The Peripatetic Reviewer
by Edward Weeks
BUCKMINSTER FULLER: At Home in the Universe by Alden Hatch Crown, $7.95
Buckminster Fuller is recognized today as being one of a kind, a visionary, scientist, inventor, and teacher with a magnificent power to persuade. His life, as Mr. Hatch, his friend for sixty years, describes it, falls into the classic pattern of early defeat, persistent struggle, and ultimate triumph. The Fuller family— Margaret was a great-aunt—was one of the New England tribes in which fervent, intellectual pursuits did not preclude a practical regard for cash. But cash in Bucky’s youth was running short. He entered Harvard in 1913 wishing to conform and was shocked to discover that the Porcellian Club did not want him. Very depressed at mid-years, he went to New York on a binge that took him to the Ziegfeld Follies and to champagne parties, in the course of which he blew his budget for the year. Harvard expelled him for “irresponsible conduct" (it was to readmit him later but again he left without a degree), and in expiation the family found him a job in Canada assembling a textile mill, where he discovered that he liked mechanics and quickly acquired a reputation for being an unconventional repairman.
This was the first flash of his genius and the next came in the First World War when he was put in command of the crash boats with the Navy flying school at Newport News. The pilots flew without parachutes and when they “ditched,” the planes flipped over. Bucky devised a reinforced boom and grappling hook which could right the plane before the pilot drowned. His postwar experience with big business soured him and he withdrew to ponder a better way to serve mankind and his family. In this impoverished interlude his little daughter died, a loss that had bearing on his motive for the first Dymaxion house (1927). There followed the Dymaxion car (1933), and then the incredible domes, vast and small, which have had the greatest use and prestige.
Buckminster Fuller’s fantastic originality has made him, among his dedicated admirers, a semidivine figure. Mr. Hatch has sensibly restored humanity to the cult hero and he has done so amusingly, with affection, intelligence, and respect. He knows, for instance, that although Bucky can hold an audience entranced for ninety minutes as he speaks his mind, his written pages are dense beyond belief.
CHAUTAUQUA: The Evolution of an Idea by Theodore Morrison University of Chicago Press. $10.00
Any college or periodical that survives for a century has able men to thank. Had the Chautauqua Institution, with its lectures and correspondence courses, pursued only its initial aim of improving the quality of teaching in Sunday schools, it would not be with us today. But its founders, John Heyl Vincent, the future Methodist bishop, and the prosperous inventor Lewis Miller, were urged forward by the rising tide of enthusiasm for adult education, especially for women. The modest summer school which they planted under canvas on the shore of Lake Chautauqua in August, 1874, attracted an attendance of twenty-five thousand for its initial fortnight, Vincent had the good sense to rule out revivalists and the flair to invite a former member of his congregation, Ulysses S. Grant, to the second session; and when the President, escorted by a large flotilla, came chuffing up the lake, the Institution’s fame spread nationwide. It was Vincent’s ingenuity which created, as a visual aid, Palestine Park, a large-scale contour map of the Holy Land, of sand with plaster villages; it was Miller’s interest in science which prompted the lectures on physics and biology. The shift in emphasis from the religious to the secular, in music from choir-singing to the symphony, came gradually and with no lessening of dedication.
The spirit of self-improvement, fundamental in the American character, can be overserious, and it is the grace of Mr. Morrison’s history that he can equate so fairly the aspiration in Chautauqua with the amusing human behavior. In the opening year, when it rained the dining “hall” leaked and “D.D.’s, LL.D’s, professors, and plain people held up umbrellas with one hand and tried to cut tough steaks with the other.” Ida Tarbell, who as a girl played tag on Palestine Park, recalled that “one rule of our game was that you could not be tagged out if you straddled Jerusalem.” Tents were eventually replaced by cottages and guesthouses for the different religious denominations as the attendance rose and zeal was multiplied under the initiative of William Rainey Harper and Bishop Vincent’s son, George, who carried the administration up to the First World War. Each is admirably characterized, and in their recruitment of lecturers, their encouragement of Home Reading Circles and of instruction in foreign languages and music, one is reminded of Samuel Eliot Morison’s description of Harvard under President Eliot: “We teach everything; you can learn anything.”
At the outset Miller paid the deficits. then it was clear sailing, and his daughter’s marriage to Thomas A. Edison assured the Institution of two more ardent supporters. The pinch came after the 1933 Assembly, when debts of $785,000 forced Chautauqua into receivership. Loyalists would not let it die, and with final aid from John D. Rockefeller the slate was cleaned in two years. In the reorganization, the sale of lakeshore plots to summer residents brought new enterprise into the Foundation.
