Skip to main content

Notes on Current Books, Winter 1977


[clock] 40-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Winter 1977

To those who regard Soviet culture in terms exclusively of the utterly sterile “socialist realism” and the aberrant art of the “dissidents,” it may come as a surprise to learn that Russia had its symbolists, futurists, modernists, cubists, and other cults of the new frontiers of art right down to 1930, when the heavy hand of Joseph Stalin swept away all music that the dictator could not hum, all verse that did not rhyme, all prose that did not glorify socialism and its human incarnation—Stalin. From time to time there are signs that the old vitality is still there, lurking beneath the surface, waiting, like Kuzmin’s trout, to “break through the ice.” Invariably, however, the KGB is there with a club, and the trout is forced back into the depths. Still the tradition and the talent are there, and this book admirably outlines a magnificent heritage. The contributions of Wladimir Weidl6 and René Wellek are especially valuable.

The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, by Bruno Bettelheim. Knopf $12.50

Bettelheim is an able defender of the fairy tale against its dour detractors, who seem to have little accurate knowledge of how a child’s mind works. But although Bettelheim is not a complete dogmatist, he does apply rather traditional psychological interpretations in a mechanical manner. He is also a moralist, believing that fairy tales preach excellent practical morality if properly understood. But isn’t there something wrong with either defending or attacking the necessary toys of the mind?

The Piety of Thinking: Essays by Martin Heidegger, translations, notes, and commentary by James G. Hart and John C. Maraldo. Indiana $10.95

Heidegger is one of the shapers of modern thought. His major work, Being and Time, and a number of his minor works have been translated into English. The editors of this volume have collected some previously untranslated papers on theology and thinking that reaffirm his known positions. Even though these are minor pieces, they are welcome. It should be noted, however, that the purchaser will get 71 pages of Heidegger in a 207-page volume.

Tradition & Experiment in Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads, by Mary Jacobus. Oxford $23.75

This is a glib book about an important subject—the relation between tradition and experiment in the 1798 Lyrical Ballads. The chapters that attempt to deal with “Guilt and Alienation” and “Nature, Self and Imagination: The Eighteenth-Century Legacy,” for example, are filled with commonplaces. There are, however, two chapters on the relation of Wordsworth’s poems to the ballad form that make some original points. It is a moot question whether two chapters can salvage a book of ten.

Folklore Genres, edited by Dan Ben-Amos. Texas $11.95

This is a valuable work on folklore and on genre theory. It is divided into three sections: “Literary and Linguistic Analyses of Folklore Genres,” “The Ethnography of Folklore Genres,” and “The Classification of Folklore Genres,” and it concludes with a “Selected Bibliography.” The contributors are literary critics, folklorists, and anthropologists, and their essays are stimulating explorations of their own field as well as of oral genres.

The Waiting Years, by Blyden Jackson. Louisiana $10

Blyden Jackson, one of the most highly esteemed black humanists in America, has published a book that reveals as much about the author as it does about changing trends in the criticism of black literature. Jackson’s 14 essays represent thoughtful scholarship which spans three decades, and they range from “An Essay in Criticism,” an early call for “an energetic scholarly criticism” of black writing, to “Jean Toomer’s Cane: An Issue of Genre,” a penetrating discussion of problems in literary classification. The writing is witty and graceful; the book is reflective and informative. It should be read by all students of American literature.

Sade, Fourier, Loyola, by Roland Barthes. Farrar, Straus & Giroux $8.95

Barthes joins these three writers because he sees them as founders of languages, and in these languages each has recourse to the same operations: self-immolation, articulation, and ordering. Barthes uses the term “language” as a system of signs, and he reads such systems not to discover the purpose of the text, its relation to period, history, or class, but to discover meanings beneath the overt expression of words. As he puts it, the reader should seize from the text whatever “enables it to exceed the laws that a society, an ideology, a philosophy establish for themselves.”

The Renaissance Imagination: Essays and Lectures by D, J. Gordon, edited by Stephen Orgel. California $22.50

This is a collection of remarkable essays on the Renaissance; ten of them are reprinted from scholarly journals and three published for the first time. The recurrent theme is the relation of visual symbol to verbal sign, especially as these function to give meaning to audiences. Professor Gordon’s contribution to the interrelation of poetry and painting is substantial. His learning is extensive; his style clear; his modesty exemplary. It is a volume that anyone interested in the Renaissance will want to have.

Faulkner’s Heroic Design: The Yoknapatawpha Novels, by Lynn Gartrell Levins. Georgia $9

Although it is rather repetitious, Faulkner’s Heroic Design reinforces and considerably adds to the rather general opinion that Faulkner had absorbed and made basic use of much ancient myth and legend. Lynn Levins, who says that her study was triggered by Edith Hamilton’s accusation that Faulkner’s fiction was not heroic enough, states her purpose clearly in her preface: “I have explored what I have called Faulkner’s heroic design—his juxta-position of the events of his rural community of Yoknapatawpha against scenes from and echoes of myths, classical drama, epic poetry, chivalric and historical romance. I have also explored the implications of this design—that Faulkner is affirming the existence of some principle of historical continuity which ties our era with a past that presupposes the significance of man and is asserting his belief that in the twentieth century the heroic is still possible,” Thus, in this book, at some length and in considerable detail, Levins refutes Edith Hamilton.

