Edited and introduced by Joseph R. Svinth
Copyright © 2000 Joseph R. Svinth. Letters and reviews reprinted courtesy of Robert W. Smith. All rights reserved.
Between 1978 and the early 1990s, Robert W. Smith wrote about 240 book reviews for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Washington Post, and other newspapers. He was also a man of letters, usually to the editor. Due to newspapers limiting how many letters by one individual they will publish on their editorial pages, some were written in the names of his wife, children, and occasionally, dog.
Some of these reviews and letters are mentioned in Martial Musings (1999), but obviously many more are not. And, while most of these essays had nothing to do with martial arts, reading them nevertheless provides insight into favorite themes. The following are therefore some key extracts.
Of course, as no review of anything written by or about Smith could ever be complete without an allusion to G. K. Chesterton, let's start with a Chesterton quote. This one was from a review published in the Plain Dealer, April 17, 1968: "I don’t mind getting into hot water – I find it gets me clean."
I. Book Reviews
The Olympic Games: The First Thousand Years by M. I. Finley and H. W. Pleket, Washington Post Book World, June 6, 1976: "In saying that the story is full and rich, the authors understate the problem and overstate the sources… but these are minor quibbles with a solid, felicitously written work."
A Great and Glorious Romance: The Story of Carl Sandburg and Lilian Steichen by Helga Sandburg and Breathing Tokens: One Hundred and Eighteen Previously Unpublished Poems by Carl Sandburg, edited by Margaret Sandburg, Washington Post, February 25, 1978: "[Sandburg] could limn the little and the big, ranging through nature, touching many subjects, but always settling decisively on man and woman and place."
The Collected Poems of Edward Thomas edited by R. George Thomas and Selected Poems by John Masefield, Washington Post, February 2, 1979: "MacMillan’s anniversary selection of [Masefield’s] poetry is indifferently packaged, the print is squinting small, and the preface by John Betjeman appears hurried and is undistinguished except for these saving lines. ‘His life … seems to have been one long psalm of thanksgiving.’"
Hanta Yo: An American Saga by Ruth Beebe Hill, Columbia, South Carolina The State, March 11, 1979: "Ruth Beebe Hill has written a fine novel rooted deep in reality, far superior as authentic history to Haley’s Roots and, as a spiritual record, to Castaneda’s bogus warrior."
Fielder’s Choice, edited by Jerome Holtzman, Houston Chronicle, April 29, 1979: "If life follows art, one wishes it would hurry."
The Brothers Mann by Nigel Hamilton, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 27, 1979: "Thomas found in the 1950s that America had taken on some of the characteristics he and Heinrich had attacked so vehemently in Nazi Germany. The Cold War had made us either paranoid or passive, and Joseph McCarthy and his ilk held the field."
Thornton Wilder: His World by Linda Simon, Washington Post, August 14, 1979: "Why was Wilder accorded so little lasting critical regard? Part of the reason I alluded to above: He lived quietly without scandal; he was a nice guy… he did his work well with rigor and grace."
Say It Ain’t so, Joe by Donald Gropman, Houston Chronicle, September 23, 1979: "Now our biggest heroes are clever and competitive men and women who fudge the rules and exploit anyone and anything they can. But once, heroes were made of sterner, more honest stuff."
For the Record by Felix Morley, Washington Post Book World, November 11, 1979, "Other than the fact that his sane and sound ideas have never prevailed, [he] makes almost no mention of other personal failure."
Night of the Aurochs by Dalton Trumbo, edited and with an introduction by Robert Kirsch, Washington Post, November 27, 1979: "[The protagonist, Ludwig Grieben] rages at the Jews’ acquiescence to death. Their submissiveness offers him no combat and degrades him as man and soldier."
Gandhi: A Memoir by William L. Shirer, Houston Chronicle, February 3, 1980: "Saints should be judged guilty until they are proved innocent."
Cunninghame Graham: A Critical Biography by Cedric Watts and Laurence Davies, The Progressive, February 1980: "This biography, more than a decade in the writing, may not swagger, but it moves. And that is good enough, for the subject provides the panache."
