The Peripatetic Reviewer
by Edward Weeks
THE CROSSING by Howard Fast Morrow, $5.95
Graphic and sharply characterized is Howard Fast’s chronicle of the American Revolution, The Crossing. The narrative accelerates through the twenty glum days leading up to the crossing of the Delaware and the surprising victory at Trenton. That day after Christmas, 1776, was indeed a turning point, and Thomas Paine, who had been closeted with Washington before the battle, found the right words for it: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country.” And shrink they did in droves of desertion after the British landing on Long Island, the Hessians’ slaughter of the Pennsylvania riflemen on Brooklyn Heights, and the humiliating flight from Sir William Howe’s army across the Hudson and into New Jersey. As the cold shut down on operations and Howe returned to the sociability of New York and his charming mistress, Mrs. Loring, Washington could count on a dwindling force of 8000, less than half the young army he had commanded so recently; they were untrained volunteers whose term of enlistment would end in January, they were summer-clad, and, as Mr. Fast puts it, “Six out of every ten men were sick, and out of these six, three would never recover.” Washington’s alternative was to strike fast or watch his army disintegrate, and opposing him across the river were the Hessians, well supplied and among the besttrained professionals in Europe.
The seriousness of the crisis had brought most of Washington’s general officers to his headquarters, and it is fascinating to follow their reactions: Gates, contemptuous and forever plotting against his commander, taking sick leave in Philadelphia; Benedict Arnold, riding away from the action after a mystifying conversation; Generals Cadwalader and Ewing, promising a support they never gave. It was the stalwarts who came through: Colonel Glover and his Marblehead fishermen, the first of our Marines, who ferried men and artillery through the midnight ice and sleet; the portly Henry Knox, the Boston bookseller, making the most of his eighteen field pieces; the dependables: John Sullivan, the lawyer, and the arthritic Lord Stirling; General Mercer, who knew the country like the palm of his hand; and those daring youngsters, Johnny Stark of Vermont. Captain William Washington, and Lieutenant James Monroe. Their exploits, like the bloodcurdling Indian cry that rose from their troops, were in direct response to the charge they got from the tall Virginian at their head.
The assault, as Howard Fast tells it, bears little relation to the legend or Emanuel Leutze’s famous painting. Johann Rahl, the Hessian commander, had plenty of warning but no respect for the Continentals. The river, jammed with ice, was crossed in long barges holding forty men—not a dozen—and they would have been sitting ducks if one Hessian picket had spotted them. The attack was delivered at eight in the morning; the Hessians were sleepy, not drunk, and soon terrified by the mud-caked ruffians with bayonets; so were the Queen’s Own Light Horse, who simply fled.
In an afterword which epitomizes the effect of the victory on the course of the war and what became of the leaders on both sides, Mr. Fast sums up the conflict. His appraisals of General Greene and the prickly, downright Glover are excellent. He underestimates Knox, gives him credit for loyalty, but none for that long haul of the guns captured at Ticonderoga which drove the British out of Boston and kept them out. His portrayal of Washington in action is fiery and the best writing in the book, yet he ignores what the young surveyor learned in the Western wilderness and what he learned of the British in his service with Braddock. He underestimates the value of Boston, with its open port and fleet of privateers which captured 1100 prize ships, but his praise for the army is glowing: “It can be said that in 1783, just before its disbandment, the army of the thirteen colonies was more effective and better trained as a military instrument than the troops of any European country.” There is no braver action in our historical annals, and Howard Fast has brought it to life.
A GUEST OF HONOUR by Nadine Gordimer Viking, $8.95
To think of the African struggles for independence is to recall the help which Sir Robert Jackson and his wife Barbara Ward gave to Nkrumah in the early years of Ghana and the ordeal they went through.
Nadine Gordimer is one of the two best writers in South Africa, which is to say, one of the best in the British Commonwealth, but her writing is done under psychological censorship. Her new novel A Guest of Honour is the most profound she has yet attempted; it is also the longest—some may say too long—and at the close, when a good man is undone, the most tragic. The story is laid in a central African country; it could be any one of three or four we know, but more important than its location is the struggle which she has depicted so skillfully and with such sympathy, the struggle between the blacks who celebrate their Independence Day and are striving to run the place, and the whites, the former civil servants, the diplomats, and the settlers, who are leaving, or about to do so, with thinly veiled resentment.
The hero of A Guest of Honour is an Englishman. Colonel Evelyn James Bray, formerly the District Commissioner in Gala, who ten years before the story opens was recalled to England because of the settlers’ protest that he had been siding too openly with the Nationalist leaders in their campaign for freedom. He is a big man, fair-minded and eloquent in the native tongue, and to the blacks after his expulsion he remained an ideal and a friend. When Adamson Mweta came to power, he insisted that Colonel Bray be invited to return for the celebration of independence. The colonel arrives and is swept into the festivities, expecting to remain for only a few days, but subconsciously he is ready to stay on longer as a consultant if pressed, and when Mweta commissions him to inspect the inadequate educational setup, he agrees to do so.
