Shaw, Irwin 1913–
Shaw is an expatriate American novelist, playwright, and short story writer. His first play, Bury the Dead, established him as a powerful voice against the atrocities of war and he has continued to deal with themes of violence and other social patterns. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)
"The Young Lions"…, seems to me to show again the need that many American writers feel to explore and review the second World War without delay, before it is too late; to assure themselves and the public that it was really the vast and important experience it appeared to be just a few years ago; to prove, in short, that it was not a wasted war or a mere inconclusive episode in the ordeal of modern man. "The Young Lions" also shows the difficulty of finding a frame in which to make these points sharply and clearly. When the war was in progress, when America was first fighting in it, it was relatively easy for our writers to produce serene little "phase" books, which dealt confidently with the events of the moment in one place or another. At that period, we were offered "A Bell for Adano," with its near-Pollyanna treatment of international relationships, and "A Walk in the Sun," which conveyed the idea that soldiers warring for democracy speak to each other in poetry. The shortcomings—perhaps unavoidable—of those early novels became plain as time went on, but the problem of today's war novelist is none the simpler for that. The war remains quite a handful to grasp, and today's writers are dogged by a sense of urgency; the war must be fully described, and, so to speak, justified, before the world's attitude toward it coagulates in cynicism and indifference.
Paradoxically, one result of this haste is the jumbo, or put-it-all-in, war novel, which runs to better than six hundred pages and makes use of what might be called a "total plot." Mr. Shaw's book … [does not touch] on every event of the war from Pearl Harbor on, or on every level of military and political experience, but … crams as much as possible into the not inconsiderable space at its disposal…. [It is] comprehensive at the expense of humor, neatness, and good, clear character drawing…. I had the impression that Mr. Shaw … [felt he] could not afford to wait for [his] thoughts on the war to crystallize into some smoother and more persuasive form of story. (p. 94)
[There] are brilliant and penetrating passages scattered through the six hundred and eighty-nine pages of his text. "The Young Lions" is closer in literary merit to Norman Mailer's "The Naked and the Dead" than it is to "The Crusaders." It is different from "The Naked and the Dead," to be sure, on several important counts. For one thing, Mr. Mailer succeeded (partly through a use of flashbacks that was, perhaps, too lavish and tricky) in avoiding the total-plot device and concentrating broad views of war and society within firm, workable limits of time and action. Also, being an extraordinarily tough and confident young writer, he did not hesitate to introduce an incident of high comedy—the accidental conquest of a Japanese force by a staff major who was suffering from jitters—into his basically tragic story. Mr. Shaw's notion of the war is too grim and too poetic to permit that kind of buffoonery. The nearest thing to a comic conceit in "The Young Lions" is an Army chaplain from Texas whose zeal is exceeded only by his worldliness. The chaplain is a minor character, but...
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a good one. There are other good characters in "The Young Lions" who are also minor and incidental. They remind you that Mr. Shaw has shown himself in his shorter pieces to be one of the most skillful storytellers extant. All but one of the central characters of the novel are vague and "representative" rather than real, reminding you that in Mr. Shaw's plays, which have been less successful than his stories, he has tended toward solemn abstractions. There is nothing about solemn abstractions, of course, that precludes eloquence. After the first hundred pages or so, in which the various moves in the complex plot are set up, "The Young Lions" is steadily eloquent. (pp. 94-5)
[The] climax is particularly well and movingly written, but there are other scenes, too, that show Mr. Shaw's uncommon ability to create emotional excitement. One of these is Noah's first encounter with the prim Vermont girl he later marries; another is his defiance of the anti-Semitic members of his Army company in Florida. Noah, in fact, is considerably the best and most convincing of the leading characters. Michael seldom seems anything more than a type of indecisive liberal, while Christian is even more shapeless. The trouble in the German's case (he is an Austrian by birth, but politically a German throughout the book) may lie in the terms in which Mr. Shaw treats him. It is a fashionable progressive-writing notion that men of all nationalities talk and think alike at the same social levels. It isn't so. Probably the biological identity of all men and the similarity of their plight make surface differences insignificant just now. I gather that Mr. Shaw thinks so. But in a work of art like this novel of his, it's important that the characters be real and recognizable in their surface reactions—in their speech, that is, and their individual mannerisms, which are still, for better or worse, the products of national and local influences. Christian is a German only because of the label Mr. Shaw hangs on his chest. He is an idea walking around on two feet, rather than a human being, and you forget him easily whenever the course of the story leaves him for a chapter or two. The other Germans in his compartment of the plot, however, are much better. About them Mr. Shaw tells stories, and storytelling, as I implied before, is the thing Mr. Shaw does best.
