Skip to main content

To H-LL With H-TL-R!

ISSUE:  Autumn 1941

America. By David Ciishman Coyle. National Home Foundation Library. 25¢. The Wave of the Past. By R. H. Markham. Chapel Hill. $1.00. The Defense of Freedom, By Edmund Ezra Day. Cornell University Press. $1.25. The Time Is Now! By Pierre van Paassen. The Dial Press. $1.00. You Can’t Do Business with Hitler. By Douglas Miller. Little, Brown and Company. $1.50. Begin Here. By Dorothy L. Sayers. Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.00. A Faith to Fight For. By John Strachcy. Random House. $1.75.

The substantive “pamphleteer,” besides being an ugly word, carries with it a whole retinue of vaguely disreputable associations. This is hardly fair, for the pamphlet has always been the vehicle of scholars, theologians, and scientists. It has discoursed upon the mysteries of the Digamma, upon the tremendous implications of Homoios, upon roundness, and relativity, and the atom, and God. In the huge conversation of learning, echoing to and fro through the darkness of time, the pamphlet has played its part, and still does. Yet, somehow or other, it is not quite respectable; it has always had a taste for shady company; and it has spent so much time in taverns, garrets, and debtors’ gaols that we sometimes forget that it was ever anywhere else.

It would not be difficult—it would, of course, be extremely easy—to enter a formidable brief in defense of the pamphlet. Taken merely as a kind of literature, without even considering its noble part in the dissemination of knowledge, it has its shining examples. Was not Cicero’s Second Philippic, the one that was never spoken, a pamphlet? Would anyone care to attack the prose of John Milton? or deny the brilliance and profundity of the “Diatribe du Docteur Akakia”? or fail to appreciate the political influence of the austere and savage genius of Swift? The grumbler, to be sure, will maintain that Cicero was sometimes turgid and Milton frequently a bore, that Voltaire was spiteful, and that Swift . . . .

There, at last, we unearth the sad secret of the pamphlet: no matter how far it has strayed into other fields, it is always connected in our minds with politics. We try to conjure the demon away, but it returns. We smile upon the scholar who has just put out a small book explaining the exact day and hour, the quality of the ink, the texture of the paper upon or with which Thomas Jefferson composed his ten rules of conduct. Admirable work! And yet there creeps into our minds the thought of some mendacious person who, some hundred and forty years ago, was busily setting forth, not the ways in which Jefferson had composed his ten rules, but the ways in which he had broken them. And, alas, the mendacious person would be the more readable. Yes, the pamphlet is all mixed up with the word “pamphleteer,” and “pamphleteer,” like it or not, means a person who writes an essay of indeterminate length and with a political objective, and who has had, on the whole, a very shady past.

Not that pamphleteers today are disreputable people. On the contrary. Here are half a dozen writers who express, in their different ways, a desire to beat Hitler. It is a thankless task to have to criticize them. One would like, for example, to bestow unqualified praise upon David Cushman Coyle’s “America,” upon R. H. Markham’s “The Wave of the Past,” and upon “The Defense of Freedom” by Edmund Ezra Day. All are agreed that Hitler must be defeated; all maintain that democracy is worth defending. And all are quite unreadable.

After one has perused these three books—and there are plenty of others like them—one asks oneself, in the first place, what on earth has happened to the art of invective. How mild their language is when they attack the vileness of the Nazis! Perhaps this is not altogether the fault of Mr. Coyle, Mr. Markham, and Mr. Day. Invective needs a specific victim: invective is Demosthenes on the subject of Philip, or Aeschines on the subject of Demosthenes, or a mediaeval saint on the subject of women, or Lord John Russell on Catholic bishoprics, or Swinburne on Mr. and Mrs. Carlyle. “That sorry pair of phenomena,” said Swinburne, “Thomas Cloacinus and his goody.” One could not use the same language about Goebbels and Himmler, because it is no longer possible to think of Goebbels and Himmler as human beings. As for Hitler, it would be agreeable to attack his clothes, his taste in art, his diet, and his face: but what a waste of time! As a human being he is too wretched and as a force he is too big for this sort of thing. He is the Great Anarch before whose uncreating word light dies, even the strange meteors and sparks of invective. He is, indeed, the Devil: and we have so long considered the Devil either an operatic personage or a mere abstraction, that it would take a mediaeval saint or an eighteenth century hack to come to verbal grips with him.

