The Peripatetic Reviewer

by Edward Weeks
The African Experience
by Peter Matthiessen & Eliot Porter
Dutton, $ 17.50
This collaboration brings together two talented American naturalists, each of whom, Matthiessen in his illuminating text, Porter in his glorious colored photography, are intent on making us share their experiences in East Africa, extending from the Upper Nile in Sudan to remote Lake Rudolf on the Kenyan frontier. “African pre-history,” writes Mat - thiessen, “is an edifice of probabilities, and its dates are continually set back as new archaeological sites emerge.” Their reason for centering on East Africa is their belief that adventurers from the north wandered into it at least ten thousand years ago; and, secondly, because within the boundaries of their experience are the Maasai who “care for nothing but cattle, water, and women, in that order”; the Dorobo, the Small People with their poisoned arrows, whose existence is threatened by the clearing of the forests; the Elephant Kingdoms and the Serengeti, that vast open space with its great herds, which, despite the pessimistic forecast after the collapse of colonialism, still survive.
Peter Matthiessen, who began as a fiction writer, has become through his travels and study of anthropology a walking book of knowledge. But his speculation about human prehistory tends to clot his prose, leaving the reader behind. However, if one does not fuss over his technical terms and reads with a skipping eye, the firm truths are there: about the generalized Homo who used hand axes half a million years ago, about the early worship of cattle by the migrating people who subsisted on their milk and blood drawn from a vein, and of how when men of Asia brought wheat, barley, sheep, and goats to the Lower Nile, the desert expanded and the drought was advanced “by the goats which ate the thorns that had sewn tight the land that soon unraveled into sand.” Much fateful history is packed into those few words.
Entwined with this curiosity about the dim past is Mr. Matthiessen’s second and to me more engrossing theme: his observations of the natives, the landscape, the wildlife he encountered on his two expeditions to East Africa, the first in 1961 when he scouted in a Land Rover of his own, and his return eight years later when he joined up with the Eliot Porter party to explore the dangerous noman’s-land surrounding Lake Rudolf. Here his prose reveals the punishing heat and the deep anxiety when the party has lost its way and water and gasoline run low; the excitement of pursuing a migrating herd of four hundred elephants, and having left their Land Rover to get closer, of silently being stalked by a large bull who broke his charge when less than a hundred feet away. “You don’t want them any closer than that,” said his companion, “not when you’re on foot”; revealing also those sudden arrested moments of African beauty. “On foot,” he writes, “the pulse of Africa comes through your boot. You are an animal among others, chary of the shadowed places, of sudden quiet in the air.” Matthiessen is a professional and his thumbnail sketches of those who helped him on his way, men like John Owen, director of the Tanzania National Parks, the Adamson brothers, recluses both, who have known Africa for half a century, and young Iain DouglasHamilton, who has studied elephant behavior at closer range than anyone else, are a pleasing human thread. From them he gets the prescience of the natural forces, the hatreds, and the hunger which threaten to change what is.
Eliot Porter’s purpose is to point up the text, as he does with his opener, a baobab tree more than two thousand years old, and again, with a picture of a leopard and cub feasting on their kill in a tree crotch, but independently to capture for the unacquainted the power and sweep of this vast untamed land. His sense of composition is flawless, whether he is photographing the fury of Murchison Falls, the calm power of the Mountain of the God, or the green softness of the mosses and ferns in Mount Kenya forest. How did he ever persuade six giraffes to pose for him like gawking sightseers? The thorn trees at sunset and the Maasai herdboy are Oriental in feeling, and Mr. Porter’s capture of the elephant scratching himself against an acacia tree, of the cheetah making her kill at full speed on the open plain, of the zebra so full of curiosity, and of hippos dozing after their immersion in the Nile, are masterpieces of the telescopic lens. His three shots of Mount Meru are breathtaking: the first for its perspective—the dark green hillock in the foreground merging so perceptibly into the great peak with its necklace of clouds; and in the two that follow of the ghost forest, the blues, the light greens, and the brackish little pool are exquisitely delineated and without a blur. Taken together these two artists have discovered for me an Africa I have never seen or properly appreciated before.