The title of the novel is taken from the following sentence in Nahum, II:13: "Behold, I am against thee, saith the Lord of hosts, and I will burn her chariots in the smoke, and the sword shall devour thy young lions: and I will cut off thy prey from the earth, and the voice of thy messengers shall no more be heard." That is a long, rich, diffuse, and exciting sentence. Mr. Shaw's novel is a good match for it. (pp. 96, 99)
John Lardner, in The New Yorker (© 1948 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), October 2, 1948.
Although by any firm literary standards Irwin Shaw's "The Young Lions"… is not an arresting performance, I found it a good deal more interesting than either his plays or his much-admired short stories. Indeed, ordinary technical gifts aside, it seems to me to be his first work to carry any significant promise for the future. The advance may be due simply to the fact that the loose structure of the novel gives Mr. Shaw more room to move around in than does the strict short-story form or the play. Or it may be only that the author, having grown more mature, is more capable of seeing the world complexly. But I suspect that neither of these is the real explanation of the new quality that appears, however submerged, in Mr. Shaw's present book—that, rather, what we have here is an initial demonstration of a change that will be increasingly urged upon liberals and liberal fiction. Mr. Shaw has throughout his career been a clear spokesman of his well-meaning generation. When liberalism took its boldest stand on a hatred of war, Mr. Shaw raised the bones of the war dead. When liberalism had had its surfeit of quietism, Mr. Shaw issued the call to action. When resistance mobilized, Mr. Shaw was in the forefront of the celebrants of the fighting democratic spirit. When the open enemy of fascism abroad had been conquered, Mr. Shaw was quick to name the lurking enemies of democracy within our walls. As an artist he has been an exemplary citizen—devoted, energetic, too intelligent to be too pious yet too pious to be disturbing, his talents as a writer beautifully tuned to the intellectual pitch of his society. But at last, after its long period of sounding on one note—the note of political decency—this society gives signs of having to recognize the existence of a much fuller scale of human motives and values. Did decency alone win the war, and, if so, why is it not able to win the peace? What is the tension that, in our own country, holds the forces of good and evil in such delicate equilibrium? The more such questions press themselves upon the liberal citizen, moving him to free himself from the easy formulations to which he has been in bondage in recent years, the more the liberal artist is also freed for his original job as explorer of the complexities.
This is the new freedom that now appears, if only by hints, in Mr. Shaw's novel. Actually, there is but a single whole chapter in "The Young Lions" which is truly novelistic in the sense of blending the familiar and the surprising in human character in such a way as to enlarge our notion of life's possibilities…. For the rest, Mr. Shaw's new impulse to exploration is as yet largely an undeveloped element in his narrative. The familiar and the surprising, in "The Young Lions," are not so much blended as introduced side by side, and the familiar is still all too often the cliché. (p. 409)
Diana Trilling, in The Nation (copyright 1948 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), October 9, 1948.
The Young Lions has not the depth, the original and complex vision of The Naked and the Dead. Mr. Shaw portrays his characters from the outside, and his brush, though lively enough, paints in bold outline and often in conventional colors. His talent is more dramatic than analytic, but it is a considerable one. He handles the whirling changes of scene and atmosphere with amazing skill. He writes with passion and tremendous punch, and drives the action forward with unfailing inventiveness. The literature of World War II contains few combat episodes more memorable than four or five in this book. Shaw's picture of the war from the German side—whether correct or not, which I cannot gauge—is utterly engrossing. The Young Lions is the sort of book you want to read at a sitting—and it is 689 pages long. (p. 108)
Charles J. Rolo, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1948 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), November, 1948.