Political invective flourished most in that period when the writer was no longer in danger of losing his ears, but was in danger of losing his liberty: in the eighteenth century. Among the irrational jungles that constantly threatened to engulf the Age of Reason lurked the pamphleteer. He was, on the whole, not a nice person. He wrote hurriedly, anonymously, for a Grub Street bookseller, and to please a political party in which he did not believe. He was a living example of the contradictory truisms that all writers must live, and that most people who write are not writers. He was dull, unimaginative, and brutal. But there was a gusto in his abuse which is lacking from ours. It was not that he was more gifted, really, in that direction than we are: it was because he wrote for an audience that relished invective. Those were the days when gentlemen, and ladies too, liked to find upon their breakfast tables a vicious little booklet attacking Mr. F-x or Mr. P-tt, or Mr. Ge-rge W-sh-ngt-n. Their stomachs were strong and their curiosity had not been dulled by the newspaper, the telephone, and the radio. As its audience grew more delicate, invective left the field of politics and became literary. Nowadays, to be sure, we are not afraid of strong language; but nowadays, facing the imminent approach of a cultural ice age, with the chill preliminary winds already blowing on us, we take little satisfaction in the calling of names. It would be but a mild consolation to find upon our breakfast table an abusive account of Mr. Wh–ler.

Apart from his invective, the eighteenth century pamphleteer usually had little to say. The generality of modern pamphleteers is in the same fix. I would like to praise Mr. David Cushman Coyle, but what is the use? He says nothing that has not been said before. His only merit is that he is infrequently, and mildly, fantastic. When he writes, for example,

Third, all the nations of the world will meet in a great powwow, to settle a few of the most pressing questions of world peace, especially how to forestall any future squeeze plays that lead to war,

he sounds like Mr. Ely Culbertson addressing a Boy Scout rally. I would like, too, to commend Mr. Markham: but when he says,

But there are new things in history. The men who built Rockefeller Center in New York were not the same as those who built the pyramids. The society that founded San Francisco was not the same as the one that founded Nineveh,

he sounds like Mr. Chadband. As for Mr. Edmund Ezra Day, he also is on the side of the angels; but his little book is so astonishingly empty that he sounds like nothing at all.

In short, if you are going to write a pamphlet in these days, you must have something to say, and it would be nice if you knew how to say it. All that we learn from Mr. Coyle and Mr. Markham and Mr. Day is that their hearts are in the right place. Mr. van Paassen’s “The Time Is Now!” comes much nearer to what a pamphlet ought to be. It has something to say, it is persuasively written, and it has been widely read. Has it persuaded anybody? That we shall never know for certain. One might be permitted to guess, however, that its effect will be more swift than lasting. Mr. van Paassen is a mystagogue. He loves to lead his public into a darkish chamber, full of mysterious objects and melancholy echoes, and leave it there. He has never distinguished —as readers of “Days of Our Years” will remember—between three quite distinct things: contemporary journalism, a sermon, and a Chill down the Spine. His readers in consequence have a wonderful time emotionally; after which, emerging from the darkish chamber, they are apt to grow confused about what it was that they were supposed to find there. In “The Time Is Now!” he presents us with a clear object and an articulate echo. The clear object is the German geopolitical scheme for world conquest—i. e., to contain the oceans by marching around them. The articulate echo is that America must defend itself’by occupying Dakar, the Canaries, and the Azores. Here is a cold fact and a solid and valuable suggestion. But the shadows creep in, the noises multiply. The solid object is slightly blurred by Mr. van Paassen’s delight in thrills, the echo is dispersed by his inability to resist the temptation to creep up behind us and say “Boo!” We come out of the darkish chamber, and, blinking among the commonplaces of daylight, we ask ourselves : was it Adolf Hitler whom we were supposed to meet there, or was it Professor Moriarty?

