ON the way to Paris we stopped over in New York and had lunch with Perkins, and I had to smile to myself watching him draw out my wife, making sure she belonged, just as he had done with me. When he learned that she had gone to a convent he seemed pleased. With surprising firmness he said all girls ought to be educated in convents. What about his five daughters? I wondered. With his soft approach, sometimes appearing to be intellectually way out in left field, what a firm-minded man he was. So firm in his opinions about women, too, with certain fatalistic convictions: a man wouldn’t stay married to a woman older than he was, it couldn’t last; a woman could be bad for a writer; a woman could be—Well, I got the impression that women who plunged into a man’s world were a nuisance.
And he had a baffling superiority. A neighbour of Perkins’ in New Caanan, also a friend of mine, told me that he often sat beside Perkins on the train and could never get him into a conversation. He said to Perkins once, “I think Morley has a chance of becoming another Galsworthy,” and Perkins, looking at him coldly, said, “Galsworthy! That third-rater,” and went on reading his paper. My broker friend said to me, “What is this? Galsworthy is Scribner’s best-selling author!” And, I, talking to Perkins about the same broker, said once, “I think he might help me to make some money.” Perkins said rudely, ’Tell him to buy one of your books and let it go at that.“An impossible man, the broker had said, and yet I trusted Perkins completely. He had an ethic, not a hand-to-mouth ethic, a truly aristocratic ethic I felt at home with.
At lunch that day I could see my wife felt at home with him,, too. He had just read the manuscript of A Farewell to Arms, and he talked about it, his head on one side, a little smile on his face. Some people would say it was a very sentimental book he said. And indeed it was sentimental. But it was good sentiment, and there was the splendid contrast of the beautiful countryside against the ugliness of war. Then he began to grumble about Americans who went to Paris to become expatriated. It was all wrong, and he hoped we wouldn’t stay too long in Paris. Just the same we were to be sure to look up Scott Fitzgerald. Here was his address. But. shouldn’t he give us a letter of introduction? No, it would be ridiculous. Nothing as formal as that was needed. Just walk in on Scott and he would be delighted. Were Ernest and Scott good friends? Indeed they were, Perkins said to my delight. Scott had some kind of a warm boyish personal admiration for Ernest; Ernest was so physically active, capable of such extraordinary exploits. And then, his head on one side, a little wondering smile on his face, Perkins told me he had heard that Ernest, in some French town, had been watching the middleweight champion of France in a bout with some hapless incompetent fighter and the champion, making a monkey out of him, had been punishing him badly. And after the bout had ended, Ernest had jumped into the ring and knocked out the champion. The story sounded incredible to me. I had noted in the beginning in the Star newsroom that Ernest had had that fatal capacity for making men want to tell fantastic stories about him. Yet how did I know about this one? Perkins obviously believed it It stuck in my mind as if I knew I was to hear it again.
One other thing, Perkins said, as we finished lunch. Before we left town we were to see Sinclair Lewis, my great booster. Lewis had just written a front-page article in the Herald Tribune about my work. We would go back to the office, Perkins said, and he would telephone Lewis and tell him we were coming to see him.
How lovely New York looked that April afternoon, with the sun shining and the trees on the Village streets all green. On the way to Paris dropping by to see Sinclair Lewis! And he wanted to see us. Imagine!
In those days Lewis had a house in the Village. My wife and I were apprehensive as we knocked on the door. Lewis, who had just written Dodsworth and was at the height of his fame, had recently married Dorothy Thompson. I had a feeling Lewis might want to take back all the kind things he had said about me as soon as he saw me. To me he was the author of Babbitt, a remarkable book. In all his other work he had a splendid gift for mimicry, a great eye for detail and for what made people pretentious and ridiculous. Yet it seemed to me that his grand success was based on one of his weaknesses as an artist: he gave the reader a chance at too quick a recognition. This kind of writing always puts the writer and the reader in a comfortable relationship, neither one being required to jar himself, or get out of this groove of recognition. A writer who has this gift is always meeting his reader and reviewers on their terms, and it should be always the other way around. But in Babbitt, Lewis had gone beyond the mimicry, beyond that area of amused recognition where the reader can share the writer’s easy superiority; Babbitt had become a warm living human being.
