Commentary Magazine


Topic: Library of America

Peter De Vries

Over the weekend a friend asked why Peter De Vries seems to have disappeared from America’s literary consciousness. A good question. I didn’t have an answer.

De Vries is one of the best comic novelists that America has ever produced, and comic novelists do poorly over the long run of literary history. Other than Mark Twain, Ring Lardner, and perhaps Dawn Powell, Americans have tended to discard their humorists after a generation. Josh Billings, Petroleum V. Nasby, Ambrose Bierce, George Ade, Finley Peter Dunne, Will Cuppy, James Thurber, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, Wolcott Gibbs, E. B. White, Harry Golden, S. J. Perelman, H. Allen Smith, Leonard Q. Ross — these are names from a textbook, not living writers (except for a few hardened followers).

Like many of the comic writers who were well-known in their day, De Vries wrote for the New Yorker. Unlike many of them, though, he wrote novels. Lots of novels — 25 in all. “Every good novel,” he said, “must have a beginning, a muddle, and an end.” He thought of himself as a novelist, and so he kept writing and publishing novels, nearly to the end. (His last novel, Peckham’s Marbles, appeared when he was 76. He died, 18 years ago tomorrow, at the age of 83.)

De Vries also wrote a special kind of humor, filled with puns and plays on words and inversions of popular clichés and famous sayings. His literary reputation, in fact, consists mainly these days in lists of humorous quotations (here, for example, and here and here). De Vries developed a taste for verbal humor while working on a community newspaper in Chicago after leaving school. “The result,” he told an interviewer:

I truly enjoy local, homespun philosophers. Right on top of that I actually did write Pepigrams [e.g., “To turn stumbling blocks into stepping stones — pick up your feet”], for use as wall mottoes and such. I got two bucks a Pepigram, and they got stuck in my blood.

As funny as he is in his quotable throwaway lines, DeVries is not a standup comic in prose. His plots are twisting and ingenious, and he is even funnier in phrasing that twists and shapes a scene. Finding himself on a bus next to “some damn secretary-treasurer” of “something like an organization of madrigal buffs, or the Society for the Prevention of Deplorable Conditions,” the narrator of Consenting Adults; or, The Duchess Will Be Furious (1980) starts in chafing her:

     “Going far?” I said to the woman I’ll call Mrs. Fondue, striking up a “conversation.”
     “Just to Allentown.”
     “That’s a nice town. I once met somebody who lived there, and if he was typical of your element, it leaves nothing to be desired.”

When she fails to catch his meaning, he begins to deliver an impromptu lecture about Albert Tinkham Ryder, the late 19th-century painter. He goes on and on about Ryder’s personal eccentricities (“he slept huddled beneath piles of threadbare overcoats on a floor heaped a foot and a half to two feet high, authorities differ, with assorted filth”) and the “mystic quality” of his paintings. “The woman now looked as though she was definitely going to bolt out of her seat and report me to the driver,” the narrator comments. “He would make a citizen’s arrest and hustle me to headquarters, where I would be lucky to get off with any charge less than aggravated erudition.”

There was a sharpened edge to his humor, especially in his later work, that was not kindly. But De Vries was aware of what he was doing. In his anti-feminist novel Sauce for the Goose (1981), he explains:

Mrs. Dobbin had once read an article on humor in one of the magazines with smooth complexions, which analyzed satire by sorting its practitioners into two classes. Satirists were either soft-mouthed or hard-mouthed. They both brought their pray back dead, true, but some mangled it in purveyance while others did not. Retrievers — such as Frank had been hilariously imitating . . . — retrievers were soft-mouthed, so trained.

De Vries never mangled his prey, but it was sure to be dead when he brought it back. He began his career in the Forties, but did not find his rhythm until the mid-Fifties, when he began to write about suburban Connecticut. The Tunnel of Love was his fifth published book, but his first “mature” work. It is about a “third-rate artist in whom a first-rate gagman is trying to claw his way out.” Baffled in his efforts to create “serious” art, he jumps on the carousel of extramarital affairs. “Affairs are like watermelons,” the narrator remarks. “They leave more mess than they are worth.” The story was filmed in 1958 with Richard Widmark and Doris Day in the starring roles and Gene Kelly in the director’s chair.

The best of his early novels is The Mackerel Plaza (1958), the send-up of a liberal Protestant clergyman who occupies the pulpit of “the first split-level church in America.” (De Vries himself was born into the Dutch Reformed Church, and saw himself as the last of America’s Puritan writers — although he was a Puritan who could not keep a straight face.) De Vries’s pastor is uncomfortable around some of his parishioners. As he says of one: “He had one characteristic that I always find it hard to cope with, piety.” De Vries has great fun dismantling the pastor’s liberal pretensions. And in doing so, he turns out one of the greatest religious novels — one of the few truly religious novels — ever written in America. It was quickly followed by The Tents of Wickedness (1959), a masterpiece of parody in which Emily Dickinson and Dylan Thomas (to say nothing of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Proust, Dreiser, Joyce, and Kafka) get what is coming to them.

Everything changed for De Vries in September 1960 when his youngest child Emily died of acute lymphoblastic leukemia just a few days before her 11th birthday. Two years later he transmuted tragedy into desperately funny sadness. The Blood of the Lamb is like nothing that De Vries — or anyone else, for that matter — had ever written before. It has been nicely described elsewhere by Ian Wolcott.* The novel marked a change of direction, a change of tone, for De Vries. (Reissued by the University of Chicago Press, it is one of only two De Vries novels to remain in print.) The later novels are much harder on their satirical targets, although De Vries never lost a sense of charity even toward those he found ridiculous.