In 1936 Irwin Shaw achieved sudden notoriety with "Bury the Dead," a savage antiwar play. Since then he has written several other plays, a best-selling novel, and three volumes of short stories. "Mixed Company" contains the best of these and several hitherto unpublished or uncollected stories. The collection is an important one. Mr. Shaw is probably the most artistic and articulate exponent of the socially-conscious short story writing today.
Among Mr. Shaw's best-known and most memorable stories are those directly or indirectly connected with war and the effect of war, violence, and intolerance: "Gunners' Passage," "Sailor Off the Bremen," "Act of Faith," "Walking Wounded." Of these and similar stories I like "Gunners' Passage" the best. Unlike some of Mr. Shaw's too-facile stories, it gains upon repeated readings and the inevitable changes of emotional climate frequently so destructive to "war" stories…. [The] work is eloquent in its simplicity and revealing in its understanding of simple men of good will in a violent world. Here Mr. Shaw's power lies in his ability to capture the essence of a character by the revealing statement, gesture, or thought.
In technically more ambitious stories, like "Sailor Off the Bremen," Mr. Shaw essays an allegorical study of the individual and national hatreds and tensions growing out of opposing ideologies. As the story of a politically naive American athlete who beats a Nazi to pieces, "Sailor Off the Bremen" precipitates the reader into a web of intrigue culminating in a shattering, brutal climax. All this is superbly handled. But as a study of opposing ideologies it is both confused and confusing. Whose, for example, is the real evil? Where does the real responsibility lie? I frequently feel, after rereading a story like this or "Act of Faith" or "Medal from Jerusalem," that Mr. Shaw stacks his cards too neatly, that he oversimplifies his moral, social, or political problems to fit the needs of a preconceived thesis.
In another group of stories, Mr. Shaw depicts with equal facility the manners and mores of American civilians during the Thirties and Forties…. (pp. 27-8)
Mr. Shaw's people seem wonderfully alive, even when the author descends to caricature and burlesque. Like Dickens, Mr. Shaw has created, prodigally, a crowded gallery of memorable people. Like Dickens, too, he handles scenes superbly; from the crummy atmosphere of a third-rate New York hotel to the oppressive heat of an Army newspaper office in Algiers, his stories are firmly anchored in time and space. And he communicates experience with a narrative felicity and sincerity which redeem even a frequently farfetched, sentimental, or one-sided situation. (p. 28)
William Peden, "Best of Irwin Shaw," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1950 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), November 18, 1950, pp. 27-8.
As a novel "Lucy Crown" samples more of the moral dilemmas of Graham Greene than the passionate social problems of Mr. Shaw's previous novels, "The Young Lions" and "Troubled Air." Shall an alert woman allow her husband to stifle her individuality? Shall a husband forgive an errant wife? Is adultery "the upper-middle class American woman's form of self-expression"? Should the child of such a marriage be expected to pay the biggest price? These are the worthy problems raised in this fictional game of truth and consequences. Yet one feels that the book has been written, not felt, that these human materials have been dealt with clinically.
It is as if complexly motivated and related characters from one of Mr. Shaw's New Yorker stories were projected upon a bigger screen. They talk smartly and react credibly in the visual tableaux arranged for them. But they do not grow in size or significance. There's an intellectual aridity that locks them forever in coldly dramatic poses, unrescued by affectionate sympathy from their creator. And some readers will feel a certain queasiness when invited to peep at the victims in their helpless exposure.
James Kelly, "Domestic Deception," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1956 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), March 31, 1956, p. 13.
Irwin Shaw's high place among contemporary writers rests largely on his short stories. From the time he began to publish in the Thirties, Shaw roamed easily between comedy and tragedy, with an endless variety of themes about rich and poor, happy and sad, strong and weak. Sturdiness was his trademark. Not for him the peripheral insight, the passionless emotion, the tenuous motivation, the fragile plot-less probing that was no story at all. He was that rare thing, a short story writer who was a storyteller. Whether he treated, as in "Girls in Their Summer Dresses" what was hardly more than a telling insight, or, as in "Sailor Off the Bremen" active brutality, or, as in "The City is in Total Darkness," "Act of Faith," and most of his other stories, the darker questions of being and becoming, he sounded a sturdy major chord.
