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America’s John Buchan

ISSUE:  Winter 1941

Pilgrim’s Way. By John Buchan. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin Company. $3.00.

When John Buchan died on February 7,1939, the world was the poorer, not by the loss of one man, but by the loss of many fascinating personalities embodied in one seemingly frail human body. There was John Buchan the son of the manse, John Buchan the romantic paladin, John Buchan the creator of Richard Hannay and Peter Pienaar and a hundred other characters who had held in thrall the hearts of many readers; he was John Buchan the historian and the biographer, John Buchan the legislator, John Buchan the imperial proconsul, and, perhaps most important of all, John Buchan the man.

In John Buchan, first Baron Tweedsmuir, there was a humor, a kindliness and a capacity for friendship which characterized his whole life and which manifested itself in his every form of expression. No man numbered more friends in all walks of life than he, no man was more genuinely beloved by all who knew him. There was a richness and a depth of spirit, and at the same time a modesty toward himself and his writings which communicated itself alike to friend, acquaintance, and reader, and it is this remarkable quality which makes “Pilgrim’s Way,” the autobiography which John Buchan completed only a week before his untimely death, so satisfying and enchanting a piece of writing,

His story is written with a simplicity and modesty of style, a wealth of humor, and a philosophic subtlety. It is a story of one who loved life and lived it in all parts of the world with a vivid appreciation of detail and personality. Buchan understood men and things with an amazing rapidity of adjustment. If one were to single out an example, it would be his love and understanding of America. Deeply imbued with the vital importance of cordiality in Anglo-American relations, he approached the problem from an essentially practical point of view. Unimpressed by the outworn shibboleths of “cousinship” between the two countries, he urged that both should recognize the fact that the other was a foreign country, and in so doing lose forever the impression that each entertains all too often of the other—namely, that it is “a part of itself which has somehow gone off the lines.” “No doubt,” he adds, “they had a common ancestor, but he is of little avail against the passage of time and the estranging seas.”

If there was one part of this country which John Buchan loved better than another—and he knew all of it—it was the South. Captured at an early age by the romance and fascination of the War Between the States, he made himself one of the foremost authorities on the subject. Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee became his heroes, and there was no greater moment of veneration in his life than when, in the Confederate Museum in Richmond, he took into his hands the old forage cap which Jackson had worn throughout the Valley Campaign.

But Buchan’s attachment for America was not emotional or blind. Just as he combined (albeit with a certain mental agility I) affection for the Confederacy with admiration for Abraham Lincoln, so he was constructively critical of the land he loved second only to his own. This appreciation spread beyond the Appalachians and throughout New England; it embraced the flowery summer meadows and the intimate landscape of Vermont and New Hampshire, and the little country towns of Massachusetts and Connecticut with their village greens and elms and courthouses and churches, the long-settled champaign of Maryland, the Virginian manor houses, and the aromatic ranges of the West. All this made up for him his “My America,” with all its faults and virtues, its startling volatility and its general lovableness.

Nor was he blind to the grave problems which confronted America in her struggle to find a mean between the task of raising her citizens above want, and yet in so doing avoiding the slavery of the beehive and the ant-heap. “It is because I believe that in the Americas people of two impulses are of equal strength,” he wrote, “that I see her in the vanguard of that slow upward trend, undulant or spiral, which today is our modest definition of progress. Her major prophet is still Whitman, ‘Everything comes out of dirt—everything; everything comes out of the people, everyday people, the people as you find them and leave them, people, people, just people.’ ” This was the thought and understanding of one whose passing left an unparalleled sense of loss throughout the American continent, a vital figure who in these pages has left a record and credo that all may envy.


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