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Books: North v. South

5 minute read

ACTION AT AQUILA—Hervey Allen—Farrar & Rinehart ($2.50).

Anthony Adverse was published June 26, 1933, with advance orders of 15,000 copies and the prestige of a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. It began to sell rapidly, sales reaching as high as 2,000 fat, 2¼-lb. copies a day. In that dark season of the book trade, when a novel that sold 5,000 copies could get on best-seller lists, Anthony Adverse became “the fastest selling book in American history,” with sales reaching 235.000 copies in six months, 450,000 in one year. Author Hervey Allen bought a farm on the Eastern Shore of Maryland with part of his proceeds, started work on a historical novel about upstate New York, got 50,000 letters about his big romance. Anthony Adverse, still going strong, has been translated into ten languages, sold to the movies, with its sales reaching a high of 900,000 copies.

But when Anthony Adverse was two years old its record was shattered by Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind. Also a Book-of-the-Month Club choice, with advance orders of 76,000, average daily sales of 3,700, Gone With The Wind had sold its first million copies inside a year, 1,400,000 in its first 18 months. On one day it sold 50,000 copies. Meanwhile, in Maryland, big, serious, six-foot Author Allen had given up his New York story, started work on a Civil War romance of his own. But where Margaret Mitchell had taken her stand in Dixie,Pittsburgh-born Hervey Allen, whose grandfather had fought with the Sixth Pennsylvania Volunteers, took sides with the boys in blue. Traveling on foot and by auto through the Shenandoah Valley, he gathered his material as resolutely and almost as slowly as his forefathers advanced upon Richmond.

Last week he published his book. Action at Aquila, that might be considered the North’s answer to Gone With The Wind. Lovers of high-minded, fast-moving romance could congratulate themselves that two such romantic novelists had joined battle, and hope that the war would last a long time. A brief book compared with Anthony Adverse (369 pages to 1,224), Action at Aquila has few of the ponderous, philosophical passages that weighed down its predecessor. It is a stirring affair of gallant colonels, devoted bodyguards, faithful wives, brave generals, beautiful horses, loyal troops, narrow escapes, magnificent scenery, bloody battles and hard riding. In it the smiling, courageous, gentle Colonel Nathaniel Franklin of the Sixth Pennsylvania Volunteers is forever leaping upon his high-spirited horse and thundering down the road—sometimes to save a Confederate lady in distress, sometimes to clean up a nest of irregulars, and sometimes, apparently, just for a little thundering.

Colonel Franklin is seldom out of the saddle. He gallops off to pay a night visit to ex-President Buchanan at his lonely mansion near Lancaster, Pa. Then he rides lickety-split through Harrisburg toChambersburg, where Early’s men had been on a raid a few weeks before. When he finds irregulars looting a mountain resort he turns aside to stop them, outwits their guards, races a pack of savage dogs, overpowers the irregulars’ leaders singlehanded. Back with his regiment in the Valley he keeps on riding—to aid the golden-haired widow, Mrs. Crittendon, whose home he had been ordered to burn, to leave some toys for her children, to rejoin his troops when 3,500 Confederates attack 1,800 Federals at Aquila.

The action in Action at Aquila is brief. Hervey Allen soft-pedals the terrors of conflict, concentrates them in a few pages on the battle itself, the care of the wounded, the search for the dead. Perhaps because war’s horrors take on an awesome significance when they involve great issues and masses of men, the battle in Action at Aquila is presented as little more than a skirmish, a diversion by the Confederates to draw off part of Sheridan’s army, enable Early’s main force to join Lee before Richmond.

Although it contains more movement and less sentiment than Gone With The Wind, Action at Aquila will impress most readers as a thinner book, not only in number of pages but in its story. Despite its extraordinary advance printing of 102,000 copies, advance orders of more than 75,000, it looked to observers of the literary war as if the South had won another battle.

The Author. Hervey Allen’s 48 years have been divided into periods of soldiering, teaching, writing. Honorably discharged from the U. S. Naval Academy when he overstrained himself in athletics, he graduated with honors from the University of Pittsburgh in 1915, got a job with the Bell Telephone Co. As a member of the National Guard he saw strike duty in the steel country, and while campaigning on the Mexican border published a book of Kiplingesque poems. Ballads of the Border. A first lieutenant of infantry with the A. E. F., Allen was badly wounded, invalided home, settled in Charleston, S. C., where he collaborated with Du Bose Hey ward (Porgy) in organizing the Poetry Society of South Carolina and in writing a book of poems. On one of her triumphal poetic tours Amy Lowell read his work, gave the young veteran a boost.

Between writing his War diary Toward the Flame, and his biography of Poe, Israfel, Allen lectured at Columbia and Vassar, where his future wife, Ann Hyde Andrews, was one of his listeners. Working slowly (two pages a day) it took Author Allen five years to write Anthony Adverse, all but $30 of his money. With some of his royalties he bought Bonfield Manor, the relic of an old estate on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, remodeled it, now lives there in feudal contentment with his family (two daughters and a son). Believing that all citizens should not be entirely dependent on others for their food, he practices his preaching on his own acres.

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