Did any writer of that prewar time have a better eye and ear for what went on around him? Shaw cared, and his characters cared, about politics and injustice and loneliness and love and growing up and growing old. They (and clearly he) believed fiercely in what Faulkner was later to spell out, "that man will not merely endure: he will prevail."
More than anything else, what gave strength and substance to Shaw's enormous facility was his sense of life's tragic possibilities. His stories show him to be a man of moral values, aware of evil wherever he found it, aware of all the injustices and discrepancies within man or without him which cause him to suffer. Against wrong, Shaw spoke up. Again and again, with true tragic dignity, his characters rose up at the last, refused to submit, protested, did something.
Between these stories and Shaw's new collection, "Tip on a Dead Jockey," is a gap that cannot be measured by time alone. The new stories are all of a piece in tone and theme and character. Each of them is humorless, unhappy, concerned with failure. For Shaw the salt seems to have lost its savor. For the most part, he here is writing about Americans in Europe where Shaw himself has been living for the past few years. But Europe is only a picture postcard backdrop before which his escapist Americans trail out thin and dreary lives. (p. 12)
Two of the stories are very good, indeed. "A Wicked Story" is reminiscent of Shaw's most acid vein. "And Then There Were Three" is as good as his very best. It's the one story in which Shaw allows Europe an integral part, shows what it can mean to Americans, in this case two best friends and a girl. The better boy loses the girl, his friend, Europe and youth, but his failure is through strength not weakness.
But almost everywhere else Shaw leads through weakness, not strength. He has given us petty, selfish, disenchanted men and women, motivated by flimsy hunches and superstitions, incapable of action, without any sort of values, without dignity. Technically, the stories are effortlessly able. But they used to be planes peeling off at high altitudes for a sheer dive toward the ground, to be pulled out only at the last split second, and all the excitement and thrill of "how would it come out" rode with them. In most of these stories Shaw levels off too soon, before the issue is in doubt and not only communicates the indifference of his characters but his own.
What caused the change in Shaw? The clue it seems to me is in his brilliant story, "The Climate of Insomnia," published a few years ago. The hero, Cahill, is an insomniac who awakens in the night, remembers a telephone message to call his best friend, and begins to worry what it could be about. Cahill catalogues marriage, children, friendship, job, political affiliation one by one, like a dentist who can only find which is the diseased tooth by pulling hard on them all. They all hurt. And Cahill is Everyman today, frightened out of his wits by real or imagined fears from every quarter. He reflects on the possible suicide of mankind through the atomic bomb, and thinks, "a man must keep himself from speculating on these matters…. When he'd come home in 1945 he'd thought all that was behind him. My limit, he always said … is one war."
It sounds like Shaw's limit too. He is a victim, like his characters, not of the war that ended in 1945, but of the Cold War since and of the prospect that it might get hotter. Shaw the artist, the man who always dared to raise his voice, has found himself, in Cahill's words, caught "in the massive tide of events beyond his control." I cannot believe that a book like "Tip on a Dead Jockey" is Shaw's final answer. I count on him to live up to the tradition of the tragic hero, the man who licks his wounds and Job-like asks, Why? why? why? and then, although he gets no satisfactory answers, sallies forth again. (pp. 12-13)
Hubert Saal, "Disenchanted Men," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1957 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), August 3, 1957, pp. 12-13.
Shaw … exemplifies a relatively recent phenomenon, not a long tradition. It dates, at a guess, from the Depression years. About that time we began to welcome shoddy art if it was concerned with pertinent subjects. (Shaw himself came to the fore in those days, derivative even then; his first work of note—the play, Bury the Dead—reminded many of a previous play, Hans Chlumberg's Miracle at Verdun). As the pertinences of the period receded, other pertinences (anti-fascism, the war) replaced them, other banners were wrapped around artistic nakedness. The merely inept were soon joined by (or soon became) shrewd opportunists, and were patronized by readers who had developed an addiction to visceral response to good causes.