The Young Romantics, by Linda Belly. Random House $8.95

It is astonishing how many of the “young romantics” of French culture— Alfred de Musset, George Sand, Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Sainte-Beuve, and many, many others—knew one another. Though there seems to have been little money to begin with, the movement was fostered by the discussions which flowered at innumerable household gatherings, discussions which also sometimes ended in quarrels. No matter. The leaven of the new movement quite vanquished the old and gave not only France but the world an entirely new direction for the arts. This book traces the course of that leavening from 1827 through 1837, clearly depicting its trials, its successes, and its failures.

Fiction as Knowledge, by John McCormick. Rutgers $9

The reader’s chief reaction to this book is one of déjà vu. Its thesis, that we live in a post-Romantic age, is not likely to raise many eyebrows. McCormick discusses seven novelists who exemplify what he considers to be the central contribution of Romanticism, its “sense of time”: Proust, Broch, Musil, Faulkner, Hemingway, Montherlant, and Malraux. As so often in comparative studies of this type, the thesis seems to outweigh its object, and one is left with the feeling that there is a great deal more to the works discussed than McCormick allows or reveals.

Literary Women: The Great Writers, by Ellen Moers. Doubleday $10

For anyone interested in the topic of feminist studies, Literary Women is indispensable. Ellen Moers traces the influence that women writers in England, France, and America have had on one another. In so doing, she establishes the fact that female authors of the past several centuries have been acutely aware of a “feminine” literary tradition. The modern age is just recognizing the magnitude of this subterranean force on Anglo-American poetry and fiction. Moers has given us a study equal to the highest standards of feminist criticism. The annotated bibliography alone would make this book worth its purchase price.

The Famous Miss Burney: The Diaries and Letters of Fanny Burney, edited by Barbara G. Schrank and David J. Supino. John Day $9.95

This pleasingly printed and well selected edition of the delightful Miss Burney’s letters and diaries will bring new readers into acquaintance with fascinating work of private journalism and should therefore be welcome. A serviceable introduction and ample notes are provided for the general reader.

Everywhere Spoken Against: Dissent in the Victorian Novel, by Valentine Cunningham. Oxford $19.50

Cunningham’s study of religious Non-conformity in Victorian fiction is sound both in its scholarly emphasis upon the background of Dissent and in its critical premise that the novel characteristically exhibits a tension between illiberality and an openness that welcomes influences such as the Dissenting tradition. In discussions specifically related to the fiction of the Brontës, Mrs. Gaskell, George Eliot, Dickens, Mrs. Oliphant, and Mark Rutherford, the argument often loses focus. The study’s value exists primarily in the author’s acknowledged attempt to provide a starting point for more detailed historical and critical investigation of his subject.

The Social Milieu of Alexander Pope: Lives, Example and the Poetic Response, by Howard Erskine-Hill. Yale $19.50

At the very heart of the Augustan age, Erskine-Hill suggests, was the mind of Alexander Pope. Thus three-fourths of this book is given to historical and biographical essays on Pope’s contemporaries: John Kyrle, John Caryll, Peter Walter, William Digby, John Blunt, Ralph Alien. The last quarter is criticism, also largely historical, largely sound, but often maddeningly incautious in its use of history to gloss poetic allusion. Erskine-Hill seems to assume (and at one point comes near to stating) that a poet really need not know what he is alluding to: Pope spoke for his age; if he did not know its richly concrete detail, the critic can supply this for him. Such a dubious doctrine inevitably renders less compelling many conclusions in this otherwise learned and carefully crafted book.

NATIONAL & INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRSThe Unseen Revolution. How Pension Fund Socialism Came to America, by Peter F. Drucker. Harper if Row $8.95

This relatively small volume may well be one of the most important studies on the changing nature of American politics and society to appear in the past decade. It ought to be read by everyone at all interested in how the system works in reality instead of how it works in the imaginations of assorted pundits. According to Drucker, America is the first industrial nation to become truly a socialist nation. How did this come about? Through pension funds in industry. Drucker takes the definition of socialism to be the “ownership of the means of production by the workers.” Any Marxist worth his salt would not find that definition unacceptable. But what Drucker then goes on to note is that as of today, the employees of American business own more than 25 per cent of its equity capital, which is more than enough for control. By 1985, if not sooner, they will own 50—60 per cent. The political implications of this dramatic transformation have not yet become fully manifest; but when they do, Drucker’s work will be counted as among the most important studies of it. A major contribution.

Discretionary Justice in Europe and America, by Kenneth Gulp Davis. Illinois $9.95

Most of the administration of justice takes place outside the courtroom, and much of it is grossly abused with no possibility of corrective review. This was the imaginative thesis of Discretionary Justice: A Preliminary Inquiry, published in 1969. Now the same author has thoughtfully presented us with a natural sequel to his provocative prior work. Nine European scholars discuss facets of discretionary justice in their own country. Professor Davis then analyzes each of these reports in an American context, as a good comparative law study should do. The author demonstrates that there is much we can learn from each other, whether at home or abroad, in this sensitive area of such crucial importance to ordinary citizens. Whether or not the stifling hands of bureaucracy and inertia will allow for badly needed reform remains to be seen.

