The Peripatetic Reviewer

THE ECONOMY OF CITIES by Jane Jacobs Random House, $5.95
For going on five decades I have been a commuter to New York, and with each year the disorder in Manhattan grows worse. On windless days when the smog is bad, we stack for as long as ninety minutes; there are accelerating strikes, the most unsightly that of the garbage collectors; the hotels are crowded, the service indifferent, the traffic profane; the elegance of the citv is disappearing and with it, incentive and efficiency.
Jane Jacobs, the most unorthodox and outspoken of urban economists, now resides in Toronto, where her husband, a hospital architect, is at work on a large new complex. But for more than a decade while she was a staff member of the Architectural Forum, she lived in New York City and fought its battles. She was a leader in the struggle to preserve West Village and the semblance of Washington Square from the highway engineers, and in her first major book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the malfunctioning of New York was constantly in her thinking. She had no patience with urban “improvers”; in case after case she showed that the population of a demolished slum when moved into new apartment buildings surrounded by windswept plots became more dirty, destructive, and criminal than before. Not even Bostonians realized, until she made the point, that our crowded North End, to urban developers a slum area, had the best health record and the lowest crime rate of any section of the city. She was telling us that the ecology of a city cannot be recklessly tampered with.
Her new book, The Economy of Cities, digs deeper into the reasons for the decay and deterioration of so many American cities which like New York have ceased to solve their problems. Jane Jacobs thinks that the sacrificing of everything to the automobile is one of the main contributory causes and that racism of course has speeded the decline. But, she argues, more destructive than either is the collapse of economic opportunity, opportunities for work at all levels of skill which were formerly created within the city itself.
She is so lucid and firm in her argument that one is tempted to simplify, although no simplification can do justice to the brilliance of her documentation. From time immemorial, she says, every growing city has needed expanding markets for its initial and often special exports. Through trade, invention, and through diversifying imports, its native industry has proliferated in all directions, proliferated the way the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company has proliferated in production, and proliferated also by what Miss Jacobs calls “breakaways,” in which the abler younger workers break away from the parent company to produce what is new and different. When a city begins to specialize, as Pittsburgh did in 1910, it stagnates; the breakaways cease, the versatility dries up. Her case study of Pittsburgh is startling; the chief effect, she says, of the immensely expensive urban renewal and highway program has been to root out much of the potentially valuable local economy, simply because it was physically in the way. “By 1967, Pittsburgh’s economy was worse off than it had been twenty years before.” Rochester, she says, specialized under ihe strong domination of George Eastman; and Xerox, its only signal breakaway in years, got off to such an inconspicuous start that no one bothered to squelch it.
Her chapter “Explosive City Growth” cites the fact that “oneeighth of all the new businesses started in the United States during the latter half of the 1940s were started in Eos Angeles.” She quotes Ralph Flanders as stating that Boston’s birthrate of new enterprises was too low and shows what American Research and Development, the investment company he organized, did to capitalize on the electronic manufacturers whose invention and breakaways have aroused Greater Boston from its lethargy. Her most telling conclusion is summed up in these words: “No form of financing, however lavish, can help an economy develop if people within its own cities are not adding new kinds of work to old, and if organizations are not being created there to finance the process.”
THE THREE DAUGHTERS OF MADAME LIANG by Pearl S. Buck John Day, $6.95
Pearl Buck is an old China hand who cannot accept without protest what is going on between her native land and her country of adoption. She has a singular knowledge of China, of the Empress Dowager, and Sun Yat-sen, and from this, and from her secondhand sources about the China that is, site has written a novel, The Three Daughters of Madame Liang, which is compassionate, elucidating, and wise.
Madame Liang is a matriarch in her mid-fifties as the story opens; slim, lovely, and discreet, site runs a gourmet’s dream of a restaurant in modern Shanghai, patronized by officials and protected by one of her old suitors, Chao Chung, a minister in Peking. In pre-Communist days she had been attracted to the Americans in the concessions, particularly to the Brandons of San Francisco, to whom after Mao’s ascendancy she sent her three daughters to be educated in America. In her youth Madame Liang and her then loyal husband were fiery adherents of Sun Yat-sen; now in her privacy she repents of the ten-year chaos that followed Sun’s Revolution, and has deep misgivings about the new order. “It was we who were wrong,” she says, . . we destroyed the achievement of thousands of years. We thought what the West had was all good, and what we had was all useless.” With dismay she watches the ruthless new order imposed by Chairman Mao. She hopes to live to see the liberation; meantime she awaits her daughters’ return, and with her culinary art she bends to the wind.
Of the three girls, Grace, the oldest and a doctor, is the first to come home. Fresh from her research in South America, where she has been studying the health-giving properties of plants, she is ordered back to Peking to help prepare a synthesis of Chinese and Western medicine. Warned by her mother that she must listen and not speak out in the American way, the girl is first taken in hand by an old primitive, Dr. Tseng, who instructs her in the ancient herbal cures which she finds surprisingly relevant. In her adaptation she is rewarded with a small house of her own, and here she is politically—as he calls it “philosophically”—instructed by Dr. Liu Peng, a man of her own age whose square features, black brows, and strong hands are more exciting than his arguments.
Mercy, the second to return, is prettier and more maternal than her elder sister: she arrives on her honeymoon, determined that her children shall be born on Chinese soil, she and her husband, John Sung, a young nuclear physicist, having escaped from security relations by flying to London and then transshipping through the Chinese embassy. Their arrival coincides with the Great Leap Forward, and while John’s knowledge is needed, he soon proves to be too “individualistic,” and his punishment is severe.
