There is shortly to be published “The Provincial Lady in America,” by E. M. Delafield, an English novelist who recounts therein, in diary form, the record of an American lecture tour and sight-seeing trip which included the World’s Fair at Chicago, Niagara Falls, the Cotton Club in Harlem, the Alcott home outside Boston and a couple of other places.
Now a country visited for the first time is only as good, or as bad, as the men and women in it whom you meet. Mrs. Delafield met many men and women, friends of friends, celebrity-hunters, persons of wealth and what is called “social prominence” who affect a patronage of the arts, Little Thinkers, persons who know what they want, autograph-hunters, bores and nuisances, good-hearted and hospitable most of them. She met many of the Right People who turned out to be definitely the wrong people.
She met men and women mostly whose range of literary conversation was limited to “Have you read ‘Anthony Adverse’?” and since she hadn’t, conversation had to come to a full stop, to be retrieved by some question no less banal, as: “What do you think of Hugh Walpole?” The nearest approach she made to an interesting person was Alexander Woollcott, who impressed her strangely by his determined manner over the telephone with a magazine editor who wanted an article Woollcott didn’t care to write. But the happiest hour of her stay was that during which she had a good cry over the moving picture version of “Little Women.”
So far as I can tell, Mrs. Delafield traveled as far west as Chicago, as far north as Buffalo, as far east as Boston and as far south as Washington without meeting a single Jew. She was so thoroughly chaperoned and directed and managed and taken in hand that she had not an hour for private exploration. The nearest she came to meeting a Jew was in overhearing a fossil at a dinner party in New Yorkâ€”who wore a collar exactly like Gladstone’sâ€”assert that “no club would dream of admitting Jews to its membership.” She adds: “This, if true, reflects no credit on clubs.” Which recalls Lewis Browne’s discovery that a Jew-excluding club will usually admit up to a maximum of two Jews in order to save face from the charge of anti-Semitism. It would be interesting to learn the identity of the old fellow in whose house “cocktails, wireless, gramaphones and modern young people areâ€”like Jewsâ€”never admitted.”
IMPERSONAL TALK WANTED
If Mrs. Delafield, who seems to be a bright and observant person and a sometimes brilliant novelist, didn’t have the good time she deserved to have during her visit to these States, I think the reason is that she met too many people like this Old Fossil and the old one-idea’d General in Washington, men and women who were innocuous when they were not stupidly opinionated, and not enough fellows of Alexander Woollcott’s kidney. If she had met at least ten Woollcotts, four of them, I venture in all racial modesty to suggest, would have been Jews and whether they were Jews or not, they would have given her conversation for her teeth to sink into instead of asking the same banal questions and making the same banal statements. Where were Walter Lippmann and F. P.A. dining on the nights of Mrs. Delafield’s dinner parties?
I don’t believe it matters much to the Jewish people of America whether or not the “provincial lady” had a good time in America. But if Mrs. Delafield ever comes to these States again, she ought to be provided with conversational opportunities better than that afforded by the gushing Ella Blatts for whom neither literature nor impersonal conversation ever existed. Perhaps it is possible to see America without seeing a single Jew, but unless you met at least a few Jewish intellectuals in New York, you cannot know all that New York may have to offer on the higher levels.
THOMAS MANN’S SURPRISE
I have learned, thus belatedly, what single episodes during his American visit gave Thomas Mann his greatest surprise. From the manner in which he spoke of it later it is doubtful if he has got over it yet and should he undertake to write either a book or an essay on his American visit, he will undoubtedly give this episode a place.
The members of a club limited to the executives of a New York newspaper august enough to be an institution gave Thomas Mann a luncheon. There is, of course, nothing astonishing in that, and he maintained his savoir faire. But the point at which you could have knocked him over with a feather was when the members of this club arose and drank the health of Herr Mannâ€”in iced water.
Being inured to the customs of this country, I am neither surprised nor shocked. The value of a visiting celebrity is that through his eyes we are led to make new assays of customs and values which we have long taken for granted. The chief value Lemuel Gulliver rendered was to the Liliputians, Brobdingnagians, Houyhnhms and the Yahoos whom he visited, who took for granted their customs until they could see them afresh through Gulliver’s intelligence. The mere fact that Thomas Mann should express surprise at the drinking of his health in iced water immediately makes that custom suspectâ€”and certainly in a land from which the blight of Prohibition has been removed.
We can only hope that when Thomas Mann lands on European soilâ€”he ought to be there any hour nowâ€”he will drench the recollection of the iced water toast in bumpers of good non-German beer, or, if that doesn’t serve, in a draught of wine. And perhaps also he will regard the iced water toast as a symbol of Western individuality. I’m sure there would have been a wider variety of liquor in these States had be paid us his first visit during the good old days of Prohibition.