On the rare occasions when I’m back in the U.S., I always try to take time to stop by a public library and do some browsing through back issues of Book Review Digest. This evening, flipping through the 1950 volume, my eye was caught by the entry for Graham Peck’s Two Kinds of Time. Here is what Robert Payne had to say about it in the Saturday Review:
The present work, jam-packed with anecdotes, incidents, observations, theories, portraits, drawings, obscene jokes, quiet jokes, terrifying jokes, even ordinary jokes, has everything to commend it. It bursts at the seams, but so does Gargantua and Pantagruel. He has not written the modern Chinese Gargantua and Pantagruel, but he has done the nearest thing to it.
I took down the title, of course, and when I got back to the hotel, quickly googled it. To my surprise and pleasure, I found that this book, cited by numerous writers as one of the best books ever written about China by a Westerner, is about to be reissued in full, unabridged form for the first time in nearly sixty years–and from my alma mater, the University of Washington Press.
Peck, a Yale graduate, artist, and heir to a small hairpin fortune, first arrived in China in January 1936 while on a round-the-world trip. He ended up spending the better part of a year there before returning to Derby, Connecticut, where he then spent two years writing up his notes and collecting dozens of drawings into his first book, Through China’s Wall, which was published by Houghton in 1940. The book’s critical reception was superlative: “… the most important, the most fascinating travel book on China”; “remarkably unadulterated travel writing, transmitting observation and experiences close to the sensations of the moments when they occurred to a man of unusually balanced and sensitive intelligence”; “a better characterization in a paragraph than most venerable sinologists could achieve in a volume.” And, as Time‘s reviewer put it, “It is part exquisite travel book, part exciting history, part exotic philosophy.”
Peck returned to China in 1939 and remained there for the next six and a half years, surviving Japanese air raids, accompanying Mao’s Communist forces, and working for the U.S. Office of Information. He then left China for good and returned to his family home in Derby, Connecticut. Although he wrote several children’s books and collaborated with the veteran “China hand” John K. Fairbanks on China: The Remembered Life, it appears that Peck spent most of the rest of his life after 1946 looking backward, not forward. He died in 1968 at the age of 54.
Two Kinds of Time will be published on 30 October 2008 by the University of Washington Press.