by Geoffrey Bennett
Scribner’s, $12.00
There are certain national heroes— Nelson, Napoleon, Lincoln, and Queen Victoria—whose achievements and mistakes are reassessed for each new generation as fresh material comes to light. This new full-bodied study of Nelson is the first by a professional naval officer since Admiral Mahan’s classic biography published seventy-five years ago. Captain Geoffrey Bennett, D.S.C., R.N., fought in the Mediterranean and in the South Atlantic in World War II and later served as naval attaché in Moscow with access to Admiral Ushakov’s files. One would expect him to write of the life aboard ships with a practiced eye, and especially in the battle scenes his vigorous text is enlivened by the eyewitness accounts of the men and officers engaged. He is very fair with the French, whom he quotes to show how often they were handicapped by Bonaparte’s ignorance of the sea, and he does not hesitate to criticize his hero when he thinks Nelson was in the wrong.
From the first, Captain Bennett distinguishes between Nelson the man and Nelson the commander. No captain, he asserts, was ever more considerate of his crew, or more humane in his treatment of the defeated, and he cites examples. While the British were blockading the Spanish fleet in Cadiz, Nelson shifted his flag to the newly arrived seventyfour-gun Theseus; her crew had played a prominent role in the mutiny at Spithead and the ship was “destitute of stores of every kind.” Where a lesser man would have stood on discipline, Nelson saw to their immediate needs for fresh food and rum, and the crew’s gratitude was expressed in this note dropped on the quarterdeck: “Success attend Admiral Nelson. God bless Captain Miller. We thank them for the officers they have placed over us. We are happy and comfortable, and will shed every drop of blood in our veins to support them . . .” It was signed, “Ship’s Company.”
Early in the volume the author explains how a British crew was recruited and what it meant to command and fight a floating fortress of a hundred guns. With this knowledge we are better able to appreciate Nelson’s audacity under those two able admirals, Hood and Jervis, who secured his promotion. At Cape St. Vincent when the Spanish fleet was struggling to get out of reach, Nelson in defiance of the Fighting Instructions wore his ship out of line, reversed course, and overtook the enemy. Admiral Jervis reacted instantly to this initiative, signaling other ships to break the line and pursue, and after the victory congratulated Nelson on his daring. It was Horatio’s foresight which prompted him to do the unorthodox, on the Nile, in Copenhagen, and most triumphantly at Trafalgar, where he divided his fleet into two javelins both aimed at the enemy’s center.
Captain Bennett, contrary to the Encyclopedia Britannica, comes down hard on Nelson when, during the worst two years of his infatuation with Emma Hamilton, Nelson’s passion and his dislike for his C-in-C Keith kept him ashore when he should have been at sea, entrapping Napoleon’s abandoned army in Egypt. Nelson was guilty of other impulsive mistakes, the execution of Caracciolo being one of them; his readiness to expose himself in amphibious landings which cost him his right arm we must forgive, as the author does, because of his superb courage and stoicism in the suffering that followed. Among the curios in this colorful book is the claim of Soviet historians that Nelson learned his tactics from the Russian Admiral Ushakov when for a brief period they were wary collaborators in the Mediterranean, a claim which Captain Bennett very sensibly punctures. Horatio Nelson was his own inventor with a magnetic leadership no other admiral has ever rivaled.
The Literary Career of James Thurber
by Charles S. Holmes
Atheneum, $10.00
James Thurber has written so entertainingly about himself in his own books, The Thurber Album and The Years with Ross, and is so hilariously quotable, that anyone daring to do his biography is faced with a dangerous comparison, and, I must add, a comparison which Professor Holmes has skillfully avoided. Instead of trying to match the wit and fantasy of his hero, Holmes in a friendly, thorough way has traced the evolution of James Thurber from a shy, romantic unprepossessing boy in Columbus, Ohio, to that uninhibited, confident author and artist whose humor was the best of our time.
