The Century Project: Fiction, 1900-1999, Pt. 3: The 1920s
--by Hanje Richards
The Century Project: Part 3, Fiction from the 1920s
The Copper Queen Library is the oldest 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 and all the way to the end of the century still on our shelves.
Here are some of the books from our collection published in the 1920s that have become classics.
Age of Innocence (Edith Wharton) –The story, set in upper-class New York City in the 1870s, was warmly received when it was first published, and as recently as this year, New York Magazine critic Sam Anderson named it "the single greatest New York novel." The Age of Innocence centers on an upper-class couple's impending marriage and the introduction of a woman plagued by scandal whose presence threatens their happiness. Though the novel questions the assumptions and morals of 1870s New York society, it never devolves into outright condemnation: Not to be overlooked is Wharton's attention to detailing the charms and customs of the upper caste. The novel is lauded for its accurate portrayal of how the 19th-century East Coast American upper class lived, and this, combined with the social tragedy, earned Wharton a Pulitzer Prize in 1921 – the first Pulitzer awarded to a woman.
All Quiet on the Western Front (Erich Maria Remarque) – Written in 1928, this novel tells the story of Paul Bäumer, a soldier who – urged on by his school teacher – joins the German army shortly after the start of World War I. Bäumer arrives at the Western Front with his friends and schoolmates. There they meet Stanislaus Katczinsky, an older soldier, nicknamed Kat, who becomes Paul's mentor. While fighting at the front, Bäumer and his comrades have to engage in frequent battles and endure the dangerous and often squalid conditions of warfare. The author was himself a German veteran of World War I, and his novel describes the German soldiers' extreme physical and mental stress during the war, and the detachment from civilian life felt by many of those soldiers upon returning home from the front.
Babbitt (Sinclair Lewis) - First published in 1922, this novel is largely a satire of American culture, society, and behavior, critiquing the vacuity of middle-class American life and its pressure on individuals toward conformity. Babbitt is professionally successful as a realtor but lives with only the vaguest awareness of the lives and deaths of his contemporaries. Much of his energy in the beginning is spent on climbing the social ladder through booster functions, real estate sales, and making good with various dignitaries. Lewis paints humorous scenes of Babbitt foolishly bartering for liquor (illegal at the time because of Prohibition), hosting dinner parties, and taking clients to view property. All of this is juxtaposed against backdrops of Babbitt's incessant materialism and his growing discontent.
The Bridge of San Luis Rey (Thornton Wilder) – This is the story of several interrelated people who die in the collapse of an Inca rope-fiber suspension bridge in Peru and the events that lead up to their presence the bridge. A friar who has witnessed the tragic accident then goes about inquiring into the lives of the victims, seeking some sort of cosmic answer to the question of why each had to die. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1928.
Death Comes for the Archbishop (Willa Cather) - The primary character in this 1927 novel is Bishop Jean Marie Latour, who travels with his friend and vicar Joseph Vaillant from Sandusky, Ohio to New Mexico to take charge of the newly established Diocese of New Mexico, which has only just become a territory of the United States. The names given to the main proponents reflect their characters. Vaillant, valiant, is fearless in his promulgation of the faith, whereas Latour, the tower, is more intellectual and reserved than his comrade. At the time of their departure, Cincinnati is the end of the railway line west, so Vaillant and Latour must travel by riverboat to the Gulf of Mexico, and thence overland to New Mexico, a journey which takes an entire year. Vaillant spends the rest of his life establishing the Roman Catholic Church in New Mexico, where he dies in old age.
The Enormous Room (e.e. cummings) – This 1922 autobiographical novel by the poet and novelist e. e. cummings tells the story of his temporary imprisonment in France during World War I. cummings served as an ambulance driver during the War. In late August 1917, his friend and colleague, William Slater Brown (known in the book only as B.), was arrested by French authorities as a result of anti-war sentiments B. had expressed in some letters. When questioned, cummings stood by his friend and was also arrested.
The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald) – First published in 1925, the novel takes place following World War I and is set on Long Island's North Shore and in New York City from Spring to Autumn of 1922. It is widely regarded as a paragon of the Great American Novel and as a literary classic. Post-war American society enjoyed prosperity during the "Roaring '20s" as the economy soared. At the same time, Prohibition, the ban on the sale and manufacture of alcohol as mandated by the Eighteenth Amendment, made millionaires out of bootleggers, including at least one in Nick Carraway’s circle. Carraway, having graduated from Yale and fought in World War I, has returned home to begin a career. He is restless and has decided to move to New York to learn the bond business. The novel opens early in the summer of 1922 in West Egg, Long Island, where Nick has rented a house. Next to his place is mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby's mansion…
Lady Chatterley’s Lover (D.H. Lawrence) - The first edition of this novel was printed in Florence, Italy in 1928; it could not be published openly in the United Kingdom until 1960. The book soon became notorious for its story of the physical relationship between a working-class man and an aristocratic woman, its explicit descriptions of sex, and its use of (at the time) unprintable words. The story is said to have originated from events in Lawrence's own unhappy domestic life, and he took inspiration for the settings of the book from Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, where he grew up. Lawrence at one time considered calling the novel Tenderness and made significant alterations to the text and story in the process of its composition. It has been published in three different versions.
