Title: Indirections: A Memoir 1909-1947

Author: Charles Brasch

Publication details: Oxford University Press, 1980, Wellington

Digital publication kindly authorised by: Alan Roddick

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

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Indirections: A Memoir 1909-1947

Chapter Sixteen — America — 40

page 324

Chapter Sixteen

America was a stepping-stone to England for me then, no more; I had no reason to travel that way except to meet James and Ian. James had been so captivated by China that his life now centred there. His first book, Crisis in China, published the year before, described the Sian affair in which Chiang Kai-shek was kidnapped and held prisoner by the so-called Young Marshal, Chang Hsüeh-liang, who wanted to persuade Chiang to lead a united China against Japanese invasion. He had now left China briefly to digest his experiences and to write a second book — to expose the evil of the Japanese invasion, and to show that the cause of the Red Armies led by Mao Tse-tung was that of a united China.

Edgar Snow in his Red Star Over China had first brought to the western world news of the great revolutionary and patriotic movement of the Red Armies. James's books were sequels to the history which Snow had recounted. It was the liberals and radicals in America who supported Mao's China, and the right that supported Chiang and the Japanese. James and Ian were following political manoeuvres and shifts of opinion in America as closely as they could, feeling deeply involved. New Zealand's future might hang on the fate of China as England's on that of Spain; and if peace was indivisible, as Litvinov had claimed, so were freedom and democracy.

Losing his boyish roundness of feature, Ian had grown very handsome, although he was too thin; the clear-cut fine lines of his face and head and the unassuming goodness one always felt in him gave him a look of nobility. He seemed to live from day to day, taking no care to eat regular meals and looking not too well in consequence. He was so like his father, and so unlike. The Man was well aware of other people, he liked them, and his page 325judgement of them was sound; but he saw them always a little abstracted, each as rather the idea of what he was than the full reality. Institutions too he tended to see as ideas, and he was less responsive to their reality — British Empire, League of Nations. Waitaki itself to him was as much idea as reality. In consequence he himself, while real enough to us at school was also, I could see now, a little abstract. He was the idea of himself only less than he was himself.

Ian saw people in themselves, in their full character and in their humanity and pitifulness. He listened to them attentively and modestly, giving them not only respect but his sympathy and consideration, effacing himself without knowing it. You felt that he loved people for what they were, and that he felt humbled before their reality. He made no claims on the World, wanting justice and peace less for himself than for others. His sense of justice, of the justice due to every man, love in the guise of justice, was the quality you felt most strongly in him; it was an intellectual and spiritual passion, expressing itself as a longing to serve. Ian might have stood as Virgil's model for that Rhipeus who was the most just of all the Trojans, whom Dante so condescendingly places in the heaven of justice, for all that he lived in the 'puzzo del paganesmo', the stench of paganism.

But Ian was himself first of all, the tender compassionate boy I had known, now a man and still more himself; with his quiet grave manner, with the habitual scrupulous distinctions and the smiling self-deprecating hesitations of his speech, with the reddish hands that reminded me of his father's but which he used in his own way to make inelegant ineffective small gestures that expressed his good will, his relative powerlessness, and yet his determined persistence in following truth and right as he saw them.

James by contrast was large, outgoing, even dramatic. You could not help noticing him, although he never obtruded himself; he breathed confidence and energy, laughed, joked, struck an elegant pose, yet was entirely serious and realistic. He looked scarcely older than three years before, perhaps a trifle more set and controlled, only his hair had begun to go grey. He had been lecturing about China, he and Ian were going to political lectures and Aid China meetings, I tagged along behind, we walked and page 326swam. Berkeley wore the air of a university town even in its main shopping street, its residential streets were shady with tall thick unpruned trees; the air was fresh, the nights soft, mild, quiet — a pleasure after the engine noise and vibration of a ship.

It was the summer vacation for Ian, who had another year to spend at Berkeley, and after a few days we took a train east, with us a White Russian girl, Tania, who was the ward of one of James's American friends in China, Ida Pruitt. The journey was like a sea voyage in that we lived on the train as on a ship — ours was a cheap rather slow train called the Southern Pacific Challenger (the fastest trains took twenty hours less from San Francisco to Chicago); we had air-conditioned pullman sleepers with double windows, so that we heard little and felt as if in a sealed chamber, comfortable enough at night but not by day. The train's great advantage was that it had a dining car with economy meals, train meals usually being very expensive.

