigor in danger of being sapped by the artificiality of modern urban life. For the few years of his creativity, Wolfe supplied his readers with the sense of expansiveness they feared was forever gone from their lives.
CONSTANCE WEBB in RICHARD WRIGHT (Putnam’s, $7.95) deals with another Southerner who came north and whose experiences were the basis of books that also attracted favorable attention.
Life began for Richard Wright in Mississippi, at the nadir of Negro experience of the past century. Segregation, poverty, and violence were the normal features of existence, deliberately used to obliterate hope among the colored people and to keep them permanently inferior. In this milieu a boy in a fatherless family grew up without formal schooling, nursing a terrible concealed anger against whites. A love of reading and the flickering ambition to write, however, set this young man apart from others. At the age of nineteen he escaped to the Northern freedom of Chicago.
Yet Richard knew that he was a Southerner, his personality formed by that culture. But back there he had never been able fully to be himself. “The South could recognize but a part of a man, could accept but a fragment of his personality, and all the rest — the best and deepest things of heart and mind — were tossed away in blind ignorance and hate.” And the warping effects endured. Wright noted, in his inability to understand the whites with whom he now lived, that he was persisting in reading his present environment in the light of the old one.
The intelligent, attractive youth was taken up by people who wished to be helpful. Despite the pervasive effects of the Depression, he got by and continued to read and write. It was probably not surprising, given the temper of the times, that he drifted by way of the John Reed Society into the Communist Party. What is surprising was his slowness to perceive the extent to which the Party used him and exploited his color. The exodus of the intellectuals after the Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939 left him unmoved. “The rightness or wrongness of a given set of tactical actions by the Communist Party does not strike me as being of any great ultimate importance,” he wrote at the time.
Ultimately he did defect, although Miss Webb does not make the reasons for the break clear. But habits of thought derived from his association with the Party infused his attitudes through the rest of his life. The Party line was simple. “I can’t see white and I can’t see black.
I see rich men and poor men,” declaims a character in one of his early stories. But Wright’s personal experience and his best writing recognized that racial problems were, in some respects, deeper than economic ones. The discordance between the two views troubled him through the rest of his life.
Native Son (1940) and Black Boy (1945) established Wright’s reputation. The one was a novel, the other an autobiography, but the subject matter was the same — the situation of the Southern Negro at home and removed to the North. With that story told, Wright’s creativity dried up. Restlessly he shifted his residence from New York to Mexico to France. He agonized over the political issues of the post-war era, and he tried his hand at a variety of media. But he failed to regain the power of utterance which had brought him fame in Native Son and Black Boy.
The lavish reception accorded these books, like Wolfe’s, reflected the expectations of their audiences. The New Deal era had equipped liberal white readers with a comfortable set of assumptions about the problem of race. Discrimination and prejudice were bad but in time would disappear as social conditions improved and as the Negro rose to the level of the white. Insofar as American literature took cognizance of the Negro at all, it was as a familiar stereotype, favorably as the kindly darky, negatively as the passionate brute. Readers conditioned to the stock characters were shocked by Bigger Thomas of Native Son, an authentic man in his fears and hatreds. And Black Boy, which hid nothing and qualified little, added to the impact. In these books Wright left to his audience an impression of power, a promise of something important to be said, that had value for people worried about the future of their society. It was his tragedy to be unable to go on to fulfill that promise.
In retrospect, all the hard decisions acquire a deceptive simplicity because we know their outcome. The gratification of Hitler’s immediate ambitions at Munich was appeasement because war followed a year later. Vichy’s collaboration with the Germans was treacherous because it postponed the Nazi defeat. The men responsible for the wrong choices seem villains or dupes; they become scapegoats who bear the guilt of the disastrous consequences and thus absolve the millions who welcomed peace in 1938 and the French armistice in 1940.
Yet at each critical moment, the future still lay hidden from the statesmen who acted; and each judgment involved a complex weighing of alternatives. We know now that Chamberlain and Pétain were wrong. But we miss the import of their error if we ascribe it to stupidity or malevolence.
JULES ROY in THE TRIAL OF MARSHAL PETAIN (Harper & Row, $6.95) re-examines the moral basis of the Vichy regime. The hero of Verdun was almost ninety when he faced his judges in the Palais de Justice in July, 1945. The charge was treason, and the judgment involved a consideration of a decade of French foreign policy. By a margin of one vote the jury found him guilty, although it recommended a reprieve of the death sentence.
Roy is a skilled journalist and a forceful writer, and his day-to-day account of the trial conveys the excitement of the courtroom drama, the suspense of which is not diminished by the fact that the verdict is known in advance. Brilliantly drawn character sketches bring the pages alive: the old marshal, whose sleepy eyes occasionally lit up with a gleam of cunning — he had lived so much history that no additional events could touch him; Laval — shiftyeyed, loose-lipped, a peasant who, hand on heart, protested his loyalty; Major General Lafargue — baldheaded and bespectacled, his face stamped with the serenity common to fools with a sense of mission; and the jurors — driven by the need to locate responsibility for the blood that had been spilled.
