Few themes recur so insistently in American literature as that of boyhood: it has been a preoccupation of writers as diverse as Booth Tarkington, William Faulkner, Mark Twain, Frank Conroy and Thomas Wolfe.
A provocative explanation for this persistence of boyhood's grasp is suggested by a fine, gentle new book by Ezra Bowen called Henry and Other Heroes (Little, Brown, $6.95). "An Informal Memoir of High Dreams and Vanished Seasons," it is a considerably more complex, moving and thoughtful piece of work than the lighthearted tone might lead the reader to believe.
The book argues, in a singularly self-effacing fashion, that many American men simply remain boys, and that a principal manifestation of this is their continuing fascination with sport. The author supports the argument by telling the story of his own life.
Bowen, now in his late 40s, was born into more than comfortable, but difficult, circumstances. His parents were divorced when he was young, and so he lived with his mother, Catherine Drinker Bowen, the distinguished biographer—and perfectionist, which at the time was more to the point for Ezra. He grew up surrounded by her family, the Drinkers, "a powerful Philadelphia-based clan of which at age six I was the third smallest male among some three dozen close blood relatives." He compensated for this unsatisfactory position with a world of fantasy. The 54-pound shrimp, battered about on his grammar school's 80-pound team, was in dreams "in college" with his friend Henry, scoring touchdown after touchdown in a succession of imaginary football games.
Bowen grew older, but his dedication to sports and other games of life did not lessen. Whether playing semi-pro baseball in Canada, basketball in the Navy or driving cattle in the West, he continued in pursuit of the victories that the fiercely competitive family tradition demanded of him. Only in later life did he come to acknowledge that his fate was to be the hero-worshiper rather than the hero, and his quiet acceptance of that fate closes the book on a note that is, in its own unexpected way, triumphant. It is rendered no less so by the final insight he offers us: being a "grown-up" is not so terrific anyway. With vast, and thoroughly documented, suspicion, he labels grown-ups, with only three exceptions, "They," and makes it all too clear that man's may not be so honorable an estate.
Bowen's is the fate that awaits most of us, of course, and Henry and Other Heroes touches a common chord. He makes no claims for the universality of his story, but he could well have done so. This may be a modest book, but it is a lovely and valuable one.