The Peripatetic Reviewer
ANOTHER PART OF THE WOOD by Kenneth Clark Harper & Row, $11.00
Sir Kenneth Clark, who captivated a vast audience here and in Britain with his impressive TV series on Civilisation, is writing his autobiography. This is the first volume, a bewitching book, affectionate and ironic in its description of his Victorian boyhood, precocious and witty as he tells of his awakening devotion to Art.
He was an only child, born after a Cesarean operation. His mother, a quite beautiful Quaker, took small interest in him. and spent her life trying to prevent his father from drinking himself to death. Clark, senior, Scotch by birth and by consumption, was wealthy; they belonged, as the son says, “to a section of society known as ‘the idle rich,’ and although, in that golden age, many people were richer, there can have been few who were idler.” The boy adored his handsome, powerful father, who built a new yacht every year to assert his supremacy in the yachting circle of the Clyde. Beginning in October, father entertained large house parties at their country estate, where they shot as many as 1200 pheasants in a day; and when, in January, the last guest departed, he took to his bed for three days to dry out. In the spring the family went to Scotland for the salmon fishing; their estate of 75,000 acres was mostly bog, and as young Kenneth loathed the rod as much as the gun, he would walk ten miles to the Bay of Kentra where, after a high tide, one could find nails, beads, or a brooch, relics of the Vikings. On these solitary walks, “I learnt the trick of talking to a television camera. . . . I formed the habit of soliloquy, and would even repeat out loud what I had learned on the preceding day, very much as I did in Civilisation.”
How a boy with aesthetic tastes emerged from such a background is altogether surprising. In 1910, when he was seven, his governess took him to a Japanese exhibition on the outskirts of London, a kind of funfair with lakes and little boats made to look like swans, gigantic bronze birds, and cherry blossoms. But off to one side was a small gallery, and as they trudged wearily up the stairs, the boy was suddenly transported, for here on either side were Japanese screens “of such ravishing beauty that I was not only struck dumb with delight, I felt that I had entered a new world.” (They were indeed of priceless value, and Clark learned years later that the Japanese government had sent the screens expecting they would be displayed in the National Gallery.) From that eye-opening experience came Kenneth’s determination to be a painter, and his drawings won the prize every year he was at Winchester. But when he was at Oxford, self-knowledge told him that he lacked talent; his true assets were his prodigious visual memory and his power of appreciation, and after two years of apprenticeship with Bernard Berenson, he was on his way to being the foremost critic of our time.
Clark’s sociability, his training under Berenson, whose knowledge and frailties he recognized, and his work in the Ashmolean Museum brought him, before he was thirty, the offer to be director of the National Gallery. “I knew nothing of administration, nothing of finance or fund raising,” he writes, “my only thought was to buy some good pictures for the Gallery, and to rehang certain rooms.” Buy them he did: masterpieces by Rubens. Rembrandt, Ingres, Jerome Bosch, Giovanni di Paolo, and seven Sassettas—with an acquisition fund never larger than £7000 a year!
The “Great Clark Boom,” as he calls it, lasted seven years, and its collapse gives full play to his love of irony: his accountant was caught short: the purchase of four panels which he unwisely attributed to Giorgione and the rebellion of his staff put him in the doghouse. His penance was to arrange for the hiding of the nation’s treasures even before Munich, and to discover in the cellar twenty rolls of canvas, “thick with grime,”which when scrubbed proved to be Turners.
Sir Kenneth and his likable wife Jane have enjoyed their “front seats at Vanity Fair.” So will readers who forgive his occasional snobbery for the sake of his acute self-judgment and his delightfully felicitous style.
THE MASSACRE AT FALL CREEK by Jessamyn West Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. $8.95
Miss West is a California Quaker who had an Indian grandmother, and with that heritage—her inborn resistance to violence and her sympathy for the red man—she has written this graphic, deeply stirring historical novel. The Massacre at Fall Creek. For her story she has gone back to the frontier village of Pendleton in Indiana, where, in the year 1824, a small camp of nine Seneca Indians—two men and their wives and children—who had been innocently trapping were set upon and brutally murdered by five whites. The outrage was unprovoked, and Colonel Johnston, the Indian agent in the Northwest Territory. was determined that the murderers should be tried, and, if found guilty, executed. If justice was not done, he knew there would be avenging raids by the powerful Seneca nation, not only on Pendleton, but all along the exposed frontier. The massacre and the trial became the concern of President Monroe and Secretary of War Calhoun. So much is history, but the motives and behavior of those involved were left to Miss West’s imagination, and her story of frontier justice, with its comedy, lovemaking, and vengeance, is striking.
At the time that the murders occurred at the sugar camp, the conflict between the settlers, forever pushing west, and the Indians, resentful of broken treaties, had reached a smoldering armistice. But the cruelty on both sides had been grisly. The pioneer in Pendleton most appalled by the massacre is Caleb Cape, a farmer and preacher, whose sermons—and the big meal that followed—attract settlers from ten miles around. He is the Godfearing peacemaker, a Quaker in spirit, who intervenes when the blood is hot. His seventeen-year-old daughter. Hannah, a six-footer, bosomy, red-haired, and outspoken, has an untamed beauty that attracts the lawyers who gather for the trial.
