The Peripatetic Reviewer: Curtain Speech
bv Edward Weeks
People write book reviews because they like books and like money. That was my incentive when I did my tirst assignment for The Atlantic in 1926: Country People. a lugubrious novel by Ruth Suckow which, despite the trumpeting of Henry Mencken, I did not enjoy. Rather timorous as a beginner. I asked for war books, feeling that my two years in the French army gave me a solid basis for judging them. Hut No More Parades bv the English novelist Ford Madox Ford, which came my way, seemed to me altogether synthetic; the author simply did not know what men went through at the Front. (It relieved me when Robert Graves demolished the book with more authority for the same reasons.) I was much more impressed by Erich Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, although it surprised me that the best war novel should have come from a defeated people (editing had not yet taught me that novelists, especially young ones, write more acutely about defeat than victory).
I would write my first copy regardless of space and then cut, beginning with the superlatives if it was a book I liked. Professor William Lyon Phelps of Yale was then at the height of his popularity as a book reviewer, and generously responded to publishers who requested an advance comment on a forthcoming book in words such as: “John Galsworthy has achieved the very plentitude of his powers.” Well, maybe he had, but I could not talk that way, even though such puffs were immediately reproduced on the book jacket. I preferred to work into my reviews short bright passages from the book itself, and as I read I made note of them in the blank pages at the back of the bound proof sheets from which a reviewer does his work.
One gains confidence as one goes along, and it heartened me when 1 had a nodding or closer acquaintance with authors who were my contemporaries. My pleasure in Ogden Nash’s verses was certainly abetted by having played poker with him at a booksellers’ convention. I had persuaded Bob Benchley to deliver “The Treasurer’s Report” to a Boston audience, and was appalled, as he was, by the mixed response to it and its companion piece, “The Sex Life of the Polyp.”
I snorted over Dorothy Parker’s Laments for the Living, and although I did not know either of the authors,
I thought Clarence Day’s God and My Father and James Thurber’s My Life and Hard Times were sheer heaven. As one looks back it is amusing to remember that those blithe books were all published in the early years of the Depression.
When I assumed the editorship of this magazine in 1938, I experimented with a single column of brief reviews over my signature. Up until that time, the editor’s name appeared in print in the magazine only once a year, as required by law. I broke that precedent because we needed subscriptions and I wanted trial readers to see the new man they were dealing with. Four years later we enlarged the magazine and I enlarged my column, prefacing my reviews with a few personal paragraphs, under the title “First Person Singular.” I did my reading at home, on trains, and in the air. for I was traveling about 25,000 miles a year, scouting for material and lecturing at clubs and campuses far from Boston. This brought my column a better title. Bennett Cerf, on a speaking trip in New England, stopped off to see me at 8 Arlington Street and was told I was away lecturing. “You tell Mr. Weeks for me,” he said to our receptionist, “that if he wasn’t so damned peripatetic he would be a better editor.”
That was thirty-five years ago. In that span I have sent back copy from many whistle-stops, cabled it from London, did not try to write it during my summer weeks in Moscow, and had it suppressed in Belgrade. Of the 420 consecutive issues,
I failed to appear in five, testament to an inexhaustible love for books and patient eyes. “The more books we read.” wrote Cyril Connolly, “the sooner we perceive that the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and that no other task is of any consequence.” When book reviewing is a task, a drudgery, a deadline hard to meet, back of it stands that truth in which the reviewer shares.
There was a time when a frontpage appreciation in the Sunday edition of the New York Times Book Review would sell a thousand more copies than a briefer notation within, and when the ecstatic praise of Alexander Woollcott, “The down Crier,” could put a book on the best-seller list, as it did when he went “quietly mad” over a neglected novel, Lost Horizon, by James Hilton.
The changes that have overtaken us since World War II have reduced the influence of any single voice, but among the reviewers who moved up into the elect circle of critics I would place Cyril Connolly and Raymond Mortimer of London; and at home, Edmund Wilson, who was impatient and envious in his reviews of fiction, but profound as a critic; Clifton Fadiman in his great years on The New Yorker, when annually he would acknowledge the books which he had underor over-praised; and Louise Bogan on poetry.
One no longer believes the advertisements of new books: blurbs, like the commercials on TV, are a tone louder than one is willing to hear. Today the feud between the professional writer and the professional academic, who has always meant to write the book he is reviewing, is so sharp it breaks the skin. Few can surpass an assistant professor in condescension. “You know,” said one of them to Catherine Drinker Bowen, “one of these days I’m going to take time off and write a popular book.”
There have often been literary Establishments of those with similar tastes and backgrounds who touted each other’s work and disparaged that of the outsider. The Yankee Establishment in Concord had no use for Walt Whitman, disapproved of Poe, and shed no tears over Melville’s decline. Concord has long since been replaced by Manhattan, where the literary Establishment takes very good care of its own. But as tastes change, Establishments change.
I wrote in December of 1938, “We have lost our imagination for reading because for eighteen years we have been asked to swallow grimmer and grimmer doses of realism. Realism unquestionably imparted fresh strength to American writing. But it went to extremes, and in time packed so much violence, misery, and brutality into print that it soured our minds.”
The violence of World War II and Vietnam has produced fiction of such violence that it crushes the imagination; sex is so stark that it has become objectionable, not because it is sex, but because most novelists, in truth, write about it so badly.
Take reassurance from the best of what we have had since the 1920s; the essays of Virginia Woolf and E. B. White; Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Thornton Wilder, George Orwell, and Faulkner; Isak Dinesen and Saint-Exupéry; Ralph Ellison and Samuel Eliot Morison; the poets Frost and Auden; the Bostonians John Marquand and Edwin O’Connor; those exceptional biographers E. M. Cornford, Catherine Drinker Bowen, and Cecil Woodham-Smith; the appeals of Barbara Ward and Nadine Gordimer; and the irrepressible gaiety of Ludwig Bemelmans. (After my review of one of his books, he sent me a watercolor he had painted of “21” inscribed on the back, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”) Take reassurance that such good writing still goes on, as witness the publication this June of Peter Matthiessen’s novel Far Tortuga.
As I make my bow, I am reminded of one of the dearest of old men in American letters, Mark Anthony De Wolfe Howe. In his nineties, when his eyesight had faded, he subscribed to Talking Books, and as I dropped by to see him in his apartment on Louisburg Square, he was listening to Trollope. “You know, Ted.” he said, “if this goes on I’ll end up being well read.”