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The Bookshelf

MIDNIGHT ON THE DESERT, by J. B. Priestley, New York, Harper and Brothers, pp. 310, Price $3.


Except for a decade as editor of the "Atlantic" Bliss Perry has passed his life in "the pleasantness and most influential of academic paths." Professor of English Literature at Williams, then at Princeton, then at Harvard, he gained a reputation as one of the best-loved members of the coterie of Great Names in American Literary life. In his biography, published now in Bliss Perry's seventy fifth year, he re-creates the mellow charm of those years of his life.

Harvard is for Bliss Perry the "Cockpit of Learning." Up to the time of his appointment there had never been a chair of "English Literature", as he explains, "the term 'English' being considered clastic enough to cover both linguistic and literature courses. As "the successor of Ticknor, Longfellow and Lowell" Bliss Perry recalls an uncomfortable feeling that the public was getting the impression that Harvard was landing a bigger fish than it had actually caught. Barrett Wendell, who had complained about the abuse of Presidential power in making the appointment, was too honest to pretend to welcome Perry to Harvard. At their first meeting afterward Wendell launched into an attack on Byron's "Vision of Judgment", famous parody of Southey's culogy of King George Third, and upheld Southey's poem against Byron's. Perry writes, "..."I do not usually care for a literary debate while eating lunch, but I could not let anybody exalt southey's poetry over Byron's and I contradicted every assertion that Wendell made. For half an hour the battle was waged, and Wendell told someone as he left the Club that he had not had such an enjoyable conversation for months. But Harvard was not mentioned...."

Especially fascinating are Perry's accounts of his own undergraduate days at Williams, and his studies in Berlin and Strassburg. He was captain and catcher of his class baseball team at Williams, and recalls how hazardous the sport then was. "If we were hurt, we were hurt. I still carry the scar of a left finger badly broken by a foul tip; I remember pushing the bone back under the skin, wrapping a handkerchief around it and playing the game out, but any one of us would have preferred to lose a finger rather than lose a ball game....."

In his chapter on his days in German universities Bliss Perry accents the tremendously high requirement of scholarship of that day and the picturesque life of the German student. Germany was then the place to go to study English, although the work was largely philological and abstruse. He draws fascinating portraits of some of his instructors and colleagues there. Consistently an upholder of the liberal, appreciative approach to literature at Harvard Perry confesses that the discipline of sheer grinding on etymological facts and tables was a tonic to him.

Beautifully, informally written, Bliss Perry's biography is altogether alive from start to finish. It is perhaps the most compelling document of self-revelation penned by an American gentleman of letters. Its appeal to university men of the present and past is particularly great, and to the whole world it opens broad new vistas of life.

"And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche." Chaucer, "The Progue"

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