The door was opened by a grinning, balding man. It was Lou, the secretary, the Lewis man. In the drawing room a writer, Mary Heaton Vorse, sat talking to Lewis, who looked almost frighteningly like a picture I had seen of him. A gaunt thin sandy man, with staring protuberant blue eyes, many freckles on his flushed face; the forehead broad, the face tapering sharply—skin over a skull. This strange excited wild face lit up as he came to me with his arms out.”“Well, well, well,” he cried, pushing me back a little. “Let me get a good look at you.” And then, laughing, he looked at my wife. “You’re charming,” he said to her. “Just right for him.” He sent the grinning Lou. scurrying for drinks. All the time we were there Lou kept on grinning. “Do you know, Morley,” Lewis said earnestly, “Flaubert would have loved your work. Yes, old Flaubert.”
His approach, his appraisal, were so candid, his pale blue eyes still so full on me, I couldn’t get my bearings. I was a young man who liked to play things down. I told him I should have thanked him for writing about me. No, no, no, he insisted fervently. Never make that mistake. Such thanks were an insult to a man’s critical intelligence. What was a critic’s sole distinction? His ability to recognize something new and good. Take away that flash of perception and he had nothing. If you patted him on the back you made him feel he was much brighter than he usually was, and in that case he ought to feel insulted. Wasn’t that right? As the words poured out of him happily, we weren’t exactly exchanging opinions. I could hardly get a word in edgewise. Mary Heaton Vorse could do little but smile approvingly. Then he would pause for breath, his head on one side, shake his head, chuckle and regard me. “Just like his work, isn’t he?” So we were going to Paris? Well, he could give us letters of introduction. He had friends in London, Paris, Home.
Then suddenly his manner changed, that light in his eyes changed too, and though his tone was aggressive, almost magically he became defensive. It was not likely, the way I wrote, that I would be called a journalist. Someday, though, someone might say it of me. Don’t ever let it bother me. His startling blue eyes, now troubled, on me, he said, “They call me a journalist, you know. Well, H. G. Wells told me once that they called him a journalist, too, and he said. ’Don’t ever let it trouble you that they called you a journalist.’” Then there was a solemn silence. The gaiety was all gone, he sat brooding, and I too. And in the silence, I, the young writer, caught a glimpse of some gnawing discontent in this enormously successful novelist. When I grew older was I to know this discontent? I wondered. What was he communicating to me? Then, suddenly, he looked up as if aware he was out of character. If we had been alone and drinking he might have told me about his lonely life as a writer; the way he wanted to be seen; the way others actually saw him. Then the spell, the desire to be in comfortable protective character, was again on him. “No matter,” he said, trying to recover the now slightly spurious gusto. How was my book doing? How was it received?
In the current issue of the Saturday Review of Literature there had been a review, I said. It had annoyed me. Not that it wasn’t a good review, but the tone was annoying. “Lou,” he called. “Bring me the Saturday Review,” and Lou, grinning happily as if from long experience he knew it was all part of a joke, scurried around looking for the magazine. “Yes, this is a good review,” Lewis said, as he read. “The man meant well. It is sympathetic.” And then his face lit up magically. “Ah, I see what you mean,” he said. The reviewer had said my characters were the kind of people you meet straphanging on subways.
And now he became like an elf, an imp, looking like one, too, with his strange compelling face, dancing around in an antic light. “Lou,” he called, “get me Henry Seidel Canby.” When I protested nervously there was no point in calling the editor of the Saturday Review, he only laughed. Lou, now, was on the telephone. The tone I objected to was worth objecting to, Lewis said. It should always be objected to. Walking up and down he seemed to be off by himself.
Lou called out that Henry Canby was not at the office. Then he might be in his home in Connecticut, Lewis answered impatiently. Wherever he was, get him. By now we had become merely spectators, watching Lewis as he smiled to himself.
Then Lou called out that Henry Canby had been traced to his home in Connecticut; here he was. With an encouraging smile to us, Lewis picked up the phone, but he kept his eyes on us, his audience.
