AN AMERICAN PAST
By Bentz Plagemann
Morrow. 247 pp. $19.95
It's like a shy friend, this book, an ordinary acquaintance whom you gradually come to know and value and with whom you become close without even realizing it.
Artlessness is a rare achievement in writing, and usually it results from the hardest kind of artistic work, as in the case of Thornton Wilder. But Bentz Plagemann seems truly artless in this laconic, simple memoir of a country boy's adventures in the big world.
Events overtake him at random, as they do in real life. He leaves Euclid, Ohio, gets a job in a Chicago bookstore, then moves on to New York and the old Brentano's in the heady days just before World War II. He joins the Navy hospital corps ("where I might kill someone with my ignorance but I would not be responsible for killing anyone directly"), and then, just as he is going into action overseas, he contracts polio.
From there on, in the same, well, artless fashion he describes his encounters with President Roosevelt at Warm Springs, with Kay Boyle, Carson McCullers and other stars of the postwar era, his partial recovery, his marriage and literary success.
All of these things he takes in his stride so modestly, so matter-of-factly, that one has to be reminded that he has published five books and that his work has appeared in the New Yorker, Harper's, the Atlantic, Reader's Digest and so forth.
"An American Past" is just that: a book to be savored for its descriptions of life in a certain place and time ("Supper was in the roomy kitchen, on a round table covered with a cloth. In the middle of the table was a cut-glass, stemmed goblet, a 'spoon jar' which held teaspoons for the ever-present coffee cups ...") and a sweet, rambling account of childhood told from the vantage point of 77 years.
For me the best part was Manhattan in the '30s, the Manhattan I remember from my own childhood visits, when double-decker buses ran on Fifth Avenue (in both directions!) and the dear old Hotel Albert on University Place seemed like the nearest thing to Left Bank Paris and the Village was still the Village: "The area was Italian in character, and there were Italian restaurants and shops where salami and other sausages hung from the ceiling."
And Brentano's was still Brentano's. Arthur Brentano Sr. would bring treasures back from Europe -- first editions of Byron and Shelley, 15th-century Books of Hours, a quarto "Hamlet" -- and tell about helping a destitute Oscar Wilde in Paris. The world of books was romantic then.
When he wasn't unpacking crates of incredible literary finds, the young clerk waited on Roosevelts, Fords, Frank Lloyd Wright and the Duchesse de Talleyrand, otherwise known as Anna Gould. He dated Arthur's daughter Rowena Brentano, got the giggles with her at Hedy Lamarr's whispered-about film "Ecstasy" and generally enjoyed being young in New York in its brilliant days just before the war, when rich emigres flooded in from Europe, the Baron de Rothschild, for instance, bringing with him from France "nothing but a chamois bag of uncut diamonds."
Of course, 50 years later, it is hard to keep the pink glow of nostalgia out of one's reminiscences. Memory, like Carl Sandburg's grass, softens everything. In one detail, the author confuses Memorial Day with Armistice Day. More significantly, he seems to rush past what must have been the shattering experience of polio paralysis.
His account of the disease is handled briskly, with some humor, though he does admit that "polio was in my mind. I had all the symptoms -- fever, diarrhea, weakening of the muscles. The next morning I told my assistants of my fears. ... Everyone was afraid to come near me." As he sums up the long aftermath, "In our lifetime we are all destined to know catastrophic illness, in ourselves or in others close to us. So I won't dwell on that life-altering attack of polio with its subsequent crippling."
All right, I take it back, it's just the way he is -- it's in character for him to see the bright side. An appealing book. An appealing man. In our anxious America, constantly on the verge of hysteria, obsessed with brand names and image, the direct simplicity of Plagemann is a breath of fresh air.
The reviewer, a former Washington Post reporter, is now a writer living in Baltimore.