The continent was as vast as an ocean, and seemed almost as empty. It took us most of a day to cross Nevada alone, desert hills and plains grown with a kind of sage-bush scrub of pale bluish-green, or dark stunted pines only a few feet high, and yellow flowers like ragwort, or green grass and low shrubs like small green willow-trees, trees, standing pools; small settlements all of wood — unpainted houses, little stores, derelict-looking yards, a saloon, sometimes shady among thick poplars. In the night the train had climbed to nearly 7,000 feet and we were high up all day; pockets of frozen snow lay among the rocky hills. Entering Utah we crossed and re-crossed plains of white sand where the scrub had dwindled to nothing; the hills there were of bare clay and rock, grey-brown, water-seamed. We crossed Great Salt Lake, pale and shallow among pale mountains, its surface streaked with drifts of salty foam. That night in Wyoming the train climbed to more than 8,000 feet, and then descended steadily across Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, low farming country of rather poor wheat, indian corn, turnips, sunflowers, poplar-trees.

We played cards a lot to pass the monotony and discomfort, I read modern Chinese stories, Silone's Fontamara, copies of the Nation, New Republic, New Masses; we bought newspapers whenever we could, looking for European news — German mobiliza-page 327tion was threatening Czechoslovakia; we heard President Roosevelt speak on the air about the Social Security Acts. Chicago was very hot and damp, greyly hazy and yet glaring, with a strong but not fresh wind blowing; an untidy, sooty, ugly town, the skyscrapers along Michigan Boulevard, fronting Lake Michigan, very poor. Only the Art Institute redeemed the place.

Ian left us to go to a World Youth Peace Congress at Vassar College, Poughkeepsie; we took a Pennsylvania Railroad train to New York — old air-conditioned coaches, not sleepers, extremely rough riding, fast and stopping frequently. Indiana was green lovely country with many maple trees and pleasant wooden houses and fields of grass, Pittsburgh at four in the morning close, steamy hot. Dawn came fast among hills thick with light green trees, valleys of rivers, hideous industrial towns, Altoona the biggest. America was all less planned, more chancy and sprawling, than I had expected. From Philadelphia, where Tania got off, we followed the broad shallow Delaware River, ran through grass country, and after Newark over great fields of rushes with the towers of New York rising dimly beyond; then a long tunnel, and Pennsylvania Station. We had come into port.

Now we were thrown into the cauldron of New York itself. We put up at a barrack-like y.m.c.a. on Twenty-Third Street near Seventh Avenue, and walked out to see the town wearing shorts and open-necked shirts, the only clothes we could bear in that August heat — the temperature had been ninety-one degrees the day before, now a fortunate breeze was blowing. The heat lasted for nearly all our ten days there; sight-seeing was unusually tiring, and whenever I sat down the heavy air made me drowsy.

We saw the New York everyone knows about, and it was not what we knew. To begin with, the city was far vaster, its two wild forests of skyscrapers were still more concentrated and brilliant in effect, although only the Rockefeller Centre seemed to me to be fine architecture, but beyond those the suburbs spread interminably, characterless, monotonous, utterly depressing to the spirit. I was amazed too to find that America was not simply another white man's country. We had seen Negroes everywhere, but for long distances in northern Manhattan we saw only page 328Negroes and almost no whites, a huge Negro city — but Negroes how pitifully degraded, so many of them, in trashy European clothes. America was mass-land, hardly a land of men and women, individuals, souls. Yet it was Whitman's country — Whitman, most private and singular of men, for all his public mantle, one man speaking for America, embodying America. And one man today had called America out from the slough of its despair, one man, an individual again, Roosevelt.

The contradiction persisted. Of the few shows we went to, the most vital were an expression of mass life, mass movements, rather than the work of an individual expressing a personal view of experience. In San Francisco we saw a revue called Pins and Needles, presented by excellent amateurs of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, a triumphant assertion of the strength of individuals working together, which had great vitality and bite. And in New York we saw what was called a 'living newspaper' about housing, One Third of a Nation, a 'play' put on by the Federal Theatre of the Works Project Administration, one of the great social welfare enterprises of Roosevelt's New Deal — a dramatic presentation of the housing question in America. Nothing of the sort was conceivable in England — far less in authoritarian Russia. Here was something essentially American, and implicitly more radically revolutionary than conventional communism was ever likely to conceive.

One of James's objects in coming to New York was to meet his literary agent, Henriette Herz, who was also Edgar Snow's agent. She quickly adopted all of us as friends. She was far more than just an agent. She seemed one of us. Our causes were hers, our fears and hopes hers too. She was hardly older than we were; I should have taken her boyish-looking husband to be years younger. He, Philip Cohen, half Jewish and half Irish, worked in radio, producing for n.b.c. They at once started trying to find an apartment where we could stay, and called their friends to help: American hospitality! Meanwhile we moved to a hotel in East 39th Street, rather like South Kensington, cheap and very decent and a great improvement on the Y. Henriette and Phil made us free of their apartment, a small flat in an old building in the same street. Their rooms were small, but they had a little open terrace too, shaded by a tall sumac growing in the yard page 329beyond; it swayed overhead as we sat out in the airier evening with small stars above and light coming only from the rooms inside.

