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FROM the pen of one of England's foremost men of letters comes an "Excursion into Autobiography" more startling in its frankness and more comprehensive in its scope than any similar book for many years. J. B. Priestley gives his readers an amazingly intimate self-portrait in "Midnight on the Desert" which stands out as one of the most revealing of all autobiographies.
The book has its basis, as the title suggests, in thoughts which passed through the author's mind one night in the desert. Priestley had spent the winter of 1935 in America, and on the eve of his departure, he goes to his shack in the desert to collect his manuscripts and notes. As he passes over the scattered pages, memories of their significance come into his mind. With this as the structure of his book, he goes on with no definite order to give his memoirs and thoughts about various incidents and phases of his travels in this country.
His philosophy appears generously interspersed with his more general contemplations. His theory of the significance of Time and the possibilities of immortality, his pipe-dream of a pseudo-socialistic Utopia, his defense of the arts, all arouse us to thoughts which perhaps had never before crossed our mind. We find ourselves constantly looking away from the printed page, staring into space to work out in our own mind the meaning and value of his words. And, strangely enough, we are more than half the time in agreement with him.
More significant, possibly, to the majority of American readers, is an Englishman's opinion of this country and its people. He speaks as a qualified judge, moreover, and is fortunately lacking in the caustic, and prejudiced condemnation which characterizes Bernard Shaw. On the one hand he condemns us for our anxiety to be "good fellows" while on the other he praises us for our democracy. Where he is unfavorable in his criticism, he is usually just, and try as we may, we cannot overlook the truth of his remarks.
For the scenic beauties of the United States he cannot say too much. The Grand Canyon inspires him. He characterizes it as "a sort of landscape Day of Judgment . . . not a show place, a beauty spot, but a revelation . . ." The beauties and peace of Southern California appear in his mind in bas relief against the horrors of the artificiality and superficiality which he finds in Hollywood.
"Midnight on the Desert" stands out as a document of our age. It might well prove a reference book to future theorists who attempt to understand the inner workings of the Twentieth Century mind. Priestley's smoothly flowing style and his calm and unhurried manner make this book more of a friendly chat that a formal discourse on life and contemporary topics. As we turn the last pages, we feel that we have come to know J. B. Priestley better than Dr. Johnson, perhaps better even, than our own friends. This book is more than an "Excursion into Autobiography", it is the epitome of self-revelation. J. G. B., Jr.
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