Four decades after her last book, Dawn Powell was honored with a two-volume edition of her novels in the Library of America. The series that exists “to preserve the nation’s cultural heritage by publishing America’s best and most significant writing in authoritative editions” also now includes the sentimental mediocrity Kurt Vonnegut Jr., De Vries’s younger contemporary and a far lesser comic writer. Surely, then, it is time to reprint Peter De Vries. He should not have to wait another two decades for enshrinement. I will gladly volunteer myself to edit a two-volume edition of De Vries’s early novels (The Tunnel of Love, The Mackerel Plaza, The Tents of Wickedness) and later novels (The Blood of the Lamb, Mrs. Wallop, Sauce for the Goose). Anything to keep one of America’s greatest comic novelists from being reduced to pearls of amusing quotations scattered across the internet.
____________________

* In an essay published in the National Review but not available online, Terry Teachout describes The Blood of the Lamb as a “furious tract about the impossibility of religious faith written by a man who wanted desperately to believe. It is also, in places, howlingly funny. This is, to put it mildly, a jolting combination of qualities. . . . [It] reads as though it had been pounded out in a frenzy of grief and rage by a comedian who, for all his horrific suffering, never lost his eye for the grotesqueries and incongruities of human existence.”

Over the weekend a friend asked why Peter De Vries seems to have disappeared from America’s literary consciousness. A good question. I didn’t have an answer.

De Vries is one of the best comic novelists that America has ever produced, and comic novelists do poorly over the long run of literary history. Other than Mark Twain, Ring Lardner, and perhaps Dawn Powell, Americans have tended to discard their humorists after a generation. Josh Billings, Petroleum V. Nasby, Ambrose Bierce, George Ade, Finley Peter Dunne, Will Cuppy, James Thurber, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, Wolcott Gibbs, E. B. White, Harry Golden, S. J. Perelman, H. Allen Smith, Leonard Q. Ross — these are names from a textbook, not living writers (except for a few hardened followers).

Like many of the comic writers who were well-known in their day, De Vries wrote for the New Yorker. Unlike many of them, though, he wrote novels. Lots of novels — 25 in all. “Every good novel,” he said, “must have a beginning, a muddle, and an end.” He thought of himself as a novelist, and so he kept writing and publishing novels, nearly to the end. (His last novel, Peckham’s Marbles, appeared when he was 76. He died, 18 years ago tomorrow, at the age of 83.)

De Vries also wrote a special kind of humor, filled with puns and plays on words and inversions of popular clichés and famous sayings. His literary reputation, in fact, consists mainly these days in lists of humorous quotations (here, for example, and here and here). De Vries developed a taste for verbal humor while working on a community newspaper in Chicago after leaving school. “The result,” he told an interviewer:

I truly enjoy local, homespun philosophers. Right on top of that I actually did write Pepigrams [e.g., “To turn stumbling blocks into stepping stones — pick up your feet”], for use as wall mottoes and such. I got two bucks a Pepigram, and they got stuck in my blood.

As funny as he is in his quotable throwaway lines, DeVries is not a standup comic in prose. His plots are twisting and ingenious, and he is even funnier in phrasing that twists and shapes a scene. Finding himself on a bus next to “some damn secretary-treasurer” of “something like an organization of madrigal buffs, or the Society for the Prevention of Deplorable Conditions,” the narrator of Consenting Adults; or, The Duchess Will Be Furious (1980) starts in chafing her:

     “Going far?” I said to the woman I’ll call Mrs. Fondue, striking up a “conversation.”
     “Just to Allentown.”
     “That’s a nice town. I once met somebody who lived there, and if he was typical of your element, it leaves nothing to be desired.”

When she fails to catch his meaning, he begins to deliver an impromptu lecture about Albert Tinkham Ryder, the late 19th-century painter. He goes on and on about Ryder’s personal eccentricities (“he slept huddled beneath piles of threadbare overcoats on a floor heaped a foot and a half to two feet high, authorities differ, with assorted filth”) and the “mystic quality” of his paintings. “The woman now looked as though she was definitely going to bolt out of her seat and report me to the driver,” the narrator comments. “He would make a citizen’s arrest and hustle me to headquarters, where I would be lucky to get off with any charge less than aggravated erudition.”

There was a sharpened edge to his humor, especially in his later work, that was not kindly. But De Vries was aware of what he was doing. In his anti-feminist novel Sauce for the Goose (1981), he explains:

Mrs. Dobbin had once read an article on humor in one of the magazines with smooth complexions, which analyzed satire by sorting its practitioners into two classes. Satirists were either soft-mouthed or hard-mouthed. They both brought their pray back dead, true, but some mangled it in purveyance while others did not. Retrievers — such as Frank had been hilariously imitating . . . — retrievers were soft-mouthed, so trained.

De Vries never mangled his prey, but it was sure to be dead when he brought it back. He began his career in the Forties, but did not find his rhythm until the mid-Fifties, when he began to write about suburban Connecticut. The Tunnel of Love was his fifth published book, but his first “mature” work. It is about a “third-rate artist in whom a first-rate gagman is trying to claw his way out.” Baffled in his efforts to create “serious” art, he jumps on the carousel of extramarital affairs. “Affairs are like watermelons,” the narrator remarks. “They leave more mess than they are worth.” The story was filmed in 1958 with Richard Widmark and Doris Day in the starring roles and Gene Kelly in the director’s chair.

