Monday, April 29, 2013

1924: So Big by Edna Ferber



Who?
Edna Ferber (1885-1968) was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan to a Jewish family.  In her childhood, her family moved across the Midwest.  After graduating high school, she briefly worked as a journalist for the Appleton Daily Crescent and the Milwaukee Journal.  Her writing career was strong, winning the Pulitzer Prize for So Big (1924) and was a member of the Algonquin Round Table, a group of writers, performers, and critics that met daily at the Algonquin hotel in New York which included the likes of Dorothy Parker and Harpo Marx. 

            Ferber never married nor had children.  Most reports of serious romantic relationships are based largely on speculation and rumor.  But she had a career that spanned over fifty years.  In 1931, her novel Cimarron (1929) became the fourth film to win an Oscar for best picture.  Giant (1952) is probably her best known work at present, due in no small part to the film version starring James Dean. 

So what's this book about?           
            So Big is titled after the protagonist’s son’s nickname.  The protagonist is Selina De Jong nee Peake, a young woman who goes to the Dutch faming community on the outskirts of Chicago as a schoolteacher.  Despite the culture shock, she soon falls for and marries the farmer Pervus De Jong.  When Pervus dies, Selina raises her son while taking over the farm.

            While the story as I’ve described it so far may not seem particularly special, Selina De Jong is an incredibly well-drawn character.  Her relationship with the town and, more importantly, her relationship with her son as a child and when he becomes a successful bond broker, is beautifully rendered. 
            So Big is as much a portrait of Dutch farming communities at the turn of the century as it is a record of how the world changed from the 1890s to the 1920s. 

Why was it so popular?
            So Big, like Main Street, and to one extent or another, many of the books so far on the list, deals with role of immigrants and the poor in society, and more specifically, the undeserved disdain they receive from those that are better off.  But not just anyone that is ‘better off.’  So Big isn’t taking a stance against wealth, but against wealth for the sake of wealth.  One of the novel’s supporting characters is a packing industry tycoon, one of the many of his kind that sprung into existence in the before the anti-trust laws dissolved their empires.  This character is shown favorably.  He built his company from the ground up and, as evidenced by his continued friendship with his low-level employees and personal affectations, has never forgotten where he came from.  His children and grandchildren are not represented as well and it is these characters (and those of their ilk) that are seen as being disdainful to the poor.

        Also, within the year of 1924, a silent film version was made featuring the extremely popular Colleen Moore.


If you wanted to see the film, you're out of luck.  It's considered a lost film, with only copies of the trailer existing.

           
Why haven't I heard of it?
           While the topic of poor migrant workers is as valid today as it was ninety years ago, the nature of the topic has changed.  We no longer have large numbers of immigrant independent small farm owners.  Additionally, the subject of “turn of the century Dutch immigrant farming community” does not sound interesting.

Should I read it?
          Yes.  Well-written with a good story, the best thing about So Big is the characters.  Even the bit characters are complex enough to dig into.  Even if you’re like me, and the subject is not an enticement, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.      

Also published in 1924:

The Land That Time Forgot - Edgar Rice Burroughs
Billy Budd, Sailor - Herman Melville

Sources:

Ferber, Edna. So Big. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page & co. 1924.

Gilbert, Julie Goldsmith.  Ferber, a biography. Garden City, NY: Doubleday. 1978.



Monday, April 22, 2013

1923: Black Oxen by Gertrude Atherton




Who?
Gertrude Atherton (1857-1948) was born in San Francisco into a broken marriage.  By the time she was three years old, her father (a wealthy Yankee businessman) had left her mother , Gertrude Horn nee Franklin (a Southern belle), a marriage forced on Gertrude by her parents.  Gertrude (the younger) was raised more by her grandfather and nurse than by her mother.  Gertrude was a trouble-maker.  She would trick “the neighborhood children into playing with her by giving them her toys, then beating them up”  (Leider 26).  Her mother remarried to a successful businessman who went broke, got into gambling debt, and was run out of town by her grandfather. 