Writers like Shaw … have become retailers of the serious to those comfy readers who are aware of the existence of vital art and who want their intellectual status to be as up-to-date as their electric carving-knives, without disturbing the society that provides their inner and outer comfort. This is quite a different function from true popular literature which never harmed anyone and can, on occasion, be enjoyed by all. Pasteurized social-historical insight, tragedy "worked" for easy pathos, these are cheapening of their subjects and vicious to values. Among this new breed of consciously cut-rate high-brows, Shaw is pre-eminent. (p. 14)
Stanley Kauffmann, in Chicago Tribune Book Week (© The Washington Post), March 7, 1965.
Voices of a Summer Day is a loose weave of associations and reveries framed by an afternoon whose events constitute a series of small epiphanies and pregnantly typical encounters…. (pp. 169, 171)
Federov [the protagonist] does not come off as a character—his main function seems to be to provide the thematic associations from which Shaw's stories—and the book is really a connected series of stories—depend. The Sacco-Vanzetti case is a central motif, with subordinate themes involving, for the most part, various instances of crucial engagement and disengagement in relation to people and events. If drama is the art of significant juxtaposition, Shaw is most effective in dramatic terms, even in his fiction, and is most successful in the role of ironist, probing for meaning in terms of questions rather than answers, weaving personal history with public events in a way which illuminates both.
When Shaw sets up a situation and lets it work for him he can be effective and convincing…. Yet, at other times, having made his point in terms of situations and events, Shaw attempts to move his story forward in terms of meaning, and succeeds only in being redundant. This is only annoying, but becomes downright irritating when Shaw demands a more engaged reaction from the reader than the content of Federov's experience deserves, or strains for an intensity which could only come after prolonged development, and is embarrassing in the context of an anecdotal account. At such times I imagine life saying to him, like another famous ironist, "Do not understand me too soon."
In a way, Shaw seems a prisoner of his style, in which what operates most strongly is a kind of cool, deadpan approach which in Hemingway was part of a stoic withdrawal. But in Hemingway's world the question of value is settled. We know who the good guys and the bad guys are without being told, and the action unfolds on a hard surface beneath which, however, there is a feeling of a deep passional, or sensational or instinctive life. For Benjamin Federov, however, disengagement is a mask of accommodation to a convention—it is a mask chosen, not made by him. He can be understated and deadpan, as a camera eye imposing unity upon the glancing revelations and ironic juxtapositions which occur throughout the book. But when we are presented, at the end of the book, with a synthesis in which disengagement is equated with evil and engagement with good, it is as if, aside from the oversimplification involved, the camera turned toward us at the end of a movie and urged us to visit the Metropolitan Museum. The cool style can embody a comic or stoic vision, but when it attempts to evoke commitment or humanity as a meaning imposed upon a concrete situation, it becomes only a convention or a mannerism, and an inappropriate one at that. (p. 171)
Anita Feldman, in Commonweal (copyright © 1965 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), April 23, 1965.
Shaw still stakes his claim in the borderland where serious art and commercial sentimentalities blur comfortably. In refurbishing and sophisticating the Horatio Alger protocols, he draws on the power of a legend that has, to a massive degree, structured the motivations of American lives. Beyond this, and beyond whatever defects and discontinuities his story [Rich Man, Poor Man] may show as a whole, it must be said that the milieus and situations he renders in his scenes are rendered masterfully. Fiction is not altogether dependent on profundities. If we paused to reflect on the multitudinous, platitudinously conceived fistfights described in this book, we might well think, "How silly." Fights neither happen nor come out as Shaw arranges them for his pugilistic character. Yet even in these less than convincing episodes the color, sound, and sequence of action are rendered with stunning vividness. Although Shaw has not really ripened as an observer of character or the times, his old superb skills have not failed him. He can breathe a glimmer of life onto the tarnished surfaces of cliché as seductively as any writer I can think of. That deserves a special place among the accomplishments we value.
R. V. Cassill, "Horatio Alger Repolished," in Book World—Chicago Tribune (© 1970 Postrib. Corp.), September 27, 1970, p. 5.
