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An owl in black and white and gray by Willard Midgette looks out from the cover of the latest Advocate with a seniorial air of wisdom. Both the color and the air of the owl match those of the two stories therein, by Sallie Bingham and A.E. Keir Nash '58.
Miss Bingham's "Miss Thrush at Home" is a clear-cut, black and white depiction of character in the first person narrative of a hard, emotionless, bedridden old maid describing the end of a young woman's engagement. It gets to the point immediately, beginning with: "I am an old woman. I do not pretend to be anything else," and continues to the end hammering this fact home with relentless determination. Nowhere does Miss Thursh behave inconsistently, i.e., like a nice, ordinary human being. She keeps a card catalog on the emotional lives of the neighbors as her kind, simple maid faithfully and quite innocently reports them. Using this field, she calls in a young woman about to be married and treats the poor girl as if she were a statistical abstract.
The old witch is like a rock and by the end of the story you realize that there's nothing to do but walk around her and get out as fast as possible lest she fall on you, too. Miss Bingham wisely times the exit; another such fall just might shatter the rock in place of crushing the victim. It's a skillful work, though rather cruel to the nice old maid lobby, not to mention us other poor humans.
In contrast to the cold black and white of this story is the warm gray of Nash's "The Most Proper Tone." It's about a successful history professor's effort to understand his thoroughly unintellectual football player son. Involved in this problem is the professor's general failure to communicate emotionally with other people or even himself. The action centers around a New England prep school football game in which the son takes a leading part.
Unfortunately, during the first two-thirds of the story the professor often loses the reader as well as himself in his abstract speculations on his own emotional life. The third person is used for first person narrative, a very difficult device to handle, and sometimes runs away from the story in efforts to explain the professor's reaction to people, things, or thoughts. Too many elements are unsuccessfully introduced and confusion ensues. In the last part, however, when the narrative centers more exclusively around the man and his son, it works much better.
By this time, the scene has been fully set, the professor has partially solved or at least defined his problem, and it is perhaps easier to write about him with consistency. In the beginning, though, it seemed as if the writer, no less than the main character, didn't know where he was going and therefore had to spell things out. A selectivity more on the level of that displayed toward the end could have greatly helped the story achieve a "most proper tone" rather than simply a "proper tone." As it stands now, the contrast between the professor's richly erudite language and the normal or sub-normal speech of others often jars rather than enhances the otherwise well-sustained tone.
Both stories, as with so much undergraduate, or for that matter graduate (i.e., New Yorker) writing today, depend heavily on understatement, although Nash's understatement, paradoxically, is often prolix. The supreme achievement, however, is Arthur Freeman's poem "Whew": in a satire of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl", he has managed to get the muse of the Beat Generation for once to understate herself. This is no mean accomplishment.
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