            Gertrude Horn married George Atherton in 1876.  The marriage was not a happy one.  She had a son and a daughter.  The son died of diphtheria at the age of six in 1882.  George Atherton died at sea in 1887.  Later that year, she moved to New York, leaving her nine year old daughter with her mother-in-law.  She became the protégé to writer Ambrose Bierce, and much of her writing career focused on the cultural history of California. 

So what's this book about?
      The story centers on the relationship between thirty-four year old columnist Lee Clavering, and Mary Zattiany, a 58 year old woman who, through modern science, has regained her youth (although this is unknown at the beginning).  The story takes place within New York’s high society and there is much criticism of both the older and younger generations in the 1920s.   The older generation is argued to be unreasonably caught up in convention while the younger generation is shown as being too eager to flout their straying from those same conventions. 

      Black Oxen is certainly well-written, although the frequent delving into philosophy about youth and age, experience and responsibility, among other things, throws off the pacing in the last 100 or so pages. 

Why was it so popular
The title Black Oxen comes from the play The Countess Cathleen by William Butler Yeats.

            The years like great black oxen tread the world
            And God the herdsman goads them on behind
            And I am broken by their passing feet.

This is where things get odd and fascinating.  Yeats and Atherton both received what was known as the Steinach treatment, which was supposed to do exactly what the operation in Black Oxen did: restore youth, not just in terms of physical appearance, but mental ability.  Whether or not there was any validity to the procedure, Yeats and Atherton both believed that the procedure worked.  In the case of Atherton (and her heroine), the procedure involved light x-ray irradiation of the ovaries.  This was supposed to cause the production of hormones that stopped being produced after menopause, and therefore undo some of the aging process.  Although Atherton did not publicly admit to having the treatment, that she did have it was an open secret.

Additionally, the book was banned from the Rochester library in New York, which raised controversy and public interest. 

Why haven't I heard about it?
Despite the contemporary popularity of Black Oxen, Atherton is best remembered for her books on California.  And, as the Steinach treatment became an obscure footnote in medical history, one of the major premises in the book lost that contact with reality.

Should I read it?
Maybe.  It’s certainly well-written, and Atherton raises some interesting points, yet the story seems to repeat itself a lot and drags, especially near the end.

You can read Black Oxen on Project Gutenberg.

Sources:    

Atherton, Gertrude. Black Oxen. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1923.

Leider, Emily. California's Daughter: Gertrude Atherton and Her Times. Stanford: Standford        University Press, 1991.


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

ERB: Dr. Seuss Vs. Shakespeare

If you haven't heard of them, you should check out Epic Rap Battles of History.  Even if you aren't into rap (like myself), these guys are still impressive.  


Monday, April 15, 2013

1922: If Winter Comes by A. S. M. Hutchinson




Who?
Arthur Stuart-Menteth Hutchinson (1879-1971) was born in British India.   His father was a General and his mother was a Scottish noble.  He was expected to go into the military as his brothers did, but was rejected due to his poor eyesight and instead chose to study medicine in London.  He dropped out of medical school and became a journalist in London until the outbreak of World War One, in which he served with Royal Engineers and a Canadian tunneling company.  After the war, he wrote his first success, If Winter Comes.  He continued writing through the 1940’s with some commercial success.  He married in 1926 and moved to Eastbourne where he started a family. 

(Unfortunately, information on Hutchinson’s later life has been hard to find.)

So what's this book about?
If Winter Comes follows the life of Mark Sabre from 1912 through 1919.  The story takes place in an English suburb and focuses on the deterioration of Sabre’s marriage and career, in large part due to Sabre’s inability to adopt the worldview of the suburbanites, including his wife.  Throughout the story, Sabre is reunited with his real love, the Lady Tybar, and deals with changes resulting from World War One.  The book’s title comes from the last lines of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind, “Oh Wind,/ If winter comes, can spring be far behind?”  And, in much the same way that nature destroys and replenishes, so does Sabre’s life fall apart and reconstruct. 

            There is no doubt that we should be rooting for Sabre throughout, and to this end, his wife, Mabel, is unlikable.  My biggest problem with this book is that I can find no reason why Mabel and Sabre ever got married in the first place.  There is nothing about their relationship before they got married, and from day one they don’t really get along.  It seems like a marriage of convenience; convenience for the author, not the characters.   On that note, most of the characters opposed to Sabre are unequivocally mean, and Sabre’s friends are all ‘good.’  In many ways, this is a romance about a man trapped between what he feels is his duty (e.g. staying with his wife, serving his country, etc.) and what he wants for himself.  As a romance, or a story or redemption through virtue, If Winter Comes is successful.

What made it so popular?
If Winter Comes became popular in Britain before making the leap across the Atlantic.  Not only did the novel benefit from word of mouth advertising, but the controversial plot elements managed to pique the public’s interest, elements that set the tone of disillusionment generally considered characteristic of literature during and after World War One. 

Why haven't I heard of it?
The elements that were controversial enough to garner the novel attention at the time have since lost their shock factor. And while If Winter Comes is an enjoyable read, there is nothing particularly transcendent about it that would put it in the realm of classics.  It was made into two films, the first in 1923 and the second in 1947, but since then has not had much of a presence in popular culture.



Should I read it?
If you like romance, then you’ll probably enjoy If Winter Comes.  



You can read If Winter Comes on Project Gutenberg.

Also published in 1922:
The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot
Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
Ulysses by James Joyce

Sources:
Twentieth Century Authors: A Biographical Dictionary of Modern Literature. ed. Stanley Kunitz and Howard Haycraft. New York: The H. W. Wilson Company, 1942. Print.

Hutchinson, Arthur.  If Winter Comes.  1920. New York: Pocket Books Publishing, 1947.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Alternate World Encyclopedias


Arguably his most famous story, Jorge Luis Borges’s Tlön, Uqbar, and Orbis Tertius is about an encyclopedia of a non-existent world.  The encyclopedia in his story is so complete that it starts to supplant reality.  While the following have remained fictional (as far as we know), they are no less amazing.    

The Voynich Manuscript:  
Presumably dating from the 15th century, the Voynich Manuscript is written in an unknown (or maybe indecipherable) language.  It is filled with illustrations of non-existent plants and astronomical charts.    
Named after the book dealer who brought it to popular attention in 1912, the Voynich manuscript is believed to have been passed down through history, at one point being bought by Emperor Rudolf II of Austria.  To this date, no one has been able to decode the manuscript, or for that matter, determine whether or not there is even anything to decode.









Codex Seraphinianus:

Created between 1976 and 1978 by the Italian painter, Luigi Serafini, the Codex Seraphinianus is an encyclopedia in surrealist style, containing what may or may not be an intelligible language.  Perhaps the most amazing detail is the mindblowing images. 










If you want your own copy, it’ll probably run you somewhere in the area of at $500.

The works of J. R. R. Tolkien:

People know  Tolkein as the author of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Hobbit.  It’s common knowledge that he created complete languages for the various races that populate Middle Earth.  But more than that, Tolkein created a complete world history.  In fact, between 1983 and 1996, Tolkein’s son edited and published twelve volumes of Middle Earth’s history, not counting the Silmarillion.

Thousands upon thousands of pages detailing the history, mythology, and languages of a world that never existed. 

Monday, April 8, 2013

1921: Main Street by Sinclair Lewis




Who?
            Harry Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951), better know as ‘Sinclair Lewis,’ was born in the village of Sauk Centre, Minnesota, which would later become the basis for Main Street.  In 1903, he began attending Yale University, taking time off in 1906 to join (as a janitor) Helicon Hall, a cooperative living community created and run by The Jungle novelist, Upton Sinclair.  He graduated from Yale in 1908, and lived briefly in New York and California before settling in Washington D.C.  He occasionally sold story plots to Jack London and in 1914 he married Grace Livingston Hegger.  In 1917, Sinclair and Grace had a son named Wells, who was killed in World War Two.  In 1925, Grace and Lewis divorced.  Lewis married Dorothy Thompson in 1928, and had another son, Michael.  The two divorced in 1942.