The best of his early novels is The Mackerel Plaza (1958), the send-up of a liberal Protestant clergyman who occupies the pulpit of “the first split-level church in America.” (De Vries himself was born into the Dutch Reformed Church, and saw himself as the last of America’s Puritan writers — although he was a Puritan who could not keep a straight face.) De Vries’s pastor is uncomfortable around some of his parishioners. As he says of one: “He had one characteristic that I always find it hard to cope with, piety.” De Vries has great fun dismantling the pastor’s liberal pretensions. And in doing so, he turns out one of the greatest religious novels — one of the few truly religious novels — ever written in America. It was quickly followed by The Tents of Wickedness (1959), a masterpiece of parody in which Emily Dickinson and Dylan Thomas (to say nothing of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Proust, Dreiser, Joyce, and Kafka) get what is coming to them.

Everything changed for De Vries in September 1960 when his youngest child Emily died of acute lymphoblastic leukemia just a few days before her 11th birthday. Two years later he transmuted tragedy into desperately funny sadness. The Blood of the Lamb is like nothing that De Vries — or anyone else, for that matter — had ever written before. It has been nicely described elsewhere by Ian Wolcott.* The novel marked a change of direction, a change of tone, for De Vries. (Reissued by the University of Chicago Press, it is one of only two De Vries novels to remain in print.) The later novels are much harder on their satirical targets, although De Vries never lost a sense of charity even toward those he found ridiculous.

Four decades after her last book, Dawn Powell was honored with a two-volume edition of her novels in the Library of America. The series that exists “to preserve the nation’s cultural heritage by publishing America’s best and most significant writing in authoritative editions” also now includes the sentimental mediocrity Kurt Vonnegut Jr., De Vries’s younger contemporary and a far lesser comic writer. Surely, then, it is time to reprint Peter De Vries. He should not have to wait another two decades for enshrinement. I will gladly volunteer myself to edit a two-volume edition of De Vries’s early novels (The Tunnel of Love, The Mackerel Plaza, The Tents of Wickedness) and later novels (The Blood of the Lamb, Mrs. Wallop, Sauce for the Goose). Anything to keep one of America’s greatest comic novelists from being reduced to pearls of amusing quotations scattered across the internet.
____________________

* In an essay published in the National Review but not available online, Terry Teachout describes The Blood of the Lamb as a “furious tract about the impossibility of religious faith written by a man who wanted desperately to believe. It is also, in places, howlingly funny. This is, to put it mildly, a jolting combination of qualities. . . . [It] reads as though it had been pounded out in a frenzy of grief and rage by a comedian who, for all his horrific suffering, never lost his eye for the grotesqueries and incongruities of human existence.”

Read Less

Bookshelf

Jennifer 8. Lee, the New York Times metro reporter with the numerical middle name, has written a funny, informative book about a subject likely to be near and dear to the hearts of most of the people who are reading these words. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food (Twelve, 308 pp., $24.99) is a pop history of what should really be called Chinese-American cuisine, since it bears only a glancing resemblance to the style of cooking practiced in China and in the homes of Chinese immigrants. It is not, however, a clip job: Ms. Lee, as befits a reporter, has done an awesome amount of legwork, both here and abroad, in order to track down the hazy and oft-disputed origins of chop suey, General Tso’s chicken, and the fortune cookie.

Written in a breezy manner that grates only occasionally, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles really does tell you just about everything you could possibly want to know about how Chinese cooking was modified for American palates and marketed in such a way as to become the most ubiquitous of ethnic cuisines—and yes, it even contains a chapter called “Why Chow Mein is the Chosen Food of the Chosen People.” I commend it to your attention.

• A.J. Liebling, who was generously represented in the Library of America’s Reporting World War II, now has a volume of his own. World War II Writings (Library of America, 1089 pp., $40), edited by Pete Hamill, contains the complete texts of The Road Back to Paris (1944) and Mollie and Other War Pieces (1964), the two books of wartime reportage assembled by Liebling during his lifetime, plus Normandy Revisited, the uncommonly elegant 1958 memoir in which he weaves together present- and past-tense accounts of his wartime and postwar visits to Normandy. Also included are 28 uncollected pieces about World War II, most of which originally appeared in The New Yorker, and two excerpts from The Republic of Silence, Liebling’s 1947 anthology of articles from the French resistance press.

If all this sounds a bit dry, allow me to disabuse you of any such notion. Liebling’s wartime dispatches to The New Yorker were the finest work of their kind to be published by any American journalist during World War II. Ernie Pyle was his only rival, and Pyle was a very different sort of writer, unadorned and homespun where Liebling was ornate and self-revealing—though never self-regarding. He portrayed himself as a character in his own pieces, an out-of-place urbanite who somehow ended up in the middle of great events, and the humor with which he describes them does not diminish in the least the immense gravity underlying his writing. The chapters of The Road Back to Paris in which he describes the fall of France, for instance, combine lightness of touch with high seriousness to tremendously powerful effect: “You cannot keep your mind indefinitely on a war that does not begin. Toward the end of the year many of the people who three months before had been ready to pop into their cellars like prairie dogs at the first purring of an airplane motor, expecting Paris to be expunged between dark and dawn, were complaining because restaurants did not serve beefsteak on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays, and because the season had produced no new plays worth seeing.” (Modern-day New Yorkers will know exactly what Liebling was talking about.)

