AMERICAN MEMOIR by Henry Seidel Canby


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This isn't autobiography, in the orthodox sense, and yet it stems almost wholly from autobiographical roots. There's bite -- and challenge -- and nostalgia, without sentimentality -- there's occasional wistful recall of the days of confidence, when all felt the pattern was set, things were as they would always be. The first part is The Age of Confidence which was published in 1934, -- a perceptive study of an American town, Wilmington, Delaware, where Dr. Canby spent a childhood and youth in the security of belonging to the right people, going to the right school -- a childhood which was cushioned by a society with established mores, wholesome standards, tabus that knew nothing of Freud. Home life, religion, education, the books they read, the politics they enshrined, the business practices they assumed were theirs by divine right- all this bears rereading for those who read the book when first published; and for those who missed it, there's a kind of magic in its portrait of a period. Alma Mater traces his backward look over college life and the academic years that followed, not in personal and anecdotal handling, but in analysis of teaching and teachers of those days, with tribute to a few great teachers, and to what Yale contributed. Brief Golden Age- and its subsequent chapters, deal with literary adventures,- the fin de siecle pattern, stretching well into the new century, the cracking of the ivory tower with World War I, the growth of New York as the arsenal of literature, the battle for frankness in the years after the war, the impact of the ideologies -- and brief portraits of a few, a very few literary figures of his time. Threaded through these years the adventure of launching a new literary review, culminating in today's Saturday Review of Literature; and the beginning of the Book of the Month Club. There's lots of interest here to anyone concerned with books and their makers, but for the average reader, there is too little of personal flavor, of anecdote, of gossip even; too much philosophizing (insufficiently salted with humor). Its permanent place will be alongside of such studies as Middletown, rather than with literary memoirs such as The Happy Profession.

Pub Date: Aug. 19th, 1947
Publisher: Houghton, Mifflin