The Legitimation of a Revolution: The Yugoslav Case, by Bogdan D. Denitch. Yale $15

Revolutions obviously become legitimate when they succeed, but how is that success to be measured? In the case of Yugoslavia the experiment is a little more than three decades old, and it is still not clear whether any standards exist by which we can measure its chances of becoming permanent. Mr. Denitch has taken a thoughtful look at some institutional, cultural, and social factors and has produced a useful book, but he acknowledges that he cannot answer the question: after Tito, what? The Yugoslav Revolution may yet fail.

The View From Highway 1, by Michael J. Arlen. Farrar, Straus & Giroux $8.95

It is ironic, though perhaps predictable, that in this age of television, many of our best critics of the medium—Erik Barnouw and Raymond Williams immediately come to mind—are more heard about than read. Michael Arlen is one of the exceptions. Arlen writes for The New Yorker, and he writes well in these 21 essays, ranging over such topics as network news coverage, public television funding, and the latent hostility of numerous television performers. In a time of colorless media reviewers, who are mainly interested in program content, Arlen probes the industry’s basic foundations and premises in a manner that is consistently challenging and startlingly original.

Comparative Human Rights, edited by Richard P. Claude. Johns Hopkins $16.50

Justice, due process of law, civil rights, civil liberties, human rights, freedom of association, and racial discrimination are a few of the many terms bandied about by all of us. Yet they not only have different meanings in different disciplines, they also have different meanings in different countries. Richard P. Claude of the University of Maryland has therefore enlisted a team of distinguished social scientists from home and abroad in an effort to bring some order out of this chaos. While the previously unpublished 15 essays in this volume occasionally raise more questions than they answer, nonetheless the collection constitutes a noble first inter-disciplinary foundation on which future scholars may safely build.

Public Persons, by Walter Lippman. Liveright $7.95

Editor Gilbert A. Harrison has selected from the Yale collection of the 150, 000 papers of the late Walter Lippman four dozen of his most enlightening profiles of some of the leading figures of the first half of the 20th century. Once again we are thus happily presented with proof of why Lippman was regarded as the doyen of the political journalists of his generation. The compilation is enhanced by brief editorial comments which follow the essays, in addition to an informative introduction by the editor.

A discordant note is provided by the fact that only two ladies (Amelia Earhart and Jane Addams) make the grade of the 48 distinguished Public Persons deemed to be worthy of inclusion in the list.

John Stuart Mill and Representative Government, by Dennis F. Thompson. Princeton $13.50

The basic theme of this important new study on Mill is that his Representative Government is more coherent and systematic as a treatise in political theory than has often been assumed. Professor Thompson makes his case by a careful analysis not only of the text itself but also through a detailed scrutiny of Mill’s notes, and other writing. The result is an impressive work of scholarship. An adequate understanding of this particular work by Mill is crucial to our appreciation of the development of democratic thought in the 19th century. Professor Thompson’s fine study is a welcome addition not only to a library on Mill but on democratic theory as well.

Disaster by Decree. The Supreme Court Decisions on Race and the Schools, by Lino A. Graglia. Cornell $11.50

Probably no decision by the Court in recent times has generated more controversy than the rulings on forced busing to achieve racial integration. Even the original Brown decision seems less of a trauma by comparison. This thoughtful and well-reasoned study by Professor Graglia is thus far the best of the highly critical commentaries on the busing decisions. In its essence, this study is a brief against busing. It avoids the emotional aspects of busing and concentrates on the legal and political implications of what is increasingly referred to by some scholars as an “Imperial Judiciary.” A well-written study.

Presidential Power and the Constitution. Essays, by Edward S. Corwin. Edited by Richard Loss. Cornell $12.50

Although Professor Corwin has been deceased for more than a decade now, he remains one of the most widely quoted and influential scholars in American government. This collection of heretofore scattered and all but inaccessible essays from 1917 until 1953 is a most welcome publication for the student of modern American government. The grand theme of these diverse essays is the growth and expansion of Presidential power since Roosevelt and Wilson. Professor Corwin was critical of the growth of this power during the New Deal days and Truman’s seizure of the steel mills in 1952. Richard Loss provides an introductory sketch of Corwin’s career and the impact of his arguments on more recent scholarship. But the best introduction to Corwin, for those who are unfamiliar with his work, is Corwin himself. A much welcome and long overdue collection.

Legal Reform in Occupied Japan, by Alfred C. Oppler. Princeton $12.95

The significance of this memoir extends beyond the legal questions with which the author primarily concerned himself while serving in the Government Section of SCAP. He is sensitive to the political and social ramifications of the legal reforms he and his colleagues helped formulate in revising the Japanese constitution. Therefore, the book is especially insightful for those interested in the mechanics of enforcing the Occupation. Although his sensitivity does not always preclude his viewing Occupation policies in a partisan manner, his are useful reminiscences.

Red, Black, and Green: Black Nationalism in the United States, by Alphonso Pinkney. Cambridge $13.95

Unlike many recent experts on black nationalism, Pinkney is fully aware of the limits imposed by the nature of his subject. He describes the major ideological positions, summarizes the history from colonial times to Malcolm X, assays the impact on the black community, looks at four kinds of nationalism, and makes an analysis of links between nationalism and world-wide liberation movements. Pinkney’s work is an excellent critique, a model of the methods and evaluations which might be used in further studies.