Many of Liebling’s most memorable dispatches are included in Reporting World War II, but by no means all of them, and those whose copies of the cheaply bound 1981 omnibus anthology Liebling At War are now falling to pieces will be delighted to replace it with this compact, handsomely printed collection. “Of all the specifically literary American journalism to come out of World War II, A.J. Liebling’s was by a long shot the very best,” I wrote on another occasion. Nothing in World War II Writings has made me change my mind.

Jennifer 8. Lee, the New York Times metro reporter with the numerical middle name, has written a funny, informative book about a subject likely to be near and dear to the hearts of most of the people who are reading these words. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food (Twelve, 308 pp., $24.99) is a pop history of what should really be called Chinese-American cuisine, since it bears only a glancing resemblance to the style of cooking practiced in China and in the homes of Chinese immigrants. It is not, however, a clip job: Ms. Lee, as befits a reporter, has done an awesome amount of legwork, both here and abroad, in order to track down the hazy and oft-disputed origins of chop suey, General Tso’s chicken, and the fortune cookie.

Written in a breezy manner that grates only occasionally, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles really does tell you just about everything you could possibly want to know about how Chinese cooking was modified for American palates and marketed in such a way as to become the most ubiquitous of ethnic cuisines—and yes, it even contains a chapter called “Why Chow Mein is the Chosen Food of the Chosen People.” I commend it to your attention.

• A.J. Liebling, who was generously represented in the Library of America’s Reporting World War II, now has a volume of his own. World War II Writings (Library of America, 1089 pp., $40), edited by Pete Hamill, contains the complete texts of The Road Back to Paris (1944) and Mollie and Other War Pieces (1964), the two books of wartime reportage assembled by Liebling during his lifetime, plus Normandy Revisited, the uncommonly elegant 1958 memoir in which he weaves together present- and past-tense accounts of his wartime and postwar visits to Normandy. Also included are 28 uncollected pieces about World War II, most of which originally appeared in The New Yorker, and two excerpts from The Republic of Silence, Liebling’s 1947 anthology of articles from the French resistance press.

If all this sounds a bit dry, allow me to disabuse you of any such notion. Liebling’s wartime dispatches to The New Yorker were the finest work of their kind to be published by any American journalist during World War II. Ernie Pyle was his only rival, and Pyle was a very different sort of writer, unadorned and homespun where Liebling was ornate and self-revealing—though never self-regarding. He portrayed himself as a character in his own pieces, an out-of-place urbanite who somehow ended up in the middle of great events, and the humor with which he describes them does not diminish in the least the immense gravity underlying his writing. The chapters of The Road Back to Paris in which he describes the fall of France, for instance, combine lightness of touch with high seriousness to tremendously powerful effect: “You cannot keep your mind indefinitely on a war that does not begin. Toward the end of the year many of the people who three months before had been ready to pop into their cellars like prairie dogs at the first purring of an airplane motor, expecting Paris to be expunged between dark and dawn, were complaining because restaurants did not serve beefsteak on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays, and because the season had produced no new plays worth seeing.” (Modern-day New Yorkers will know exactly what Liebling was talking about.)

Many of Liebling’s most memorable dispatches are included in Reporting World War II, but by no means all of them, and those whose copies of the cheaply bound 1981 omnibus anthology Liebling At War are now falling to pieces will be delighted to replace it with this compact, handsomely printed collection. “Of all the specifically literary American journalism to come out of World War II, A.J. Liebling’s was by a long shot the very best,” I wrote on another occasion. Nothing in World War II Writings has made me change my mind.

Read Less

Bookshelf

• One of the smartest decisions the Library of America ever made was to include the complete text of Bill Mauldin’s Up Front in Reporting World War II, its two-volume anthology of World War II journalism. Up Front is the best collection of editorial cartoons ever published by an American, though that flat phrase cannot begin to suggest the true nature of the book’s excellence, much less its formal uniqueness. Not only are the cartoons themselves devastating in the deadpan eloquence with which they sum up the combat soldier’s now-grubby, now-terrifying life (“I’m beginnin’ to feel like a fugitive from th’ law of averages”), but the combination of Mauldin’s brilliantly evocative drawings and plain-spoken accompanying text adds up to something far greater than the sum of its considerable parts. He and Ernie Pyle were without doubt the best newspaper journalists to cover the war, and it is all the more impressive to learn that Mauldin was a smooth-faced boy in his early twenties when he drew the cartoons that went into Up Front—and all the more dismaying to discover that he never did anything remotely as good for the rest of his life.

Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front (W.W. Norton, 352 pp., $27.95), Todd DePastino’s too-admiring but nonetheless illuminating biography of the cartoonist, is interesting for the first two-thirds of its length, in which DePastino describes Mauldin’s troubled youth and the demanding circumstances under which he produced the cartoons that went into Up Front. Much of this story has already been told in Mauldin’s autobiographical writings, but DePastino goes over the same ground with more detachment and detail. It is especially interesting to see reproductions of Mauldin’s early work, which is conventional and devoid of obvious promise—it could have been drawn by any provincial cartoonist—and to watch his familiar style start taking shape as soon as he was shipped out to Europe in 1943. All at once (it is almost as sudden as that) he breaks free from the conventions of early-40’s cartooning and turns into an artist, one whose ability to embody the feel of modern war in individual, lightning-like flashes of candor and grim wit brings him on occasion within spitting distance of Daumier.