            Between 1912 and 1920, Lewis wrote several novels, none of which were very successful.  Main Street, published in 1920, became his first huge success, followed by Babbit (1922), Arrowsmith (1925), and Elmer Gantry (1927).    In 1930, Lewis became the first American author to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.  In the following years, he wrote eleven more novels, none of which “equalled the success or stature of hischeifworks of the twenties.”  After his divorce from Thompson, Lewis lived mainly in Europe.  He had an ongoing problem with alcohol which was a major contributing factor in fatal heart attack.  He died in a clinic on the outskirts of Rome.

So what's this book about?
            Main Street tells the story of Carol Milford, an intelligent and idealistic librarian from Saint Paul, Minnesota.  She falls in love with small-town doctor, Will Kennicott, and agrees to marry and moves with him to his small hometown of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota.  She plans to improve the town, but finds a town ensnared in pettiness, arrogance, and conceit.  The only people she can connect with are the poor immigrants, whom the elite of Gopher Prairie are dependent on and disdainful of.     

            This novel is a scathing satire of the American small town.  In Main Street, Lewis strips away the mythology of the kind and gentle Midwesterner and shows the crooked and self-involved power struggles within the town of Gopher Prairie and all those like it.  The protagonist tries to circumvent the web of jealousy and pride that makes up the town’s mentality, but finds this to be as much a part of the town as the dilapidated buildings. 

            The portrait Lewis paints of Gopher Prairie is exhaustive: in the sense of its completeness and in the sense of its frequently overwhelming, if not superfluous, detail.  Lewis’s prose leaves much to be desired.  Mark Schorer, in his painstakingly researched, tomeful biography Sinclair Lewis, an American Life, concludes that “He was one of the worst writers in modern American Literature, but without his writing one cannot imagine modern American literature” (813).    I wouldn’t go so far as to use the superlative “worst,” but compared to the other ‘greats’ of early 20th century American literature, Lewis is conspicuously lacking in style.  

Why was it so popular? 
           As opposed to the other novels so far reviewed, Main Street is incredibly critical of not only American mentalities but specifically rural America.  Whereas the others either  praised the rustic (e.g., The Eyes of the World, Zane Grey’s novels) or found fault in industrialization (e.g. The Inside of the Cup, The Turmoil), Lewis spends over four hundred pages pointing out the hypocrisy of middle America. 

            There are, of course, contemporary issues raised in the course of the novel.  Woman’s suffrage and the role of women in society was dealt with frequently, as was the role of immigrants and labor unions.  Consider that this was published in 1920, the year the United States ratified the 19th amendment, guaranteeing the women’s right to vote.  This was also written and published at the height of the First Red Scare.  The federal government had been called out to violently end labor strikes.  Anti-immigrant and anti-anarchist sentiment was at a peak; the Immigration Act of 1918 gave the government the ability to deport any immigrants with anarchist connections or ideals.     

            To one extent or another, Main Street calls the American people out on all these issues. 

So why haven't I heard of it?
            It seems that some high schools do (or at least used to) have Main Street as compulsory reading.  Main Street is a slow book.  That isn’t to say the pacing drags, just that it requires a good amount of patience.  And, as I mentioned earlier, Lewis’s prose is not particularly elegant or forceful.  As a study of the small town mentality, currently as well as in the early 20th century, Main Street is fantastic, but that may not be enough to get people to take the time and effort to read it.

Should I read it?
            Yes.  Despite my griping about the prose, the story is strong.  It presents a sometimes infuriating picture of small town politics and the social and economic challenges that grow from that, challenges that are still relevant today.

You can read Main Street on Project Gutenberg.  

Also published in 1921:    

John Galsworthy - To Let (last part of the Forsyte Saga)

George Moore - Heloise and Abelard

Sources:
     Lewis, Sinclair. Main Street. 1920. Mattituck, New York: Amereon House, 1948. Print.
     Schorer, Mark. Sinclair Lewis: An American Life. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961. Print.



