Conversation. By Olive Heseltine. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company. $3.00.
More Contemporary Americans. By Percy Holmes Boynton. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. $2.50.
New Essays and American Impressions. By Alfred Noycs. New York: Henry Holt and Company. $2.50.
Minor Prophecies. By Lee Simonson. New York: Harcourt Brace and Company. $1.50.
Essays on Religion. By A. Clutton-Brock. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company. $2.00.
Many Furrows. By Alpha of the Plough. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company. $3.00.
Lars Prosena or the Future of Swearing. By Robert Graves. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company. $1.00.
“The oldest of games is conversation,” Olive Heseltine tells us, in her book of that title. “Yet in spite of its age it never grows stale, and will be popular as long as humanity endures. It is a game at which all can score and none be beaten, which needs no materials and is never out of season.” And she leads us agreeably from a general exposition of the art of talking and listening and asking questions up through a fairly detailed history of the subject. The final chapter on modern conversation concludes with the lament that no one now knows how either to talk or to listen: we are dull, trivial, vulgar. It is to be regretted that so delightful a book should end on the hackneyed note of “There were giants in those days.” Doubtless there were. Strawberry Hill with its urbane host, and Holland House with its intrepid mistress are no longer accessible to anyone on this side of the grave. They never were accessible to many. But with our usual hopeful ingenuity we moderns have managed to create a passable substitute. Anyone who craves contact with brilliant discourse need only invite to his library a handful of books—and behold, here is a salon! It may not have the impeccable formality of Mme. Geoffrin’s “artistic” Monday or “literary” Wednesday evenings, but it will have sparkle and provocative ideas, and furnish a background for vivid personalities.
In “More Contemporary Americans” Mr. Percy Boynton gives an encouraging and sophisticated interpretation of our present American culture, by showing that it is a logical development from our inherited traditions. Moderns who are inclined to think that iconoclastic observation had its birth with the first issue of the “American Mercury” are reminded of Herman Melville who remarked that since the missionaries went to Honolulu “the small remnant of the natives had been civilized into draught-horses and evangelized into beasts of burden.” Thus Mr. Boynton, with humor uncorroded by ridicule, and learning unweighted by pedantry suggests that what America needs is not so much a background as an appreciation of the background she already possesses.
Alfred Noyes, in the course of many sojourns within our shores, has visited more than a hundred and fifty educational institutions and more than six hundred towns and cities. In a prose more or less consciously poetic, his “New Essays and American Impressions” interprets to each other the two countries he knows and loves. For the delectation of England, he describes a delicious old American town which, if it happened to be in England, would be noted as “Exquisitely redolent of old world charm.” He reminds the same readers that “when Rosamond the Fair wandered by Godstow near Oxford its walls were considerably younger than those of Nassau Hall at Princeton.” Mr. Noyes is determined to be fair to everyone: to explain that any prejudices we may have against England have a political origin, and that any she has against us are partly due to our own unflattering portraiture of ourselves in our slangy crude modern fiction.
Mr. Noyes’ meticulous division of blame for these “unrepresentative errors” is sharply cut across by the clear tone of Lee Simonson. Like so many men who have won their primary distinction in another art—he was a pioneer in American scenic design and is today one of the moving spirits in the American theatre—Mr. Simonson expresses himself concisely and unaffectedly. He has worked out a critical philosophy of art and sets it forth with vivacious clarity. Like Mr. Boynton he is interested—not in interpreting America to England, but in revealing her to herself, through her own art—the art in this case being painting and sculpture. “Whenever I enter an art museum,” he remarks, “I seem to be visiting a stud farm, canvases instead of horses standing in patient rows. All that is lacking is the brass tag.” After a diverting description of even the best of museums, “which display everything and reveal nothing,” he declares that “if it is a misdemeanor to crowd five Italians into a tenement bedroom, it is criminal to crowd five great works of art into a space where only one can truly live.” He supports his theory and touches half a dozen other questions of present day art with equal vivacity.
Very gravely writes A. Clutton-Brock in “Essays on Religion,” and very beautifully. Like Lee Simonson he has in the past uttered many brilliant pronouncements on art and on science. He is speaking in this book with profound seriousness upon the ultimate answer to life. Without passion but with sad clarity he lays bare those delusions which enslave the mind. “No league of nations, no polite speeches of kings and presidents, prime ministers and ambassadors, will keep us from hating each other and feeling good when we do so, unless we can attain to enough self knowledge to see . . . that this mutual hating and boasting are but a suppressed and far more dangerous form of that vanity which we have learned . . . not to betray in our personal relations.” The remedy for egotism is not to pool it, as men do under the name of patriotism, but to care for something not themselves more than they care for themselves. “And the only way to find escape from the worship of idols is to find the true God.” It is not quite easy for this reserved gentleman to speak so intimately upon spiritual matters; he is more used to the impersonal researches of art and science. But the time is short. Already he has heard the summons to leave this bewildering, sad and lovely life, and before he goes he feels he must give the conclusion of his long and earnest meditation.
“Alpha of the Plough” is one of those gently, amusing commentators on life who tosses the ball of conversation back with a gesture which, even if it does not galvanize us into argument, never under any. circumstances offends us.
Our salon must close but not before Robert Graves, poet and ethnologist, holds forth in robust accents upon the thesis that swearing has a definite physiological function and was once regarded as an art. “Swearing duels were frequent in the good old days when public houses kept open all night and beer was more strongly brewed.” Thereupon Mr. Graves with vehemence unrolls a brief history of the whole subject, beginning with Lars Porsena who “had no less than nine gods to swear by and every one of them in Tarquin’s time was taken absolutely seriously.” Mr. Graves regrets that swearing has suffered an imaginative decline “following the failure of the Saints and Prophets and the breakdown of an orthodox Heaven and Hell as supreme swearing stocks.” And the rest of us, even if we cannot seriously grieve that “swearing as an art is at present in low water,” are nevertheless very grateful for Mr. Graves’ delicious fooling: for the seal of success with any salon is to have it break up in laughter!