Then the war ended, and Mauldin, by now famous, returned stateside and started floundering. He would not be the first prodigy who later proved incapable of producing work comparable in quality to that with which he made his name, though DePastino fails to see what went wrong. The problem was that Mauldin, who had no feel whatsoever for politics, tried to fit his genius into the wrong mold when he attempted to retrofit himself as a political cartoonist. His newly acquired liberal views, which ran to the reflexive, were too obvious to serve as the basis of striking comment on the issues of the day, and the only postwar cartoon of his that continues to be remembered, the captionless caricature of the Lincoln of the Lincoln Monument holding his head in his hands after hearing of the Kennedy assassination, is both crude and mawkish.
Mauldin was largely forgotten by the time he died in 2003, though the publication in 1995 of Reporting World War II (an event of which DePastino inexplicably makes no mention whatsoever) was to introduce his and Pyle’s work to a small but significant number of readers born too young to know how well those two men captured the American experience in World War II. Owners of that invaluable collection will want to read Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front and see for themselves how the horrors of war transformed a confused ne’er-do-well into—briefly—a great journalist.

• One of the smartest decisions the Library of America ever made was to include the complete text of Bill Mauldin’s Up Front in Reporting World War II, its two-volume anthology of World War II journalism. Up Front is the best collection of editorial cartoons ever published by an American, though that flat phrase cannot begin to suggest the true nature of the book’s excellence, much less its formal uniqueness. Not only are the cartoons themselves devastating in the deadpan eloquence with which they sum up the combat soldier’s now-grubby, now-terrifying life (“I’m beginnin’ to feel like a fugitive from th’ law of averages”), but the combination of Mauldin’s brilliantly evocative drawings and plain-spoken accompanying text adds up to something far greater than the sum of its considerable parts. He and Ernie Pyle were without doubt the best newspaper journalists to cover the war, and it is all the more impressive to learn that Mauldin was a smooth-faced boy in his early twenties when he drew the cartoons that went into Up Front—and all the more dismaying to discover that he never did anything remotely as good for the rest of his life.

Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front (W.W. Norton, 352 pp., $27.95), Todd DePastino’s too-admiring but nonetheless illuminating biography of the cartoonist, is interesting for the first two-thirds of its length, in which DePastino describes Mauldin’s troubled youth and the demanding circumstances under which he produced the cartoons that went into Up Front. Much of this story has already been told in Mauldin’s autobiographical writings, but DePastino goes over the same ground with more detachment and detail. It is especially interesting to see reproductions of Mauldin’s early work, which is conventional and devoid of obvious promise—it could have been drawn by any provincial cartoonist—and to watch his familiar style start taking shape as soon as he was shipped out to Europe in 1943. All at once (it is almost as sudden as that) he breaks free from the conventions of early-40’s cartooning and turns into an artist, one whose ability to embody the feel of modern war in individual, lightning-like flashes of candor and grim wit brings him on occasion within spitting distance of Daumier.

Then the war ended, and Mauldin, by now famous, returned stateside and started floundering. He would not be the first prodigy who later proved incapable of producing work comparable in quality to that with which he made his name, though DePastino fails to see what went wrong. The problem was that Mauldin, who had no feel whatsoever for politics, tried to fit his genius into the wrong mold when he attempted to retrofit himself as a political cartoonist. His newly acquired liberal views, which ran to the reflexive, were too obvious to serve as the basis of striking comment on the issues of the day, and the only postwar cartoon of his that continues to be remembered, the captionless caricature of the Lincoln of the Lincoln Monument holding his head in his hands after hearing of the Kennedy assassination, is both crude and mawkish.
Mauldin was largely forgotten by the time he died in 2003, though the publication in 1995 of Reporting World War II (an event of which DePastino inexplicably makes no mention whatsoever) was to introduce his and Pyle’s work to a small but significant number of readers born too young to know how well those two men captured the American experience in World War II. Owners of that invaluable collection will want to read Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front and see for themselves how the horrors of war transformed a confused ne’er-do-well into—briefly—a great journalist.

Read Less

Bookshelf

• Last week Mary McCarthy, this week her ex-husband: I’ve been perusing two new Library of America volumes devoted to the essays of Edmund Wilson, who is now remembered chiefly by literary historians and readers of a more-than-certain age but once was America’s best-known literary critic. Between them, Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1920’s and 30’s and Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1930’s and 40’s contain all of Wilson’s collected literary articles from the first half of his career. Additional volumes are in the pipeline, but these two bring together the bulk of Wilson’s most significant literary criticism in a convenient and attractive format not too far removed from that of the elegant little crown octavo volumes he favored for his essay collections.

I have no doubt that Wilson would have been pleased by these two volumes, for the Library of America was his idea, more or less, and for the most part it has been executed along the lines he had in mind when he envisioned a publishing venture devoted to “bringing out in a complete and compact form the principal American classics.” Yet I wonder how widely they will be read, and I’m not sure that Wilson’s memory will be served best by republishing his original collections in toto, as the Library of America apparently plans to do. Not only did he spend a fair amount of time and energy reviewing books that are no longer of any great interest today, but his work almost always becomes silly, even squalid, whenever it strays from the narrow path of art. In his journals, for instance, he preserved for posterity an enervatingly complete record of his senile couplings, while his political views were left-wing in all the most tiresome ways. Though deeply disillusioned by Stalin, Wilson thereafter embraced the idiot notion of moral equivalence between the Soviet Union and the United States; on one infamous occasion he compared their relationship to that between a pair of hungry sea slugs bent on mutual engorgement.