Because he suits his language to his theme, Mr. Douglas Miller as a pamphleteer comes closer to perfection than Mr. van Paassen, though on a lower plane. Addressing himself in “You Can’t Do Business with Hitler” to those business men who believe that it doesn’t much matter who wins this war, and who rather suspect that they might be better off if Hitler won, he shows how the Nazis have already ruined some—and how they propose to ruin all—business of the non-German world. Like Rawdon Crawley, their debts are their assets; like Rawdon Crawley they ruin their creditors; and unlike Rawdon Crawley they do not know how to repent. They propose to abolish the profit system, not in the name of socialism, but in the name of world conquest. We can smile at the story of the American film company whom the Nazis repaid, in part, with a live hippopotamus; and of the exporters of machine tools who were compensated with a hundred thousand canaries: but behind the hippopotamus and the canaries there marches the foul and grotesque parade of the Nazi circus, with its cages and its whips. Mr. Miller was for years our Commercial Attache in Berlin; he knows what he is talking about; he knows how to say it; and he leads up to the Nazi “scientific slave-state,” where science is efficiently mocked—a state which has no meaning at all.

“Meaningless” is the most terrible epithet that one can apply to a political system. In “A Faith to Fight For” Mr. John Strachey applies it to the projected Nazi empire. No piece of invective, however sudden or scorching, could have said as much. To conquer the world, and not to know what to do with it!

With Mr. Strachey and Miss Dorothy L. Sayers’s “Begin Here” we enter upon another phase of pamphleteering; not merely because they write at the center and not at the periphery of the whirlwind, but because their aims are slightly different. Their books fall within the definition of pamphleteering—namely, that they are long essays with a political objective; but this definition (like almost all definitions) is vague and unsatisfactory.

How, then, do they differ from the other writers who have been mentioned here? Because they are trying to wake people up? All pamphleteers try to do that, though some of them have the opposite effect. We listen to vague talk about self-discipline, and powwows, and Ninevehs; and, muttering Hear! Hear! we fall asleep. Mr. van Paassen and Mr. Miller wake us up, but whether they can keep us awake is another thing. I do not know that Miss Sayers and Mr. Strachey have been any more successful (in terms of sales they have probably been a great deal less successful) ; but I do know that they are trying to go further. They are Tractarians. The word Tractarian probably reminds us of Pusey on Fasting and Newman on the Thirty-Nine Articles, and of the fact that Pusey was pedantic and Newman perverse. But both were trying to get at the human soul, and that is what Miss Sayers and Mr. Strachey are trying to do. They are engaged in the gigantic and delicate task of reaching the soul of a people at war, of saying that resistance, however noble, is not enough.

Both lead us into the caverns of history, and it would be impossible to analyze their arguments without composing another pamphlet, which would not be so readable. Miss Sayers is inclined to believe that the Theological State tried to reform itself too late and left the world to the mercies of a series of Temporal Absolutes. Mr. Strachey says that history is the story of the struggle between the rich and the poor. And both are probably appealing from History— from History in its most challenging form—from History as the Marxists see it, under the sign of the Thesis, the Antithesis, and the Synthesis, the cold Trinity which justifies everything. Miss Sayers is an Erastian who appeals from this History because it does not include God; and Mr. Strachey is a socialist who appeals from it because it did include the Russo-German pact. It has many valuable and permanent things to say, as we all know; but there is something missing from it, as most of us realize—an X, an unknown quantity. What can it be? “God,” says Miss Sayers; “Love,” says Mr. Strachey. Starting from opposite corners, and without knowing it, Miss Sayers and Mr. Strachey are drifting together. Both are very much worth reading, if possible consecutively.

And here one may leave the pamphlet, in the form of a tract, addressed to a people who have stood like a rock against the Tyrant. Literature seriously directed towards such a people at such a time is worth attention. Does it tell us anything about the future of pamphleteering? When Hitler is abolished, will the time return when ladies and gentlemen in America and England will discover with pleasure upon their breakfast tables a venomous booklet directed against the manners of the Pr-s-d-nt or the morals of the K-ng? All we can say is that pamphlets of one kind or another are bound to appear in that future: a most uncertain statement. But then only one thing is certain, and the writers discussed here are all agreed upon it. If Hitler is not beaten, there will be no future at all.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading