A Century of Reading: The 10 Books That Defined the 1910s
Some books are flashes in the pan, read for entertainment and then left on a bus seat for the next lucky person to pick up and enjoy, forgotten by most after their season has passed. Others stick around, are read and re-read, are taught and discussed. sometimes due to great artistry, sometimes due to luck, and sometimes because they manage to recognize and capture some element of the culture of the time.
In the moment, you often can’t tell which books are which. The Great Gatsby wasn’t a bestseller upon its release, but we now see it as emblematic of a certain American sensibility in the 1920s. Of course, hindsight can also distort the senses; the canon looms and obscures. Still, over the next weeks, we’ll be publishing a list a day, each one attempting to define a discrete decade, starting with the 1900s (as you’ve no doubt guessed by now) and counting down until we get to the (nearly complete) 2010s.
Though the books on these lists need not be American in origin, I am looking for books that evoke some aspect of American life, actual or intellectual, in each decade—a global lens would require a much longer list. And of course, varied and complex as it is, there’s no list that could truly define American life over ten or any number of years, so I do not make any claim on exhaustiveness. I’ve simply selected books that, if read together, would give a fair picture of the landscape of literary culture for that decade—both as it was and as it is remembered. Finally, two process notes: I’ve limited myself to one book for author over the entire 12-part list, so you may see certain works skipped over in favor of others, even if both are important (for instance, I’ll be ignoring Dubliners so later I can include Ulysses), and in the case of translated work, I’ll be using the date of the English translation, for obvious reasons.
For our second installment, below you’ll find 10 books that defined the second decade of the 1900s.
Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull House (1910)
In 1889, trailblazing social worker, activist and suffragist Addams co-founded what would become America’s most famous settlement house, with her partner Ellen Gates Starr, in an old unused mansion in Chicago. They imagined it as a true cooperative space, which would provide housing, educational, artistic, and social programs to women from all walks of life. Soon Hull House grew, becoming deeply involved in local politics, and eventually expanding into 13 buildings. Twenty Years at Hull House is her memoir of that time, and of course is less influential than the work and the house itself, but I’m including it here as a record.
J. M. Barrie, Peter and Wendy (1911)
Barrie’s most famous story originated in 1904 as a play, and was published in novel form in 1911. As with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the enduring popularity and relevance of this text is self-evident, but the older I get the more I think it relevant to modern American life (despite the fact that Barrie was a Scot who lived in London)—the vile repercussions of our culture-wide extended childhood (and particularly, boyhood, and all the excuses we make for it) have been nipping at our heels for decades.
Zane Grey, Riders of the Purple Sage (1912)
Described by some as “perhaps the most popular novel of the Old West ever published,” but certainly a seminal Western novel—and therefore, in a certain sense, a seminal American novel by default—either way. As Russell Martin wrote in The New York Times:
Grey created a fanciful world that related an archetypal American story—one that told us something important about what decent people we thought we were, and how each of us ought to act in the face of life’s mean tribulations.
But Grey’s mythical world was only loosely based on that brief moment in history when vast stretches of America actually were dominated by bison and Indians, bad men and frontier justice. ”The West is dead, my friend,” wrote the artist Charles M. Russell as early as l917.
A bestseller that has been adapted to film no less than five times, this is a novel that captured the American self-mythologizing imagination both in its time and for many years to come.
Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan of the Apes (1912)
Edgar Rice Burroughs was an impressive jack-of-all-trades as a writer, producing science fiction, fantasy, westerns, and historical romances. But none of his other work approached the popularity Tarzan, the boy raised by apes, who was an instant sensation upon his publication. Burroughs wound up writing some 24 sequels, and he also founded a town based on his character. Yes—first he bought a ranch north of Los Angeles, which he named “Tarzana,” and the community that sprung up around said ranch officially adopted the name. “Edgar Rice Burroughs never would have looked upon himself as a social mover and shaker with social obligations,” Ray Bradbury told The Paris Review in 2010. “But as it turns out—and I love to say it because it upsets everyone terribly—Burroughs is probably the most influential writer in the entire history of the world.”
By giving romance and adventure to a whole generation of boys, Burroughs caused them to go out and decide to become special. That’s what we have to do for everyone, give the gift of life with our books. Say to a girl or boy at age ten, Hey, life is fun! Grow tall! I’ve talked to more biochemists and more astronomers and technologists in various fields, who, when they were ten years old, fell in love with John Carter and Tarzan and decided to become something romantic. Burroughs put us on the moon. All the technologists read Burroughs.
Willa Cather, O Pioneers! (1913)
Willa Cather knew a little something about westward expansion. She was born in Virginia in 1873, but moved with her family to Nebraska when she was ten, to the small town life that would inform the first novel of her Great Plains trilogy, and all of her best writing. It was greeted with acclaim when it was first published, and in its day recognized as a new kind of American masterpiece.
“The hero of the American novel very often starts on the farm, but he seldom stays there; instead, he uses it as a spring-board from which to plunge into the mysteries of politics or finance,” Edwin Clark wrote in a 1913 review in The New York Times.
Probably the novel reflects a national tendency. To be sure, after we have carefully separated ourselves from the soil, we are apt to talk a lot about the advantages of a return to it, but in most cases, it ends there. The average American does not have any deep instinct for the land, or vital consciousness of the dignity and value of the life that may be lived upon it.
O Pioneers! is filled with this instinct and this consciousness. It is a tale of the old wood-and-field-worshipping races, Swedes and Bohemians, transplanted to Nebraskan uplands, of their struggle with the untamed soil, and their final conquest of it. Miss Cather has written a good story, we hasten to assure the reader who cares for good stories, but she has achieved something even finer. Through a direct, human tale of love and struggle and attainment, a tale that is American in the best sense of the word, there runs a thread of symbolism. It is practically a novel without a hero.
It’s also just wonderful. “Others of Cather’s books—for example, The Professor’s House—are sadder than O Pioneers!, because, being less romantic, they are harder to regard as a fiction,” Joan Acocella wrote on the book’s 100th birthday. “But this is the one that takes a knife and stabs you through the heart, by its joining of such ravishment with such pessimism.”
Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams (English translation, 1913)
Freud’s work hit the English language world in 1913, and its reverberations have been felt ever since. It was a revolution upon its publication, and soon became the founding document for an entire new social consciousness and therapeutic system—flawed as it may have been, there is no denying its influence, and its continuing influence in the way we see ourselves and each other today.
Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons (1914)
Though we’ll get our fill of modernism tomorrow, with the 1920s list, it was already beginning in this decade, with, among other things, the great American poet Gertrude Stein, whose Tender Buttons is considered to be all of the following: “a masterpiece of verbal Cubism, a modernist triumph, a spectacular failure, a collection of confusing gibberish, and an intentional hoax.”
Booth Tarkington, The Magnificent Ambersons (1918)
A more prototypical “American story” of the era would be hard to find. An aristocratic Indianapolis family faces industrialization, social change, declining fortunes, and the influx of the newly-moneyed. “The Magnificent Ambersons is perhaps Tarkington’s best novel,” wrote critic Van Wyck Brooks, according to the back matter of every copy. “[It is] a typical story of an American family and town—the great family that locally ruled the roost and vanished virtually in a day as the town spread and darkened into a city. This novel no doubt was a permanent page in the social history of the United States, so admirably conceived and written was the tale of the Ambersons, their house, their fate and the growth of the community in which they were submerged in the end.” It won the Pulitzer Prize the next year.
W. B. Yeats, The Wild Swans at Coole (1917, 1919)
Honestly, William Butler Yeats, widely acknowledged as one of the most important literary figures of the 20th century and beloved both in his native Ireland and in America (and in lots of other places), could go in a number of decades, but I’ll fit him in here, during his middle period, in the years just before he won the Nobel Prize in poetry in 1923. He published an edition of The Wild Swans at Coole in 1917, containing 29 poems and a play, and then an updated version two years later, adding 17 poems and scrapping the play. Included are “On being asked for a War Poem,” and “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” among others.
Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio (1919)
First of all, Winesburg, Ohio is a formal achievement, being one of the earliest and still one of the best linked collections, each story set in the same fictional small town. But it was also immediately welcomed into the canon of Great American Literature upon its publication, in part, no doubt, because of its special and highly American sense of isolation. A reviewer in the Boston Transcript declared it proof “of what American fiction can be when an artist with vision and sensibility, with comprehension and the capacity to test reality with imagination, deals with the infinities that lie beneath the commonplace materials of American life.” He wasn’t the only fan. “America should read this book on her knees,” Hart Crane proclaimed in the year of its publication. “It constitutes an important chapter in the Bible of her consciousness.”
See also: Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden (1911), T. S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1915), E. M. Forster, Howards End (1910), D. H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers (1913), James Joyce, Dubliners (1914), James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion (1914) etc.
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