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• Last week Mary McCarthy, this week her ex-husband: I’ve been perusing two new Library of America volumes devoted to the essays of Edmund Wilson, who is now remembered chiefly by literary historians and readers of a more-than-certain age but once was America’s best-known literary critic. Between them, Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1920’s and 30’s and Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1930’s and 40’s contain all of Wilson’s collected literary articles from the first half of his career. Additional volumes are in the pipeline, but these two bring together the bulk of Wilson’s most significant literary criticism in a convenient and attractive format not too far removed from that of the elegant little crown octavo volumes he favored for his essay collections.

I have no doubt that Wilson would have been pleased by these two volumes, for the Library of America was his idea, more or less, and for the most part it has been executed along the lines he had in mind when he envisioned a publishing venture devoted to “bringing out in a complete and compact form the principal American classics.” Yet I wonder how widely they will be read, and I’m not sure that Wilson’s memory will be served best by republishing his original collections in toto, as the Library of America apparently plans to do. Not only did he spend a fair amount of time and energy reviewing books that are no longer of any great interest today, but his work almost always becomes silly, even squalid, whenever it strays from the narrow path of art. In his journals, for instance, he preserved for posterity an enervatingly complete record of his senile couplings, while his political views were left-wing in all the most tiresome ways. Though deeply disillusioned by Stalin, Wilson thereafter embraced the idiot notion of moral equivalence between the Soviet Union and the United States; on one infamous occasion he compared their relationship to that between a pair of hungry sea slugs bent on mutual engorgement.

Fortunately, these two volumes mostly give us the critic to whose infectious gusto I and so many other readers of my generation owe an all but endless debt. Even when he was most spectacularly wrong, he rarely failed to stimulate, and the plain-spoken prose and hard-headed common sense of his best criticism still has a tonic effect:

John O’Hara subjects to a Proustian scrutiny the tight-knotted social web of a large Pennsylvania town, the potpourri of New York night-life in the twenties, the nondescript fringes of Hollywood. In all this he has explored for the first time from his peculiar semi-snobbish point of view a good deal of interesting territory: the relations between Catholics and Protestants, the relations between college men and non-college men, the relations between the underworld and “legitimate” business, the ratings of café society; and to read him on a fashionable bar or the Gibbsville country club is to be shown on the screen of a fluoroscope gradations of social prestige of which one had not before been aware.

Has there ever been a critic who was better at charging such summary passages as these with the force and selectivity that makes them so perennially readable? Or who had a surer grasp of the indispensable critical skill of making his readers want to go out and buy the books he praised? It was The Shores of Light, The Wound and the Bow and Classics and Commercials, all contained in the Library of America’s first two Wilson volumes, that first inspired me to read O’Hara, Max Beerbohm, Cyril Connolly, Dr. Johnson, the later Kipling, Ring Lardner, Evelyn Waugh, Edith Wharton, and Thornton Wilder, and it is still possible to read Wilson on these and many other writers with pleasure and profit.

Those already closely familiar with Wilson’s work will be pleased to see that Lewis Dabney, the editor of this series, also plans to include a selection of reviews that didn’t make it into any of his books. These two volumes, for instance, contain Wilson’s hitherto uncollected thoughts on Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man, William Maxwell’s The Folded Leaf, Dawn Powell’s My Home Is Far Away, Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, and George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, plus the best essay Wilson ever wrote on H.L. Mencken. All these pieces are worth reading, and it is a puzzlement why he didn’t think them worth collecting.

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Bookshelf

• In January I wrote an essay for COMMENTARY occasioned by the simultaneous publication of new biographies of Walt Disney and Orson Welles. Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination turned out to be a big, booming bore, so I went out of my way to mention in a footnote that Michael Barrier, author of Hollywood Cartoons, the best book ever written about American animation, had a Disney biography of his own in the pipeline. Now Barrier has delivered the goods. The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney (University of California Press, 424 pp., $29.95) is half the length of Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination and has twice as much to say about the aesthetic aspect of Disney’s cartoons. Because it is concise, wholly unpretentious, and gossip-free—and because an academic press published it several months after Gabler’s high-profile biography—my guess is that The Animated Man will be overlooked by most book-review editors. Pay them no heed. Barrier is one of the few thoughtful critic-historians to have taken a serious interest in animation, and The Animated Man is a superbly penetrating piece of work.

Having concluded (correctly, in my view) that Disney the man wasn’t especially interesting as a personality, Barrier devotes most of the book to a close but not numbingly detailed account of the breathtakingly rapid artistic development and subsequent decline of his animated films. He lays out his critical priorities with admirable clarity on the very first page:

Disney was, in my reckoning, a stunted but fascinating artist . . . The Disneyland park was, and remains, an entrepreneurial marvel, but it was much more a product of its times than Disney’s films, and its impact on American culture, for good or ill, has been exaggerated. Thomas Edison and Henry ford may have transformed their country, but Walt Disney only helped to shape economic and demographic changes that would have occurred without him. It is his animated films of the 1930’s and early 1940’s that make him uniquely interesting.

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• In January I wrote an essay for COMMENTARY occasioned by the simultaneous publication of new biographies of Walt Disney and Orson Welles. Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination turned out to be a big, booming bore, so I went out of my way to mention in a footnote that Michael Barrier, author of Hollywood Cartoons, the best book ever written about American animation, had a Disney biography of his own in the pipeline. Now Barrier has delivered the goods. The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney (University of California Press, 424 pp., $29.95) is half the length of Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination and has twice as much to say about the aesthetic aspect of Disney’s cartoons. Because it is concise, wholly unpretentious, and gossip-free—and because an academic press published it several months after Gabler’s high-profile biography—my guess is that The Animated Man will be overlooked by most book-review editors. Pay them no heed. Barrier is one of the few thoughtful critic-historians to have taken a serious interest in animation, and The Animated Man is a superbly penetrating piece of work.