The three novellas in [Whispers in Bedlam] are simple, fast stories containing a couple of enjoyable jokes en route to a tidy, downbeat finale. Like all jokes, it's not essential that they are well told, but it does help; and Irwin Shaw knows well how to let the narrative find its best level while keeping the workmanship unobtrusive….
The … stories share this theme: of a little man's temporary success, brought about by a slightly bizarre or surreal series of events, and finally turning sour…. All three stories … offer some welcome surprises, and consistently entertain—which is just what they are supposed to do. (p. 1477)
The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1972; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), December 8, 1972.
Irwin Shaw is the author of seven novels, of which The Young Lions is one of the better war books, and he has written almost as many collections of shorter fiction, short stories and those of considerable length, which have the instant virtue of snaring the reader into what is going on. He has an ear for lively dialogue and the conversations which open so many of his pieces are beguiling in the swiftness with which they identify the main character and his or her problem. (p. 102)
Edward Weeks, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1973 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), February, 1973.
[Shaw's] new novel, Evening in Byzantium, is his best, I think, just the sort of book he has been working up to all through his long career. It is a triumph of ability over talent.
Triumph is just the word, because for the last 20 years or so Shaw has borne his talent like a burden. No young writer has had more extravagant praise heaped upon him than he received just before the war, when his plays were produced on Broadway and his short stories were appearing in the New Yorker. His war novel, The Young Lions, was generously admired and looked like it might be the start of something big. But it was partially eclipsed by The Naked and the Dead which appeared the same year, and it wasn't long before many of the same critics who had praised him earlier were speaking of him as a writer who had failed to fulfill the promise of his talent.
Part of the difficulty was that Irwin Shaw had taken up a new form—the novel—and was still exploring its possibilities when lesser writers were sure they had exhausted them. But part of the difficulty was his own and was directly attributable to a fault in his writing that was there right from the start. There is an almost fatal quality of facility, of glibness, to his work. It is too easy for him to write passably well. Shaw commented on this himself in an early short story, "Main Currents of American Thought," and he has had to struggle against it even in his most successful work (there is, for example, that pat ending that mars The Young Lions)….
With a single, minor exception all the characters in [Evening in Byzantium] are … substantial and real…. And the events he describes have a quality of immediacy and actuality to them, particularly those in the novel's time present, which give an air of absolute authenticity to the action. There is that marvelous sense of sureness with Shaw; you feel throughout that he knows what he is talking about.
In its structure and movie background, it is most like an earlier and rather good Shaw novel, Two Weeks in Another Town. But rather good is what I called that one. Evening in Byzantium is quite simply a fine piece of work. There is an intensity, even a rawness, to the writing, especially in the final sequence of this novel that seems to strike a new tone. No slickness and no glibness here. Shaw is as good a writer as they said he would be back in 1941.
Bruce Cook, "'No Country for Old Men'," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), April 22, 1973, p. 9.
The knowledge that Shaw is an extreme writer, capable of both the best and the worst is apt to make for wariness, but [with "Nightwork"] there's no need. From the first page, he's off and running well. The story never flags….
[This book] is full of … immense goodwill,… smooth humor and sardonic perception…. In Miles Fabian [the protagonist there are] combined the irresistible traits: he is a "joyous, dishonest, scarred, and cunning" man, the chauffeur of a car going nowhere, but making the ride along the way so pleasant the destination is irrelevant. (p. 41)
Helen Vendler, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 7, 1975.
Never mind if this isn't the Big Novel we've been expecting from Irwin Shaw ever since he wrote "The Young Lions" nearly 30 years ago. "Nightwork" is great fun, enormously likable, a first-rate piece of entertainment. Shaw's plot is familiarly improbable; his settings—St. Moritz, Gstaad, Venice, Paris, the Hamptons—fast-changing and glamorous, his hero irresistible….
"Nightwork" purrs with high-cost, high-risk carryings-on in grand hotels and reeks of expensive perfume worn by "imperious and confident" women. Shaw, who has prowled that sybaritic world for many years, makes it all as real as the reader's envy of it can stand. Best of all, he clearly believes that living—and stealing—well is, finally, the best revenge.
Arthur Cooper, "Grand Larceny," in Newsweek (copyright 1975 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), November 3, 1975, p. 92.