              

Wednesday, April 3, 2013


STANDOFF

            Holy crap!  This is a Mexican standoff, isn’t it?  How the hell did I end up in a Mexican standoff?  I only bought this gun to impress that girl from my political science class, I’ve never even fired it!  Oh god, what –

                                              – does this idiot think he’s doing?   He’s a second away from getting his head blown off and… His safety is on!  That little yuppie is pointing a gun at me, and the safety is still on.  That’s great.  I bet the thing’s not even loaded.  I bet the idiot doesn’t even know –

             – he has the code.  It is in his cell phone.  I am to retrieve the code and leave it at dead drop.  Upon delivery I will be paid second half of fifty thousand dollars.  I did not expect any trouble.  The –  
  
                     – FBI has been watching this guy for three years.  Didn’t think he’d be working with foreign powers, especially considering –

                                                                   – I have no idea what I’m doing!  Why is the big guy snarling and glaring at my pockets?  He’s pointing a gun at me; should I point my gun at him?  I have no idea –

                           – how the FBI got their information.  They must have their own sources.  Maybe I will get a chance to interrogate the agent before I leave the country.  Perhaps he will… wait a second.  Is his –
  
                                   – safety on!  My safety is on!  What do I do?  I have to get out of here!
                                         
                                               – click
                                                  
                                                                      –BANG!
                                                                
                                                                                              –BANG!
                             

                                         – click click click
                                                                                                   



































                                                                                     – click?
                                                                                                                                           

Monday, April 1, 2013

1920: The Man of the Forest by Zane Grey



Who?
This is my second time reviewing a book by Pearl Zane Grey, the first being The U. P. Trail.  I’d rather not repeat myself too much in the bio section, so maybe some factoids?  Zane Grey went to college on a baseball scholarship, and played some minor league baseball.  He played one major league game in 1903, for the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Three of his books were about baseball.  Grey was also heavily involved in fishing and wrote fourteen books on the subject.

So what's this book about?
Milt Dale is lives in the woods with his half-tame cougar.  A stoic hero, he overhears a plan to kidnap the nieces (and only heir) to a local ranch owner as part of a larger plot to get the rancher’s land.  Being the hero, Milt sets out to save the girls, Helen and Bo, and to stop the villains. 

As I said in my review of The U. P. Trail, the story is written with strong emotion, but very predictable.  The characters are archetypes and caricatures, the stoic hero, the greedy businessman, the heartless bandit, etc.  Looking at this story from the perspective of its part in creating the Western genre is far more interesting than the story itself.  

While this is only the second Grey novel I’ve read, this seems to be fairly representative of the rest of his works.  It’s easy to read escapism. 

Why was it so popular?
It’s easy to read escapism.   But that’s not all.  Grey’s novels have a fair mix of action and romance, which broadens his readership demographics.  Additionally, the genre was still being developed at that point.  What he was doing was setting the groundwork, which meant that much of his work may have been original and exciting to audiences of the time.  And like I’ve mentioned before, people trust authors they’re familiar with, boosting future book sales. Also, Zane Grey's books were quickly and frequently adapted to film.



Why haven't I heard about it?
There’s nothing particularly special about this book.  Over the years, as the Western genre grew, books like Man of the Forest became cliché.  I feel like I’m repeating myself, but let me reiterate that Zane Grey’s oeuvre is more notable and long lasting than any of his individual books.

Should I read it?
If you like easy to read escapism and the western genre, then sure.  Otherwise, you’ll either be bored and/or disappointed.

You can read The Man of the Forest on Project Gutenberg.

Also published in 1920:  

This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Sources:
Grey, Zane. The Man of the Forest. Roslyn, New York: W. J. Black. 1948. Print.
Gruber, Frank. Zane Grey: A Biography. Roslyn, New York: W. J. Black. 1969. Print.


Oh, you're still here.  Ummm... yeah, today's update was a little shorter than usual.  Sorry about that.