Sara Teasdale, Woman and Poet by William Drake and Letters of Vachel Lindsey, edited by Marc Chenetier, Houston Chronicle, March 9, 1980: "Though she [Teasdale] achieved fame as a poet, she never found happiness."
Scott and Amundsen: The Race to the South Pole by Roland Huntford, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 24, 1980: "For our nihilistic times when winning is viewed as the only thing, Scott shows that losing well can be a virtue. He and his men became heroes and in this world we need heroes as badly as we need values."
The Novel of the American West by John R. Milton, Washington Post Book World, August 24, 1980: "Milton generalizes that where eastern fiction is sophisticated, Freudian, and emphasizes the characters shaped by society and psychology, western fiction is intuitive, Jungian and stresses the affinities in characters formed by land and morality… [However] He is overly fond of symbols and arranging things in two- and three-part categories."
The Strange Destiny of Rupert Brooke by John Lehmann, Washington Post Book World, January 25, 1981: "In his war sonnets [Brooke] was not so much glorifying the war as celebrating the discovery of a lofty moral purpose."
Young Emma by W. H. Davies, Washington Post, March 24, 1981: "If the writer is free to create a work, he is also free to kill it. It is, after all, his."
Everything We Had by Al Santoli and Nam by Mark Baker, Plain Dealer, May 3, 1981: "Vietnam was a lot of things, but it was never noble."
A Life in Our Times: Memoirs of John Kenneth Galbraith by John K. Galbraith, Plain Dealer, May 10, 1981: "True, he [Galbraith] didn’t always win, but when he lost… he did so with better grace and élan than most of the winners. And that, after all, is the test of a public man likely to live in posterity."
Minnesota Rag by Fred W. Friendly, Plain Dealer, June 14, 1981: "And today, despite our current khaki coloration and the retrograde proclivity of our Supreme Court, America is the only major nation with a genuinely free press. This Fourth of July we ought to reflect on this wonder."
The Burning by Richard Snow, Plain Dealer, August 30, 1981: "A town is people and Snow deftly brings Hinckley’s residents to life… Mark the name: There is a writer in our midst!"
The Blazing Air by Oswald Wynd, Plain Dealer, October 18, 1981: "By late 1941 the Japanese juggernaut began to move… Momentum spurred Japanese success, but the big reason for it was the unpreparedness of the peoples and countries of the area."
Pork and Others by Cris Freddi, Plain Dealer, November 1, 1981: "In this small classic, [Freddi] tells swaggering humans a staggering thing: that all nature is one. Not, mind you, symmetrical or fair, but simply one."
The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution, 1895-1980, by Jonathan Spence, Plain Dealer, November 29, 1981: "The Chinese are a great people. Through a history more feathers than chicken they have endured and multiplied, and now number one billion."
A question asked writer Edward Hoagland in an interview called "From Harvard Yard to the Big Top and Beyond" in Washington Post Book World, February 28, 1982: "Do you sit down like Flannery O’Connor at 8 a.m. to a bare desk and a sheaf of blank paper and quit about noon? I ask this not to trivialize but because work habits sometimes tell much about a writer. [And another:] Some writers are so private with their work that they seem to resent even the publisher reading it. Do you show your manuscript to anyone? [And a third:] What books have been important in your life?"
Last Quadrant by Meira Chand, Plain Dealer, March 14, 1982: "Her novel succeeds because of … children who dance and mock the storm… Kids who win. As Laotse and Jesus said, the soft can conquer the hard."
Poetry and Prose by Walt Whitman, edited by Justin Kaplan, Plain Dealer, May 16, 1982: "Many of these essays and oddments still resonate with the old passion… Much of what critics regarded as bombast and outrageousness during his lifetime, now looks eminently sane."
The Young Rebecca: Writings of Rebecca West 1911-1917, selected and introduced by Jane Marcus, and 1900 by Rebecca West, Plain Dealer, May 23, 1982: "[Her] opinions [are] so outrageous as to be fun (‘Men and women do not really like each other very much’)."
The Red Smith Reader, edited by Dave Anderson, and To Absent Friends From Red Smith, in Plain Dealer, July 25, 1982: "He could outdo himself on the sports he loved, admittedly ‘Godding up the ballplayers.’"
The Shabunin Affair: An Episode in the Life of Leo Tolstoy by Walter Kerr, Plain Dealer, August 22, 1982: [Tolstoy came] "to exemplify he of whom Martin Buber wrote, ‘More powerful and more holy than all writing is the presence of a man who is simply and directly there.’"
Sez Who? Sez Me by Mike Royko, Plain Dealer, October 31, 1982: "You’ve heard the downside argument for guns, the anti-side, but Royko gives us for the first time the upside -–he wants to legalize sawed-off shotguns, machineguns and mortars (he says he loves pistols, considering the phallus to be a pistol symbol, but the big stuff is more efficient)."
Revolt Against Regulation: The Ries and Pause of the Consumer Movement by Michael Pertschuk, Plain Dealer, November 21, 1982: "Pertschuk’s stepson, Daniel, once asked him, ‘If the FTC [Federal Trade Commission] is an arm of Congress, how come Congress wants to break its arm for making a fist?’"
Selected Stories by Robert Walser, Plain Dealer, November 27, 1982: "On his walks, which he loved, [this strange and gentle man] saw so much that the rest of us never do."
The Bounty Trilogy by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall and Fragile Paradise: Fletcher Christian of HMS Bounty by Glynn Christian in Plain Dealer, November 28, 1982: "Fifty years after first publication, Atlantic-Little Brown has reissued the classic Bounty Trilogy, illustrated with 12 newly reproduced paintings by N.C. Wyeth. The original was a luxury many of us used to balance with watching baseball games in the ’30s. But where Jefferies read and dreamed of Kenilworth and Wayland Smith’s cave, we were absorbed by the heroic Fletcher Christian and his mutiny against the infamous Capt. William Bligh… young Christian is able to throw new light on a muddled history. Here we find an ambiguous if no less heroic Fletcher Christian and a Bligh not so much cruel – he hated flogging far more than Christian did – as a poor leader and superb mariner."
The Last Hero: Wild Bill Donovan by Anthony Cave Brown, Donovan, America’s Master Spy by Richard Dunlop and Donovan and the CIA by Thomas F. Troy, Plain Dealer, December 26, 1982: "Donovan was said to do the work of three men but often those three were Groucho, Harpo, and Chico, so zany and bizarre were some of his operations."
Selected Letters of Don Marquis, collected and edited by William McCollum Jr., in Plain Dealer, February 6, 1983: "‘It would be ironic,’ wrote Marquis, ‘if I’m remembered only, assuming I’m remembered at all, as a creator of a god-damned cockroach.’ [archy]
The Stonor Eagles by William Horwood in Plain Dealer, March 6, 1983: "But (bane of youth) he lacks restraint. Focus and pace would have been sharper and surer had he cut a hundred pages from the book."
Parnassus on Wheels (1917) and The Haunted Bookshop (1919), re-released by Avon in trade paper in 1983, by Christopher Morley, Plain Dealer, May 8, 1983: "Morley was America’s nearest approach to England’s G. K. Chesterton… And could be just as profound on occasion: ‘By the age of 50 every man worth his salt should have a crown of thorns; the trick is to wear it cocked over one eye.’… In Bookshop Morley insists literature is necessary to survival, shows with impressive proofs what is good and what is bad literature, and urges the reader to be good. There are, Roger [a character] estimates, only 5,000 really important books in English, a pitifully small proportion of the total printed. Those of us who followed Morley’s advice on writers down the years got infinitely more from it than any tips from stockbrokers… When he is not disdaining the commercial (Tarzan of the Apes) for the classic (The Jungle Book), he is arguing that Hardy’s The Dynasts, if read, could have prevented World War I… [We] can only hope 60 years farther down the road to demnition [sic; it is a Kim Hubbardism] bow-wows that he is right in concluding that though gunpowder has the wider circulation, printer’s ink is the greater explosive and will win in the end."
F. Scott Fitzgerald by Andre Le Vot, Plain Dealer, June 26, 1983: "Le Vot has a consummate knowledge of the period and even correlates moral decline with the height of women’s hems…[but] doesn’t, cannot, answer the question: Why did Fitzgerald’s fire burn?"
Hammett: A Life at the Edge by William F. Nolan, Plain Dealer, July 31, 1983: "At its best, [Hammett’s writing] is lean and mean, crackling with the underdone intensity of street patois, assured in its tradecraft, realistic as rain… [but] he could never do as much with a man and a woman as he could with a man and a gun."
The Children of the Sun by Oakley Hall, Washington Post, August 9, 1983: "The dialogue between Dorantes and his old comrades-in-arms crackles as they relive the old victories and occasional defeats (‘An old soldier is one who ran when he was young’) and he attempts to explain to them that the peaceful way is more powerful than the way of the warrior."
My Name is Saroyan by William Saroyan, Plain Dealer, August 28, 1983: "William Saroyan died in 1981, used up, burnt out, a victim of too much life, too many cigarettes, too many words. We all remember early photos of the swarthy Armenian, hat cocked back, a raucous smile on his handsome mug, the kind our sisters always fell for and cried over later, a sure as hell sinner at cards and the ponies."
The Rosenberg File: A Search for the Truth, by Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton, Plain Dealer, October 2, 1983: "The time was too paranoid for heroes to ripen and emerge."
Ever the Winds of Chance by Carl Sandburg, Plain Dealer, November 6, 1983: "Ever the Winds of Chance is wonderfully nostalgic as a record of a time when people had a rough plenty but appreciated it; when everyone worked and lived more deeply because of it; and when men had honor and women had virtue. In his evocation of the time it is as though a window opens and a breeze you can taste comes into the room."
Dream West by David Nevin in USA Today, February 13, 1984: "For all his flair, even [John C.] Fremont, after 600 pages, comes perilously close to what Emerson meant when he wrote ‘Every hero becomes a bore at last.’ But this is a good first novel, and Nevin will learn that while restraint may not always be art, that’s the way you had better bet."
The Railroaders by Stuart Leuthner and Scalded to Death by Steam by Katie Letcher Lyle in Plain Dealer, February 19, 1984: "The sweetest sound was that of an old steam engine’s whistle at midnight. The thrush’s song, a lake lapping on stones, coffee perking at 5 a.m., or a girl saying ‘yes’ – these are all grand sounds but none compares with that whistle. It’s a pity the kids can’t hear it anymore… [Still, let's not wax too poetic:] imagine shoveling 30 tons of coal in 10 hours."
Voices From the Great War by Peter Vansittart and The Home Front: America during World War II by M.J. Harris, F.D. Mitchell, and S.J. Schechter, Plain Dealer, July 22, 1984: "Vansittart’s outstanding contribution to the anthologist’s art is so good you can smell the rot… [By comparison,] Homefront is – as Captain Kidd remarked when only a cabin-boy was left to walk the plank – only a small matter… [It] appears to have had all the nutrients boiled out of it."
The Winter of That Country: Tales of the Man Made Seasons by John Sanford, Washington Post, August 12, 1984: "[Sanford] believes that one can gauge a society by what it does to its underdogs."
The Rage Within: Anger in Modern Life by Willard Gaylin in Plain Dealer, February 17, 1985: "We not only accumulate our own anger but borrow that of other persons… I admire Gaylin’s insights and honesty. When a patient tells him that he has no control over his impulse to beat his wife, girlfriend, and child, Gaylin responds, ‘When was the last time you physically attacked a policeman, an employer, or a man younger and stronger than yourself?’ …[We need to] examine competition and ways to refine and reduce it if we’re ever to quench the fires of anger."
The Oxford Book of Children’s Verse in America, chosen and edited by Donald Hall, Plain Dealer, May 5, 1985: "Rereading old favorites brings back beauty in all its old intensity: Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay, every line an epiphany; Elizabeth Allen’s ‘Rock Me to Sleep," James Whitcomb Riley’s ‘Little Orphant Annie,’ Eugene Field’s ‘Little Boy Blue,’ Arthur Guiterman’s ‘On the Vanity of Earthly Greatness’ and even Ogden Nash’s ‘Custard the Dragon.’ Of all the golden oldsters, only Celia Thaxter seems in retrospect to have slipped a bit… For me, the good stuff pretty much ends with Nancy Willard’s ‘Blake Leads the Way to the Milky Way (1981)… The current themes are nihilistically silly and the newer verse doesn’t ring on the ear as did the rhymes and rhythms of the old poetry, meant for memorization and recitation."
Black Box: KAL 007 and the Superpowers by Alexander Dallin, Plain Dealer, June 23, 1985: "The truth – mortally wounded in the resulting investigation – may be the last casualty in the case."
John Masefield’s Letters from the Front 1915-1917, edited by Peter Vansittart, Plain Dealer, July 2, 1985: "In the end he comes to find all of them [German, Italian, British, and French soldiers] as victims."
Words That Somehow Must be Said: Collected Essays of Kay Boyle, 1927-1984, edited and with an introduction by Kay S. Bell, Washington Post Book World, July 14, 1985: [Kay Boyle writes:] "‘Surely no greater reward is offered to a writer than the knowledge that other men are reading the words that he has, by some miracle, retrieved from the depths of his own silence; the knowledge that other men are actually listening for the sound of his voice to call out from the page to them, and above all, the knowledge that they believe the words they hear.’"
Christopher Homm by C. H. Sisson, Washington Post Book World, August 4, 1985: "The Middle Ages had its Black Death but Homm only his gray life… the high spot of his day… [was] his visit to the W.C."
Pictures from the Water Trade by John David Morley, Plain Dealer, August 18, 1985: "As observing and insightful as he is, however, [Morley] fails to… realize that to stay sober, most Japanese only pretend to drink from the tiny saucers, letting the saki slide down their sleeve and [drip] to the floor."
To Be a Revolutionary by Padre J. Guadalupe Carney and Fire From the Mountain: The Making of a Sandinista by Omar Cabezas, in Plain Dealer, September 1, 1985: "Always a trouble-maker from Christ, a thorn in the side of his Catholic superiors, [Carney’s] credo was ‘To be a revolutionary is to be a Christian.’… Cabezas describes how starting a fire in the mountains is an art: ‘It’s harder to get a fire going than to turn on a woman in the mountains.’… Both love the poor peasants and share their own meager portion with them."
Death is a Lonely Business by Ray Bradbury, Plain Dealer, November 10, 1985: "… the well of imagination is still there and will be till they tuck him in with nails. Bradbury fans will be pleasured by this novel. But I was looking for Chandler and Hammett."
Tell Them It Was Wonderful: Selected Writings by Ludwig Bemelmans, edited and with an introduction by Madeleine Bemelmans, Washington Post, December 7, 1985: "[Bemelmans, author of the Madeline series of children’s books and various novels] memorializes Tinseltown by tearing down its institutions from the Secretaries (‘She was so prim there seemed to be no backside to her’) to the Moguls (Louis B. Mayer issued the following order after Dirty Eddie emerged: ‘Never hire that guy (euphemism) again – unless we absolutely need him").
Red Earth, White Earth by Will Weaver, Plain Dealer, November 16, 1986: "He is superlative in describing the farmers, those who spoke sparingly if at all because the land had weighed down their voices… [and in the end Guy, the protagonist] comes to understand that there are only four things in the world: the land, machines, art and people."
Daily Horoscope by Dana Gioia, Plain Dealer, December 28, 1986: "Most of the way he seems aware of Goethe’s advice: ‘It is good to think, it is better to think and look, and it is best to look without thinking.’"
My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley, Plain Dealer, March 9, 1987: "Let [Ackerley] have the last word, "Tulip never let me down … she knows where to draw the line, and it is always in the same place, a circle around us both."
Weldon Kees and the Mid-Century Generation: Letters, 1935-1955, edited and with a commentary by Robert E. Knoll, Plain Dealer, April 26, 1987: "Hemingway said a writer must have two qualities: he must take writing seriously and he must have talent."
Thank God for the Atom bomb and Other Essays by Paul Fussell, Washington Post, July 4, 1988: "Fussell is nonetheless right that most dogfaces and marine grunts welcomed it [the bomb]… And he excoriates the National Rifle Association’s misuse of the Second Amendment, urging that members, if they believe their own nonsense, should be made to join militias and undergo hardships as the price of owning guns…"
An American Boyhood by Richard Rhodes, Bloomsbury Review, July/August 1991: "Throughout the book, Rhodes’ recall is phenomenal, but sometimes becomes what Mark Twain called "creative memory" – remembering things that could never have happened."
The Secret Search for Traitors that Shattered the CIA by David Wise, Chicago Sun-Times, April 26, 1992: "In a briefing I once attended at CIA headquarters, [Director Richard] Helms told a story of a motorist whose tire goes flat by a deep stream. He removes the wheel and accidentally kicks the hubcap holding the nuts into the stream. He is unsure what to do until a man inside the fence tells him to use a couple of nuts each from two other wheels, which will get him to a garage. The motorist thanks the man and notices a sign on the fence: ‘Croydon Insane Asylum.’ Surprised, he asks, ‘You mean you’re insane?’ The fellow responds: ‘Yep. I may be crazy but I’m not stupid!’ Helms jocosely likened his listeners to the inmate. Ironically, [subsequent events show] … it’s a close call."
From an apparently unpublished review of The Lotus and the Robot by Arthur Koestler: "[Published reviews] were as superficial as the book itself. Koestler spent two years in India and Japan ‘studying’ Yoga and Zen and the applications which these activities might have for the materialist West. After this research which involved not one deep breath nor 15 minutes of meditation on his part, he concludes that they have no value. Although I go part way with him – there has been a lot of rot written on these activities – his opus certainly is neither scientific nor convincing."
II. Letters to the Editor
To the editor of Washington Post, date unknown, writing as Chris Smith: "The pollution is caused by the rich (us) and hurts mostly the poor."
To the editor of Washington Star, March 19, 1975, writing as A.R. Smith: "[Could money] be spent in better ways than on arms. Of course it could. America now is one big sigh of unfulfilled social and economic demands delayed because of that yawning military drain."
To the editor of Washington Star, December 8, 1975: "The spiritual and uplifting essence of Christmas has been replaced by the material and the cloying. We no longer enjoy either the giving or the getting… Moral: Don’t desire more than you can enjoy, a secret we seem to have lost."
To the editor of Washington Post, April 5, 1977: "My wife and kids, who usually scream for caviar, are now yelling that, corny as it is, the film [Rocky] extenuates by letting the underdog prevail. No cigar! If the underdog is not real, there is no underdog."
To the editor of Washington Post, September 18, 1977: "Though he eschewed publicity, prized his privacy and wrote too well to make a great deal of money, [British novelist and nature writer Henry] Williamson was admired by other writers."
To the editor of Washington Post, June 20, 1978, writing as A.R. Smith: "Where has [Alexander] Solzhenitsyn been? His Manichean notions may seem muscular and just about right to Ronald Reagan, but if Solzhenitsyn had his way, we’d end up a cinder. And soon."
To the editor of Washington Post, July 3, 1978: "Roger Rosenblatt’s list of great movies is pretty good. Any list that consigns John Wayne to the dustbin has to be… The most glaring omission: Where were Olivia DeHaviland and Joan Fontaine… [and] Helmut Dantine?"
To the editor of Washington Post, October 28, 1978: "Who would have thought that the most execrable feature of military life, the infamous ‘double-time,’ would become jogging, a pseudo-religious ritual with vestments, meditation, and litany? …I’ll stick to walking."
To the editor of Washington Post, November 28, 1978: "[Irish autodidact Stephen MacKenna] was the greatest of all Irish talkers, which made him the greatest of all conversationalists, for the Irish talk a fine fight, but their genius is in the talk, not the fight."
To the editor of the Washington Star, December 11, 1978: "For
anyone named Spike to know that much about classical music and ornithology
somewhat stretches belief. Still, I’ve always believed it." [Replies printed
December 24, 1978 reported that Spike did indeed know these things, as
he was Spike Hughes, the alias of British composer Patrick Cairns.]
JCS Feb 2000