Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

The Pathos of Distance Memory and Revision in S. N. Behrman's the Worcester Account

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

The Pathos of Distance Memory and Revision in S. N. Behrman's the Worcester Account

Article excerpt

Editor's Introduction: Samuel Nathaniel Behrman (1893-1973) was an American playwright, screenwriter, biographer, and longtime writer for The New Yorker. His family emigrated from Lithuania to Worcester, Massachusetts, where he was born in a tenement, the youngest ofthree sons. His parents spoke little English and his father was a Talmudic scholar. His own path, however, took him far from their Orthodox Jewish world.

At age eleven, an older friend brought him to the theater, inspiring a love of the stage. He served as an usher in a local theater and thus succeeded in seeing many of the famous plays and players of the early twentieth century. After graduating high school, he attempted a career as an actor on the vaudeville circuit. Bad health forced him to quit. He returned to Worcester and attended Clark University, where he studied under noted psychologist G. Stanley Hall. At the same time he immersed himself in the plays of Ibsen, Strindberg, Shaw, Arthur Pinero, and Maurice Maeterlinck. He transferred to Harvard, graduated in 1916, then went on to graduate studies at Columbia University. There he studied under the noted theater critic and historian Brander Matthews. He was supported for a time by his brothers Hiram and Morris, who ran a successful accounting firm and who were willing to help their younger brother complete his education and try to establish himself as a writer.

From the late 1920s through the 1940s, Behrman was considered one of Broadway's leading authors of "high comedy. " Theater critic and historian Brooks Atkinson described Behrman as "one of the Guild's [the Theatre Guild's] most adored authors." Behrman was known for his warm, witty personality. His comedies often celebrated tolerance, yet show how tolerant people are often vulnerable when confronted by fanatics or ruthless opportunists. He later moved on to Hollywood where he enjoyed a lucrative second career as a screenwriter.

Behrman's succession of witty and urbane comedies began with The Second Man (1927) and extended to Biography (1932), End of Summer (1936), and No Time for Comedy (1936), in which a playwright wants to deal with serious subjects, but displays a talent only for comedy. In the 1940s Behrman turned more of his attention to nonfiction prose. He wrote about his Jewish boyhood and adolescence in The Worcester Account, a vivid depiction of the European immigrant experience in a mid-sized New England city. It has been called the best book written about growing up in central Massachusetts.

When the book was published in 1954, its origin as a New Yorker series was well known. However, professor Kent Ljungquist's discovery of an unpublished chapter ofThe Worcester Account in the S. N. Behrman Papers at the New York Public Library sheds new light, not only on the author's interactions with New Yorker editor Katharine White, but on various themes and motifs that permeate the volume: travel, escape, economic and social mobility, and the painful resonance of memory, relieved by pathos and humor.

The Worcester Account was followed by a second memoir in 1972, People in a Diary (1972). This memoir revealed the breadth and depth of Behrman's life. Its "cast of characters" from his diary included Greta Garbo, Laurence Olivier, Louis B. Mayer, Somerset Maugham, Eugene O'Neill, Felix Frankfurter, the Gershwins, and the Marx Brothers, among many others. The author of this article, Kent Ljungquist, is a Professor of English at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He has published extensively and has edited several reference works on American authors.1

The Worcester Account, S. N. Behrman's vivid series of local reminiscences, contains the following comment on memory early in the book: "As a gloomy German philosopher has said, we remember most clearly those things that have hurt us."2 This comment may seem somewhat incongruous in a book that has been characterized as nostalgic or quaintly anecdotal, and many of its episodes are indeed colored by a rich comedy and a tender treatment of friendships and familial connections. …

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