Having concluded (correctly, in my view) that Disney the man wasn’t especially interesting as a personality, Barrier devotes most of the book to a close but not numbingly detailed account of the breathtakingly rapid artistic development and subsequent decline of his animated films. He lays out his critical priorities with admirable clarity on the very first page:

Disney was, in my reckoning, a stunted but fascinating artist . . . The Disneyland park was, and remains, an entrepreneurial marvel, but it was much more a product of its times than Disney’s films, and its impact on American culture, for good or ill, has been exaggerated. Thomas Edison and Henry ford may have transformed their country, but Walt Disney only helped to shape economic and demographic changes that would have occurred without him. It is his animated films of the 1930’s and early 1940’s that make him uniquely interesting.

All true, and Barrier makes an equally striking point about Disneyland when he observes that its commercial success would help to “seal character animation’s identity as a children’s medium and thus make it more difficult to produce films comparable to those that had made Disney himself famous.” This seems to me exactly right.

I wish Barrier had said a bit more about Disney’s critical reception—that’s one of the few things Neal Gabler gets right—but otherwise The Animated Man tells you everything you need to know about Walt Disney and his work. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

• A few days after writing about the Library of America’s Thornton Wilder: Collected Plays and Writings on Theater in this space, I received a letter from Tappan Wilder, the playwright’s nephew. I’d mentioned in passing that I hoped the Library of America would someday get around to bringing out a volume or two devoted to Wilder’s novels, and Tappan Wilder wanted me to know that all seven are currently available in paperback from Perennial. He enclosed a copy of Heaven’s My Destination, which I am now reading with enormous pleasure and fascination, both of which are greatly enhanced by J.D. McClatchy’s foreword and Tappan’s own afterword. More in due course, but for the moment I’ll mention that the other six novels are accompanied by forewords written by Russell Banks (The Bridge of San Luis Rey), Christopher Buckley (Theophilus North), Penelope Niven (The Woman of Andros and The Cabala), John Updike (The Eighth Day) and Kurt Vonnegut (The Ides of March). I’m still hoping for a Library of America omnibus, but these attractive editions will do quite nicely until then.

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Bookshelf

• Thornton Wilder has become a man of two books. Our Town continues to be revived and The Bridge of San Luis Rey read, but I’ve yet to see a professional production of The Skin of Our Teeth or The Matchmaker (which is now known mainly as the source of Hello, Dolly!) or heard anyone mention any of his other novels in conversation (though I read Heaven’s My Destination many years ago). Hence it is with no small interest that I’ve spent the past week reading Thornton Wilder: Collected Plays and Writings on Theater (Library of America, 871 pp., $40). I haven’t always been impressed with the Library of America’s editorial decisions, but Wilder was an obvious call, and J.D. McClatchy, who recently turned Our Town into an opera libretto for Ned Rorem, was exactly the right man to edit this extremely well-chosen collection of Wilder’s theater-related output. McClatchy’s annotations are copious and exemplary—I’d like to see him write a Wilder biography—and it was shrewd of him to include the screenplay of Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, for which Wilder, it appears, was mainly responsible.

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• Thornton Wilder has become a man of two books. Our Town continues to be revived and The Bridge of San Luis Rey read, but I’ve yet to see a professional production of The Skin of Our Teeth or The Matchmaker (which is now known mainly as the source of Hello, Dolly!) or heard anyone mention any of his other novels in conversation (though I read Heaven’s My Destination many years ago). Hence it is with no small interest that I’ve spent the past week reading Thornton Wilder: Collected Plays and Writings on Theater (Library of America, 871 pp., $40). I haven’t always been impressed with the Library of America’s editorial decisions, but Wilder was an obvious call, and J.D. McClatchy, who recently turned Our Town into an opera libretto for Ned Rorem, was exactly the right man to edit this extremely well-chosen collection of Wilder’s theater-related output. McClatchy’s annotations are copious and exemplary—I’d like to see him write a Wilder biography—and it was shrewd of him to include the screenplay of Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, for which Wilder, it appears, was mainly responsible.

Should Wilder’s other plays be staged more frequently? The question, I fear, is irrelevant, for The Skin of Our Teeth and The Matchmaker both require too many actors to be easily produced outside of a festival setting, which is one of the reasons why Our Town is the only one of his full-length plays that continues to be revived regularly. The other reason is that it’s by far the best thing he ever wrote, though reading The Skin of Our Teeth for the first time in a quarter-century has made me curious to see how it would look on stage (it comes across on the page as more than a little bit twee). For all its obvious weaknesses, Our Town is still a great play and a quintessentially American work of art. It reads surprisingly well, too, though the best way to experience it at home is to watch Sam Wood’s mostly straightforward 1940 film version, which preserves the performances of Frank Craven and Martha Scott, who played the stage manager and Emily in the original 1938 Broadway production, and was scored with exquisite and indelible appropriateness by none other than Aaron Copland.

