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Books for the Atlantic-Minded

ISSUE:  Summer 1943

The English People: Impressions and Observations. By D. W. Brogan, Alfred A. Knopf. $3.00. History of the English-Speaking Peoples. By R B. Mowat and Preston Slosson. Oxford University Press. $4.00. Way for America. By Alexander Laing. Duell, Sloan and Pcarce. $3.00.

The people of the United States, like others who live in the border-lands of their civilization, are subject to two competing forces, one centrifugal and one centripetal. Our civilization is European. When we are centrally-minded, therefore, our attention is attracted towards Europe. When the opposite force prevails, we are directed towards our own world, which lies on the periphery of the world of Europe. Sometimes the pull towards the center is strongest; sometimes the pull towards the verge.

It is unlikely—in spite of what some of our authors here would like to think—that we shall ever become as exclusively European in our point of view as the Swiss, say, or the Belgians, or that even the most English of us will ever be very much more than “English-speaking.” Mr. Laing, in Vermont, will never understand the English people quite so well as Mr. Brogan in East Anglia. But today we are naturally more interested in the center than in the periphery; and these books before us are all written to encourage us to be more centrally-minded still. Some of the impetus behind them might seem to be wasted, since most people who are likely to read them are Atlantic-minded already. But their publication is at least a reminder that the battle of the propagandas is not yet won.

Mr. Denis Brogan, an Oxford man, is professor of political science at the University of Cambridge. He is well known as the author of two penetrating and not altogether cheerful books on the governments of the United States and of France. His “Government of the People; A Study in the American Political System” deals to a considerable extent in political pathology and is not calculated to make the uncritical reader think highly of American institutions. His “France under the Republic” is a masterful account of the history of the Third Republic, but its readers cannot help wondering why the Third Republic lasted as long as it did. The choice of Mr. Brogan to write a book about the English “to explain to Americans what England is like today” in order “to remove prejudices and misconceptions” might seem doubtfully calculated to promote Anglo-American harmony. But in times of crisis even the cynic becomes a good nationalist; or else Mr. Brogan, who protests that he is Irish and Scottish and not English at all, is seized with the zeal of the convert. For he has done a remarkably good job of interpretation, and the English and their institutions emerge from his study as interesting and attractive even if sometimes curious and irrational. “The English People: Impressions and Observations” possesses a balance and a maturity rare in essays intended to serve an immediate political purpose. It is stuffed with information and shot through with wit.

The three central chapters of the book are those on English education, English religion, and England as a democracy. The first not only describes the English school system, but makes it comprehensible. The second not only explains the Church of England, and English ecclesiastical ethics, but makes us sympathize with official as well as unofficial religion. As for the third, all those of us who have written at length on English government are put to shame, since in fifty pages he explains the entire English political system, with lucidity and grace.

This is not to say that Mr. Brogan always maintains his high level. What he says at great length about India is hard to understand and had perhaps better not be understood, and he is not the ideal commentator on “The English and the Outside World.” But by and large the book is one to cherish.

Messrs. Mowat and Slosson, in a “History of the English-Speaking Peoples,” have tried an experiment which is full of interest. They have written a one-volume history which traces the development of England from the beginning, describes the first British Empire, recounts the early history of the United States, and then in alternate sections tells the story of England, the British Empire, and the United States in the twentieth century.

Such a story, covering so long a period, of parts of the world often related to each other only by the use of a common written language, might seem doomed to failure. What pedagogical purposes it can serve (at least amongst English-speaking peoples) it is hard to see. For British children will find half the book over-familiar and American children will be familiar with the other half. But as a story, or series of loosely connected stories, the book is a success. It is written with balance, with charm, and with sympathy. It is intrinsically readable. The great lay public that likes the history of peoples will enjoy it. For Americans, it will have the attraction of something that is written with a particular view to offending no British susceptibilities. It results from the collaboration of two well-known historians, the late Professor Mowat of Bristol University and Professor Slosson of Michigan, both of whom were familiar with university life in each other’s countries.

Mr. Alexander Laing, who writes “Way for America,” is more nearly a professional publicist than our other authors, though he also holds distinguished academic rank as the assistant librarian of the Baker Library at Dartmouth College. The writer of superb thrillers has devoted his gifts of expression to a volume intended to stimulate Americans to useful political action. Finding Americans politically lethargic, unconscious of what is going on in the world, and ready to lose their great political heritage, he wishes to persuade them into integrated action.

Mr. Laing’s pattern, thus summarized, may not seem especially novel, and indeed novelty of substance or of aim is not the special quality of his book. Nor does he add to the general pattern a specific sub-pattern of his own, for he explicitly refrains from offering a “blue print” of a better world. But the book has a quality of its own, and a very interesting one. It belongs essentially to that always fascinating species, the spiritual autobiography. We start with the American who is old enough to have enjoyed the sophisticated extravagances of the twenties and who is passing the thirties amid the spiritual fleshpots of an easy provincialism. He becomes disturbed by unhappy situations at home and by ominous events abroad. Not in any sense an expert in politics, he prescribes for himself a course of reading in recent history; and a considerable portion of his story is a resume of international events of the past dozen years, with comments which do not lose their aptness merely because some of them have been made before. Eventually we have the first fruits of the conversion—this book. It would be interesting if it were merely the story of Mr. Laing’s own life, which Mr. Laing is too good an artist to make it. But it is not merely or not really that. It is the story of a generalized experience. The cynic again (as with Mr. Brogan) has become a nationalist. That is one of the dominant patterns of today. Mr. Laing has given us a spiritual autobiography, in which we are all invited to join in the chorus.

All writing, under the conditions of war, reveals strain. The mind and the personality of the author, adjusted to a settled condition of facts, has to pull and push and warp itself into adjustment with a new condition which is a changing one. The ship which has lain peacefully at anchor must be refitted for a perilous voyage on a stormy sea. The more complete has been the previous adjustment, the more assured has been the earlier integration, the greater will be the strain of readjustment. But this very process of pulling and hauling—which sometimes causes loud creaking sounds to come from the timbers—is interesting to watch, and it also ensures that some vessels will still be afloat when the storm winds are quieted. All these books, even Mr. Brogan’s, would have been better if they had not been prepared to meet an immediate purpose. But had they been written under less pressing conditions, they would have lost the contemporaneity which makes them interesting now.


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