Practical Politics: Twentieth-Century Views on Politics and Economics, by G. B. Shaw. Nebraska $17.50

Shaw, whose voice has been so firm and at once so witty and so wise in our time, is equally pungent when he speaks of politics and/or economics. Here is a series of essays and speeches from 1905 to 1944, all full of strong, true views and all valid today. The difficulty is that the politicians have not paid much attention to Shaw, so that his schemes have never been tried. We wonder, then, how practical his politics may be.

FICTIONDistortions, by Ann Beattie. Doubleday $7.95

I am among the strenuous admirers of Ann Beattie’s short stories in The New Yorker and all of us may now shout welcome to her first collection of little marvels. For it really does seem marvelous when someone is able to catch the “accelerated grimace” of a generation. Sprawled in the “dirty light” of Monday after a most rhetorical weekend, the postwar babies continue to babble, blubber, and bomb. Their paranoid infantilism is described with grace-bestowing humor by a woman whose strong, kindly sanity might yet prove a restorative to the aching wits that survive such a dangerous hangover.

Slapstick, by Kurt Vonnegut. Delacorte $7.95

Slapstick— Vonnegut uses the term to express how life feels to him—is a bitter-sweet, potentially revealing excursion into the mind of one of our most inventive, best-liked writers. Alas, it is not a very good book. A brief introduction, composed of autobiographical snippets, is followed by a longish piece of fantasy in which the author’s emotional and psychological feelings, alluded to in the first section, occasionally peek through the humorous veneer. Neither section receives the thorough treatment it deserves, and the result is unsatisfying for all concerned: for Vonnegut, who gives the impression of being ill at ease in this experiment, and for the reader, who is likely to wonder why the author would attempt such an ambitious project so half-heartedly.

The Assassins, by Joyce Carol Gates. Vanguard $8.95

Andrew Petrie, well-known rightwing political leader, is assassinated, and we never know why or by whom. Rather Miss Gates thinks such questions unimportant, for she (regrettably) considers Andrew’s assassination as only one type of assassination, no more significant than other, less obvious types. We follow the subsequent lives of Hugh and Stephen, his brothers, and his widow Yvonne as they move inexorably toward their own fates: guilt, murder, insanity, suicide. As usual, Miss Gates writes beautifully; her characterization is unsurpassed among modern writers. However, the assassination metaphor appears strained, and the book rests on a questionable moral assumption which exceeds literary license.

Crowned Heads, by Thomas Tryon. Knopf $8.95

This set of four novelettes featuring four tangentially related Hollywood stars may be the best “Hollywood novel” you will find. Mr. Tryon convincingly depicts what becoming a film star can do to a person, and his characters are beautifully drawn. He does a masterful job of introducing cliche elements while avoiding the clichés themselves. The final section, “Willie,” is an exceptionally powerful example of fore-shadowing and growing suspense. This will be both a critical and a popular success.

A Feast of Snakes, by Harry Crews. Atheneum $7.95

A strikingly violent novel. One recoils from the brutality (and from the stereo-typing of the Southern grittown), but one admires Mr. Crews’s skill in portraying Mystic, Georgia’s former high school All-American football hero, Joe Lon Mackey. Joe Lon is too dumb to go to college and has no future other than selling bootleg, but he is just bright enough to see that he has nowhere to go. The novel is a novel of despair; none of the characters has a future, but Joe Lon is the only one who admits it. On the day of Mystic’s annual rattlesnake hunt, Joe Lon does the only thing he can do to change his life. This book is slightly grotesque, but powerful; the characters are clearly delineated and memorable. Hollywood should be interested in this one.

Young Pattullo, by J. I. M. Stewart. Norton $7.95

Young Pattullo, the second of a projected five-volume sequence of novels, concerns the pre-1950 world of Oxford and the memories of a youthful education there as recounted by playwright Duncan Pattullo, a character introduced in Stewart’s earlier The Gaudy, It is a world filled with individuals who smile whimsically and suffer from such afflictions as obdurate vagueness or, worse yet, terminal ennui. Stewart, who also writes detective stories under the name Michael Innes, is obviously quite at home in the insulated social-academic environment of which he writes with compassionate understanding and gentle but incisive wit. His characters, settings, and circumstances have a ring of authenticity to them, and while this is obviously a book designed for a small audience of American Anglophiles, it is a treasure of sensitivity and insight.

The Honor System, by Dick Dabney. Harper & Row $7.95

This short novel about a young and poor law student coming to grips with himself and varieties of establishments, past and present, is a boy’s product with little penetration, grace, or power. Underlying the protagonist’s tough guy pose is a near innocence unwarranted by his experience. When this character is coupled with the author’s uncertainty of tone—he drifts through love of realism, satire, and romance—the book becomes simply mean-spirited when meaness is sought, sour when toughness is intended. None of the minor characters come to life, as they seem to be figures observed from the window of a cab, while The University of Virginia and Charlottesville could be anyplace in the whole country. The style is forced or self-conscious or pretentious. Basically, this is a sorry little volume in content and form without the energy to appear scandalous.

Bound for the Promised Land, by Richard Marius. Knopf $10.95

This is a richly detailed saga of the passage to California in the early 1850’s of a strange, mixed group of characters. However, it transcends this particular trek and becomes the archetypical trek to the American West, though the participants themselves, appropriately, do not recognize it as such; indeed, their wonderfully unique personalities and their refusal to acknowledge the universality of their experience play off beautifully against that same universality. An eloquently written, impressive book—one of the best novels in several years.

