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Call Home the Eyes

ISSUE:  Autumn 1932

The American Jitters: A Year of the Slump. By Edmund Wilson. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. $2.50. The Tragedy of Henry Ford. By Jonathan Norton Leonard, New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. $3.00.

Call home the eyes and ears, from fantastic visions of fortunes made in oil and South American loans and match monopolies; call home the heart from civil war in Europe, and the new-made dynamo in Russia, and look full upon the patternless America that is all that most of us will ever have. Here we must live and here we shall presently be dead; and since most of us are poor, in spite of productive machinery and plentiful and fertile land past any nation’s lot, let us lay hold on it with our only instruments of possession, reasonably used.

“The American Jitters” and “The Tragedy of Henry Ford” are both in their way guaranteed to remove the cataracts from American eyes too long straining after the blue.

Edmund Wilson, in “The American Jitters” (published in England under the title, “The Devil Take the Hindmost”), has brought together twenty-nine pieces of reporting and interpretation of the United States since the slump. Bankers may cry boopadoop, the radio and car cards advise block aid and banners, and Hoover call for high-hearted courage from men starving under misrule—still the boat wallows and settles and all the passengers can see there are not life boats to go round. Which class shall be saved?

Men may cry peace, peace, but there is no peace in America today. Edmund Wilson has turned from being one of our most serious critics of literature, English and French; and taking his stand, modestly and honestly, after reading Karl Marx, and first perceiving that the economic base on which we stand determines most of our postures, has tried to show the pattern of the coming conflict and the pattern-lessness of the present confused scene.

Happily, Wilson is reporting, not for a city editor, who knows that the whole story must be in the lead, and that advertising supports the paper, and that not all the news is fit to print, but for people like himself, who are turning from preconceptions of our manifest destiny as a new-world democracy with free land and a frontier, to seeing us as a land of bankrupt farmers, striking and locked-out workers, and fog ahead.

Mr. Wilson has moved across the country and back. He will not have a reader who does not recognize some portion or other of his book as being by a fellow eye-witness, only by one who has peered deeper, moved among the crowd, had a sharper ear. These are full, rich accounts of incidents, accidents, trends, warfare now going on. He begins with an account of Dwight Morrow as senator. He lays the facts of the Morrow record down, one after another; he is generous to the man, and faithfully records the legend of his liberality; and yet, one perceives that the generous words and the standpat vote on nearly every occasion do not jibe.

Wilson was there when Foster faced the Fish Committee; he went to the New School of Social Research—”Aladdin’s Wonder Palace,” he calls that chapter; he has set down a report of the meeting between the committee representing the thirty-five thousand small depositors in the Bank of the United States and Mayor Walker. There is more drama in that report than in any play I saw on the New York stage last winter. Now Wilson looks at Detroit and at Ford; now paints a close-up of a Red Cross worker among the starving in Kentucky. He tells the story of the Scotts-boro case; he takes the record of a Danish farmer from the Canadian Northwest who sees thousands of farmers forced off the land; he goes on a deputation with the People’s Lobby. Where, he asks, is the democratic tradition of the right to present grievances?

Though everywhere he turns he finds evidence of a country far below the cultural level we might wish to believe were ours, though everywhere he sees injustice and conflict, and an incredible number of silly things, the book itself is written with such ardour and seriousness, such quickened senses report, that the effect is to heighten his readers’ sensibilities, provoke both a new skepticism and a veritable hunger after better health. Such reporting as this is worth a ton of fiction.

In “The Tragedy of Henry Ford,” Mr. Leonard covers far less ground, but if there; are those who believe in Ford as the possible instrument of social revolution by twilight sleep, who believe in the high wages, and the lizzies for all, to whisk you nowhere and fast back again, here is witty muckraking and eye-opening. Only the tragedy is certainly not Henry Ford’s, but the impotent, non-unionized men’s whose feet led them from all over the world to a false security.

It was of interest to me that one of the New York papers, for reasons of state, absolutely insisted on having an economist review the Leonard book on Ford, the idea being that somehow the curse could be taken off a portrait so un-idolatrous. But it seems to me that that is just the one twinkle in the mess. In the struggle for a new community of interest, we no longer ask the specialists in figures to tell us whether the great industrialist is great. We inquire whether women and gardens flourish in the towns he bosses; or whether its men are free to unionize. We have needed more reporters on “prosperity” than those economists and politicians who define richness in terms of surplus dollars and concentrations of power.


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