Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Century Project: Fiction, 1900-1999, Pt. 1: The 1900s

--by Hanje Richards

The Century Project: Part 1, Fiction from the 1900s

The Copper Queen Library is the oldest continuously-operating public library in Arizona. I often tell visitors this fact, and it got me thinking… We have intentionally kept a lot of old books here in our lovely old building. We have a lot of books that were published in the early years of the 1900s, as well as mid-century books and titles all the way to the end of the century still on our shelves.

Our blogs and displays often focus on the new and contemporary, but what about all the history that is contained in the books on our shelves as well as in this wonderful 100+ year old building?

To create the lists of book featured in the Century Project, I used a list called Most Influential Fiction of the 20th Century, selected by librarians and published in the November 15, 1998 issue of Library Journal, as well as 100 Most Influential Books of the Century and Books That Didn’t Quite Make It, both compiled by the Boston Public Library.

I compared these lists with titles on the shelves of The Copper Queen Library and look forward to sharing what I discovered. Here is Part 1, which features some of the books in our collection that were published between 1900-1909 and have become classics.

The Ambassadors (Henry James) – Written in 1903, this novel was originally published as a serial in the North American Review (NAR). This dark comedy, one of the masterpieces of James' final period, follows the trip of protagonist Lewis Lambert Strether to Europe in pursuit of Chad, his widowed fiancée's supposedly wayward son; he is to bring the young man back to the family business, but he encounters unexpected complications. The third-person narrative is told exclusively from Strether's point of view.

The Call of the Wild (Jack London) – Published in 1903, this novel tells the story of a previously-domesticated dog named Buck, whose primordial instincts return after a series of events leads to his serving as a sled dog in the Yukon during the 19th-century Klondike Gold Rush, in which sled dogs were bought at generous prices. The Call of the Wild is London's most-read book, and it is generally considered his best, the masterpiece of his so-called "early period." Because the protagonist is a dog, it is sometimes classified as a juvenile novel, suitable for children, but it is dark in tone and contains numerous scenes of cruelty and violence.

The Golden Bowl (Henry James) - This 1904 novel set in England is a complex, intense study of marriage and adultery, completing what some critics have called the "major phase" of James' career. It explores the tangle of interrelationships among a father and daughter and their respective spouses. The novel focuses deeply and almost exclusively on the consciousness of the central characters, with sometimes obsessive detail but also with powerful insight. The title is a quotation from Ecclesiastes 12:6, "…or the golden bowl be broken, …then shall the dust return to the earth as it was."

The Hound of the Baskervilles (Arthur Conan Doyle) - The Hound of the Baskervilles is the third of four crime novels by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle featuring the detective Sherlock Holmes. Originally serialized in The Strand Magazine from August 1901 to April 1902, it is set largely on Dartmoor in Devon in England's West Country and tells the story of an attempted murder inspired by the legend of a fearsome, diabolical hound. Sherlock Holmes is the famed 221B Baker Street detective with a keen eye, acute intelligence and logical mind. He is observation and intuition personified, and although he takes a back seat to Watson for much of this particular adventure, we always feel his presence. In the end, it takes all of his legendary crime-solving powers to identify the ingenious killer, save the life of the next intended victim, and solve the Baskerville mystery.

The Jungle (Upton Sinclair) - The Jungle was written about the corruption of the American meatpacking industry during the early 20th century. Although Sinclair originally intended to focus on industrial labor and working conditions, food safety became the most pressing issue. Sinclair's account of workers' falling into rendering tanks and being ground, along with animal parts, into "Durham's Pure Leaf Lard" gripped public attention. The morbidity of the working conditions, as well as the exploitation of children and women alike that Sinclair exposed, showed the corruption taking place inside the meat packing factories. Foreign sales of American meat fell by one-half. This novel is considered a classic and is an important example of the muckraking tradition of journalism.

A Room With A View (E. M. Forster) – This is a 1908 novel by English writer E. M. Forster about a young woman in the repressed culture of Edwardian England. Set in Italy and England, the story is both a romance and a critique of English society at the beginning of the 20th century. The main themes include repressed sexuality, freedom from institutional religion, growing up, and true love. It is written in the third person omniscient voice, though particular passages are often seen "through the eyes" of a specific character. Forster's most romantic and optimistic book, he utilizes many of his trademark techniques, including contrasts between "dynamic" and "static" characters. "Dynamic" characters are those whose ideas and inner-self develop or change in the plot, whereas "static" characters remain constant. Forster differentiates between conservative and radical thinking, illustrated in part by his contrasts between Medieval and Renaissance characters, wherein Lucy personifies the young and impressionable generation emerging during the time that women's suffrage would gain strong ground.

Sister Carrie (Theodore Dreiser) – This novel tells the story of a country girl who moves to the big city where she starts realizing her own American Dream by first becoming a mistress to men that she perceives as superior and, later, as a famous actress. It has been called the "greatest of all American urban novels.” Sister Carrie went against social norms of the time with its supposed immorality, as Dreiser presented his characters without judging them. Dreiser fought against censorship of Sister Carrie, a main issue being that Carrie engaged in affairs and other “illicit sexual relationships” without suffering any consequences. This flouted the norm of the time that should characters practice such sinful behavior, they must be punished in some way throughout the course of the plot in order to teach a lesson.

The Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Grahame) – This story is a classic of children's literature, first published in 1908. Alternately slow moving and fast paced, it focuses on four anthropomorphized animal characters in a pastoral version of England. It is notable for its mixture of mysticism, adventure, morality, and camaraderie. In 1908, Grahame retired from his position as secretary of the Bank of England, moved back to Cookham, Berkshire (where he had been brought up), and spent his time by the River Thames doing much as the animal characters in his book do — namely, as one of the most famous phrases from the book says, "simply messing about in boats" — and wrote down the bed-time stories he had been telling his son Alistair.

Wonderful World of Oz (L. Frank Baum) - A children's novel written by L. Frank Baum and illustrated by W. W. Denslow, OZ has since been reprinted numerous times, most often under the name The Wizard of Oz, which is the name of both the 1902 stage play and the 1939 film version. The story chronicles the adventures of a girl named Dorothy in the Land of Oz. Historians, economists, and literary scholars have examined and developed possible political interpretations of The Wonderful World of Oz, but the majority of the reading public simply takes the story at face value.