The Spectator Bird, by Wallace Stegner. Doubleday $6.95

Novels about the aging person or the process of aging seldom give pleasure since their gloom is unrelieved. In this irreligious, un-Christian age, hope seems abandoned once one’s body begins to sag. Therefore Mr. Stegner has chosen the most difficult of contemporary subjects for his Spectator Bird, and he has not quite conquered the unconquerable. The fault is the subject’s, not his, for few can mold those final years of terminal descent into a work of art.

The Last Chance, by Rona Jaffe. Simon and Schuster $8.95

Despite the dust jacket description, this is NOT “a superb novel of such unbearable suspense that no reader will be able to put it down before reaching the unexpected—and shocking—climax.” It’s a sad book about four sad women, all in their late thirties and desperate for a fresh start. The author expresses bitterness at woman’s usual fate yet remains unsympathetic to the trapped characters she creates. She has written not so much a quick, slick triviality as a paranoid attack on the contemporary female.

A Fine Romance, by Cynthia Propper Seton. Norton $7.95

The publisher’s blurb describes this book as “a deeply serious comedy about marriage and monogamy and the collision of middle-aged male depression with middle-aged female feminism.” For once the publisher is accurate. Dr. Winters and his newly-awakened wife and their fellow travelers on a Sicilian tour comprise a genuinely amusing yet subtle comic set of characters. Miss Seton is to be highly commended for her great skill in characterization and her expert chef’s sensitive touch with humor. She has criticized intelligently without belittling, and has written one fine, fine novel.

The Family Arsenal, by Paul Theroux. Houghton Mifflin $8.95

Radical chic upper crust, working class, and underworld mad-bomber types mingle causually, but with malefic intent, in this suspenseful novel which depicts the doings of a ragtag group of misfits loosely associated with the Irish Republican Army, and hellbent on the notion of urban terrorism of various sorts. The back-drop is contemporary London—seedy, convincingly dangerous, on the skids—in a portrait that, in its uncompromising bluntness, rivals the plot for shock value and is sure to raise numerous eyebrows.

The Doctor s Wife, by Brian Moore. Farrar, Straus and Giroux $8.95

Paris in the Spring. It’s vacation time. Boy meets girl. Me Tarzan—young American stud. You Jane—middle-aged, cultured Irish mother. Much sexual hanky-panky. He returns to the States. She loses her lover, her husband, and her son. Everyone loses, including the reader. Ho hum.

HISTORYThe Great Medieval Civilizations, by Gaston Wiet et al. Harper & Row $28.50

This is the third volume in a UNESCO-sponsored History of Mankind series, and like its predecessors (and almost certainly its successors) it is rich in virtues and flaws. It brings together in about a thousand pages a stupendous amount of material about the entire medieval world; the reader is quite literally swamped. Naturally and inevitably, given the collaboration of many authors, the sections are uneven in quality. Particularly valuable to Western readers will be the sections on the Arabic, Indian, and Chinese civilizations.

The Philosophes and the People, by Harry C. Payne. Yale $12.50

One of the rarest genre of books on the 18th century and the Enlightenment is one that actually says something new. Happily Payne’s magnificant essay-study is one of those pearls. There has never been a doubt that “the people” figured prominently in the writing of the French Enlightenment. Voltaire, Rousseau, and all of the others seemed to talk of little else at times. Yet what most of them meant by “the people” was not the same thing Bossuet meant by “the people” in the preceding century. In both cases the common man, as he came to be called, was central to the political and social philosophies of the age, but whereas Bossuet was Christian, Voltaire was a secularized pagan in his approach. It was, as scholars have long argued, a difference that made a difference regardless of which side of the debate one came down on. What Payne reminds us of is just how much of a difference it made and the unfortunate consequences of the changed world view. It is a fine work that deserves the widest possible audience.

Flew de Lys, by Joy Law. Scribner’s $19.95

Law has tried to compile a popular history of the French monarchs, and their mistresses, entirely from unrelated and unenlightening snippets of contemporary anecdotes, sloppily stuck together with some of the most dismally incompetent, fatuous, meretricious historical analysis around. The book is a bit like a Yorkshire pudding: gobbets of meatless drippings floating in a pasty, indigestible glop. There are 127 illustrations, but all the pictures in the world couldn’t make it more appetizing.

Companion to Russian Studies: Vol. 1, An Introduction to Russian History, edited by Robert Auty and Dimitri Obolensky. Cambridge $32.50

The “companion” is a 19th-century art form, and it is good to have it back. This splendid volume, overpriced though it is, gives the general reader perhaps the best introduction to Russian history available in any Western language. The contributors are a distinguished group of Anglo-American scholars, the format is easily comprehensible and eminently serviceable, and the “guides to futher readings” sections are of great value. All in all, publication of this volume is an occasion of rejoicing.

The Cambridge History of Africa, Vol. 4, edited by Richard Gray (general editors: J. D. Fage and Roland Oliver). Cambridge $42.50

Europeans, even during the most intensive period of European slaving, have been properly relegated to the periphery of African history between 1600 and 1790 in the first-to-appear of eight projected volumes of the collective Cambridge History of Africa. Most chapters take account of new research only through about 1972, but even that is sufficient to support striking interpretive shifts toward authentically African themes in several instances; also evident are a growing sensitivity to the nature of human interaction in small-scale and marginally-literate societies and an effort to integrate formerly neglected peoples of the deserts and the forests. None of the ten authors, writing on seven geographically-defined regions covering the entire continent, would claim a definitive synthesis, but enough offer thoughtful and accurate contributions to raise hopes that the full History will mark a major milestone in the development of British historical studies on Africa.

