Monday, December 07, 2009

December 7, 1941: The Review reviewed

At the beginning of every week, Levi Asher runs an enjoyable feature that he calls “Reviewing the Review,” in which he slices through the pages of the previous Sunday’s New York Times Book Review with irreverent scissors.

Sixty-eight years ago today—a cloudy Sunday morning in New York with temperatures in the mid-fifties—the New York Times Book Review was published as usual, but then quickly swallowed by events. Many of its reviews must have gone unread as New Yorkers learned some time after 2:30 in the afternoon that their country had been attacked without warning by Japan. The Review might as well have been set in an alternate reality; except for a small advertisement for Japan Inside Out, a book by Syngman Rhee under the imprint of the Christian publisher Fleming H. Revell (“Dr. Rhee brings warning to the United States that, while watching Hitler, Japan is carrying out her long cherished plan”), no hint of a Japanese threat appeared anywhere. The books that received respectful attention were a “social estimate” of Hollywood, a five-volume Dictionary of American History, a historical novel about eighteenth-century Dublin by Oliver St. John Gogarty (Joyce’s Buck Mulligan), and a biography of the Nazi diplomat who negotiated the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. There were also tributes to the romance writer W. H. Hudson and a Christmas list of the year’s best books. The editors of the New York Times Book Review, if not the rest of the country, were still watching Hitler, or trying not to.

It must be admitted right off that 1941 was not a particularly good year for American literature. The most important literary event of the year was John Crowe Ransom’s introduction to what he called The New Criticism. The name stuck—for good. American fiction was not so lucky. In Fiction of the Forties, Chester Eisinger lists nine works of fiction as the year’s best:

Gerald Warner Brace, Light on a Mountain
Howard Fast, The Last Frontier
Caroline Gordon, Green Centuries
Andrew Lytle, At the Moon’s Inn
Carson McCullers, Reflections in a Golden Eye
John P. Marquand, H. M. Pulham, Esquire
Budd Schulberg, What Makes Sammy Run?
Wallace Stegner, Fire and Ice
Eudora Welty, A Curtain of Green

The best works of fiction overlooked by Eisinger are Janet Lewis’s novella The Wife of Martin Guerre and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Nabokov’s first English novel. Fitzgerald’s unfinished Last Tycoon was also published during the year. Allen Tate came out with Reason in Madness, a collection of essays. Kenneth Burke’s Philosophy of Literary Form appeared from the Louisiana State University Press. William Alexander Percy—Walker Percy’s legal guardian—finished Lanterns on the Levee, his autobiography. Ellen Glasgow’s In This Our Life won the Pulitzer Prize.

American fiction was going through a bad patch. The Review’s Book and Authors column announced that a distinguished jury impaneled by the Limited Editions Club had selected For Whom the Bell Tolls as the American book, published in the past three years, “most likely to attain the stature of a classic.” The jurists were Sinclair Lewis, Sterling North, and Clifton Fadiman, who preferred Hemingway’s hard-boiled sentimentality to Native Son, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, The Big Sleep, or Faulkner’s Hamlet.

England had the better year in 1941. T. S. Eliot wrote and published “The Dry Salvages,” the third of his Four Quartets. Auden saw The Double Man into print. Elizabeth Bowen compiled her fifth volume of stories, Look at All Those Roses. Joyce Cary published two novels: The House of Children, which won the James Tait Black Prize, and Herself Surprised, the first volume of his trilogy of novels about England from Edwardian days to after the Great War. Ivy Compton-Burnett published Parents and Children, another of her books about domestic tyranny. Robert Graves and Alan Hodge collaborated on The Long Weekend, their social history of England from 1918 to 1939. Patrick Hamilton published Hangover Square. Arthur Koestler wrote his first book in English—Scum of the Earth. C. S. Lewis delivered his lectures on Paradise Lost at University College, North Wales, although the Preface was not revised and printed by Oxford University Press till the following year. Charles Morgan published The Empty Room. Osbert Sitwell told a ghost story in A Place of One’s Own. And Virginia Woolf’s posthumous Between the Acts was published.