During his ten years of retirement in Wilshire, where he and his wife, Olivia, found contentment in gardening, shooting, their daughters and their friends, Bray had kept in contact with the Colonial Office, which needed his advice about the independence movement. Now in the capital, and still more when he returns to his old district to consult the schoolmasters and headmen, he is aware of the antagonisms and of the black aspirations which had so little to go on. What baffles him is the feud which seems to have developed between the two leaders he most respected, a feud which has driven Edward Shinza, who should have been Prime Minister, into exile. Bray is intent on a reconciliation, and when with difficulty he gets through to Shinza, he is shocked by the cynical account of the deals, the contracts, which Mweta has sanctioned with the mines and with the British-Belgian trawling company, transferring stock to the government but leaving the workers’ wages as low as ever.
The dream of economic reform, of making the country over from top to bottom, has been sacrificed to expediency, and Shinza is plotting a revolution. The dismaying truth is communicated to Bray by black and white, with every shade of nuance, ranging from the condescension of the colonials to the anger of Shinza and his followers. The educational dilemma is no more susceptible of solution. Who shall be educated, the elite? The many? And where do they find the teachers? Lonely, disenchanted, finding what comfort he can in the snatched moments with his mistress, Bray meets his fate like the man he is, and is written off with this disparaging epitaph: “Poor devil. These nice white liberals getting mixed up in things they don’t understand. What did he expect?”
Pervasive, forlorn, this is a picture of Africa in transition, with more truth than one likes to acknowledge.
ARFIVE by A. B. Guthrie, Jr. Houghton Mifflin, $5.95
A. B. Guthrie, Jr., has been writing fiction ever since a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard gave him the opportunity to mobilize his resources under the encouragement of that discerning teacher, Theodore Morrison. His first novel. The Big Sky, about the “wilderness wanderers of a century ago, the rough men who dreamed of freedom under the big sky,” struck a new note, and it was rightly awarded the Pulitzer Prize for 1950. He continued his saga from the ruthlessness of the mountain men to the fortitude of the men and women who drove the prairie schooners in The Way West, and in These Thousand Hills he depicted the sovereignty of the cattlemen, preserving in each book the freshness and sweep of the country, and the sense of responsibility, not only the gunplay, which motivates the protagonists in his story.
Arfive, Mr. Guthrie’s new novel, completes his quartet, and it is a narrative that can be read and enjoyed in its own right without reference to the earlier books. To Arfive, a small town in Montana, not unlike that in which Mr. Guthrie grew up, comes Benton Collingsworth, a Hoosier school teacher with rigid Victorian standards, who is to be the first principal in the first high school in the county. The owner and driver of the stage, Mort Ewing, sizes up the tall stranger in his Eastern clothes as he steps off the train with his tired wife, small daughter, and fretful son, and the men sound each other out on the long drive across the plains. Mort acknowledges that he is a member of the school board, and he gives “the Prof”—the nickname is to stick—a thumbnail sketch of the town: “two general stores, a good restaurant run by a Chink name of Soo Son, a butcher shop, harness and saddle shop, blacksmith shop. Woodmen’s Hall and three saloons ... I forgot the hotel, which ain’t as bedbuggy as some. . . . Last but not least is the whorehouse that Eva Fox runs.” And when Collingsworth bridles at this, Mort adds, “It’s better’n squaws, don’t you reckon?”
This first encounter, culminating as it does with the Prof swimming the river for help when the off horse breaks a leg in the ford, sounds the quality of the two men on whom the development of Arfive will ultimately depend. Mort Ewing is a rancher, and bachelor, who has saved his money, found a friend and comfort in the madam, Eva Fox, has read more books than one might think, and accepts human nature with tolerance. Bent Collingsworth, the brightest of ten children, who has seen his favorite brother ruined by venereal disease, and who had to teach his way through the university, draws a sharp line between right and wrong, and would discipline others as he disciplines himself. Naturally they differ, and never more so than when Mort pleads that Julie, a sixteen-year-older whom Eva has befriended, be admitted to the school. The story is built on the opposition and the slow growing respect which these two men feel for each other.
The minor characters, some imaginary, like old Mr. McLaine, the cultivated Easterner, and some as real as Fatty Adlam, the saloon keeper, Soo Son, who ran the restaurant, and Eva Fox, are drawn with authority; the two we feel sorry for are May, Collingsworth’s wife, and their repressed young daughter, Mary Jess. Arfive as a community was hard on women, but the mercy and happiness it bestows on Julie are characteristic of the redemption the two men brought about.
This is a good subject, the struggle of a dedicated teacher in an unruly community, but the narrative, now whiskey, now milk and water, lacks the blend that would fire one’s belief.