by Edward Weeks
THE UNEASY CHAIR by Doubleday, $12.50
Bernard DeVoto is the classic example of an author who came circuitously to his best work. Only after bitter disappointment as a teacher and novelist did he turn to the writing of those three volumes, The Year of Decision: 1846; Across the Wide Missouri; and The Course of Empire, which established him as our foremost historian of the Western Frontier. His recognition came after many years of intense productivity and if he went Parkman one better it was because not only did he know the country and the conditions from boyhood but he had the advantage of the hearsay, the handme-downs, and the hindsight which give such vitality to his pages. The authority of this biography, The Uneasy Chair, is based, as Mr. Stegner says in his Author’s Note, on the fact that “We were both Westerners by birth and upbringing, novelists by intention, teachers by necessity, and historians by the sheer compulsion of the region that shaped us.” By friendship and proximity this is a book after Benny’s heart.
DeVoto’s “region” was Ogden. Utah: he scorned its provincialism and the town returned his disrespect. His mother, a comfort while she lived, was a Mormon who had backslid, his father, an irritable, embittered Catholic who had taught for a time at Notre Dame, and missed the mark. From him the boy inherited his prejudice against the Mormons, his hunger for books and, per contra, his determination to be self-supporting. He was a girlwatcher, and his “crushes” (a word the biographer over-uses) matured as the heroines of his stories. His belligerency was his shield against his homeliness—his nose had been flattened in a youthful accident— and his craving for acceptance.
At a time when it was fashionable to write abroad. DeVoto found his haven in New England. Harvard, where he was befriended by three remarkable teachers, Dean Briggs, Byron Hurlbut, and Charles Townsend Copeland, fostered his desire to write and stimulated his omnivorous reading of Western history. Cambridge was his be-all and when he was called back to teach parttime, he made it his base for freelancing. The novels which he published under his signature were too forced and strident for success but the slick fiction which he sold to the Saturday Evening Post and Collier's under the name of John August earned as much as $20,000 a serial. Meanwhile, Henry Mencken was helping him focus his criticism. Benny was a hard-hitter, with the common sense to base his scorn and castigation on fact, and when Harper’s magazine invited him to fill its traditional column, the “Easy Chair,” he had the soapbox he needed. He made enemies when he blasted the amateur psychologizing of Van Wyck Brooks and Lewis
Mumford but his affirmations about Mark Twain were true positive faith in this country quite as much as his wars against Senator McCarthy or the raiders of public lands that marked his eminence in the Easy Chair.
Mr. Stegner has been through the mill and knows the anguish a free lance suffers when things are not going well. Because DeVoto produced so much, he could sink fast when failure and fatigue drove him to migraine and insomnia, a darkness from which only his wife and psychiatrist could bring him back. He was a good teacher and his release from Harvard was a shame for which Conant and other detractors were to blame. He was not a good editor and his mismanagement of The Saturday Review was the bleakest, most irresponsible episode in his career. Stegner goes light on this as he does on DeVoto’s assaults and exaggerations; Benny could hurt people, as Stegner himself does in his reference to Dr. Hans Zinsser, “who fouled his own scientific nest,” a slur that is without foundation.
DeVoto’s strain and suffering were counterbalanced by the occasional bright intervals: the happiness of his home life in Lincoln and in Cambridge; his friendship with L. J. Henderson and Garrett Mattingly; the summer days at Bread Loaf, which Benny called his “favorite club”; his temporary adoration of Robert Frost; the satisfaction of his affiliation with the National Park Service; and the crowning realization that he was a historian when “for half a lifetime he had stubbornly misread his gifts.”
THE PARTNERS by Louis Auchincloss Houghton Mifflin, $6.95
When brusque, tough-minded Judge Howland invited Beekman Ehninger to become a clerk in his New York law office, he salvaged an attractive dilettante from the frivolity of Long Island, and in the course of time converted “Young Beeky” into a scrupulous and sympathetic manager of men. Beeky was born to wealth—and to rebel against a supercilious father and a sweet, consuming mother. In the old firm of Shepard & Howland he found his scope and his passion: to it he attracted the legal affairs of his sisters and cousins and aunts, most of them well to do, and whatever the problem, a divorce, a will, a tax audit, or a merger, it was Beeky who supervised the action to be taken. He knew he would never be a leader of the bar, but he knew “that life had dealt him a good hand”—and that he was learning to play it well. When in 1946 the Judge, in his eighties, became too much of a curmudgeon, Beeky lured his most brilliant classmates, Hubert Cox and Horace Putney, from a rival firm, formed with them a new partnership, and then in a direct and a shattering interview informed the old Judge that he was being retired.