The editors of the Book Review recommended a few of the year’s good books, but they dropped into the hole of three long pages of deservedly forgotten novels, starting with Hilde Abel’s Victory Was Slain (“democracy in Austria was executed by that nation’s own politicians well before the Hitler march”). Samples:

• “The Timeless Land is a historical novel of the settlement of Australia. The stuff of epic drama is given by Eleanor Dark, the author, a living expression that is worthy of its subject.”

• “John Faulkner’s novel of men and work is a sensitive study of just what happens when a government attempts to help the helpless. Men Working.” By William Faulkner’s younger brother.

• “Jacob is a wise and subtle book in which the author, Irving Fineman, identifies himself with the biblical character and present[s] Jacob in the ever-interesting role of a human in stress rather than a patriarch in the pages of antiquity.”

• “A book about Nazis that is a novel first and not a political pamphlet is That Lofty Sky by Henry Beetle Hough. It proves better anti-Nazi propaganda than many another book that attempts to be propaganda because it does not sacrifice truth.”

• “Piercing to the core of the problem of the Negro living in a world of white men, Royal Road, by Arthur Kuhl, is an effective spotlight on tragedy. It is a simple, heart-breaking tale of a gentle Negro whose doom was written in the color of his skin.”

• “John Myers Myers”—a name that I can second—“has written a rousing tale of fighting and feasting and drinking and adventuring in general, the setting far away in time, the tenth century. The hero is a wandering fighter-poet who ranged Europe when feudalism was something new. Mr. Myers calls his novel The Harp and the Blade.”

• “Elizabeth Lee Wheaton’s novel, Mr. George’s Joint, is a freshly original and richly authentic picture of some aspects of Negro life in the South, of Negroes bent on ‘pleasuring themselves’ [sic!] while they can.”

The reason for the list’s woosiness becomes clear when you read the Review’s lead article—Bosley Crowther’s long consideration of Hollywood: The Movie Colony, the Movie Makers by Leo C. Rosten. Described by Terry Teachout as an “unerring index of middlebrow taste,” Crowther was exactly the right choice to review Rosten’s book about “the oddest community in America and the most screw-whacky business in the world.” Rosten himself was a middlebrow’s middlebrow, producing during his long career The Education of H*Y*M*A*N   K*A*P*L*A*N (1937), which introduced Gentile America to Jewish humor (you’ll pardon the expression), as well as The Joys of Yiddish (1968), which for the language of Eastern European Jewry ditto.

By December 7, 1941, the social research behind Rosten’s Hollywood had already dated, but “as a philosophical reflection of the society which works at making films it stands as one of the few really cogent books in cinema literature,” Crowther concludes. So cogent was it that, except for library reprints, the book was never reprinted. “Mr. Rosten has promised to supplement this present work with a second volume devoted to the economics of film production,” Crowther reports, “and to the vital problems of labor, morality codes and censorship.” He never delivered on his promise. With the world at war, nobody really wanted to read about Hollywood morality codes and censorship. There was enough middlebrow philosophy on war, totalitarianism, collective responsibility, and the sentimental dream of human brotherhood to fill the gap.

After reassuring yourself that you will never have to pick up Rosten’s book, you turn the page to find tributes to W. H. Hudson, the “Genius of the Pampas,” by the literary scholar William York Tindall and the Argentinian historian of philosophy Angélica Mendoza. In The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway destroyed Hudson’s reputation for all time, ridiculing Robert Cohn for reading and rereading Hudson’s 1885 novel The Purple Land:

The Purple Land is a very sinister book if read too late in life. It recounts splendid imaginary amorous adventures of a perfect English gentleman in an intensely romantic land, the scenery of which is very well described. For a man to take it at thirty-four as a guide-book to what life holds is about as safe as it would be for a man of the same age to enter Wall Street direct from a French convent, equipped with a complete set of the more practical Alger books.Tindall and Mendoza try their best, but are unable to resuscitate Hudson for a new generation. “His appeal is to youth,” Tindall allows—the “young in years” and also “those who are young in heart.” Although his style is “perfect for its purpose,” with words that are “lucid and fastidiously chosen, the rhythms easy and natural,” Hudson’s books will continue to be read “for their substance, his picture of the youth of a great continent and of the wild life of its plains.” Mendoza claims Hudson for Argentinian literature—and your reaction, sixty-eight years later, is that Argentinian literature is welcome to him.

