7 MARCH 1958, Page 22

Eight Mad Americans

THE 'square pegs' are eight American eccentrics of the nineteenth century, all intolerable people to deal with, but admirable in their variously cranky ways. One sympathises particularly with George Francis Train, the first man to travel round the world in eighty days, who protested that Jules Verne had stolen his thunder, and with Victoria Woodhull, the Homer, Ohio, girl, born very much on the wrong side of the tracks, who used everything she had (including her sex, her sister and a scandal sheet called Woodhull and Clafflin's Weekly) in an attempt to become the first female President of the United States. (She ended up as the wife of one of the Martins of Martins Bank with a daughter called Zulu Maud, and was the first person ever to sue the British Museum for libel.) Also there are Delia Bacon, the fiend who started the Bacon-for-Shakespeare movement, for whom no forgiveness is possible, Timothy Dexter, who made a profit on selling coals to Newcastle and who wrote a book with- out any punctuation, Joshua Norton, a splendid scrounger from San Francisco and the first -Emperor of the United States, a self-styled King of Trinidad, a really crazy man who thought that the Aurora Borealis was the sun shining through a hole in the earth, and a rather tedious nine- teenth-century version of Louella Parsons who ran another scandal sheet called Paul Pry. For all of them one has the deepest sympathy.

But although the characters are fine, the book suffers from an author whose clichés gum the pages together and who manages to make a potentially fascinating book into a quagmire of sturdy Puritans, determined jaws, fanatical clergy- men, jauntily cocked pens and visitors who changed entire lives. Mr. Wallace, says the blurb, has written for all the major Hollywood film studios, and I for one have no difficulty in believ- ing it. It is a pity that his style is so dreary, because what he has to say is interesting and when he comes to his plea for tolerance one is with him all the way. However, though he spoils 1 is characters' originality by the banality of his writ- ing, enough of their crankiness remains to give point to the inclusion of a bibliography.