Her younger brother Ben, the unwilling and only neutral observer of what happened, is the star witness. Through Hannah and Ben we feel the reaction of youth, and Hannah’s passionate affair with Charlie Fort, a lawyer for the defense, has plenty of jounce.
The trial, conducted in the presence of the Indian chiefs and of a senator and general sent down from Washington, is magnificently handled: prolonged, angry, and excruciating in the testimony, and pervaded throughout by the calming presence of Judge McGowan, who is determined that the community must, for the first time, accept equal justice for both white and red. This was the earliest ease on record where white men were accused of first-degree murder for having killed Indians. Could the jury be trusted?
The sentencing and execution are an anticlimax too long drawn out. Nor can I believe in Handsome Lake, the Seneca Gandhi, whose philosophy of nonviolence seems out of place. But the authentic drama in the courtroom and the deeply felt questioning of the judge are vivid reminders of racial hatred which we have not yet outgrown.
THE CAT-NAPPERS by P. G. Wodehouse Simon and Schuster, $6.95
Pelham Grenville Wodehouse. who died on Valentine’s Day, was the master of the light novel and one of the most versatile entertainers in any language. In his ninetythree years he had written close to a hundred books, the best of which have been translated far and wide, and more than five hundred short stories and articles. In Hollywood he could name his price.
Of his many characters, Wodehouse created two that were everlasting: the likable blunderer Bertie Wooster, an ingenuous English bachelor, member of the Drones Club, and Jeeves, his valet and protector. They made their first appearance in 1919 in My Man Jeeves, and now reappear for the umpteenth time in The Cat-Nappers.
The plot concerns two racehorses, Simla and Potato Chip, favorites in the coming contest at Bridmouthon-Sea. Potato Chip has fallen in love with a cat which sleeps in his stall and becomes listless if the cat is missing. If Bertie abducts the cat the result is certain. It is not the plot but the blithe spirit of the telling that charms us. Wodehouse devices are familiar, yet they never stale. “I have hidden depths, would you say?" Bertie asks, and indeed he has. He is fond of using quotations and they are always twisted: “There’s a small flaw in the ointment.” he says, and it caps the situation. He is constantly in danger of marrying a charmer who has lost her appeal. “The girls you’ve been engaged to and escaped from,”says his Aunt Dahlia reproachfully, “would reach, if placed end to end, from Piccadilly to Hyde Park Corner.”And as for the place names, consider “Upper-Walsingham-belowTiverton on Thames.” There is a controlled lunacy in these parodies of life among the British aristocracy which, as Evelyn Waugh once said, “appeals to the most sophisticated taste and the simplest.”
A month before his death, Wodehouse was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, an honor and a pardon for the ill-judged broadcasts he made to America while a captive in Berlin in 1941.
THE LETTERS OF BERNARD DEVOTO edited by Wallace Stegner Doubleday, $10.00
In our time, letter writing has become almost a lost art. Bernard DeVoto’s letters, with their sparkle, solid knowledge, and head-thumping, are a pungent exception. There are many of them in this large volume, expressing his moods from elation to despair, and one’s appreciation of what prompted them and their effect is clarified by the lively explanatory notes of Wallace Stegner. If letters are to be enjoyed by the unacquainted reader, they must be set in a good matrix, and this one is excellent.
DeVoto was belligerent by nature: his admiration, as the editor says, “was usually conceived as attack and defense.”But he rarely went off half-cocked, and when he defended Mark Twain against “the spoiled-artist theories" of Van Wyck Brooks. Lewis Mumford & Co., he had a far sounder understanding of the western frontier than they did, and a fairer appraisal of America’s foremost writer. Their interpretation was finding its way into textbooks: DeVoto thought it was erroneous and blasted it out.
He looked on the western frontier as his special preserve, and how thoroughly he knew his subject comes clear in his letter to Donald Geddes with its detailed demolition of Harry Maule’s Pocket Book of Western Stories; Benny did not want such misinformation spread in the paperback. Nor was it only the past: in his one-man war against the cattlemen and lumbermen and their abuse of public lands he was the earliest and the most pugnacious of the conservationists; his letters to the editor of the Denver Post leave that apologist no leg to stand on, and his rebuke of Senator Mike Mansfield for seeking to revive the Glacier View Dam in the Glacier National Park is a point-by-point refutation altogether discreditable to the politician. One of the results of such sharpshooting, as Stegner says, was that people came to recognize DeVoto as a champion of everything they believed in.
On the more personal side, his letter to Paul Brooks giving thanks for Houghton Mifflin’s publication of Across the Wide Missouri is such gratitude as an editor seldom receives; his gibe to Dr. Canby about the Saturday Review of Literature makes me grin: and for patriotism, his letter to Catherine Drinker Bowen, whom a pedant had accused of being “romantic.” is an outburst of his love for this country, which is sheer poetry.
LIFE & LETTERS CONTRIBUTORS
Richard Todd is an associate editor of The Atlantic.
Charles E. Wyzanski, Jr. is United States District Court Judge in Boston.
Kenneth Baker is a free-lance art critic.
Mark Singer is on the staff of The NewYorker.
Edward Weeks and Phoebe Adams contribute regularly to these pages.
POETS IN THIS ISSUE
Alan Dugan’s (page 48) Poems 4 was published recently.
Katha Pollitt (page 77) is making her first appearance in The Atlantic.