About the only relief is provided by the Review’s unfamiliar heft: sixty-five pages, including eighteen full-page advertisements. Sections are devoted to new books of poetry—Edna St. Vincet Millay’s Collected Sonnets, Paul Engle’s West of Midnight, Dilys Bennett Laing’s Another England, Louise Townsend Nicholl’s Dawn in Snow—and a sixteen-line poem written in alexandrines by John Peale Bishop is printed above a promise to review his Selected Poems very soon. Other sections are handed over to “new books for younger readers,” new mysteries, and even seven new “Western and adventure” titles.

The most interesting book reviewed in the entire issue—the only book that pricked my interest—was a history of nineteenth-century Virginia health resorts such as White Sulphur Springs. They sound something like the Standish Sanitarium in A Day at the Races. Every summer, high society from North and South would relocate to the Virginia mountains—a “general muster under the banner of folly,” as the English novelist Frederick Marryat wryly commented—to live in Queen Anne cottages and take advantage of the healing waters. No great men make an appearance in The Springs of Virginia; Perceval Reiniers’s book is cultural history more suited to a later decade, although it avoids theory in favor of anecdote and illustration. Even H. I. Brock’s review is delightfully informative. I will probably never read Reiniers’s book, but now I know something I didn’t know before. Not many book reviews can accomplish as much.

The most striking thing about the Review as a whole is its topicality. In an addition to a long notice of Satan in Top Hat, a biography of Franz von Popen, the Review’s editors assigned reviews of a short book detailing “the organized activities of British women” in the war effort (“especially in the three main types of war work—service with the army, navy and air forces; voluntary work among civilians; and work in the official civil defense directed by the Ministry of Home Security”) and two accounts of the European war (Lion Feuchtwanger’s Devil in France, on the Nazi occupation, and Raymond Daniell’s “picture” of wartime London). Herbert W. Horwill’s literary letter from London asks “why the present war has yielded such a scanty crop of poetry.” After quoting the opinions of Stephen Spender, Edwin Muir, and Robert Graves, Horwill turns to British politicians, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, who appealed for more British war poetry. “[O]nly 1.5 per cent of the paper consumed in this country [is being] used for books,” one pointed out. “Books have been rationed more than beer and betting,” said another.

The reviewers’ critical vocabulary may be more sophisticated, but the Review has changed little in its bias for the literature of topical comment. And this explains why, in sixty-eight years, the Review’s lists of the year’s best books have always overbalanced onto the side of social-problem novels and politically orthodox nonfiction (at least how the Times’s editors define political orthodoxy). Another word for topicality, come to think of it, is Midcult—mass culture’s pretense of being high culture. And the last thing wanted by readers in the middle is to be worried on a Sunday morning over warlike threats from ancient imperial powers with an implacable hostility toward the United States—then or now.


Sarah said...

I enjoyed and agree with your argument broadly, but at the risk of seeming parochial must protest Eleanor Dark's The Timeless LanD being included as a deservedly forgotten novel! In Australia at least, Dark is still read. I'm reminded of Auden:
"Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered."

D. G. Myers said...

That’s the sort of mistake which keeps me up nights. Dark is still read in Australia: should she be read here?

Lee said...

A fascinating piece, but brutally unfair to W.H. Hudson. "Idle Days in Patagonia" and "The Naturalist in La Plata" are classics of nature writing; "Far Away and Long Ago" is one of the most beautiful memoirs in English; and while Hemingway may have sneered at "The Purple Land" (and it has dated in many ways) it's really no more unrealistic a guide to life than "For Whom The Bell Tolls." And Borges, by the way, called it the greatest Argentine novel -- evidently he didn't get the news that Hemingway had "destroyed Hudson's reputation for all time."

D. G. Myers said...

Borges, by the way, called it the greatest Argentine novel

Ranking just ahead of Pierre Menard’s Quixote, no doubt.