Marian Cannon Schlesigner has written a delightful, lively book about a remarkable family living in a particular place and time. The family is her own; the place and time is Cambridge, Mass., in the first part of this century. "Snatched From Oblivion" is at once a source of enjoyment and a disturbing reflection. Like all memoirs this quality and texture, it gives an anatomy of life in another setting which, by implication and contrast, serves as a measure of our own-its preoccupation, assumptions, basic values. Where today is such exuberance to be found?
Dr. Walter Cannon, the creative physiologist from the Midwest who discovered the process of peristalsis and pioneered studies of the effects of emotion on the human body, joined the Harvard medical faculty just as the school was beginning to emerge from its narrow New England base. "His appointment was an example of the 'new broom,' the breath 'breath of fresh air' with which President Eliot was transforming Harvard into a great university . . . a faculty that was largely composed of New Englanders was being infiltrated by foreigners: Professor Josiah Royce, the philosopher, from California; Professor George W. Pierce, the physicist, from Texas; and many other . . . It was the beginning of the wave of brilliant interlopers who through the next decades turned Harvard into a university of international renown."
Cornelia James Cannon, the author's mother, was a "dynamic, humorous, tender, irresistible force that held her far-flung, idiosyncratic family together through her letters and her vivid charm and wit." The household included five children, two maiden aunts, the more or less permanent domestic help of the day-"and any number of transients-visiting physiologists, homeless students, neurasthenic relatives, old Radcliffe classmates of my mother, and hordes of 'best friends' of my brother and sisters."
Marian Schlesinger brings all of these people to life with their vigorous interests, experiences and idea-centered discussions, but the central figure is her mother, whose witty, observant, and often wise comments, culled from her letters, thread through the book. Cornelia Connon was to woman to marvel at. Not only did she manage to serve this large household as mother, wife, sister, hostess, dressmaker, and "enriching" educator, in Cambridge during the winter and on an unimproved farm in Vermont during the summer, but she wrote books (one, "Red Rust," a best seller), was an active feminist, an early leader in population control, and a civic force, at once the scourge and the admiration of local Irish politicians. When Dr. Cannon received an honorary degree from Yale, a notice in the Cambridge Chronicle reported that he was better known as "the husband of Mrs. Cornelia James Cannon . . . whom everyone not only loves and admires for her engaging personality, but for her constructive and sympathetic work for public schools and in other civic lines."
The author sees her mother as fitting well into a tradition of free-wheeling, independent-minded ladies of Cambridge for whom "doing your own thing" had been established practice for years. They looked on males "as frail creatures who had to be handled and propitiated like small children. Having dealt with them by placing them on their pedestals, the ladies went ahead with the serious business of their lives: their own self-improvement . . ." But Cornelia Cannon seems to have been more common-sensical, more humane and wider ranging in her sympathies than the Cambridge ladies cited.
According to Mrs. Cannon "the one and only thing" the Cannons did for their children was to live with them, "to give them a touch with life." In their pre-Freudian, pre-consumerism, pre-permissive age this meant plain living, high thinking, exposure to the intellectuals, artists and scientists who thronged their world-and travel. The travel included a leisurely European tour in a "spiffy" but second-hand Cadillac and a long stay in pre-Communist China. Marian Schlesinger, a contemporary artist of distinction, shares this travel with us not only through the charming wash drawings which illustrate her memoir, but through unforgettable word pictures.
There is Gertrude Stein "sitting in a low chair with her long woolen underwear showing" in an apartment where Matisses and Picassos lined the walls, and, on the other side of the world, the revolutionary Agnes Smedley at tea in "a scabrous old building" on a Shanghai street corner, her whole conversation 'taken up with petty backbiting and radical gossip." And there is a horrifying description of a silk filature factory where 200 women and children worked in one dark room, "an obscene rat's nest writhing with humanity and smelling like a thousand unwashed feet. Some of the children were less than 4 years old and many of the women were nursing their babies as they worked." In contrast there were the beautiful river women of Fukien "swinging along on the bund under the ancient camphor trees, babies slung on their backs or flat baskets balanced on their handsome heads.."
"Give me the world and a chance at its experience and I am satisfied," wrote Cornelia Cannon in one of her letters. In this memoir her daughter shows us what that meant, in her life and in those she formed or touched.