It snowed all day yesterday — again. So, I decided to clean my study. Reorganize. Get rid of stuff. Every time I do this, which is not nearly as often as it should be, I re-discover treasures. And then, of course, I have to spend time getting reacquainted instead of reorganizing.
This old book has yellowed pages and a broken spine. It was published in 1942 and has, “trapped inside,” the voices of more than 70 authors. Among them Hemingway, Wolfe, Maurois. Katherine Anne Porter and Carson McCullers. Clare Boothe and William Saroyan, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Archibald MacLeish. Vogue’s First Reader is a treasure trove of personal essays. None of them has ever appeared in another anthology.
I love essay anthologies. It’s fascinating to glimpse a time and place or places from many different points of view. The challenge is to bring together these disparate views of the world and try to envision the whole. Each piece uncovers important “facts” of the time and yet the larger “truths” may be impossible to discern from reading a single piece. What were people writing about in the early 1940s? What did they love, hate, fear? What future did they imagine?
Filled with dog ears and underlines and “stars” in the margins, it fits perfectly with like-minded counterparts on the shelves of my study.
Here are a few facts, truths, and/or images that I picked up from my journey through this wonderful tome and back in time:
1) “He wrote a thousand-page history of the world in the form of weekly letters to his daughter from jail, where he had no benefit of reference books.” ~ “Nehru of India” by Krishnalal Shridharani
2) “In New York — even in London now — you go to the theatre by subway, streetcar, bus, taxi or in a private automobile. In Chungking, there are no subways, streetcars, buses, or taxis, and only the highest Government officials had cars. You walked on foot through the ankle-deep dust of the side streets…half-lined by bomb rubble, bustling with new little bamboo-sheltered shops, and half by freshly plastered modern buildings. As fast as the bombs knocked it down, the Chungkingers built up their city.” ~ “Chungking’s Broadway” by Clare Boothe
3) “Spain was my first war, and in those days I thought that humour and high spirits in the face of danger were peculiar to the Spanish character. But…I discovered that political agony was never too great to produce a witticism…. In the tense and strained atmosphere of Rome, only a few weeks before Mussolini pushed the country into war, Italians could still smile at the story of the man who hailed a taxicab and said to the driver: “Are you free?” Came the quick retort: “Of course not. I’m an Italian.” ~ “Humour — the Bomb-Proof Kind” by Virginia Cowles
4) “To pass the time we poured lead, which we were not supposed to do until New Year’s. We melted down our broken tin soldiers in a spoon and let the molten lead drip into a glass of water. The sizzling metal plopped into strange, lovely shapes, from which we tried to guess the future.” ~ “I Remember Christmas in Austria” by Leo Lania
5) “Little by little, the exiles found their homes; or rather, created them. Lisbon became Munich, Manchester, Marseilles. Small replicas of a dead Europe were erected all over the city, tenderly, rather shabbily. French and Belgians flocked to the boulevard cafes; Germans to the shady beauty spots; English to the tennis courts; Jews and South Americans to the fashionable tea shops; Dutch and Norwegians and Jugoslavs to the cliff-lined beaches. Everyone managed…to be contented; or almost everyone. There was plenty of coffee, butter, beef. Warsaw, Rotterdam, Belgrade were never mentioned.” ~ “Landscape–with Figures” by Frederic Prokosch
6) “…there is a world each of us can reconquer, there is a land each of us can liberate alone, and that is the World of Inner Life, the World Within Us. Here, open to us, unexplored, lies an immense and rich country, peopled by memories, lighted by thoughts and meditations…. War may deprive us of our comfort, of our security, of our liberty, but nothing except death can deprive us of ourselves.” ~ “The World Within Us” by Andre Maurois
7) “…there were signs to be found among the debris that the Phoenix would rise again…. Among the charred remains…the blossom trees, the roses, and the honeysuckle were in flower again. The little angel still trumpeted triumphantly through the shattered roof of St. James’s, Piccadilly, heartening us to face with resolve any disasters the winter might bring, together with the confidence that not only can we ‘take’ it, but can fight back.” ~ “The Scars of London” by Cecil Beaton
8) “We do not fight against Germans, or Italians, or Japanese. With all the inevitable sorrows and tragedies of war, this fact must be kept clear in our minds if a better, more humane, more just world society is to arise from this gigantic struggle. More truly, if we see things clearly, we are fighting for these peoples, insofar as they are the helpless tools or the deluded followers of their rulers.” ~ “Here We Stand” by Mary Ellen Chase
9) “Two thousand miles away, upon the coast of Maine, a silent road beside the sea…. There’s almost nothing quite so good this time of night in New Orleans: they split a crispy, French and flaky loaf of bread…. Across the width of Indiana the merits of Carter’s Liver Pills are blazoned in the moon, and from the upper sweep of Brooklyn Bridge, the blank walls of the tenements….The fields are dreaming through Virginia, there is the silent stature of the moonlit trees….Great barns sleep proudly in the swelling earth of Pennsylvania Dutch; at night-time there are furnace flares across New Jersey…. Night has a million windows and a million feet are marching somewhere in the night — where shall we go now? And what shall we do?” ~ “A Prologue to America” by Thomas Wolfe
10) “…I, who am forty, touched my first elephant…. He was a big, tired, friendly old fellow…who did not seem to mind having his trunk patted while he reached for a peanut. Instead of its being cold and rubbery, and sort of snakelike as I had always imagined, I found it to be quite warm and soft, and just a little furry, or perhaps bristly is the better word. I do not know why I should consider this important enough to talk about, but I do. Somehow, when you have lived with one idea for forty-odd years and then, overnight, have to change it, it matters.” ~”I Like the Circus” by Paul Gallico