The Partners is a group portrait of the men—and women—who comprise the new firm, their skills, their dependence on each other, and their bedside misgivings. Their cases—and in each there is a story—are mainly concerned with money and matrimony, the predicaments of prosperous middle-aged clients who seek to dodge taxes or alimony, and for some but not always, “Beeky” has the key. At fifty-six he is a trim little figure, quick in perception, less sure than he appears, intuitive under stress. His marriage to the raucous Annabel, thirteen years his senior and thrice married, has no sex left in it but with her blunt, penetrating judgments she bolsters him more than he realizes.
Here are the attitudes and the social influence of a capable law firm in Manhattan, and the morality—or lack of it—compressed within the legal phraseology, such as, should counsel object when his client, a husband whose wife is incompetent, wishes to set up a trust that will short-change the children of her first marriage? And how plausibly Mr. Auchincloss draws his people: the rough-hewn Judge Howland; the apprehensive Burrill Hume, expert on wills, who flatters the old girls at their dinner parties; Horace Putney, who after a “whiff of power” in Washington, is angling for another government job: Hermione Stoutenburg. “the office sweetheart,” tall, eloquent, big-breasted, still a virgin at thirty-six, and, as she thinks, never to be loved, and Hubert Cox. the even-tempered senior partner, who gives the firm its ballast.
“Don’t try to play God,” Cox warns the troubled “Beeky,” as they face the question of whether to merge with a younger, larger, harder outfit. The practice of law, under Beeky’s management, had changed from the rigor of the old Judge to something more personal, and now was about to change again, and in his quixotic way he wanted none of it. This blending of legal adventure and private lives is handled with authority and sophistication.
ELIZABETH AND CATHERINE by Robert Coughlan Putnam’s, $ 10.00
There are four principals in this historical picture of Russia in transition: Peter I, immense in enterprise and body—he stood just under seven feet—who restored Russia’s ancient borders, built his beautiful new capital, and initiated the Westernization of his country; Peter III who was too irrational to survive as Czar; and the two extraordinary women who maintained the balance, Elizabeth, the robust daughter of Peter the Great, and the little known German princess who became Catherine secunda and later Catherine the Great.
The strength and resourcefulness of the original Peter is of never-fading fascination and it was ironic that he should have been succeeded by frail men and by women of such masculine capacity. Elizabeth, who resembled her father in many ways, was robust, strong-willed, and voluptuous; unmarried when she came to the throne, she chose for her consort a loyal young Ukrainian known as “the Emperor of the Night,” but she ran the show and in her complexity of piety and passion she was determined to perpetuate the Romanov line. During her regency she bossed the marriage of two teenagers: her nephew Charles Peter— who was briefly Czar Peter III—and the obscure German princess Sophia who was renamed Catherine. They were bedded down in suspicion, Peter’s toy soldiers hidden under the bed, and the bride forbidden to ride horseback astride, and when it was discovered that Peter was cruel, retarded, and impotent, Elizabeth wrote, “My nephew, Devil take him, is a monster!”
How Catherine survived the ordeal is a wonder; her memoir and the notes she wrote for her own amusement are a stoic and engrossing part of this story and are supplemented by the recollections of the men who were loyal to her. At the first it went against her early Lutheran training to accept the attractive nobleman-stud that the Empress Elizabeth made available, but when she became pregnant and was delivered of her son Paul, her safety was secured. One expects intrigue and barbarity in the Russian court but what Mr. Coughlan brings out so surprisingly, after Peter III has been murdered, is the poise and intelligence and generosity with which Catherine civilized the state she had inherited.
Her correspondence with Voltaire and Diderot: her credo beginning. “Study mankind, learn to use men without surrendering to them unreservedly . . ."; her building of the Hermitage and the diplomacy with which she filled it with masterpieces from France and Holland; her “Instruction” of aims for the Legislative Assembly; her conversion of a convent into the Smolny Institute for educating women are accomplishments which place her beside Elizabeth I of England. Inevitably she was compelled to compromise and the pity is that she treated her son, Czar Paul, as harshly as Elizabeth had treated her.
This is a cool, unsalacious, and well-documented evaluation of two women of power and of the nation they ruled.
LIFE & LETTERS CONTRIBUTORS
Mark Schorer. professor of English at Berkeley, is the author of numerous literary biographies, among them D. H. Lawrence.
Richard Todd is an associate editor of The Atlantic.
Joseph Kanon, Edward Weeks, and Phoebe Adams write regularly for these pages.
POETS IN THIS ISSUE
Poems 4 by Alan Dugan (page 55) will be published this month.
Peter Davison (page 58) is the author of Walking the Boundaries: Poems. 19571974. to be published this spring.