Monday, May 6, 2013

1925: Soundings by A. Hamilton Gibbs

            Arthur Hamilton Gibbs (1888 – 1964) was born in London.  He was the youngest of three brothers who all had successful careers in writing (his brothers were Cosmo Hamilton, whose success was mainly as a playwright, and Sir Philip Hamilton Gibbs, who was knighted in response to his reporting on the first world war).  Arthur served in World War One as an artillery officer in Egypt, France, and Serbia.  In 1919 he married Bostonian attorney Jeanette Phillips, and in 1920 moved permanently to the United States.  He became a naturalized American citizen soon after.

So what's this book about?         
         Soundings tells the story of Nancy Hawthorne, an artist’s daughter from a small town in England as she emerges into adulthood.  Her father, who has raised her to operate outside pointless convention, decides she should spend a year travelling abroad to discover herself.  In France, she befriends an American girl.  When the American girl’s brother and his roommate, Bob, come to visit, she falls in love with Bob. 

            The story is, by and large, pretty melodramatic.  This, among other aspects of the story, really undermines the themes of not shaming sexuality and overthrowing unfair conventions.  It’s this inconsistency that was my biggest problem with Soundings. It seems to revel in the conventions it criticizes. It's stuck half-way between a critique of society and a potboiler romance, but refuses to commit itself to either role.

Why was it so popular?
            Soundings is unconventional enough to be controversial, but inoffensive enough to be popular. It embraces some of the newly popular (at the time) ideas about women’s freedom and sexuality, without letting the characters benefit by it. 

Why haven't I heard of it? 
           The reasons I listed for its popularity above are the same reasons it can’t be popular now.  The ‘new ideas’ have become old ideas.  If the story were more about how society were enforcing these conventions on the protagonist, it may have held up better, but almost everyone she meets is supportive of her and her ideology. 

Should I read it?
          Not unless you really like romance novels.  Even taking into account the inconsistencies in the story's message(s), it is a decent, well-written, romance.  The criticisms of societal conventions are valid, but they are no longer as revolutionary as they once were.  There are certainly worse romance novels out there, but there are better, as well.

Also published in 1925:
An American Tragedy - Theodore Dreiser
The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald  
The Trial  - Franz Kafka  
Mrs. Dalloway - Virginia Woolf  
The Hollow Men - T. S. Eliot


Gibbs, A. Hamilton.  Soundings. Little Brown and Company. 1925. Print.

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

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