The Magazine

Have Fun, Schweinhund!

Joseph Epstein remembers Vernon Young

Aug 4, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 44 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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The Evanston Public Library has a small room devoted to sale books, some donated by patrons, others removed from their shelves because of continuous neglect by readers. I no longer collect books, but old habits die hard, and so I pop in every so often to see if there isn't some neglected book that I might acquire for the price of 50 cents.

In recent months I've bought a couple of slender volumes of the essays of Desmond MacCarthy, the Collected Stories of Jean Stafford, The Benchley Roundup. Just today I picked up Vernon Young's On Film, which has, rubber stamped on its first page, the word "Discard," which must mean that it has had so few readers that it is considered not worth the shelf space it has occupied since the early 1970s, when first published. The book carries the subtitle "Unpopular Essays on a Popular Art." I guess poor Vernon, who died in 1986, had no notion just how unpopular his essays would turn out to be.

I say "Vernon" with some trepidation. I happen to have edited On Film during the year or so I spent in publishing, and I recall his writing to me about the phenomenon of Americans he scarcely knew calling him by his first name. He didn't like it, not a bit. "When people do that to me," he wrote, "I always say to them: 'My good friends call me Mr. Young. Won't you do likewise." He also once asked me what I thought it was Americans meant when, upon parting, they said, "Have fun." The expression on his face when he emitted these words would have been more appropriate on that of a swordsman, just before running you through, uttering, "Die, dog."

Vernon Young was born in 1912, an Englishman but international in outlook. During my editing of his book, and during the time a little later when I asked him to write a few pieces for a magazine I edited, I addressed all correspondence with him to Stockholm, c/o Swerlow. I never met Swerlow, but people who knew Vernon said that he was adept at moving in on women, and I assumed she was one of them.

As befitted his hauteur, Vernon's look was aristocratic, slender, coldly elegant. He had a long neck, and wore high collars to disguise it. In profile, as he is photographed on the back of the dust jacket of On Film, he looks like a handsomer Bertrand Russell. He might have been a character in an Anthony Powell novel, a friend of X Trapnel or "Books" Bagshaw.

As someone who had arranged for his collection of essays, and who solicited other writing from him, I suppose I was one of Vernon Young's minor benefactors. His great benefactor was Frederick Morgan, editor of the Hudson Review, which published his essays over more than three decades. Fred, an immensely good-hearted man, took it upon himself to watch out for him. When Princeton invited Vernon to speak, Fred worried about how he would be able to get Vernon back to Sweden.

The only time I met Vernon Young, he stared at me, or so I felt, as if through a jeweler's loupe. I felt he was testing me, carefully weighing his judgment, the way he might a suspiciously middlebrow movie. Vernon was an immitigable highbrow, rigorous, unbending, more interested in film than in movies. He wrote with great suavity about new films from Asia, Italy, Mexico, Sweden, France, Italy, England, always with an eye to capturing the element of national culture at play in the work. Here is a sample of Vernon's writing:

If I say that Europeans are frequently more coherent when translating the raw material of the American scene into movie substance, I don't expect the remark to be taken as a finality. But no domestic social realism film I've yet seen, expressionist or naturalistic, has caught even a reverberation of the polyglot wonder discovered by Francois Reichenbach in his "documentary," L'Amérique insolite.

Vernon was, in other words, not someone you would want to invite to Adam Sandler's latest flick. He was also the sort of writer whom as an editor you wouldn't ask to change a comma unless you had good arguments lined up in advance for your request. A friend once told me that he blew a large fee to write some captions for Vogue because they wanted him to make some small changes in what he had sent them. A difficult, even an obstinate man, Vernon, but a man with his own kind of unblinking integrity, and lofty critical principles such as we are not likely soon to see again.

I'm glad to own this copy of Vernon Young On Film. Having had a small hand in bringing the book into the world, I figure the least I can do is provide it with a good home.