Books Aboard: A Navy Man’s Reading Tips, 1943-45

Richard Snow

“I did go to our little library this evening, and renewed my card. The same nice librarian was there, and I came away with some books and a perceptible lift in spirits. Libraries are so congenial. Wherever they are it’s a little like being home.” This was my father, Lt. Richard Snow, writing his wife, Emma, in March 1945. The library was “ours” because they’d discovered it together while she was visiting him at the antisubmarine school in Miami, Florida, a couple of years earlier, and its holdings nourished him all through his Navy service. In between visits he was far from any library, out in the North Atlantic aboard a destroyer escort on convoy and antisubmarine duty. But on land and sea alike, books sustained him throughout the war, second, I think, only to my mother’s letters in shoring up his morale.

“Reading is a very important factor in my existence these days,” he wrote her from mid-ocean, “far more important than it could be in a normal industrious life, for it is at best a rather passive activity. But the dimensions in which I can move actively are so sharply limited that any way I can find to look over the fence I have to utilize . . . ”

Like most of the Americans who fought World War II, he was not a professional military man. He was an architect, and, thirty-six when America entered the war, old for sea duty. Commissioned a lieutenant, he began the war inspecting shore installations in a nice blue uniform near his Manhattan home. He hated it: hated telling people who knew their business what to do; hated exchanging salutes with sailors back from the Atlantic fighting. After a while, he wangled his way to sea. My mother was none too happy about this, but she extracted a promise that he write her every day, and he came very close to fulfilling his pledge.

Not long ago, preparing to write a book about the Battle of the Atlantic, I read his letters for the first time. This turned out to be a most agreeable chore, as they are spirited and engaging. I was struck by how much books clearly meant not only to him but to his shipmates, and grateful to get, sixty-five years later, some recommendations for reading I’ve greatly enjoyed, and that I would never have come across on my own.

In one letter, for instance, he asks my mother, “Did you ever read Mr. and Mrs. Cugat, by Isabel Scott Rorick? It’s the most delightful little series of sketches I’ve ever read—I can’t remember when I read them before, but they turned up this time in a pony edition for the armed forces, and are simply enchanting. About very worldly and I’m sure tiresome young people, but written with such charm and keen observations and very feminine. Get the book and read it, for I know it will make you think of us at various moments.”

I don’t know whether my mother got the book and read it, but I did (a dollar over the Internet from the admirable Advanced Book Exchange) and my father is quite right. Isabel Rorick was a young Toledo, Ohio matron who began writing for a Junior League publication brief, amusing sketches about a banker and his wife. Humor is the most perishable of commodities, but these remain funny, and fresh with the spirit and color of middle class life in their era (and, once in a while, startlingly of its prejudices: in one story Mrs. Cugat buys an evening gown from a couturier who “besides being slim-hipped and broad-shouldered, had grey eyes, hair like sculptured tar, and only slightly Jewish features”). The stories were immensely popular at the time—my copy of the book was a seventeenth printing—and now have vanished without a trace. Or almost. With the war done and television gaining hegemony over the national attention, Lucille Ball was approached to make a series based on the Cugats. She agreed, with the stipulation that Mr. Cugat had to be played by her husband. Nobody could envision Desi Arnaz as a Midwestern banker, and the so the show evolved into I Love Lucy.

Lt. Snow recommends another highly successful book whose memory has faded: “I ran across a copy of The Bird of Dawning in our excellent library. . . . It is one of the most beautiful sea stories ever written and could only have been produced by a saintly and poetic man.” The writer was John Masefield and the book, a best seller when it appeared in 1933, is about the China tea races of the 1860s, when British clipper ships—very fast, very handsome—competed to bring the season’s first cargo of tea from Fuzhou to the London docks. John Masefield was a poet and a real sailor who had learned his trade on square-riggers. This is one of the best maritime novels I know, full of the beauty and violence of the sea, and although it contains no frigate duels, any admirer of Patrick O’Brian will be grateful for my father’s recommendation.

I had less luck with another historical novel that he liked: A “book which has taken the wardroom by storm is Great Smith by Edison Marshall, read mainly for its highly explicit and satisfactory accounts of Capt. John Smith’s love affairs. But as a matter of fact it is one of the most entertaining and successful historical novels I have ever looked into, and is truly Elizabethan in atmosphere. A remarkably successful performance. Every now and then an author truly revitalizes some past epoch, such as Robert Graves’ I Claudius or Thackeray’s The Virginians, and I think this book has something of the same magic touch.”

This of course sounded very promising, but I couldn’t make any headway in the novel, which seemed at once boisterous and inert. I never reached one of those satisfactory sex scenes (or perhaps, given the depravity of our times, failed to recognize them as such).