This collection includes the lengthy and fascinating series of letters between Wilder and Sol Lesser, the producer of the film version of Our Town, along with the bulk of Wilder’s writings on theater, all of which are very much worth reading. I was especially struck by this passage from his preface to Our Town: “The theater longs to represent the symbols of things, not the things themselves. All the lies it tells—the lie that that young lady is Caesar’s wife; the lie that people can go through life talking in blank verse; the lie that that man just killed that man—all those lies enhance the one truth that is there—the truth that dictated the story, the myth. The theater asks for as many conventions as possible. A convention is an agreed-upon falsehood, an accepted untruth. When the theater pretends to give the real thing in canvas and wood and metal, it loses something of the realer thing which is its true business.” I couldn’t have put it better—nor could anyone else.

As for Wilder’s novels . . . well, I’ll get back to you on that. Presumably the Library of America plans to reissue them at some point, which would give me a good excuse to reread The Bridge of San Luis Rey (which I recall with fondness) and Heaven’s My Destination (about which I had my doubts when I read it in college). But Our Town will always be with us, as well it should be. If I were to choose a half-dozen works of art that collectively sum up the American experience, it would be one of them.

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• Frank MacShane, The Life of Raymond Chandler (1976): This past winter holiday I did something I do almost every year: I got down my two-volume Raymond Chandler collection from the Library of America and re-read some of his novels. They’re still as good as ever: not only the best detective fiction of all time—better, in my humble opinion, than Dashiell Hammett and Ross Macdonald, to say nothing of Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, and P.D. James—but also the best fiction ever written about Los Angeles (my hometown). Perhaps not surprisingly, given how good the novels are, the man who produced them was a tortured soul. (Has there ever been a good novelist who was a happy go-lucky sort?)

The picture painted by his biographer Frank MacShane is bleak. Chandler was born in Chicago in 1888, but after his father abandoned him and his mother, she returned to her native England, where Chandler attended the same minor public school as P.G. Wodehouse. Finding that he couldn’t make a living as a poet, he came back to the United States and wound up in L.A. After a hellish experience as a Canadian soldier on the western front in World War I, he entered the oil business and did relatively well until his drinking got out of control. He was fired in 1932, age 44, at the height of the Great Depression. With a wife to support—he had stolen a friend’s wife, who was twenty years older—he had to find some way to make a living. He turned to producing short stories for the pulp magazine Black Mask. He then began turning his stories into novels, beginning with The Big Sleep in 1939. Although the book was an instant success, Chandler was not a bestselling novelist, and he was frustrated to be dismissed by most American critics as a mere “mystery writer.” (He got more respect in England.)

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• Frank MacShane, The Life of Raymond Chandler (1976): This past winter holiday I did something I do almost every year: I got down my two-volume Raymond Chandler collection from the Library of America and re-read some of his novels. They’re still as good as ever: not only the best detective fiction of all time—better, in my humble opinion, than Dashiell Hammett and Ross Macdonald, to say nothing of Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, and P.D. James—but also the best fiction ever written about Los Angeles (my hometown). Perhaps not surprisingly, given how good the novels are, the man who produced them was a tortured soul. (Has there ever been a good novelist who was a happy go-lucky sort?)

The picture painted by his biographer Frank MacShane is bleak. Chandler was born in Chicago in 1888, but after his father abandoned him and his mother, she returned to her native England, where Chandler attended the same minor public school as P.G. Wodehouse. Finding that he couldn’t make a living as a poet, he came back to the United States and wound up in L.A. After a hellish experience as a Canadian soldier on the western front in World War I, he entered the oil business and did relatively well until his drinking got out of control. He was fired in 1932, age 44, at the height of the Great Depression. With a wife to support—he had stolen a friend’s wife, who was twenty years older—he had to find some way to make a living. He turned to producing short stories for the pulp magazine Black Mask. He then began turning his stories into novels, beginning with The Big Sleep in 1939. Although the book was an instant success, Chandler was not a bestselling novelist, and he was frustrated to be dismissed by most American critics as a mere “mystery writer.” (He got more respect in England.)

He tried to earn money as a Hollywood screenwriter (he co-wrote Double Indemnity, the classic Billy Wilder film noir), but he was too idiosyncratic to fit within the studio system. He wanted to concentrate on his novels, but writing was such a tortuous process for him—he went through draft after draft before he was satisfied—that he finished only seven. He was left utterly bereft by his wife’s death in 1954, following a long illness, and was almost alone in the world (they had no children and he was too prickly to make many friends). He drank himself to death five years later. But his great creation—Philip Marlowe, private eye—lives forever.

• Caryl Phillips (ed.), The Right Set (1999): This is an anthology of writing about tennis spanning the period from the invention of “lawn tennis” in the late 19th century to the modern era of glitzy superstars. The most interesting material is the unfamiliar story of the early days of the game, such as the first Wimbledon tournament held in 1877, just four years after Major Walter Clopton Wingfield had patented a “New and Improved Court for Playing the Ancient Games of Tennis.” Only 22 “gentlemen” entered this first tournament, and the level of play was as low as the level of public interest. By the 1920’s, however, interest had soared.

It is fascinating to read about how much attention was given to an exhibition match played by Helen Wills of America and Suzanne Lenglen of France in 1926 on the French Riviera. Crowds overflowed the tiny grandstand, and reporters rushed off dispatches to vast readerships updating them on the score. Both competitors wore flowing white dresses.

That wasn’t the only anachronism. A couple of years later Helen Wills (she later became Helen Wills Moody), wrote a guide to tennis etiquette that included this concern: “If your opponent slips on his feet, are you to hit the ball easily, so that he will have a chance to return it? This is a difficult question to answer. . . . Of course, if the slips turns out to be a real accident, then the player would not care much what happened to his ball, because he would fear that his opponent was injured.” Of course.

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