Monday, October 28, 2013

1953 and a Brief Announcement

If you're looking for the entry for 1953's bestseller, The Robe by Lloyd C. Douglas, follow this link.

Otherwise, a brief announcement!  

       I'm really enjoying this project and plan to continue it until it's completed.  However, my course load is pretty heavy right now.  So I won't be able to maintain the weekly schedule for my project posts and will be doing them biweekly, at least until the end of the semester.  The reading and research required for each post takes considerably more time than writing the post itself.  In addition to giving me more time to study, I will also be able to focus more on posts outside the main review project.  So stay tuned!

Monday, October 21, 2013

1952: The Silver Chalice by Thomas B. Costain

The Author:

            Thomas B. Costain (1885-1965), was born in Brantford, Ontario, Canada.  His writing career started in 1902 when he was hired by the Brantford Courier as a reporter.  He later went on to work for the Ontario’s Guelph Daily Mercury in 1908.  In 1910, he married Ida Spragge and was hired as an editor by the Maclean Publishing Company.

            In 1920, Costain moved to the United States to become an editor of the Saturday Evening Post. That same year, he became a naturalized citizen.  He remained at the Saturday Evening Post until 1934, when he became a story-editor for Twentieth Century Fox.  He published his first novel in 1942, My Great Folly, which, like the rest of his novels, was a piece of historical fiction.  Costain also wrote a lot of non-fiction volumes, most notably the Plantagenet series, about the Middle Ages dynasty of the same name.

The Book:

Length: 533 pages

Subject/Genre: Early Christianity/Historical Fiction

            The Silver Chalice takes place in first century Greece, Rome, and Jerusalem.  The novel’s protagonist is a gifted silversmith named Basil.  Adopted by a wealthy Greek merchant, Basil was wrongly sold into slavery by his adoptive Uncle after his adopted-father’s death.  But the quality of his workmanship gained the attention of Luke (as in, ‘the gospel according to’).  Luke buys Basil’s freedom and takes him to Jerusalem to work for Joseph of Arimathea.  After completing demonstrating his ability to Joseph (and impressing his Joseph’s granddaughter, Deborra), Joseph reveals to Paul and Luke that he has the Holy Grail.

Artist's recreation

Joseph wants Basil to craft a silver chalice to house it.  This will require Basil to travel and meet the apostles so he can sculpt them.

            This is by no means the first time I’ve said what I’m about to say, but I feel like I need to say it again.  I was clearly not in the target audience for this piece of Christian historical fiction.  What I’ve found reading a bunch of these, is that they start with the assumption that anyone who reads it is already going to feel very strongly for Christianity.  If you don’t start with this viewpoint, the character’s emotional and spiritual growth doesn’t seem particularly reasonable because it acts as if there is only one possible spiritual/philosophical response.  Which, if you start with a foregone conclusion, isn’t a problem, but otherwise it falls apart a bit. 

            As I pointed out in the bio section, Costain was also known for his non-fiction histories.  From what I’ve found, the detail in The Silver Chalice (and there’s a lot of it) is very well researched.  In his attempt to capture the ancient world, Costain, like Lloyd C. Douglas, decided to use prose that mimics a scriptural tone. For example, “The oil merchant, gasping for breath and slightly purple of cheek, stepping inside to escape the sun, which was beating down with all the fury of the fires of atonement.”  The frequent use of archaic grammar (“purple of cheek”) and over-the-top religious metaphor seems a bit pompous, honestly.
            It wasn’t incidental that I mentioned Lloyd C. Douglas in the previous paragraph.  The Silver Chalice was frequently compared to The Robe, which is also the bestseller for the second time in 1953.  Religious fiction and historical fiction have been perennial favorites in American popular literature.  Likewise, one of the best ways to get on the bestsellers list is to have previously been on the bestsellers list.  Costain appeared on the top ten annual bestsellers four times in the 1940s, reaching the number two spot in 1947.  As with most of the bestsellers so far, The Silver Chalice was made into a film.

            The 1954 film is notable for two things: Being Paul Newman’s first feature film role (he played Basil) and being so bad that when it was going to air on TV years after its theatrical release, Newman took out an ad apologizing for the film. 

            Like with a lot of the books I’ve read so far on this list, The Silver Chalice is not bad, but it’s not very good.  It’s pretty understandable why it’s no longer famous.  If you enjoy religious/historical fiction, you’ll probably like The Silver Chalice, but there’s no particular reason to seek out this novel, specifically.