The dialogue between Lewis and Canby, as I remember it, went something like this: “Henry, I just read that review you’ve done of. Morley Callaghan’s stories.” A big dancing-eyed grin to us as he listened. Then he answered earnestly, “Henry, I don’t deny it’s a good review. The intention is certainly good. But Henry, it’s patronizing. Worse, Henry, it represents dreadful snobbery. Listen to these lines, Henry,” and then in an aggrieved tone he read the lines about the straphangers on subways. If he hadn’t been grinning happily at us I would have sworn that he was a mortally wounded man. “The point is simple, Henry,” he went on. “Who are these straphangers? I’m the one who’s insulted, Henry. Why? Why shouldn’t I be? Do you know, Henry, that I have a brother who is a conductor on a streetcar? Do you know my brother makes fifty dollars a week?”
By the way Lou was chuckling to himself I could tell Lewis didn’t have such a brother. “You’ve insulted my brother, Henry,” he went on in his aggrieved, bitter tone. “I can assure you, Henry, my brother’s feelings are the same as mine. Just because he’s a conductor has he no dignity? Isn’t he just as much a human being as I am? Do you know what you’re doing, Henry, publishing this review? You’re looking down your nose at me and my brother and human beings like us all over America.”
By now he was so absorbed in his own performance he seemed to have forgotten about us. Even when he paused to let Canby get a word in, he would shake his head angrily, go to protest, his expression wonderfully stern and aggrieved. Then he seemed to relent a little; the hurt proud man being soothed. In a mollified tone he agreed that the Saturday Review of Literature had not deliberately insulted him or his brother, nor had the good citizens all over America any, real cause for savage resentment. “All right, Henry, I believe you,” he said. “As long as you understand it’s important to me.” Then Canby, evidently moving in shrewdly, caught him off balance. “No, I can’t do it,” Lewis said. “I can’t write another review. I’ve just written about the book, Henry, in the Herald Tribune.” He had to go on protesting he couldn’t have pieces about the same book in two publications. But he would think of someone else who might do it. Adopting a sweet, grateful tone, he thanked Canby for grasping so quickly his concern about his brother’s feelings, and hung up. Then he rose and faced us, chuckling and beaming, delighted by our laughter.
Suppose he did love acting, nevertheless, I had the strange feeling that he really wanted to be someone else. And why? Why did he want to mask himself? He was a strange-looking man, but in himself, just being himself, as he had been talking seriously a few moments ago, he was an attractive man.
Sitting down, and serious now, he said Canby would publish another review by anyone he suggested. Don’t go on with it, I begged him. Gradually he recovered his pep, his pitch, only now he was pulling us headlong into his own life. What a pity we couldn’t stay around and meet Dorothy Thompson, he said. Though we were young enough to be his children, and were strangers to him, he told us how happy he expected to be with Miss Thompson; how his whole life would change, how he had needed such an understanding woman. Our regret that we couldn’t meet Miss Thompson was so sincere it pleased him. Jerking his head back, smiling to himself as he regarded me fondly, he said, “Just think. I could put you in the way of making thirty thousand a year right now,” I sat up straight, all ears, basking in a dream of incredible opulence. Then he shook his head firmly. “No, it wouldn’t be good for you right now, Morley. Go on in your own way.”
“I’m afraid I’ll have to,” I said, sighing.
Before we left he gave us a copy of his new book, Dodsworth. He told us we would love Paris. We were to let him know if he could help us.
Outside, my wife and I started to laugh, then fell silent. We were both still bemused. All Lewis’ energy, change of mood, goodwill, gaiety, had left us feeling a little drunk. Was the literary life all on this grand, opulent and theatrical scale? But after we had joked and shared our pleasure in Lewis, I remember I wondered with some pain, since I liked and admired him, why he used all his frantic energy in cultivating unreality? Why was he so bent on protecting himself that people might have no chance of judging his worth as a human being? I think he was really a shy man being afraid’ of his own shyness, his own natural warmth and generosity; he clowned his way out of his loneliness.
We were staying at the old Brevoort on lower Fifth. In the morning, letters of introduction came from Lewis, and a note saying he had sent his man, Lou, to St. Patrick’s Cathedral to light candles for our safe journey to Paris.
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