Shaping Southern Society: The Colonial Experience, edited by T. H. Breen. Oxford $3.50 paper

The 13 essays collected here have all appeared in print before, either as magazine articles or as portions of a book, but gathered together they provide an interesting view of the many ways in which the Southern colonies developed socially, politically, and economically, with as much emphasis on why as on how. Three colonies are concentrated on in this volume, Maryland, South Carolina, and Virginia, especially the latter two. The book is divided into three sections: “Transferring Cultures to the New World: Expectations and Realities,” “Culture, Race, and Labor in the Colonial South: Shifting Patterns,” and “The Structure of Planter Society: Co-hesion and Conflict.” The authors include such knowledgeable historians as Edmund S. Morgan, Peter Laslett, Winthrop D. Jordan, Bernard Bailyn, and Jack P. Green.

History of East Africa, Volume III, edited by D. A. Low and Alison Smith. Clarendon $36.25

The third volume of this History (volumes I and II appeared in 1963 and 1965) ranges in tone from the colonial paternalism of the 1950’s to the Afrocentric sociology of the 1970’s, thus witnessing to the many delays that have beset its preparation. One set of chapters surveys colonial politics and economics in Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika, and Zanzibar from 1945 to independence (1961—3), while a second group deals with the immigrant communities of East Africa (Arabs, Asians, and Europeans) over the entire colonial period. The African majority is for the most part relegated to a sociological introduction and conclusion. Useful primarily as a compact guide to facts and sources, the book is uneven in its approach to late colonial East Africa and in significant part innocent of recent trends in African historiography.

Britain in the Nineteen Twenties, by Noreen Branson. Minnesota $16.50

Noreen Branson’s study of a most interesting period does not break new ground in the social history of the twenties and is surprisingly lifeless. There is no reason for E. J. Hobsbawm to launch his ambitious series on “The History of British Society” if the other titles in the series are to duplicate existing work as this one does. The reader interested in this period is better advised to turn to Britain Between the Wars by C. L. Mowat and The Long Week-End by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge.

POETRYSelected Poems, by Robert Lowell. Farrar, Straus and Giroux $12.50

This collection is important because all of the poems were selected and edited by the poet. In many cases we have a fresh author’s intention for the text of his poems. The choice of poems from the beginning through Near the Ocean is generally good. We find the poems most often read by the poet and those long ago recognized for their greatness. In a strong self-critical effort, the poet has cut and reworked these poems so they come to us with surprising force and freshness. He has obviously come to a point which has allowed him to order and accept the experience of his life through the late 1960’s. The final half of the book containing poems from Notebook through The Dolphin is not affected by this kind of removed and conscious awareness. These are poems that have been reworked before and in some cases they appear here with changes. Their presentation here will doubtless stimulate the current critical reaction to these poems which is about as divided and uncertain as the poet’s. For those who believe that Lowell’s tinkering has not always improved his poetry and for those who believe it has, this collection is of great interest. For all of us who care about poetry it is indispensable.

Divine Comedies: Poems, by James Merrill. Atheneum $8.95

At times Mr. Merrill appears to be one of our better poets, but this volume is of lesser merit. The shorter poems are marred by opaqueness, by over-packing or over-extending the imagery, by mysterious transitions, and by the too-cute pun—all of which tend to outweigh some truly fine individual lines and images. “The Book of Ephraim,” the nearly one-hundred-page concluding poem, is a narrative whose central character is a Greek Jew of the first century who communicates via a Ouija board. Through this device Mr. Merrill attempts to construct a religious “cosmology,” a task “Fiction has optimistically assigned/ To adolescence.” However, the same problems of indirection and obscurity flaw this over-extended effort.

Best Poems of 1974: Borestone Mountain Poetry Awards 1975. Pacific Books $4.95

Conrad Aiken: “If an individual desires to assist the best in its struggle for survival, then his task will be to do, consciously, what nature in her simpler world does unconsciously—to discriminate.” The individuals who produced Volume 27 of the Borestone series have collected rather than discriminated. Possibly it’s too complex a task to read well all the poems in 150 magazines, but then why the pretense? There are superior, solid poems here by Wendell Berry, William Heyen, John Hollander, David Wagoner, and a few others, but otherwise altogether too much trivia. At least the categories of mediocrity are varied: mere mood without vitality, Readers’ Digest anecdotes, routine irony, mechanical surrealism, mini-essays in natural history. Just pretend “Best” isn’t in the title, and sample some Nice Tries of 1974.

All Roads at Once, by Alfred Corn. Viking $5.95

How pleasant it is nowadays to find a poet who writes intelligible, neatly crafted poems! When the volume at hand is the young poet’s first, our surprise is even greater. This is a first-rate collection. A number of poems impress individually, especially “Pages from a Voyage.” As a group the poems are indeed a logbook of physical travels and of a search for self; it differs from similarly motivated and similarly organized collections in that Mr. Corn is refreshingly optimistic. One of the best first books to appear in several years.