Chautauqua today provides a symphony orchestra, opera, and summer stock, but as Morrison well says, the speakers attract the ten thousand who come and go each week. Six Presidents have followed Grant, T.R. (1905) and FDR (1936) pulling the greatest throngs. Over the years it has been the moral force of such as William James, Jane Addams, Norman Thomas, Karl Menninger, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Eleanor Roosevelt, Norman Cousins, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Ralph Bunche that has given Chautauqua its permanence.
THE GRAND ACQUISITORS by John L. Hess Houghton Mifflin, $5.95
The directors of American art museums have become infatuated with numbers: the annual tally of visitors who pass through their gates and the millions they pay for new acquisitions with which to attract the public. This costly delusion, that the value of a museum is to be measured by the head count, reached a climax in 1970 when New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, each celebrating its centennial, indulged in wheeling and dealing which resulted in scandals that shocked the art world. In Boston the much-touted portrait by Raphael, slipped illegally through customs, was demanded back by the Italian government, its return being followed by the resignation of the Director; meanwhile the probing of the New York Times exposed the Metropolitan’s secret policy of “de-accessioning,” selling privately most of its magnificent coin collection and many paintings, a shabby performance grudgingly acknowledged by its Director, Thomas Hoving.
John L. Hess, formerly Paris correspondent for the Times, has been the most persistent prober, and his findings form a caustic, lively denunciation of Mr. Hoving, and of the practices which the Metropolitan trustees condoned. The museum was running on an annual deficit of more than a million dollars, but this did not deter the lavish preparations for its centennial, wfflich must be celebrated by a fabulous acquisition. To raise the purchase price for a Euphronios vase, money was withdrawn from endowment and paintings were sold from the Metropolitan’s reserve. including fifty canvases of the Adelaide de Groot collection. This latter was the cause of deep resentment, as Miss de Groot in dictating the terms of her bequest had requested the Metropolitan “not to sell any of said works of art.” but to give any it did not desire to other museums in New York and Connecticut. Mr. Hess questions if in its private dealings the Metropolitan received anything like the proper amount for its rare coins and its canvases; he questions if the cracked and restored Greek krater was worth the sacrifice, and above all whether a publicly supported, tax-exempt institution should be so high-handed with its endowment.
HENRY AND OTHER HEROES by Ezra Bowen Little, Brown, $6.95
The author dedicates this book to his late mother, Catherine Drinker Bowen, “the gentlest of the ferocious competitors,” a tip to the reader that he is writing about his boyhood, his heroes and reproofs, as he grew up under the watchful dominance of the Drinkers of Philadelphia. It is the gay, earthy, refreshing chronicle of one who could be awed and put down, but not for long. In 1933, “after eight years of a defiant and ill-advised marriage,” Mrs. Bowen, with Ezra and his older sister, found refuge on the third floor of Grandfather Drinker’s home in Merion. Here she began the writing of her biographies, and here the boy came under the benign influence of Grandfather Drinker, the former president of Lehigh, and was imbued with the distinguished performance of his four uncles, Harry, Jim, Cecil, and Phil, “whose bodies and brains . . . ran on highoctane ambition.” He saw his elders in a different light than that in which his mother wrote about them in her Family Portrait and he naturally strove to impress them. In the beginning. Ezzy’s competitiveness existed partly in his dream of becoming a famous athlete, and partly in his rambunctiousness. “Smoking, eating, fighting and fidgeting are what boys do,” he writes of this amusing period, and he was not an easy companion for a woman who needed quiet, until he was curbed by his firm, austere stepfather, T. McKean Downs. His dream came true at Amherst College and aboard the carrier Midway (where he nearly lost his life), but it was not until he was working as an office boy for Time, lodging in Gramercy Park at the home of his beautiful Aunt Ernesta, that he had the notion of standing up to the Drinkers as a writer.
He is a ferocious skier and his first book was The Book of American Skiing; his love for mountains inspired The High Sierra. These celebrated sport; now he is writing about the hero-worship and a zest for life which he inherited from his mother. His understanding of her is the heartline of his book. In his maturity he realized that she was just as scared of her older brothers as he had been, and if he said “Kitty” in a gruff voice, she would stop whatever she was doing to “look at me in the smallest, quietest way, because Harry or Jimmy or Cecil or Phil had just barked at her again.”
LIFE & LETTERS CONTRIBUTORS
Ward Just, a contributing editor of The Atlantic, is the author of The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert and, most recently. Stringer.
Richard Todd is an associate editor of The Atlantic.
Joseph Kanon, Edward Weeks, and Phoebe Adams appear regularly in these pages.