Also published in 1952:

Ralph Ellison - Invisible Man
Edna Ferber - Giant
Ernest Hemingway - The Old Man and the Sea
Flannery O'Connor - Wise Blood
John Steinbeck - East of Eden
Kurt Vonnegut - Player Piano
E. B. White -Charlotte's Web

Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Scribners. Supplement 7 (1961-5). Print.
Costain, Thomas B. The Silver Chalice. Garden City, New York: Doubleday. 1952. Print.

Monday, October 14, 2013

1951: From Here To Eternity by James Jones

The Author:

          James Jones (1921-1977) was born in Robinson, Illinois. Although the discovery of oil on family property briefly brought the Joneses wealth, when Jones graduated High School in 1939, the money had run out.  With no money to pay for college, Jones joined the U.S. Army Air Corps.  His poor eyesight prevented him from becoming a pilot, so in 1940 he transferred to the infantry and was sent to Schofield Barracks in Honolulu. Over the following year, both of Jones’ parents died, and the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. In December 1942, Jones was sent out to fight in Guadalcanal. 

            Wounded physically and emotionally, Jones was shipped home in 1943. He decided to stay in the army on limited duty, but was sent to a combat outfit preparing to ship out for battle.  Jones went AWOL and headed back to Robinson.  Here, he met his mentor and future lover, Lowney Handy and her husband Harry.  Jones went AWOL several times over the following year, and was eventually given a medical discharge.  He then went to live at the Handy Writers’ Colony. 

In 1951, he published From Here to Eternity, which focused on the military life in Hawaii.  In 1957 he married Gloria Patricia Mosolino.  They moved back to the Writers’ Colony, but left after a violent altercation between Lowney and Gloria. The Joneses moved to Paris. Although he published many novels over the decades following From Here to Eternity, the first to receive the critical and public reception that FHtE received was 1962’s The Thin Red Line, about his experiences in Guadalcanal.  This was the second book of his “War Trilogy.”  He returned to the U.S. to teach at the Florida International Institute in 1974.  He died of congestive heart failure in 1977.  The last book of his war trilogy, Whistle, was published posthumously in 1978.

The Book:

First Edition Cover

From Here To Eternity follows the life of Robert E. Lee Prewitt, a soldier from a small southern town stationed in Hawaii before the U.S. entered World War II.  Prewitt had blinded another soldier during a boxing match before the events in the novel begin gave up boxing so as not to hurt any one else.  Upon transferring back to G company, known for its boxing, Prewitt’s refusal to fight puts him at odds with his superiors.  There are other major storylines, like Sgt. Warden’s affair with Cpt. Holmes’ wife, Karen. 

The novel deals honestly and directly with morally ambiguous situations, and with topics like sex and honor.  Which is a bit of a relief and surprise, seeing as the previous bestseller was about a morally upright priest and the book after this is biblical historical fiction about a morally upright metallurgist.  Of course, this frankness, the sex scenes, the frequent cussing, would itself help sales for the novel.  Controversy is good for sales. 

That’s not to say that the novel isn’t good.  It is, very much so.  In fact, From Here To Eternity is one of the six novels on the list to also appear on Modern Library’s List of 100 Best Novels (the other five: The Grapes of Wrath, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Portnoy’s Complaint, Main Street, and Ragtime).  From Here To Eternity was a critical and commercial success. 

Of course, the 1953 film adaptation starring Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr, is about as famous (and well-received) as the novel.  Even if you’ve never heard of the movie (several people I’ve spoken to recently haven’t), you’re definitely familiar with this famous scene:

If you don’t recognize it here, you might recognize it from The Seven Year Itch, Airplane!, The Nutty Professor, or Shrek 2, as well as countless other films and TV shows that parodied this scene.

The novel’s a little slow in the beginning, and it’s not a war novel so much as it is an army novel. If you like books that deal with complex relationships, both romantic and professional, and with complex group dynamics, this is a must-read.

Also Published in 1951:
Isaac Asimov - Foundation
Ray Bradbury - The Illustrated Man
Howard Fast - Spartacus
J. D. Salinger - The Catcher in the Rye
Herman Wouk - The Caine Mutiny

Jones, James. From Here To Eternity. New York: Scribner's. 1951. Print.
Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Scribner's. Supplement 10 (1976-
           80). Print.