James, the second son of a spirited, imaginative mother and an unassertive father, had to contend with Midwestern restraint and a physical handicap. At the age of eight he lost the sight of one eye in an accident which was to leave him forty years of seeing before total blindness shut down. He found his consolation in writing, and the class prophecy which he produced for the eighth grade, the author tells us, “anticipates with uncanny accuracy the subject matter and the comic method of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.’” At Ohio State University he was an unkempt loner until two men came to his rescue: Professor Joseph Taylor, who imbued him with a love for Henry James, and Elliott Nugent, a classmate, with whose encouragement James spruced up, became the editor of The SunDial, the college paper, and a college figure with romantic notions about girls. The writer on whom he was modeling himself was a journalist, Robert O. Ryder, editor of the best paper in Columbus, and a masterhand at succinct, quietly satirical paragraphs. Ryder occasionally poked fun at the quiddities of American women, which Thurber in his maturity was to enlarge into a major war, but first he had to outgrow his streak of sentimentality. This he did in Paris, where he earned his keep as a decoding clerk at the Versailles Peace Conference, and later as a reporter on the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune. His letters home to Nugent show how adolescent his inner life still was until his mid-twenties.
Thurber’s first wife was an ambitious girl who prodded him and kept prodding until he made his gamble as a free lance in New York. His short stories aimed at the Saturday Evening Post had all come back and now so did the paragraphs and the short fantastic sketches which he submitted to that new magazine, the New Yorker. Thurber’s affiliation with the New Yorker began as an editor, not as a writer, in the period of Robert Benchley’s ascendancy, and in Professor Holmes’s words, it is a joy to follow. Benchley’s protagonist was the well-meaning bumbler, usually himself, as harassed father or husband, but in his sketches Thurber reshaped this figure to his own wilder, more sardonic temperament. Then followed the friendship with E. B. White, a partnership which led to their first book, Is Sex Necessary?, a collaboration in which Thurber had much to learn from the seemingly unstudied clarity and precision of his partner’s prose. Unbelievable as it now sounds, it took White years to pressure Ross into publishing and finally appreciating Thurber’s drawings.
Thurber’s success is set off with superb quotations and I agree with the author that the early peak came in My Life and Hard Times with its “chaotic situations, and the strange blend of the realistic and the fantastic which are the hallmarks of his work.” And neither blindness nor middle age tamed his spirit. In his later years he was, as Holmes says, “the closest thing we have had to a national humorist-spokesman since Mark Twain and Will Rogers.” In the long hours of insomnia that come to us all, Thurber amused himself by inventing in dictionary style what he called “bed words.” I quote two of my favorites: “KISSGRANNY. 1. A man who seeks the company of older women, especially older women with money; a designing fellow, a fortune hunter. 2. An overaffectionate old woman, a hugmoppet, a bunnytalker.” “FUSSGRAPE. 1. One who diets or toys with food, a light eater, a person without appetite, a scornmuffin, a shuncabbage. 2. A man, usually American, who boasts of his knowledge of wines, a smugbottle.”
by Marjorie Kellogg
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $5.95
Not since Richard Hughes’s High Wind in Jamaica has a novel about children so played upon my sympathies as this new book of Miss Kellogg’s. The clues to the story come fast in the opening pages, for Miss Kellogg’s children, her hero Ben West, so self-reliant for his eleven years, and the two Amazonian teenagers, Madeline, the shoplifter, and Julie Williams with her burning rage, are the victims of parental cruelty, which in our society is not confined to the slums. It takes craftsmanship to convey in a few strokes and without offensiveness the brutality to which these kids are subjected and the defense which they build up in their minds and which prompts them to behave as they do. Young Ben is the second child in a family of five, his mother’s favorite, the protector of his retarded younger brother Philip, and for all these reasons the target of his father’s sadism when that sailor turns up at home between voyages. Sara, Ben’s mother, has no defense against her husband and in desperation she sends her three boys to the Children’s Shelter, the polite name for a reform school, where Mr. Rose, the director, and Mr. Rooney, the psychologist, are incompetent. It is here that Ben meets the Amazons and is adopted by Madeline, and when Ben and Philip are visited by their mother, the school psychologist sees in a tragic moment of truth “the tripartite merge before his eyes: the son into the mother, and the child into the boy. as though none of them could be complete without the others.”
Ben endured the school with only one thought—to get back to the battered apartment in Brooklyn and to take his mother and the kids out of reach of the old man. His runaway is a heartache. For the purpose of the book the adults in the story are mediocrities, or worse; it is the problem children who have the spirit, the resourcefulness to bluff or steal their way, the anger and the compassion which band them together in circumstances as cruel as Dickens ever knew.