We met some of their friends, especially Bill and Martha Dodd, children of a liberal professor of history whom Roosevelt had sent as ambassador to Germany. His record of his years there, published as Ambassador Dodd's Diary, was counted a strong blow for the liberal cause in America, in that it exposed Hitler's intransigence and his preparations for war, while Roosevelt was very cautiously trying to avoid seeming to sway American opinion, in case of reaction. The young Dodds were, I gathered, devoted to their father, but more radical, especially Martha. As a defiant gesture of her commitment against Hitler she had got engaged to a wealthy Jewish businessman (we visited his large, very lavish, impersonal apartment), so apparently flying in the face of respectable Protestant society, for which Jews were untouchables; but it seemed less than certain that she would marry him. Social cleavages were sharper in America than in England, where the class structure of society, so old it seemed part of the natural order of things, yet allowed for the constant movement of individuals from one class to another.

Henriette had worked once for Alfred Knopf when he was publishing translations of Rilke. James told her I wrote, she asked to see my poems, liked a few, and offered to place some. I accepted gratefully, passively. She was touchingly kind and friendly, talked about herself, gave you her confidence.

For relief from the New York heat, and to allow James to work on his book, he and Ian decided on a break by the sea, at Wood's Hole, an island off Massachusetts. Before joining them, I went to visit Hazel Jackson. She had come back from Italy to the States after her mother died and was living with an uncle at Newburgh on the Hudson; they spent the summers in northern Maine, where Hazel had invited me to stay. The over-night train journey through Boston, Portland and Bangor to Machias took, with changes, about sixteen hours. From Bangor at dawn the country was fresh and cool, rich grass, light-green woods whose trees I could not place, the golden-rod that I recognized from poems and descriptions, familiar willow-herb and ragwort, page 330white wooden houses standing free without fences, small lakes, reed-beds; the train ran through woods for endless miles. A minute corner of America, but huge country itself.

At its very edge, surrounded by woods of small dark pines crowding to the rocky shore, the fishing settlement of Cutler lay scattered about a small inlet of the deeply indented coast. No hills were to be seen anywhere on the low sky-line. The landscape looked extremely northern, as if at the limit of the habitable world, where life clung precariously to thin soil, and the sky bent low over the earth. The great tides of the Bay of Fundy rose and fell sixteen feet, filling and emptying the inlet where small launches and yachts moored. Far out to sea, but glass-clear, looking much nearer than fourteen miles, the sheer cliffs of Grand Manan Island formed a long low line. All the houses at Cutler were of white or pale wood, cream, dull-green, wood-grey, as if none dared to raise its voice against the monotonous dominance of the huge landscape;. Hazel's uncle, Mr Staples, had a largish white house. The household included his Japanese servant Tsura, half valet, half butler or major-domo who had been with him for forty years, and the Italian maid, Elvira, whom Hazel had brought from Rome, out of kindness, and for companionship, and also to keep up her Italian (she spoke it like a native, with the same relish with which she spoke English); and Hazel's dogs, the enormous Argos, a Great Dane, and a fat black woolly mongrel full of bounce called Mr Naut (Hazel pronounced it Not or Nought, I could not be sure which).

We went picking blueberries in a clearing in the woods where there were traces of bears. The berries grew as thick as blackberries on their low bushes, as big as small grapes and grey-blue with the bloom of grapes. Under a pale low sky, woods of short pines covered the whole undulating country as far as we could see, enclosing the inlets; the trees grew straight, but the tall ones had all been cut down for boats. One evening we went out to a clam bake, a picnic tea with neighbours, at which we ate boiled clams (tasteless and sandy shellfish, although I felt obliged to say I liked them), corn muffins, blueberry pie, and coffee; beautiful in the still, soft, clear air beside the silent water of the inlet, the still woods. Cutler, not only then, wore an air of legend in its simplicity and lack of detail — white free-standing page 331houses, the pines on the little island at the mouth of the inlet and on the shores, the launches and yachts hovering in the bay.

Wood's Hole seemed very southern by contrast, and looked south, facing Martha's Vineyard; the sun was hot on fine days, cicadas kept up their peeping note all night. We swam, walked, talked, James worked on his book, we saw a film about medical relief in Spain. But I was drifting away, my thoughts, already on the far side of the water.