Friday, August 26, 2011


Our book today is a biggie: John Gunther's 1965 anthology of his own work, Procession, and it stands, among other things, as a monument to the unpredictability of literary fate. The books that brought Gunther fame and fortune half a century ago - his world-ranging "Inside" volumes (Inside Europe, Inside Asia, Inside U.S.A., etc.) - are now entirely forgotten, and this big book, which was meant to commemorate their success, is out of print and will remain so until the Arch of Time cracks above our heads. But Gunther is nevertheless immortal, because he wrote a tender, piercing memoir of his young son's death from a brain tumor, and Death Be Not Proud has been a work-horse seller ever since, made into a movie and installed on high school reading lists (the surest index of literary canonization, since it's self-propagating). Readers of that little book have responded to its terse beauty of expression and its relative lack of sentimentality, and it's a shame that most of those readers will never know that great surging oceans of those same qualities exist out there in the netherverse of out of print books.

Procession brings most of the highlights together, and it's an unending delight to read, in addition to being something of a one-volume tutorial on mid-20th century world politics. Gunther travelled everywhere and had the journalistic credentials and track record to gain access to any world leader, no matter how reclusive, busy, or insane. Millions of readers consumed his every published word, and for many of them, he was the Walter Cronkite of the printed page: accessible, informed, and most of all, trustworthy.

Fallible, too, as he points out again and again in this book. He reprints here his observations of the great and near-great men and women he encountered in his decades as "Surveyor General of the Universe," but he respects his own record - he neither alters original judgements nor omits them just because they might prove intemperate or embarrassing. What emerges is a truly remarkable historical document - and, thanks to Gunther's unerring ear for the good anecdote, an often very amusing one, as when he's reflecting on what a grind Ireland's Eamon De Valera could be:
Then Mr. De Valera turned to Ireland, and my "instructions" began. He was patient, explicit, and formidably, somberly reasonable. But in that gaunt face I saw the eyes of a fanatic. When I left him, deeply impressed by his terrific Irishness, I recalled the little story about his first talk with Lloyd George. "How did you get along with de Valera?" the Welshman was asked. "We have talked for two days," Lloyd George sighed, "and he has got up to Brian Boru."

Or when he's discussing the invincible arrogance of France's Charles De Gaulle:
This egotism is rocklike, unswerving from first to last, and almost sublimely absolute. Once, during his retirement, he was looking back to an early episode in his career and said, with perfect seriousness, "Ah! That was when I was France!" As recently as January 1961, when one of his friends suggested that he should thank those who had voted for him in the Algeria referendum just concluded, he replied, "How can France thank France?"

He's not afraid of big talk bordering on hyperbole, and because of that, many of his rashest pronouncements now resemble prophecies:
Mr. Gandhi, who is an incredible combination of Jesus Christ, Tammany Hall, and your father, is the greatest Indian since Buddha. Like Buddha, he will be worshipped as a god when he dies. Indeed, he is literally worshipped by thousands of his people. I have seen peasants kiss the sand his feet have trod.

And even his lesser-known subjects, like Massachusetts politician and arch-brahmin Leverett Saltonstall, come alive under his touch, especially when painted with funny anecdotes:
When James Michael Curley, the celebrated Irish boss of Boston, heard that Endicott Peabody Saltonstall might get this job, he snorted, "What! All three of him?"

The irony of his posthumous fame would not have been lost on Gunther, had he seen that Procession (and all of his slaved-over "Inside" books) has disappeared from public view while thousands of school children read Death Be Not Proud every year. The journalist in him would have said "These great men deserve your attention." The father in him would have said, "My boy was as great as any of them." No writer can fight fate - but you should find a copy of Procession and read it.


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