Look Homeward, Angel (Thomas Wolfe) – Published in 1929, this is Wolfe's first novel, and it is considered highly autobiographical. The character of Eugene Gant is generally believed to be a depiction of Wolfe himself. The novel covers the span of time from Gant's birth to age 19. The setting is the town of Altamont, Catawba, a fictionalization of his home town, Asheville, North Carolina. Wolfe is often characterized as a romantic due to the power of his emotionally charged, sprawling style. Look Homeward, Angel is written in a "stream of consciousness" narrative reminiscent of Joyce.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (Agatha Christie) - This 1926 work of detective fiction is one of Agatha Christie's best known and most controversial novels, its innovative twist ending having a significant impact on the genre. The book is set in the fictional village of King's Abbott in England. It is narrated by Dr. James Sheppard, who becomes Poirot's assistant (a role filled by Captain Hastings in several other Poirot novels). The story begins with the death of Mrs. Ferrars, a wealthy widow who is rumored to have murdered her husband. Her death is initially believed to be an accident until Roger Ackroyd, a widower who had been expected to marry Mrs. Ferrars, reveals that she admitted to killing her husband and then committed suicide. Shortly after this, Ackroyd himself is found murdered...
Passage to India (E. M. Forster) – This novel is set against the backdrop of the British Raj and the Indian Independence Movement in the 1920s. Published in 1926, the story revolves around four characters: Dr. Aziz; his British friend, Mr. Cyril Fielding; Mrs. Moore; and Ms. Adela Quested. During a trip to the Marabar Caves, Adela accuses Aziz of attempting to assault her. Aziz' trial, and its run-up and aftermath, bring out all the racial tensions and prejudices between indigenous Indians and the British colonists who rule India.
Steppenwolf (Hermann Hesse) - Combining autobiographical and psychoanalytic elements, the novel was named after the lonesome wolf of the steppes. The story, published in German in 1927 and in English in 1929, in large part reflects a profound crisis in Hesse's spiritual world, memorably portraying the protagonist's split between his humanity and his wolf-like aggression and homelessness. The novel became an international success, although Hesse would later claim that the book was largely misunderstood. The book is presented as a manuscript by its protagonist, a middle-aged man named Harry Haller, who leaves it to a chance acquaintance, the nephew of his landlady. To it, the acquaintance adds a short preface of his own and then has the manuscript published. The title of this "real" book-in-the-book is Harry Haller's Records (For Madmen Only).
The Sun Also Rises (Ernest Hemingway) – This 1926 tale is about a group of American and British expatriates who travel from Paris to the Festival of Fermín in Pamplona to watch the running of the bulls and the bullfights. An early and enduring modernist novel, it received mixed reviews upon publication. Hemingway biographer Jeffrey Meyers writes that it is "recognized as Hemingway's greatest work," and Hemingway scholar Linda Wagner-Martin calls it his "most important novel."
To The Lighthouse (Virginia Woolf) - A landmark 1927 novel of high modernism, the text, centering on the Ramsay family and their visits to the Isle of Skye in Scotland between 1910 and 1920, skillfully manipulates temporal and psychological elements. It follows and extends the tradition of modernist novelists like Marcel Proust and James Joyce, where the plot is secondary to philosophical introspection, and the prose can be winding and hard to follow. The novel includes little dialogue and almost no action; most of it is written as thoughts and observations. The novel recalls the power of childhood emotions and highlights the impermanence of adult relationships. Among the book's many tropes and themes are loss, subjectivity, and the problem of perception.
The Trial (Franz Kafka) - One of Kafka's best-known works, this 1925 novel tells the story of senior bank clerk Josef K., who is unexpectedly arrested by two unidentified agents for an unspecified crime on his thirtieth birthday. The agents do not name the authority for which they are acting and do not take him away, leaving him at home to await instructions from the Committee of Affairs. On the last day of K.'s thirtieth year, two men arrive to execute him. He offers little resistance, suggesting that he has already guessed his fate. They lead him to a quarry where he is expected to kill himself, but he cannot. The two men then execute him. His last words describe his own death: "Like a dog!"
Ulysses (James Joyce) - One of the most important works of Modernist literature, this 1922 novel has been called "a demonstration and summation of the entire [Modernist] movement..." Ulysses chronicles the passage of Leopold Bloom through Dublin during an ordinary day – June 16, 1904. The title alludes to Odysseus (Latinized into Ulysses), the hero of Homer's Odyssey, and establishes a series of parallels between characters and events in Homer's poem and Joyce's novel (e.g., the correspondence of Leopold Bloom to Odysseus, Molly Bloom to Penelope, and Stephen Dedalus to Telemachus).
Winnie-the-Pooh (A.A. Milne) - Winnie-the-Pooh is a fictional anthropomorphic bear created by A. A. Milne. The first “Winnie” stories appeared in 1926 in Winnie-the-Pooh, followed by The House at Pooh Corner in 1928. Milne named the character Winnie-the-Pooh after a teddy bear owned by his son, Christopher Robin Milne, who was the basis for the character Christopher Robin. Christopher's toys also lent their names to most of the other characters. Christopher Milne had named his toy bear after Winnie, a Canadian black bear which he often saw at London Zoo, and "Pooh," a swan they had met while on holiday.
Women in Love (D.H. Lawrence) - Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen are two sisters living in the Midlands of England in the 1910s. Ursula is a teacher, Gudrun an artist. They meet two men who live nearby, school inspector Rupert Birkin and coal-mine heir Gerald Crich. The four become friends. Ursula and Birkin become involved, and Gudrun eventually begins a love affair with Gerald. All four are deeply concerned with questions of society, politics, and the relationship between men and women. At a party at Gerald's estate, Gerald's sister Diana drowns. Gudrun becomes the teacher and mentor of his youngest sister. Soon, Gerald's coal-mine-owning father dies as well, after a long illness. As with most of Lawrence's works, Women in Love, published in 1920, caused controversy over its sexual subject matter. One early reviewer said of it, "I do not claim to be a literary critic, but I know dirt when I smell it, and here is dirt in heaps – festering, putrid heaps which smell to high Heaven."