The youngest daughter, Joy, is more painter than patriot, and she needs only the dissuasion and adoration of the famous artist in exile with whom she is studying to remain where she is in New York.
The skeins of these three love stories are wound together in Madame Liang’s heart as, isolated and in increasing danger, site observes the desolation which famine and the Red Guards have brought to the land she loves. It is she who speaks for Miss Buck. It is she who in her reverie weighs the greatness and the weakness of China, the achievements and the moderation of centuries leading in time to a complacency completely isolated front the new knowledge. It is site who, remembering China’s former love for Americans, says, “There is no hate so dangerous as that which once was love.” And it is Madame Liang who in her loneliness as she reviews the skill and cunning of the godhero Mao still places her faith in the rocklike tenacity of the Chinese people, remembering the ancient saying of Lao Tzu, “Throw eggs at a rock, and though one uses all the eggs in the world, the rock remains the same.”
THE BOARD ROOM by Clay Blair, Jr. Dutton, $6.9.5
Clay Blair, Jr. is a Virginian who served in the Navy during the war and who on his graduation from Columbia in 1999 went to work for Henry Luce, first as a correspondent for Time and then as military and senior Washington correspondent for Life. He liked to crusade: the research he did on the hydrogen bomb led to a book highly critical of J. Robert Oppenheimer, and his research on the atomic submarine prompted another book in which he championed Admiral Rickover. Then in 1957 Ben Bibbs invited him to Philadelphia to look over the aging, marble-paved establishment of the Saturday Evening Post. There Blair got religion—the more he studied this huge combine of five magazines of which the Post was the keystone, the more convinced he became that the publishing program could be made more attractive to the younger generation. It did not deter him that the Post, the Ladies’ Home Journal, the Country Gentleman were between them losing about ten million dollars a year.
When in 1963 Blair was made editor in chief, one of his friends in Washington said to him, “Clay, you’re the only rat in history who has swum out to a sinking ship.” He flung himself ardently, provocatively, and confidently into the task of remaking the Post. He believed in a policy of “sophisticated muckraking"; he threw out Clarence Burlington Kelland and some of the other old favorites and turned to the more modern writers; he took chances with articles not well documented—there were libel suits, some expensive—and when at the year’s end the deficit had risen alarmingly, his reputation was at stake.
What he lived through in these months of hard drive and little sleep provoked the source material for his first novel, The Board Room. The central figure in the story is Lee Crawford, an aggressive editor tv ho does achieve temporary success in his fight to revitalize a moribund weekly, but in so doing antagonizes his board of directors, the majority of whom are ready to sell off the assets and kill the magazine. The editor whips his staff to a lather to rush through special issues that will hold the advertising; everything happens faster than life, and the oddsagainst conspiracy gives the book a kind of breathless, gee-whiz incredulity. The characterization of the editor, who is the author’s alter ego, is what carries the reader through the recurring crises.
AN UNFINISHED WOMAN by Lillian Heilman Little, Brown, $7.50
Lillian Heilman by her own admission has always been a difficult woman, and part of the fun of reading her autobiography. An Unfinished Woman, is to pick up the clues which account for this. She was born in New Orleans, and all through her girlhood she lived six months of the year in the Deep South and the other six in New York City, her mother unaware that this shuttle would deprive Lillian of close friends and raise the devil with her education. A stranger in both places, she grew to expect loneliness and to love the privacy of a great fig tree in New Orleans in whose dense foliage she did her leading, hidden from the nagging demands of her family’s boardinghouse.
Her grandmother was a tyrant given as Lillian says “to breaking the spirit of other people for the pleasure of the exercise.” Her mother was a sweet eccentric: her father, from whom she inherited her high temper and wit, was a philanderer who had lost his wife’s inheritance in less than six years. As Lillian came of age, she was determined not to be shabby poor; she liked writing and was suspicious of matrimony.
The love of her life was Dashiell Hammett. They first lived together in New York after her marriage had gone on the rocks and at the time when Dashiell was writing ’The ‘Thin Man. Their halcyon years followed, at her farm in Pleasantville, which she bought with the royalty from her plays; here she could work ten hours al a stretch while Dashiell fished or hunted, or invited his mind. Dashiell’s charm comes through the text in the most unaffected way: he was generous, ironic, acute in Ins understanding of Lillian. And she in her self-portrait is astringently honest with herself; she does not try to hide her Jewish sensitivity—or her indignation at meanness. I like to read about people who lose their temper, and Lillian Heilman loses hers with a speed and a hit-back that are a joy to watch.
An Unfinished Woman is a book about people, rather than the business of writing plays, and with her gift for the rhythm of speech she recalls precisely what they said; this is why her portrait of Dorothy Parker is so true and hilarious. Her sketches of Horace Liveright, for whom she read manuscripts, and of Scott Fitzgerald are protective; her relationships with Ernest Hemingway and with Sam Goldwyn had the sharp edge which made them both wary. Her prose has great vitality, but it lacks continuity; it hops and skips, with vague references to much that is happening offstage.
I think it a shortcoming to say nothing of her failures in the theater: the successes we know from having seen the plays. Instead of the stage we have her travels, her grief at the losing fight in Spain, and her journals of the Soviet Union, where she visited the front and was befriended by that greatest of Russian directors, Sergei Eisenstein—these come wonderfully alive. Seeing life through her gaze, which is often indignant and rarely tender, is an uninhibited adventure. Her father once said that Lillian lived within a question mark, and she does, questioning her own motives as she questions the conflicts and the integrity of those she admires.