Selected Poems, by Benny Andersen. Translated by Alexander Taylor. Princeton $19.50

The Lockert Library of Poetry in Translation has already published fine bilingual editions of poets like Cavafy and Zanzotto. This latest addition to a distinguished list is worthy of its predecessors. Andersen is the most popular living Danish poet. His popularity rests on his wit and accessibility, but he never cheapens his art.

LIVES & LETTERS“I Never Wanted to Be Vice-President of Anything!” by Michael Kramer and Sam Roberts. Basic Books $12.50

The sub-title of this book, “An Investigative Biography of Nelson Rockefeller,” is a suggestive prelude to its style and purposes. The enormous popular and financial success attending the Bernstein-Woodward exposé of Nixon and his confederates has obviously generated a new mansion industry for debunking journalists. This examination of Nelson Rockefeller’s political career is a good example of the enterprise. It is an unrelieved portrait of an excessively privileged man whose public life has been directed solely towards the aggrandizement of personal power, whose attributes (mainly inherited wealth) have been utilized in a ruthlessly single-minded way, and whose popular and seemingly successful policies are offset by the unprincipled opportunism through which they were implemented. Like other books of its kind, this imbalanced presentation leaves no room for human ambivalence and complexity and thus deprives the reader of any contact with the whole man. Ironically, one concludes that the authors are exploiting journalistic possibilities in much the same way as their subject is interpreted as having exploited political possibilities.

The Lardners: My Family Remembered, by Ring Lardner, Jr. Harper if Row $12.95

At first one wonders how well Ring, Jr. could present an account of a gifted father, an uncommon mother, and four talented children in one modest volume. The answer is that he succeeds quite well. He does not give blow-by-blow or drink-by-drink minutiae, but he does clearly sketch each character and acquaint the reader with pertinent detail. With eloquence and understated sympathy, he describes his father’s varied career and battle with alcoholism; the childhoods, brief literary careers, and premature deaths of his three brothers. With becoming temperance, he describes his own successful writing career, battles with the Congressional witch-hunters, his imprisonment and blacklisting in Hollywood, and his comeback culminating with an Academy Award (his second) for the movie M*A*S*H. This is a remarkably good and readable account of one of America’s most gifted and most unsung families.

Scoundrel Time, by Lillian Hellman; introduction by Garry Wills. Little Brown $7.95

A brilliant playwright and courageous friend, Lillian Hellman, concentrates in this, her third volume of autobiographical works, on the witch hunting of the 1950’s. Called on to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952, she took the Fifth Amendment as a protection for others. As she said, “To hurt innocent people whom I knew many years ago in order to save myself is, to me, inhuman and indecent and dishonorable. I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.” Her bitterness toward those who knuckled still rankles. Miss Hellman’s stand with the HUAC was brave, but it resulted in a blacklisting that cost her the painful loss of her beloved Connecticut farm and livelihood for a period. The complexities of her involvement with this committee and Dashiel Hammett augment the individuality shown in previous memoirs.

Memories of Evil Days, by Julien Green; edited by Jean-Pierre J. Perion. Virginia $12.50

Mr. Green, born in France of American parents, asserts he is not quite bilingual and describes the grave difficulty he had in learning English as a child. Nevertheless he has conquered what he thought of as an alien tongue, as witness these essays. Precisely because they were written in English, they were omitted from the French edition of his works. We are the richer, for Mr. Green, like any author of the first rank, brings to his work a combination of imagination and observation which is his alone and which gives us illuminations impossible to derive from any other source.

Born on the Fourth of July, by Ron Kovic. McGraw-Hill $17.95

This book begins with the terrible irony that Mr. Kovic is indeed an Independence Day baby, a baseball fanatic and All-American boy who joined the Marines and went to Vietnam. Here he began the series of tragedies which includes the killing of children, of a corporal in his own outfit, and his own crippling wound which has left him paralyzed from the chest down. His “new” civilian activities range from anti-war demonstrations to a speech at the 1976 Democratic convention. Truly, this narrative tells of horrifying, almost unbelievable suffering and anguish, and undoubtedly speaks for many of his generation who have been equally disillusioned and for those few who share his cruel loss of body and self. Yet as a piece of literature, this book is less than satisfying; if it is possible to overstate the unspeakable, Mr. Kovic has done it.

Some Time in the Sun, by Tom Dardis. Scribners $9.95

An absorbing study of the Hollywood screenwriting years of Fitzgerald, Faulkner, West, Huxley, and Agee. To varying degrees, each of these writers found what he sought in California: money to pay off debts, time to rekindle a fading or faded career, a chance to experiment or absorb new experiences. In his research, Dardis (who is a film historian) has uncovered a number of sources unplumbed by literary historians, and his optimistic focus on the positive aspects of mixing writers and film-makers runs counter to much of the literature and popular wisdom regarding such arrangements. On the whole, the book is well-written, though, considering the principals involved, curiously humorless.

The Life of Raymond Chandler, by Frank MacShane. Button $12.50

Educated in England, a former oil company executive, devoted to a wife 17 years his senior, socially awkward and reclusive, Raymond Chandler had little in common with Philip Marlowe, the character he created. “Yes, I’m exactly like the characters in my books. I do a great deal of research, especially in the apartments of tall blondes,” he once said. This biography, the first of one of the best tough-guy detective novelists, is enjoyable as both a psychological and a literary study. Chandler was a meticulous writer with great respect for the English language; ironically, he also did time as a screen writer in Hollywood. For tough-guy fans this book is a must; for others it could be a delightful introduction.