Monday, October 7, 2013

1950: The Cardinal by Henry Morton Robinson

The Author: 

Henry Morton Robinson (1898-1961) was born in Boston, the oldest of eleven children.  Upon graduating high school, Robinson served in the U.S. military for two years.  He then attended Columbia University and began publishing poetry, his first book, Children of Morningside, being published in 1924.  That same year, he received his M.A. and went on to teach at Columbia.  

He produced volumes of poetry, novels, and non-fiction works in the following decades.  In 1944, Robinson and Joseph Campbell released "The Skeleton Key to Finnegan's Wake."  The Cardinal, published in 1950, was Robinson's most successful work.

The Book:

Length: 579 pages
Subject/Genre: Catholic priests/religious fiction

The Cardinal follows the story of Father Stephen Fermoyle, a priest from a working class Boston family, from his first assignment through his rise to the position of Cardinal.  

I've read several books about priests or religious professionals so far on this list, and while Robinson's prose may be the nicest, I'm not that fond of the story for a few reasons.  I'm going to compare this to a couple other novels I reviewed, 1913's The Inside of the Cup and 1941's The Keys of the Kingdom.  The Inside of the Cup deals with its protagonist coming to reexamine and reinterpret his faith.  While Father Fermoyle has challenges thrown at him, there's (at most) a little uneasiness on his part, but he learns a valuable lesson and moves on.  Generally speaking, Stephen Fermoyle is a good guy who cares about everybody and wants to make the world a better place.  The same is true of the protagonist in The Keys of the Kingdom, but the protagonist of that novel is not always able to overcome the obstacles set before him and, because of this extreme honesty and kindness, does not climb higher in the church.  The big problem I have with The Cardinal is that Father Fermoyle doesn't really face much resistance. Things just work out because he's a nice guy.    

Of course, that may be the point.  When doing research on the novel, I usually saw it referred to as "inspiring."  Assuming this isn't just a case of the phrase 'inspirational literature' being synonymous with 'religious literature,' it's easy to see why people liked it. It's a story about a good man who, through being good and honest, succeeds.  It's an affirmation of the values we are told to cherish.  More than a few of the reviews I read included people saying that it made them want to be a priest when they were kids.  

There is a sense of nostalgia running through The Cardinal, and not just because it's set in the first half of the 20th century.  It's clear that Robinson had a love for the church and this shows in his writing.     

While I've not been able to confirm it, the claims that Stephen Fermoyle is at least partly based on the cardinal Francis Spellman seem reasonable.  At the risk of going on a weird little tangent, there's a pretty vicious letter that Hemingway wrote to Spellman after Spellman had a bunch of seminarians break a gravediggers strike in 1949.

My Dear Cardinal:   

In every picture that I see of you there is more mealy mouthed arrogance, fatness and over-confidence.   

As a strike breaker against catholic workers, as an attacker of Mrs. Roosevelt, I feel strongly that you are over-extending yourself.  It is very bad for a Prince of the Church to become over-confident.

I know that you lied about the Spanish Republic and I know why you lied.  I know who you take your orders from and why such orders are given.  You are heading a minority group in the United States, to which I was a dues-paying member, but you are heading it with arrogance, insolence, and the fatness of a Prince of the Church.

The word in Europe is that you will be the next, and first, American Pope.  But please disabuse yourself on this and do not keep pressing so hard.  You will never be Pope as long as I am alive.

Being a religious novel, The Cardinal does take up some controversial topics, most notably abortion.  Specifically, abortion when giving birth would definitely kill the mother.  Putting aside the rest of the debate on abortion, and just focusing on this specific circumstance, it's clear how it would be a morally contentious point with no easy answer.  Unless, of course, you're Stephen Fermoyle, in which case the answer is unquestionably to let the mother die.  This view plays a major part in an important plot point.  I don't mean to get hung up about it, but the issue is not handled well in the novel at all.  

That bit of unpleasantness aside, the book kept selling, and was the #4 best seller in 1951.  A film version was released in 1963, starring Tom Tryon (I've never heard of him, either).

The Cardinal is well-written, and if you're looking for a religious, inspirational story, then this should work for you.   

Also Published in 1950:

Isaac Asimov - I, Robot
Ray Bradbury - The Martian Chronicles
Ford Madox Ford - Parade's End
C. S. Lewis - The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe


Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Scribner. Supplement 7: 1961-1965. Print.  

Hemingway, Ernest. Ernest Hemingway, Selected Letters, 1917-1961. New York: Scribner. 
      1981. Web.   

Robinson, Henry Morton. The Cardinal. New York: Simon and Schuster. 1950. Print.