The Pegler Phenomenon, by Irwin Edman

The Pegler Phenomenon

by Irwin Edman

(A review of George Spelvin, American and Fireside Chats, by Westbrook Pegler, 1942. From Saturday Review of Literature, September 26, 1942, pp. 9-10.)


It is difficult to write about Westbrook Pegler without being as unfair, as intolerant, and as rambunctious as he is. One is tempted to try to imitate his epithets, which would not be easy, and to emulate his intellectual morals, which would be nothing short of scandalous. Perhaps I should yield to the temptation of paying him as nearly as I could in his own bright but dubious currency. I am restrained only by the fact that I have a qualified admiration for his style, vigorous often to the point of unconscious burlesque. And I cannot deny that Mr. Pegler has an ear for the dialogue of what he thinks is the man in the street -- really the man in the golf club locker room or the bar of resort hotels. In his Mr. George Spelvin and Mrs. George Spelvin he has created believable myths. Through them he has uttered with fidelity the prejudices, the limitations, the he-mannish and she-womanish snobberies of the well-heeled commuters who to Mr. Pegler's mind retain all the virtues of the homely backwoodsmen and all the liberty-loving enterprise of the frontier.

Mr. Pegler's syndicated popularity -- these collected pieces are, one presumes, an anthology of his best pieces or what he holds to be such -- is not hard t understand. He has kept the flair of the gifted sports writer he once was, and in a two-fisted, pulling-no-punches, hairy-chested, pastiche-Hemingway fashion, lashes out at everything he thinks wicked in the world. Preeminent among such evils are the Roosevelt family and all their works and days, all labor leaders, all intellectuals, poets, and radicals. To read Mr. Pegler you would think there was something prima facie hypocritical about having a mind and something criminal about using it. Words of more than five letters seem to Mr. Pegler almost as suspicious as words of four letters, which, by the way, seems as far as one can make out, from his essay on the subject, to constitute Steinbeck's whole contribution to modern literature. "Intellectual" seem to be for Mr. Pegler a synonym for a life compounded of silliness and foreign rascality. I suspect Mr. Pegler would not have been much impressed by Socrates's "Apology" for his life. Mr. Pegler is busy these days passing out hemlock to anyone trying to lead anything like a Socratic life.

Of course in Mr. Pegler's well known and well twisted ideology -- sorry, in his log cabin noodle, any radical is by definition filthy. The reader may think I am exaggerating, that even Mr. Pegler would be "fair enough" to recognize that a man might have ideas quite revolutionary and be physically quite clean and in manners quite decent. But Mr. Pegler pulls no punches, even when they are below the belt. In a profound meditation called "Radicalism and Hygiene" our Hegel in homespin opines:

"Probably it is not so much the radical ideas but offensive personalities and on warm days an odor as of something not quite fresh, which have made most Americans suspicious of radicalism. There is also a deterrent in the apparent though not quite real requirement that to sympathize with radical ideas one must give up hygiene, become personally filthy and, as between husband and wife each agree that the other may jump the fence whenever he or she is troubled by a dream."

Neat, what? Radicalism and psychoanalysis and divorce all impaled on one paragraph. Mr. Pegler doesn't have a good memory though (probably too intellectual a habit). He can't remember that on an earlier page he had practically made Mrs. Roosevelt out a communist and yet I am sure he knows she is not divorced and is quite hygienic.

Mr. Pegler is equal death on "high class thinkers," on people who spend weeks, as he puts it, on one neat little job of ratiocination, on people who use five or six-letter words when they are not using those exclusively of four. And he is withering in his scorn of poets. He writes that

"I owe it to myself to show something of my esthetic nature, but, as a preliminary, would like to explain that poetry is a great fake, at once the most pretentious and the least respectable method of literary expression... You start with no idea, and write in all directions from a point some distance off center, and your work can ask no higher praise than the verdict that it doesn't seem to mean anything."

One can just see the permanent adolescents around the bar, the Philistines of fifty, lapping that one up along with the fifth Scotch and soda. They knew back in college that poetry was rot, and here is A FIFTY THOUSAND DOLLAR A YEAR WRITER WHO SAYS SO TOO.

Mr. Pegler would, perhaps, not be so deplorable an enemy of civilization in this country if it were only liberals, intellectuals, and poets he inveighs against. Mind has survived barbarians before this. But sneaking through his philippics, while we are in the midst of a global war, come sneers at everyone who takes seriously the thought that the world is now, for better or worse, one; who regards "foreign" problems as in a very real sense American problems, and who dares to think of the war in terms of an eventual world order that will make war again impossible. Because some radicals do not wear clean linen, because Mr. Pegler cannot understand poets and philosophers, because some labor leaders are criminals, Mr. Pegler sets out to indict the whole of intellectual, of liberal radical opinion, of poetry and philosophy. He has become the animated defense-mechanism of all the sleazy little prejudices of the Philistine and the reactionary. And all, mind you, in the name of simple downright honesty and of the great "American" tradition. It's a pity, for in his hurly burly way, Pegler can write. As he himself puts it, about something else than his own methods: "The ball-bat and tire iron, the meat hook and the brick are effective weapons for organization, but they do not appeal to reason." Stet!


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