Still, I probably got further in Great Smith than my father did with a gift his wife sent him. He was in Orange, Texas then, outfitting new destroyer escorts there, and to the end of his days he remembered Orange as the worst place he’d ever been. “I used to think that Lowell, Haverhill, and Ayer, Mass. were the most unattractive and uninteresting cities in the country. Now they seem fraught with picturesque interest and solid New England virtues.” So he was testy, and perhaps a little paranoid when he wrote my mother, “Was your tongue in your cheek when I suggested a little diverting reading, possibly some biography, and you snap back with three volumes of Plutarch?” Plutarch, he groused, was “completely unreadable in Orange. . . . Don’t make a special trip downtown to get the Jowett translation of the Dialogues of Plato—I’ll save them for more reflective times.”

He did better with more recent biographies, particularly enjoying The Duke, a life of Wellington by the novelist and poet Richard Aldington. “It’s not that I am particularly eager to master all the details of the life of the Duke, but it is such lively reading—the pedantic note entirely absent. The observations are so fresh, the footnotes so properly relegated to the back of the volume. It emphasizes to me my conviction that a large percentage of biographers do not write books at all—they merely publish vastly over-expanded notes on their researches . . . ”

Later in the war, he was able to put the Iron Duke’s precepts to practical use: “We sent several of our men to a New Year’s Eve dance on the neighboring ship. We just received a visual [message] that the quota per ship has been raised from 25 to 50. I interpreted this as a subtle hint that they have too many girls over there—so like Wellington at the battle of Waterloo, I am throwing in my reserves and sending over another boatload. There are so many decisions that have to be made in a split second like that by an officer in this fighting unit!”

Military works set in the present did not interest him. Throughout his service he was bemused by how much more interested in war civilians seemed to be than soldiers did. “It strikes me as amusing that if I were to find myself in the average New York intellectual ‘salon,’ the talk would be exclusively of military affairs, prospects on the Russian Front, Japanese naval strength as opposed to ours, etc., politics or war and conquering etc. But living among the prospective gladiators themselves I hear nothing of that . . . ”

Like so many during the war years, Lt. Snow developed a deep fondness for Anthony Trollope: “I also had . . . The Vicar of Bullhampton which I read with all the customary delight I usually experience from his novels. In spite of the Victorian framework, they all seem so contemporary—the characters amiable, interesting, and full of human failings so completely understood and forgiven by the author. Observed in print and photographs, these people seem to be of another race and time to us, but revealed by a witty and observant contemporary the time gap vanishes and they are even as you and I. They just don’t dress quite as comfortably.”

He enjoyed Maugham, except when Maugham was talking about himself. “I read The Summing Up by W. Somerset Maugham. He is the most self-satisfied and self-centered old bastard anyway—His fiction I always find very amusing . . . but his sententious ruminations on life and immortality, heavily spiced with mock humilious (I know there’s no such word, but it’s a perfectly good one anyway—I guess the proper adjective is ‘humble’) comments on his own tolerance and breadth of vision, self-sufficiency, etc. are hard to take.”

He felt his friend and Columbia College classmate Jacques Barzun gave a far better showing: “Now I am about halfway through Jacques’ book Teacher in America, which I have been reading with the greatest enjoyment. He has put so much thought and observation into his pages—a humanity and appreciation of people young and old which, of course, it was impossible for him to have as a boy or very young man, when I knew him best and used to see so much of him—his humor has lost all its brittle and somewhat provincial sarcasm, and now contributes greatly to the general effect, which is of vigorous maturity and independence of thought . . . ”

He felt much the same way about the writer Barzun perhaps admired above all others: “I’ve read several chapters in William James Varieties of Religious Experience—not because of any special absorption in the subject, but simply because every paragraph he writes is so warm, clear and individual in expression.”

This strikes me as quite lofty reading in the middle of a war, and indeed the whole crew seems impressively literate: “One of the radar men has loaned me a very interesting book on philology, The Loom of Language, which I am taking in fairly steady doses. The material in it is fascinating and even with my complete lack of classical scholarship I can follow most of the substance of the work . . . ”

Nevertheless, although none of this feels like literary slumming, he felt the need to send my mother a defensive thought: “ . . . My reading is becoming escapist, I’m afraid—dreaded word. If the people who use that word so glibly had any of them spent fourteen months at sea on a DE [destroyer escort] they’d have something to escape from, and no nonsense. I’d like to escape right back home this minute.”

Although Atlantic duty was hard duty, books always helped. They figured in one of his final letters written from the sea, in April 1945, when he again mentioned the Miami library: “I had to send my lovely library books back almost unread, by special messenger, but left no other loose ends that I know of.” His ship had been ordered to rush north and help cope with the last German submarine offensive of the war.

His task force found a submarine—it sank one of his sister ships—and fought a daylong battle that ended in the U-boat’s destruction. A few weeks later Germany surrendered. By late August, Lt. Snow was back home in Manhattan. He had made it through, and books had buoyed him every nautical mile of the way.

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