For the last few years it seems to have been the accepted axiom that Yale graduates are to be accorded the palm over Harvard men in American literature. It is an axiom with which I disagree--unless a more prolific output and more vociferous claquing can be weighed in the balance with quiet, individual progress and depth of tone. Mr. Pulsifer, as a Harvard graduate, comes to my rescue very opportunely.
His little book--scarcely more than a short-story novel in form--will not make any great stir, nor be heralded with superlatives, nor even, in all probability, be granted the attention it deserves. For it is pleasant, gentle, free from the slightest taint of flashiness; and has been written, as all books must be if they are to live, as the embodiment of a certain ideal.
It is typical, too, that the ideal embodied is not an expression of blatant "modernity", but is rather a hallowing of old traditions and braver days. Each of us has, at some time or other, secretly wished for a return of the days of the America that was--the America whose husbandmen tilled each his own plot of soil, and whose sailors ploughed furrows through all the seven seas; the spirit and solidity that existed, as Mr. Pulsifer rather neatly and metaphorically puts it, "before the coming of King Gasoline". To illustrate his point, the author has taken as his example the old seaport of Middlehaven, one time builder and guardian of clipper ships and salt-water heroes; and he has arrayed on one side Caleb Gurney, a character who, but for the pathos of his position and the understanding of the author, would be simply a type "wind-and-rigging" sailor; and on the other the men of country clubs and golf bags, who give libraries as one gives a bone to a dog. Caleb, of course, is foredoomed to defeat. But his end is fully as glorious, and quite as symbolical, as the final plunge of Captain Ahab's ship in "Moby Dick".
There is enough allegory in the book for anyone who will look for it, and a certain quiet satire that grows with reflection. The story is plainly told, with no pretense toward straining for effect. Mr. Pulsifer has something that he wants to say, that he honestly believes to be worth more than the paper it is printed on--which is quite a distinction nowadays--and he carries out his wishes and his beliefs in a straightforward manner. But what is most encouraging of all is the feeling of the reader that the author has not taxed himself to the limit of endurance; that this book is only the beginning; and that Mr. Pulsifer has enough wisdom and restraint not to allow himself to be rushed into print until he himself is satisfied with his work.
The atmosphere and attitude of both book and author can be summed up in one of Caleb's own speeches; and if in literature, as in shipbuilding, there were more thorough, sincere productions of this sort, more shipyard and less "gingerbread an paint", there would likewise be less hue and cry about the decadence of American letters. "Well, 'Glory', ole girl . . . they went an' busted up the shipyard; they went an' filled the harbor with bo'ts made o gingerbread an paint, that come a-scurryin' back to their moorin's a fore it blows hard enough to muss a woman's hair. Not much like ye, them yachts. I'd like to see one o'them bo'ts beatin' round the Horn an' up to Californy in ninety-two days! That's what ye done, ole girl! Praise be there's some as ain't forgot it! Maybe some day--" . . .