Arafat: The Man if the Myth, by Thomas Kierman. Norton $9.95

It seems that nowadays if a person claims to be a “revolutionary” he is to be placed beyond criticism or even reproach. Since justice cannot possibly exist without free criticism of all men and institutions, any claim to be above moral sanctions is a threat to our hope for a livable future. Kiernan’s book is essential reading. It resists all prejudices in giving us a biography founded on broad research and is also a revealing picture of the modern Arab world. And even revolutionaries may have a personal history that is a relevant factor in judging them.

James Boswell and His World, by David Daiches. Scribners $8.95

James Boswell has best written his own life, but Professor Daiches has given us a lucid biography of that bundle of paradoxes. It is in the diaries and journals— even in that great tribute to his father-figure, Samuel Johnson—that Boswell can be best read. But recent work on his life, times, and friends has been incorporated in this new survey, and the volume has been lavishly illustrated with contemporary prints. They help to place a lively and likeable man in his own time and give him, as if he needed it, another side to his personality.

France and Sherwood Anderson: Paris Notebook, 1921, by Michael Fanning. Louisiana $7.95

Paris Notebook, 1921 is bulwarked fore and aft by Fanning’s accounts of Anderson’s summer in France and of the influence of the French stay on the autobiographical A Story-Teller’s Story, published three years later. In the notebook Anderson records his thoughts on the country, the city, the people, art and artists, and cathedrals and also jots down suggestions for stories, one of which may have been his initial attempt to write one of his best stories, “Death in the Woods.” In France as at home, he reveals himself as always alive to the possible story in every passerby.

GENERALWandering In Eden: Three Ways to the East Within Us, by Michael Adam. Knopf $10

Dear Mr. Adam: Thank you very much for the coffee table book about the mysterious East. Please don’t be offended, but I must tell you that while all of that stuff about lotus blossoms, Zen sand gardens, and the miracle of chopping wood and fetching water may go over well in the States, it’s pretty dreary copy over here. What we really could use in Japan is a good book about golf. If you will promise to send me one the next time you write, I’ll send you a copy of my cousin’s recently published ginger root and water-diet cook book. I think you’ll like it. Well, thanks again, and please don’t take my criticism personally.

Abandoned New England, by William F. Robinson. New fork Graphic Society $19.95

The numerous abandoned churches, schools, mills, and farms that dot the New England countryside are reminders of a prosperous and colorful past. After years of wondering about such discarded architecture, William Robinson undertook extensive research, took some photographs, and wrote a book. The result is a pleasant armchair tour, complete with instructions on locating such curiosities as the windmills of Rhode Island, the Parsonsfield, Maine, Seminary, and Connecticut’s Farmington Canal. Illustrated with engravings, maps, and photographs.

Island of I sis, by William MacQuitty. Scribner’s $14.95

MacQuitty is a television executive in Ireland and his grab-bag account of the Ptolemaic temple of Isis at Philae has all the characteristics of a TV documentary: lots of pictures, none memorable; a journalistic prose style that mimics factuality even when there is no need for it; a general tone that seems oriented to intelligent 14-year olds; and a paucity of content that makes the whole thing easy to digest and easier to forget.

The Desert, by Russell D. Butcher. Viking $17.50

Butcher’s affection for the deserts of the American West is so obvious in the first few pages of this handsomely illustrated volume that one begins to hope that his writing style will become more than just a lot of purple prose about mystical experiences and vast open spaces with the sun slowly sinking behind majestic mountains on the horizon. But it doesn’t ever improve.

The Art of Augustus John, by Malcolm Easton and Michael Holroyd. Godine $30

It has been fashionable for a long time to denigrate the reputation of John. His flamboyant private life, the inconsistent development of his style, and his very English artistic eccentricity have made him seem like an outsider in an age of French modernism. His vital brushwork seemed merely slapdash. This objective study of John’s work, well-illustrated, salvages the fine legacy of John’s painting from both debunkers and hagiographers and establishes his place in the history of art.

The English Pub, by Michael Jackson. Harper & Row $15

There is nothing else in the world quite like an English pub. A combination bar and neighborhood social center, each pub is as uniquely suited to its purpose as a family’s living room. This extremely entertaining study of an attractive institution illustrates and describes the history and evolution of every aspect of pub technology, ethnology, sociology, and mythology. The saloon, the music-hall, and the restaurant are mere by-products of one of man’s more useful and enduring creations.

The Immortals, by Derek and Julia Parker. McGraw-Hill $19.95

The picture editors at McGraw-Hill must have gone to a lot of trouble finding all the artsy photographs of gods, ghosties, and ghoulies which fill this book, an incredibly superficial summary of world mythology à la Frazer. The Immortals is aimed at a very special segment of society: those banana-brains who believe in fairies and who have a coffee table they don’t know what to do with. The pictures are beautiful, but the text will make your blood run cold and your brain turn to stone.

Sons Come and Go, Mothers Hang in Forever, by William Saroyan. McGraw-Hill $7.95

Judging by this book, Saroyan also i

0 Comments

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading