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Notes on Current Books, Winter 1982

ISSUE:  Winter 1982

This imaginative, refreshing essay in literary history argues that the “New Immigration” (chiefly of Eastern European and Mediterranean Jews) at the turn of the century destroyed the mythic synthesis that had previously provided “Americans” with a common identity. The resulting sense of alienation and marginality infected writers of all persuasions—even the traditionalists—and touched off a number of sustained literary efforts to discover how tradition and citizenship might be defined, or even created, in our time. In his inquiry Professor Klein emphasizes the decade of the 1930’s and, in it, the curiously difficult relationship between ethnicity and the possibility of a literary left. The development of literary modernism, usually considered the mainstream of the period, is treated simply as another response to the need for identity, associated with the political right, and perhaps too rigorously deemphasized. But if Klein’s focus sometimes seems uncomfortably narrow, it also yields innumerable valuable insights and intellectual discourse of a consistently high quality. His is one of the most important books of literary history in recent years.

Spatial Form in Narrative, edited by Jeffrey Smitten and Ann Daghistany. Foreword by Joseph Frank. Cornell $19.50

Celebrating the immense vitality of Frank’s 1945 essay on modern literature, this volume summarizes the theory, describes its reception and influence, and bears witness to its astounding adaptability. Broadly and differentially restated (freed, that is, from its historical and generic parochialism as well as its reductive analogy of fiction to the lyric), Frank’s argument asserted the existence and integrity of depictive and iterative forms represented by elliptical and achronological techniques in language that is at once arational and densely resonant. As certain contributions show, adepts of écriture may see in Frank’s framework a model of the reflexivity that they value in the New Novel, while reader-response theorists may embrace and extend Frank’s understanding of devices by which certain authors have opened (and left readers to close) the gaps and discontinuities of their texts. Not less significant (though largely ignored in the bibliography and only suggested in an essay by Ann Daghistany and J. J. Johnson) is the explanatory power of Frank’s concept and its cognates in the study of works as unmodern as Montaigne’s essays, the baroque lyric, Molière’s problem plays, and Candide. Few critical ideas have proven as durable or as fertile as that of spatial form; hence this collection is not only overdue— it is also indispensable.

Why Flannery O’Connor Stayed Home, by Marion Montgomery. Sherwood Sugden $19.95

You are warned that this is volume one of a trilogy. The other two books will reveal Why Poe Drank Liquor and Why Hawthorne Was Melancholy. Mr. Montgomery has read a vast amount in preparation for this book, but since there is no bibliography, the reader can gauge the extent of this reading only through the index. His style is vague, verbose, and repetitive; his thought is equally so. Perhaps two examples will indicate his qualities: “In the course of our journey, we shall be interested in modernist confusions in a variety of minds—from such minds as Kepler and Pascal and Milton down to our own particle physicists and prophetic poets, borrowing from and remarking upon those minds as they may reveal our confusions.” “And thus I demonstrate that ironic righteousness and moral indignation seem ever tempting modes to a committed critic, especially in an age which, like ours, dissolves toward a chaos in which value is considered to be as extinct as the dodo.” It is too bad that he could not have learned more from Flannery O’Connor before setting pen to paper.

The Avant-Garde Today, edited by Charles Russell. Illinois $17.95 cloth, $7.95 paper

Charles Russell’s anthology is perhaps best taken as a companion book to Richard Kostelanetz’ fine Breakthrough Fictioneers. Both books enlarge the average reader’s perspective regarding the possibilities of poetry, fiction, prose, and visual poetry. While Kostelanetz chose to let the various pieces speak for themselves, Russell has provided some much needed commentary on various aspects of the avant-garde, with concise essays on its history, aesthetics, and social context to complement the work of Helmut Heissenbuttel, John Cage, Amiri Baraka, Toby Lurie, and others. An interesting, informative collection.

Children’s Literature, Vol. 9, edited by Francelia Butler et al. Yale $8.95

This volume contains a wide variety of essays, generally of high quality, on children’s literature and related fields. Surprisingly interesting are those essays dealing with children’s literature and the visual media—the problems of “translating” literature into other media and the literary revelations derived from that exercise, both in terms of the literature itself and the respondents. There are critical articles on some “classics,” and excellent ones on the major African writer, Achebe, and on Japanese fairy tales, as well as essays on children’s writing, on children’s taste and comprehension, on the influence of television on the imagination, and a compelling article on the Boston-based storyteller, Brother Blue. The book also contains reviews of recent literature and literary studies and a list of noteworthy dissertations. Readership should not be limited to specialists.

Modern Chinese Stories and Novellas, 1919—1949, edited by Joseph S. M. Lau et al. Columbia $35 cloth, $15 paper

This collection is intended as a college text to give a comprehensive overview of China’s most famous literary movement of modern times. Representative works are given for all the major literary figures, and each has been carefully translated by the new army of professional translators of Chinese literature trained, largely, by the editors. As such, the collection is more comprehensive and more useful but less exciting. The period covered was one of hope and anger arising out of the ashes of traditional Chnia and before the heavy hand of state control after the establishment of the People’s Republic.

Eudora Welty, by Elizabeth Evans. Ungar $10.95

This modest book sets its tone in the first sentence: “The literary career of Eudora Welty now spans forty-five years, her stories and novels occupy a significant place in American fiction, and she herself is without question one of the two or three most important women writers the South has produced.” All true; and if the word women were struck out, it would still be true. Throughout the book there are several small errors that could easily have been avoided (The Bride of Innisfallen, for example, for the The Bride of the Innisfallen). Eudora Welty has yet to find the biographer and critic she deserves.

The Paradise of Women: Writings by Englishwomen of the Renaissance, edited by Betty Travitsky. Greenwood $29.95

An overdue and welcome anthology, a bit bland in its commentary but well-researched and intelligent in its choices. Renaissance literature may not look much different as a result—”female” writing has a way of being indistinguishable from “male” writing—but individual selections have their interest and surprises. Even seasoned scholars may not know the anti-misogynistic polemics of “Jane Anger,” or the remarkably rich vein of surviving diaries and domestica, or the love poems of Mary Stuart, or the neoclassical tragedy that is, in effect, Othello from the wife’s point of view.

The Geography of the Imagination, by Guy Davenport. North Point $20 cloth, $10 paper

Imagination, whether individual or collective, resides within geographies of cultural location and historical moment. Davenport, an erudite detective, traces our modern stories and images back through the networks of resemblance and influence that connect them, ultimately, with archaic origins. He enjoys noticing that the curtains of the Iowa farmhouse in Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” “are bordered in a variant of the egg-and-dart design that comes from Nabatea, the Biblical Edom. . . .” In writing about Whitman, Pound, Joyce, Marianne Moore, and many others, Davenport perceives connections that are often startlingly illuminating. Less often they are so ingenious that one wonders if they aren’t rooted in Davenport’s own modernist nostalgia for lost historical coherence.

The Political Unconscious, by Fredric Jameson. Cornell $19.50

For all its profound theorizing and eloquent writing about Balzac, Gissing, and Conrad, The Political Unconscious adds little new to the studies of literature and Marxism. Jameson’s assertion that the “simultaneous recognition of the ideological and Utopian functions of the artistic text” remains the political hope for Marxist theory goes little beyond the more inspiring and inspired writings of the early Marx. Furthermore, to say, with Jameson, that “everything is “in the final analysis” political,” while a necessary admonition for most literary critics, resolves few of the problems confronted by serious critics of culture and society. Jameson rightfully insists that the determination of what is political culture remains the most urgent goal of Marxist cultural criticism. But his willful desire to ignore this vital task further weakens this disappointing study.

Aristophanes: Essays in Interpretation, edited by Jeffrey Henderson (Yale Classical Studies, Vol. XXVI). Cambridge $35

One of the best and most surprising classical authors is also one of the most difficult to edit or discuss, and helpful commentary on him is rare. Henderson has produced a welcome collection of substantial essays that are both involved in the complex scholarly problems and intelligently interested in the larger questions that concern a non-classicist. The whole is on the sober side, a bit stiff in the joints when handling the author’s wit, but useful and sometimes more than that on Aristophanes’ “lyricism,” his relation to Socrates, and (in careful and sensible detail) the action of Lysistrata.

Literary Democracy, by Larzer Ziff. Viking $20

By the 19th century, revolutionary America had yet to declare cultural independence from Europe. When the prospects for literary democracy finally improved, a new problem emerged: how could American writers maintain a sense of artistry and remain committed to a pragmatic, egalitarian culture? Larzer Ziff, in this excellent study, analyzes the explicit statements and the implicit themes of 19th-century writers (from Melville and Emerson to Stowe and Whitman) in order to determine how they resolved the cultural contradictions of democracy. Relying on a range of critical technique—and imposing no monolithic theory—Ziff understands the role of the writer in society as few critics do. This essential study ranks with Mathiessen’s American Renaissance and Brooks’ The Flowering of New England.

NATIONAL & INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony, by Samuel P. Huntington. Harvard $15

This is an important book. It belongs on the shelf just below The Federalist Papers, Democracy in America, The American Commonwealth, and the other handful of perceptive books on the American regime. Huntington argues that the essence of American politics cannot be found in traditional theories of class conflict, interest group competition, or middle class consensus. All of these theories are, to some extent, true, but all fail to take into account the peculiar character of the American political creed. That creed—liberty, equality, democracy, individualism, limited government, and all the other widely accepted American political beliefs—is in constant tension with the realities of political power and makes it likely that Americans will be dissatisfied with their government. The periodic upheavals in our history—the Jacksonian revolution, the Progressive era, and the 1960’s—were all periods when Americans were divided, not on ideological grounds but on the extent to which they were committed to a common ideology. In less than 300 pages Professor Huntington provides more insights into American politics than are normally found in a small library of works by other political scientists.

The Politics of Peace: An Evaluation of Arms Control, by John H. Barton. Stanford $18.50

It sometimes seems that half the books written by political scientists begin the way this one does—”The Politics of. . . .” The usual implication in these titles is that politics prevents, corrupts, or complicates whatever it is that follows the preposition. That is certainly the implication here. Barton reviews the limited progress and prospects for arms control in international relations and finds that genuine arms limitation is usually blocked either by influential domestic and bureaucratic groups or by the structure of world politics, where power is divided among sovereign states. The same factors that hinder arms control also constitute the underlying causes of war. His solution for these problems is to recommend the gradual centralization of political power in the hands of effective international organizations, thus removing or reducing the likelihood of war and the need for arms control. His book might be better titled, “The Pipedream of Peace.”

Portrait of an Election: The 1980 Presidential Campaign, by Elizabeth Drew. Simon & Schuster $14.95

Why anyone would want to remember the dismal presidential campaign of 1980 is a question worth asking, but a spate of books chronicling every detail of the year’s twists and turns was an inevitability. Of the ones which have appeared so far, Elizabeth Drew’s is the most accurate, if only because so little of it was written after the election. As a slightly edited compilation of New Yorker articles appearing between November 1979 and November 1980, Drew manages to retain the flavor and confusion of the actual campaign while avoiding the revisionism that afflicts most works of this type. One of Drew’s faults as a writer is that she tends to lose her readers in a welter of detail, most of it insignificant. But on the whole, this book keeps one’s attention, and in the end, the reader is left marveling at the cast of characters who collectively comprised the quadrennial circus of American democracy. There are few surprises or even memorable nuggets in Drew’s faithful reportage, but the appendices, containing previously unpublished campaign memoranda from Reagan’s pollster Richard Wirthlin and Carter’s seer Patrick Caddell, are fascinating and unusually revealing.

Unlikely Heroes, by Jack Bass. Simon & Schuster $14.95

A year after the Supreme Court decided that segregated schools were unconstitutional, it issued to federal judges an order to implement Brown v. Board of Education “with all deliberate speed.” The judges of the Fifth Circuit, which then encompassed Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, developed legal doctrines, innovative techniques, and personal fortitude in their effort to take the Supreme Court seriously. Bass argues that without the heroic sacrifices of four judges, who were all appointed by Eisenhower—Turtle, Wisdom, Minor, and Rives—Southern schools, juries, and public accommodations would still be segregated. Bass carefully documents the often moving history of the judges, lawyers, and civil-rights workers who bravely transformed a judicial opinion into a new way of life in the South.

The Distortion of America, by Oscar Handlin. Little, Brown $10.95

This short, polemical work embodies a collection of essays designed to alert the American public about the dangers which communism, “neutralism,” and complacency pose for U.S. foreign policy in the 1980’s. Largely by historical reference, the author musters a passionate, alarmist argument that the Cold War persists and the United States is losing. What is lacking in the volume, however, is a pragmatic prescriptive proposal for reversing this perceived policy direction.

The Ultimate Resource, by Julian L. Simon. Princeton $14.50

Simon says that those preeminent issues threatening the stability of world order— namely, overpopulation, resource depletion, environmental pollution, and energy scarcity—are in reality more fiction than fact. Employing a sophisticated quantitative-analytical approach, his argument is both intriguing and reassuring; however, whether or not it is wholly accurate will be determined only by the test of time.

Decade of Decision: The Crisis of the American System, by Michael Harrington. Simon & Schuster $6.95

Harrington argues that stagflation is the sign of a structural crisis in American capitalism. The root of the problem is the domination of politics and the economy by corporate priorities. We must have full employment to combat stagflation, and we cannot assure it in a capitalist economy without disingenuously altering our definition of full employment. Harrington is reasonable, understandable, and persuasive. His case is strong enough to put everyone— especially supply-siders—under an absolute obligation either to refute him once and for all or to change their ways.

Abortion and Moral Theory, by L. W. Sumner. Princeton $16.50 cloth, $4.95 paper

It should be clear by now that public discussions of abortion are doomed to a modicum of rationality. Yet, as Mr. Sumner’s work confirms, a rational discussion of the issue is possible. Sumner takes aim at both sides of the abortion issue, the liberal/feminist group and the conservative/”pro-life” group. He presents their respective cases for or against abortion in a fair and evenhanded manner. Rejecting both these positions, he appeals to classical utilitarian moral theory for his case for a moderate abortion policy. A superb, intelligent treatment of the issue, Sumner’s book should not be ignored by anyone concerned with the rights and wrongs of abortion.

From the Ashes of Disgrace: A Journal from Germany, 1945—1955, by Hans Speier. Massachusetts $20

What to do with Germany was a monumental question not only for the victorious Allies in 1945 but also for the Germans. An individual who runs amok can be restrained and dealt with, but an entire nation defies the best ideas of those who would mete out punishment. Professor Speier traveled extensively in his native Germany after the war and spoke with politicians, philosophers, greengrocers, and anyone else who would give him the time of day. Gradually he came to understand how Germans coped with their guilt in various ways. This is a useful remembrance of the way it was.

The Double-Edged Helix, by Liebe F. Cavalieri. Columbia $14.95

This is the second volume in the Convergence series, edited by Ruth Nanda Anshen. Cavalieri provides a thought-provoking look at scientific research and the dangers of unmonitored technology. Science is not just the harmless pursuit of academics, but includes fields which pose risks to society, such as nuclear power or recombinant DNA research. Cavalieri believes that scientists must accept responsibility for the social implications of their work. After describing several nuclear and chemical accidents in industry, he warns scientists and legislators to slow commercialization of recombinant DNA technology, where he sees large risks and few gains for society. Cavalieri is a biochemist and a veteran in DNA research. His cogent arguments deserve attention.

The ABCs of Soviet Socialism: The Soviet Economic Experiment, 1917—1980, by James R. Millar. Illinois $17.50 cloth, $6.50 paper

The Soviet experiment in what some observers persist in calling socialism—Mr. Millar sadly makes that mistake—is now in its sixth decade. That the country has survived without total economic collapse is testimony not to the wisdom of the Communist planners but rather to the Russian people’s ability to weather even Communist rulers. Mr. Millar shows convincingly that it is not central planning so much as central management that is at fault, along with “chronic excess demand.” Aside from the careless use of “socialism,” this is truly a splendid piece of work.

The Tethered Presidency: Congressional Restraints on Executive Power, edited by Thomas M. Franck. New York University $17.95

Because book publishing is too slow or politics too fast, books dealing with contemporary issues often run the risk of becoming out of date before they are published. These essays, by Theodore Sorensen, Louis Koenig, Gary Hart, Thomas Franck, and others were first presented at a conference in November 1979. Their theme—the strained relations between Congress and president, particularly in the making of foreign policy—seems less important now than it did three years ago. Ronald Reagan’s presidency is clearly not tethered by the Congress or by any other political institution. But even if the lag time between the planning and publication of this volume has diminished the urgency of its topic, many of the essays are worth reading, particularly those dealing with the congressional veto and the treaty power. Besides, by the time this review appears in print, President Reagan’s foreign policy may be tied up in the kind of congressional knots these authors lead us to expect.

The Soviet Regime in Czechoslovakia, by Zdenek Krystufek. East European Monographs/Columbia $21

The Soviets had a relatively easy time of it in Czechoslovakia until the events of 1968. A highly literate, industrious, and disciplined population bent in the face of force majeure and accepted the inevitable. The worst thing that happened was not really the Soviet occupation but rather the coming to “power” of the puppet governments of native Communists, whose ranks included some of the dullest-witted characters to be found running around loose anywhere. The Novotny gang was notorious for its criminal excesses, and the wonder was that they lasted until 1968. This is a good introductory study.

LIVES & LETTERS A Little Original Sin: The Life and Work of Jane Bowles, by Millicent Dillon. Holt, Rinehart & Winston $18.95

By all accounts—and Millicent Dillon has sought out all the friends, relatives, and lovers she could find and gathered together their reminiscences and thoughts—Jane Bowles, born Jane Stajer Auer, was a fascinating person whose fascination could never be fully explained. Miss Dillon has done her best to show who and what Jane Bowles was, how she attracted some people and repelled others, what an original gift for fiction she had, and how she abused that gift, so that all that is left of her work is one novel (Two Serious Ladies), one play (In the Summer House), a handful of completed stories, and some unfinished business. These have all been collected in a single volume under the title of My Sister’s Hand in Mine, with the pretentious subtitle of The Collected Works of Jane Bowles. She was far away from the mainstream of American literature, in a remote, turbulent, and turbid backwater, but surely there must be a place for a minor eccentric with a highly developed sense of original sin.

Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart, by Robert B. Martin. Oxford $29.95

This very readable biography is the first full-scale biography to be published since the one by Sir Charles Tennyson, the poet’s grandson, appeared in 1949. It is for this reason that Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart is important, not because it is the superior of the two. Still, it may be the more objective one. As one would expect, Martin is more critical of Tennyson than Sir Charles was. Martin emphasizes the youthful poet’s dread of epilepsy, which plagued his relatives, and the elder poet’s obsessive fear of poverty, which made him extremely parsimonious even when his poetry was earning him 10,000 pounds a year. What is more important, Martin demonstrates how the poet’s almost pathological shyness and acute myopia limited his dramatic ability while deepening his lyrical genius. Throughout, Martin maintains just the right balance between accounts of Tennyson’s life and analyses of his works. Paradoxically, this often ill-mannered man emerges as a humanly attractive and nonetheless great poet.

Will’s Boy: A Memoir, by Wright Morris. Harper & Row $11.95

Humor, irony, sentiment are the basic ingredients, laid on thick, of Wright Morris’s account of his birth, his childhood, and his boyhood up to the age of 20 and his arrival at Pomona College. All of this may also be found in other books by him, from a number of which he quotes extensively. Will’s Boy might be described as contemporary Alger or as Grant Wood in words and action. It is certainly vintage Wright Morris.

The Journals of Benjamin Henry Latrobe 1799—1820, Vol. III, edited by Edward C. Carter II et al. Yale $65

All thanks to Yale for adhering to the high standards set in the first two volumes of this elegant editorial showpiece. Latrobe’s vagaries make a remarkable record, and the reproductions of his artistry (many in color) make this concluding volume a testament to the bookmaker’s art. The editorial apparatus stands up well, although one is occasionally taken aback as when reading (footnote 21, p. 17) of a “prosperous mercantile house in Philadelphia, which . . .failed in 1808.” Latrobe’s eye for detail will long furnish historians with an unflattering view of Virginians living below the salt. He is merciless in describing “the hundreds of half starved, miserably lodged, idle, besotted, and ague and fever smitten families, that inhabit the country on the Patowmace [sic], and indeed I may say all of the country of the Slave states below the Mountains.”

The Letters and Prose Writings of William Cowper, Vol. II, edited by James King and Charles Ryskamp. Oxford $98

Who now reads Cowper? Perhaps only a few common readers, but certainly anyone with a particular interest in the later 18th century; and such a reader is likely to spend more of his time on the letters than on the poems, appealing as these can be. Cowper is one of the finest of all our letter-writers and lends support to the theory that the best correspondents are often literary people who have failed to find elsewhere the perfect medium of self-expression. The second volume of this new edition, equipped with an independent index, will be as warmly received as the first. The letters from 1782 to 1786 cover Cowper’s most fruitful period as a poet, the period of his first volume of verse, of “John Gilpin” and of The Task itself. To spend an evening with this commendably edited book is to be transported to a quieter age than our own in the company of a man of letters of considerable charm and just a hint of genius.

Flannery O’Connor’s Georgia, by Barbara McKenzie. Georgia $24.95 cloth, $12.50 paper

Barbara McKenzie’s interview with Flannery O’Connor back in 1962 inspired her to revisit O’Connor’s Georgia in order “to provide visual evidence of the world in her fiction.” This collection of photographs— some from the O’Connor archive, the majority by McKenzie herself—testify to the “idiosyncratic essence” of O’Connor’s middle-Georgia. McKenzie’s photographs, a form of literary criticism in themselves, allow us to see the enduring qualities of the “church-haunted” South. Images of God, fowl, rednecks, and working folk, show a people at cross-purposes, a land of poverty and pride. McKenzie’s keen eye focuses on her subjects with greater awe and less condescension than we often find in O’Connor’s dark vision. Those of us who were enchanted by O’Connor’s letters, lovingly edited by her friend Sally Fitzgerald, will want to explore this fine visual analogue to O’Connor’s fictional world.

Literary Lifelines: The Richard Aldington-Lawrence Durrell Correspondence, edited by Ian S. MacNiven and Harry T. Moore. Viking $17.50

In 1957, when these two writers began to correspond regularly, Durrell set up house-keeping near Aldington in the South of France to begin work on The Alexandria Quartet. Aldington, once a leading Imagist and the author of two good war novels, was barely making ends meet as a literary journalist, having been shunned by British publishers for writing an unflattering biography of T. E. Lawrence, “the bogus Prince of Mecca,” as Aldington calls him here. If your motive for reading the correspondence of others is not scholastic, you will doubtless enjoy this uninhibited exchange, which lasted until Aldington’s death in 1962. These chatty letters contain just the sort of thing that literary types say privately but seldom if ever print. They are full of entertaining prejudices and malicious gossip as well as mundane details of writers’ daily lives.

Scandalous Lady, by Allan Keller. Atheneum $12.95

Madame Restell, the 19th-century abortionist, is a complex and fascinating character, but Keller manages to reduce her to the status of a scandal-sheet horror. The author is obviously a frustrated novelist trying to pass himself off as a biographer; he insults both genres in one blow. Both his “insights” and style resemble the prudish, hypocritical society he attempts to portray. The extreme sloppiness of his scholarship makes it almost impossible to detect where the actual history ends and his soap opera imagination and editorializing begin. It’s a shame; the history of abortion is a topic worth pursuing, and Madame Restell is a compelling figure. But Keller is incapable of dealing with either, and it is not worth reading through his verbal inanity to learn about his subject. Perhaps someone else will do a decent job soon.

A Heart for Every Fate: Byron’s Letters and Journals, Vol. X, edited by Leslie A. Marchand. Harvard $13.50

This is the penultimate volume in the series edited by Professor Marchand. He exercises a delicate editorial touch that provides adequate background material while allowing the sparkling wit and honest pathos of these letters to shine through. Whether boasting in good high spirits of having drunk a “Gallon of Country wine” with some sailors or commenting poignantly on receiving a picture of his eldest daughter, “I have never seen the original since she was a month old,” Byron emerges from these letters as an almost irresistible personality. Happily, Marchand has transcribed more than 3,000 of the letters in this edition.

Mary: An Autobiography, by Mary E. Mebane. Viking $12.95

Mary’s story of her growth from the back-woods of North Carolina near Durham to a Ph.D. from the university at Chapel Hill is agonizing and inspiring. Some of the childhood joys and the flavor of a rural South are remembered without pain, but mostly the memories of a black girl’s life before desegregation in the Depression years are searing. It was expected that she would go to work like her mother in the tobacco factory or do housework in a white family, but her determined spirit overcame the frustration of her primitive, daily life, with no encouragement except for an aunt from her family too limited to understand her seeking. Vignettes about Mary’s background, told in her simple, straightforward style appeared first on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times.

FICTION The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer, by Elizabeth Spencer. Doubleday $14.95

The high quality of these stories, which are presented in the order they were written, is uncommonly consistent. The first stories, written as early as 1944, are far from being apprentice-pieces; and the last, as late as 1977, do not betray any waning of the writer’s abilities. From start to finish, this author knows exactly what story she wants to tell; her power over her characters, subjects, and scenes is unfaltering. In fact, her ability approaches the “magical” in the way she makes us recognize the particular world she sets us in. Whether the stories take place in the rural South, in Italy, or in Canada, Spencer re-creates her settings with a sure and penetrating eye. Her characters, whom the writer knows as thoroughly as these settings, are unique and yet recognizable to us—as are the experiences they undergo which alter their lives.

Souvenirs, by W. D. Wetherell. Random House $10.95

This first novel is an odd but fascinating little book. “I patch up the past,” Elaine Collier would explain her business to men who took her out; and they would then conclude that she was an archaeologist, an antique restorer, a mortician. Mostly she restored to their original condition memorabilia like scrapbooks, broken china, old uniforms, photographs that meant a great deal to their owners. This book, however, turns on the reverse: she is invited to erase the past, that is, to take away Mr. and Mrs. Powers’ dead son from the considerable collection of old photographs, scrapbooks, toys, to make his mother forget him. Elaine does this successfully but with unexpected results.

Memoirs of an Anti-Semite: A Novel in Five Stories, by Gregor von Rezzori. Viking $13.95

In the first place Mr. von Rezzori is no anti-Semite. He grew up, an Italian subject of the Hapsburg Emperor (Franz Josef), in the Bukovina (the name means Beech Woods), that back-of-beyond backwater that lies somewhere east of Vienna and west of Kiev. There were lots of Jews around, for this was the Pale of Settlement, but young Gregor did not hate them, nor did he hate those he later found in Vienna, Bucharest, or Rome. His contacts with Jews merely provide a convenient theme for this engrossing memoir of a European pilgrimage in the first half of this century.

The Calling, by Mary Gray Hughes. Illinois $10 cloth, $3.95 paper

Mary Gray Hughes often accomplishes the impossible: writing in a traditional manner, she creates short stories that are astonishingly fresh. Hughes’ stories are well controlled, mannered; she understands exactly how a story should best be told. Nevertheless, she is not afraid to pull the rug out from under her readers, as she does in the masterful, “The Thousand Springs,” a compelling, compassionate, strange story of the spiritual drudgery that can be the lot of a middle-aged housewife. An excellent addition to the list of Illinois Short Fiction.

Trade Wind, by M. M. Kaye. St. Martin’s $15

Moving from India to mid-19th-century Zanzibar, from sepoys to slavery, the author of The Far Pavilions again mingles heroism and history, squalor and splendor to produce a best-selling epic. The heroine is proper Bostonian Hero Hollis, who ultimately, after all manner of plot twists and turns, goes off into the sunset of togetherness with Capt. Rory Frost, a slave trader as cynical as he is courageous. The horror of slavery is contrasted with the lush beauty of a tropical isle, the scent of cloves with the stench of cholera; the pace is swift, though the story is long. Still, Zanzibar is no India and Trade Wind no Far Pavilions. Rather than A.O.K., it is merely O.K.

The Collected Stories of Caroline Gordon, by Caroline Gordon. Farrar, Straus & Giroux $17.95

Caroline Gordon is a master at subtly exploring an individual’s psyche, as in “Old Red,” one of her best and best-known stories. In other stories, like “The Petrified Woman,” “The Enemies,” and “The Captive,” exciting and even bizarre things happen. The pace is quick, the plot absorbing. But reading these stories is like visiting another region and afterwards remembering not so much the people one met or what took place as what that place, the frontier South, was like.

Elena: A Love Story of the Russian Revolution, by Judith Egan. Ticknorb Fields & $11.95

Elena Shatagina, upon whose life this novel is roughly based, was yet another child of the Russian aristocracy whose life was shattered by the events of 1917. Her experiences, if the novel is a guide, were neither unique nor exceptionally dramatic, and she was luckier than many in that she did indeed manage to escape. A skillful novelist might have taken even this fairly pedestrian story and made something of it, but Judith Egan understands nothing of the events that lie at the core of Shatagina’s life. Thus this book is a dreary bore.

A Sentimental Education: Stories, by Joyce Carol Oates. Dutton $11.95

While the comparison may seem excessive, there is something almost Dostoevsky-like in many of the characters which Oates has created in this superb collection of short stories. She manifests an uncanny ability to uncover those aspects of the human spirit which are present to all of us but rarely surface in our day-to-day routine. The reader will doubtless find something familiar in the personalities that unfold in these stories, but paradoxically these characters will be alien as well. For she has portrayed trenchantly human existence on the boundary where we encounter life at those stark situations of death, fear, and guilt. And because it is such, A Sentimental Education is a most disquieting piece of literature.

Baja Oklahoma, by Dan Jenkins. Atheneum $12.95

From Dan Jenkins we expect an entertaining helping of sports, sex, and one-liners and not much more. In Semi-Tough and Dead Solid Perfect that was quite enough: we happily ignored characterization and storyline for an inside look at the raunchy life of the very clay-footed heroes of the National Football League and the professional golf tour. Baja Oklahoma, then, is a pleasant surprise. Besides fast talk and faster women, Jenkins’ newest novel gives us characters about whom we care and a story that engages us on its own merit. Its heroine, Juanita Hutchins, a barmaid cum Country Swing songwriter, is an admirable, wise, and humane woman who must cope with a dope-dealing daughter, a Jaggers-like agent called “Ol’ Jeemy,” and a promiscuous best friend who, for some reason, dyed her nether hair pink. There is even a cameo appearance by that red-headed outlaw Willie Nelson. Baja Oklahoma is must reading for those who like their Scotch young, their steak chicken-fried, and their novels semi-hilarious, or for anyone who enjoys good books.

The Vermilion Bridge, by Shelley Mydans. Doubleday $11.95

Surprisingly enough, a former Japanese prisoner of war has written a winning, winsome novel about their 8th-century Empress who presided over the successful introduction of Chinese culture from the mainland into the Island Kingdom. One cannot help contrasting their transition with that of the 20th century when the Japanese borrowed Western industrial techniques to shake the foundations of several national economies, including our own. We outnumber them in lawyers 200 to one, whereas they have 80 engineers for each of ours. Perhaps there’s a message there!

The Heritage, by Siegfried Lenz. Hill & Wang $16.95

This is the story of the life of a master weaver of rugs in a small village in East Prussia. If, as the publisher proudly proclaims, “it is the most significant work to date of one of the most important and bestselling German novelists of our day,” then the state of the literary scene in that country is dismal indeed.

The Birds of the Air, by Alice Thomas Ellis. Viking $9.95

Christmas is supposed to be a time of joy, but it is often a disappointment. This story revolves around a troubled English family that gathers together for the holidays. Mrs. Marsh pragmatically resigns herself to life’s problems, and she wishes her two grown daughters would be as sensible. Mary deeply mourns the death of her young son, while her sister, Barbara, is reeling from the discovery of her husband’s infidelity. The subjects of death and love are well handled through the quiet plot and excellent characterization.

Peace Breaks Out, by John Knowles. Holt, Rinehart & Winston $10.95

Knowles surely has been urged many times over the years to write a sequel to his most successful novel, the much admired A Separate Peace, set at the Exeter-like academy called Devon School. This is that sequel. Devon alumnus Pete Hallam has returned to his alma mater to teach, having survived the Second World War—just starting in the first book—in a prisoner-of-war camp. Knowles knows Devon’s turf thoroughly, and, as in the earlier book, his keen eye for examining the ambitions and motivations of his student foils gives more than average interest to his tale. Yet his heart clearly isn’t in this project, the attractive economical prose style of A Separate Peace here reduced to almost a shorthand, as if there were a pressing need to finish and be done with it.

HISTORY Sentimental Imperialists: The American Experience in East Asia, by James C. Thomson, Jr., Peter W. Stanley, and John Curtis Perry. Harper & Row $17.50

American relations with East Asia have been schizophrenic. We have been fascinated by the Chinese and Japanese cultures and eager to Christianize, Westernize, and destroy them. We have been touched by the virtuous peasants of The Good Earth and scared by the completely evil Fu Manchu. In our dealings with the peoples of that region we have been compassionate and racist, capitalistic and idealistic, violent and indifferent. This book recounts, in broad outline, the history of U.S. relations with the Far East and tries to explain the contradictory American attitudes toward that part of the world. The book does not tell us much about the peoples or nations of East Asia, but it does tell us a great deal about the way Americans confront strange and distant cultures. It is not a pleasant story, but it is an important one.

The Time of Stalin: Portrait of a Tyranny, by Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko. Harper & Row $19.95

We may say it directly: this is the book to read on Stalin. Antonov-Ovseyenko is the son (now in his sixties) of one of Lenin’s closest colleagues who was shot by Stalin in the Great Terror of the 1930’s. The author himself was imprisoned as a relative of an “enemy of the people.” He survived, and he has an ax to grind, But he is a professional historian, and, as the son of a famous father, many doors were (after 1956) open to him that were closed to the Solzhenitsyns and others. This is therefore the inside story of Stalin’s terror, and it is unmatched in the literature.

Settlement and Unsettlement in Early America: The Crisis of Political Legitimacy before the Revolution, by Kenneth A. Lockridge. Cambridge $9.95

Growing out of the 1980 Goodman Lectures at the University of Western Ontario, this book contends that the dominant tension in colonial America was between pious localism and worldly hierarchy, the one wedded to frugal self-subsistence, the other to ostentation and commerce. Political elites, lacking the mantle of legitimacy, tried unsuccessfully to control independent and self-righteous farmers always willing to remove beyond the reach of established institutions whenever the intrusive state threatened. Bacon’s Rebellion, the Salem witch trials, the Great Awakening, and the Baptist revival in Virginia were but the most visible episodes in this ongoing battle. The Revolution was the moment of truth for both sides; but hierarchy foundered on the new egalitarian doctrines, and localism—by definition—could not provide a unifying ideology. Instead, the future lay in a pluralistic and individualistic society—announced first by Madison in Number Ten of the Federalist Papers. Because the conflict between the country and the court is a well-known story to most historians, Lockridge’s elegant argument does not break as much new ground as it might. And his overreliance on literary sources leads him to some questionable assertions. Springfield, Massachusetts, for example, one of the most stratified, contentious, and commercialized of the 17th-century towns, is described as “an eternal order, a garden.”

The Cheka: Lenin’s Political Police, by George Leggett. Oxford $29.95

Lenin’s apologists—whose ranks do not include Leggett—have always argued that he did not intend to create a secret political police, and they point to the very name of the Cheka (an acronym for Extraordinary Commission) as evidence. In this exhaustive, thoroughly researched, and massively documented study, Leggett rejects this Frankensteinian argument and pins the blame for the growth of the hideous monster squarely on the founder of the Soviet state. Until we have access to Soviet archives, which is to say never, this study is the best available of the birth of the Soviet secret police.

Death of a Division, by Charles Whiting. Stein & Day $11.95

The ferocity of the Germans in the Ardennes Campaign of World War II astounded the Allied generals and political leaders. When the 106th American Infantry Division took two-thirds casualties, there was nothing short of consternation in the Allied camp. What had happened? Had intelligence gone wrong? Did Hitler have new forces across the Rhine, waiting to jump in and drive the Allies back to Normandy? Of course, no one asked whether the Allied generals had been up to their usual stupidities. The generals got the medals, and 12,000 of the 16,000 men in the 106th got a permanent resting place in Europe.

Marianne into Battle: Republican Imagery and Symbolism in France, 1789—1880, by Maurice Agulhon. Cambridge $39.50 cloth, 14.95 paper

It is the sort of problem that calls for the talents of the historian, the anthropologist, the poet, and the politician: why and how did the allegorical figure of a woman in a Phrygian cap (Marianne) come to represent France? And not only France, but a specific political regime (the Republic, as distinct from past and sought-after future forms). Professor Agulhon guides us through the formation of the symbol, the building of the image, in masterly fashion.

Britannia at Bay: The Defence of the British Empire against Japan, 1931—1941, by Paul Haggie. Oxford $49.50

This is a sad tale, well documented and persuasively argued, of an empire stubbornly refusing to face up to reality. In Haggle’s view, during the interwar period Britain maintained its Far East position through bluff. Unable to lure Uncle Sam into an alliance and unwilling or unable to make the League of Nations an arm of British policy, undynamic leadership stumbled along from one crisis to another. Few are free from blame—planning lacked imagination, Japanese power was consistently underestimated by so-called experts, and development in air warfare was not fully appreciated. In the end, the shocking loss of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse was not simply “bad luck,” he writes, but the natural outcome of “an obsolete maritime strategy with inadequate resources.” A good book but at roughly 18 cents a page (including preface, acknowledgments, contents, and a single rather ordinary map), no bargain.

Shucks, Shocks, and Hominy Blocks: Corn as a Way of Life in Pioneer America, by Nicholas P. Hardeman. Louisiana $20

This lively and informative history of the impact of corn on American culture will be of greater interest to the general reader than to the specialist. Although filled with often arresting detail (the South in 1849, for example, had 18 million acres planted to corn and only five million in cotton), the book generally lacks chronological precision and is more celebratory than analytical in its treatment of corn’s place in American life. Finally, the author’s exclusive reliance on secondary literature for the colonial period leads him to several fallacious assumptions, among them the assertion that New England farmers did not regularly use manure to fertilize their cornfields.

John Adams and the Diplomacy of the American Revolution, by James H. Hutson. Kentucky $13

The thesis of this unnecessarily tendentious book is that John Adams’ conduct of American diplomacy in France and the Netherlands during the Revolution was governed by traditional European preoccupations with the balance of power rather than Utopian republican ideals. He was convinced that a malign conspiracy of the powerful (in Paris and The Hague as well as London) was directed against American interests in general and him in particular. His response, according to Hutson, was to fear and mistrust anyone who did not share this vision—particularly Benjamin Franklin. The author skillfully uses Adams’ own words to document this “paranoia,” but as most students of Adams recognize, his actions were often as restrained as his rhetoric was hyperbolic.

Iran Under the Safavids, by Roger Savory. Cambridge $34.50

Many of modern Iran’s most formative influences appeared during the Safavid Empire (1501—1722), including both the territorial consolidation that produced, more or less, its current borders, and the establishment of Shi’i Islam as the official state religion. With the emergence of this remarkably well-illustrated, analytical, and annotated work of 30-odd years of scholarship, the brilliant, paradoxical Safavid era has at last received the book-length attention it deserves, in a form suitable not only for its students but for lay readers as well. Some issues remain to be addressed, but Savory covers most of them with elegance, insight, and learned empathy.

Paris in the Third Reich: A History of the German Occupation, 1940—1944, by David Pryce-Jones. Holt, Rinehart & Winston $25

Until the occupiers actually show up it is not clear what the reaction of the occupied will be. Some of those who can make a profit out of the morning dew will suddenly become selfless patriots, while pompous chauvinists sometimes rush to ask the enemy to bless them with a cudgel. So it was in Paris. Life went on, and for most people it went on in about the same way, allowances being made for the curfew, the precarious supplies of food and fuel, and the necessity to show one’s papers every 30 paces. It was a strange twilight time, and this handsome book recaptures it beautifully.

Washington Despatches 1941—1945: Weekly Political Reports from the British Embassy, edited by H. G. Nicholas. Chicago $40

It was difficult for a beleaguered Great Britain to understand that, in the United States, life went on pretty much as usual during the Second World War. American politics was as confused and rowdy as ever, special interests vied with each other as of old, and there were few lines for anything. Trying to make sense of the American scene was a difficult task, but in Isaiah (later Sir Isaiah) Berlin the British had an unusually astute observer. This excerpt from the reports of Berlin and others is a splendid contribution to the studies of the civilian front in the United States.

One Third of a Nation: Lorena Hickok Reports on the Great Depression, edited by Richard Lowitt and Maurine Beasley. Illinois $18.95

In 1933 and 1934 Harry L. Hopkins sent Lorena A. Hickok throughout the United States to prepare frank, confidential reports on conditions among the unemployed and specifically on the effects of the relief programs administered by Hopkins, principally the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. This volume contains almost the entire set of her reports to Hopkins as well as a few letters to her friend, Eleanor Roosevelt. Evincing wholehearted, compassionate involvement in her assignment, the author combines keen observation of personal and local detail with full quotations from those whom she encountered. The result is a vivid and moving account of the dimensions of human suffering during the Depression, made even more powerful by the inclusion of famous documentary photographs from the period. According to Mrs. Roosevelt, Hopkins said that these reports would be the best history of the Depression in future years.

The February Revolution: Petrograd, 1917, by Tsuyoshi Hasegawa. Washington $25

With a more relaxed attitude on the part of Soviet authorities toward the question of access to historical archives, new and important works on early Bolshevik history are appearing now at regular intervals. One of the best so far is this new study by Mr. Hasegawa, which stands as the most comprehensive, thorough, and penetrating studies of the events of February in the Russian capital. The fall of the House of Romanov is an inherently dramatic story, of course, and Mr. Hasegawa has documented that drama as has no previous writer in English.


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