There is more to the book than a story, however. Before he was a writer, Roy was an officer and himself a supporter of Pétain; and as he reviews the judgment of the court and the testimony of the witnesses, he searches his own conscience. Given the circumstances of 1940, was the armistice in the interest of France? What were the demands of loyalty at the moment? De Gaulle, it was said, was Petain plagiarized. Would the young general have reacted as the old one did? It is evidence of Roy’s subtlety as a writer that these questions are not put in the abstract, but emerge from the unfolding story.
The answers also have their own logic. “The fact is,” he concludes, “that there was neither innocence nor guilt, but simply a man confronted with political events and tried by politicians. Petain was neither the Trojan horse of treason nor the savior of France, but simply an old man who tried to ward off the enemy’s blows.” He did not betray his country, but his decisions, however well intentioned, served it ill.
An analogous conclusion emerges from LAURENCE THOMPSON’S THE GREATEST TREASON: THE UNTOLD STORY OF MUNICH (Morrow, $6.50). This account of the development of the Czech crisis of 1938 draws upon some hitherto unused sources, but contains no startling revelations. Its virtue lies in the clarity of its exposition and in significant shifts of emphasis that replace the black-andwhites of the conventional story with varying shades of gray.
Thompson spares no sympathy for Hitler, but finds more validity to the grievances of the Sudeten Germans than was usual in the past. “They were fools, like many nationalist leaders, but not, I think, anything worse — if, indeed, there is anything worse.” On the other hand, Thompson is rather harsh on the Czechs and particularly on Benes, who attempted to maneuver through the crisis without sacrificing the interests of the republic he led.
But the main concern of the book is a reassessment of British policy as shaped by Neville Chamberlain. Since 1940, the author of appeasement has been subject to such unthinking and sweeping criticism that an effort to redress the balance is certainly in order. The Prime Minister’s position was difficult. He longed desperately for peace. He knew that he could count on nothing but words from the United States, his own people were unready for war, and his military leaders were unwilling to fight. Nor were the French prepared for combat. Thompson therefore concludes that Chamberlain was right to agree to the settlement at Munich.
But if Chamberlain was right, it was for the wrong reasons. He proceeded through his dealings with Hitler deluded by the hope of persuading the Führer that “honesty, straightforwardness and common sense could settle the problems of Europe and prevent war.” He did not become aware until too late that the Nazis misread his attitude. In the course of the negotiations, Hitler steadily raised his demands as he gained confidence that the milksop across the table would not resist. When Chamberlain, having wrestled with his conscience and his partners, came back to yield, he was brutally informed: das geht nicht mehr; and having conceded so much, how could he fail to give a little more! So that when the deed was done and the Prime Minister told his countrymen, “It is peace for our time,” he was unwittingly giving Hitler the signal to prepare the next step in aggression, confident that that too would not lead to war. The price of the miscalculation was 30 million lives.
Chamberlain’s fault, like Pétain’s, was political. Both men acted out of a desire to save lives and to spare their countries the damage of war. Both were patriotic and well intentioned. But they failed to take the measure of their antagonist or to reckon the means necessary to halt him. And both were deceived by the hope that peace would come if only they wished it enough.
Costs of war
Those who ponder the implications of 1938 and 1940 for the present must take account of the fact that the price of war has changed radically in the past quarter century. The images that disquieted Chamberlain and Petain were those of the trenches of Ypres and Verdun. They could hardly guess the staggering rise in costs when civilians became victims — any more than we can imagine the potential charges of a future atomic holocaust.
DEATH IN LIFE by ROBERT JAY LIFTON (Random House, $10.00) tells us something about the aftereffects of the first use of the new weapons. This is a psychiatrist’s analytical study of the survivors of Hiroshima, the product of years of careful investigation. The core of the book is drawn from interviews with the people who had contact with the effects of the bomb, but Dr. Lifton also reaches out beyond the medical records to literature, painting, films, and music for traces of the shock. The results are set down in sober clinical language, which nevertheless does not obscure the author’s emotional involvement in his findings.
The study concludes with an imaginative effort to make out the general psychological themes characteristic of all survivors of massive death immersion. Often in the past such people were able to break out of their numbness and contribute to the enlargement of human consciousness. But weapons which are without limit in what they destroy may in the future deprive us of even that consolation. In that sense Hiroshima may be our last chance to learn how to hold back the even more massive extermination it foreshadows. It is against this somber reckoning of what a great war might cost that one must weigh the little conflicts which are this generation’s way of avoiding a nuclear confrontation.