Monday, August 08, 2011

The Century Project: Fiction, 1900-1999, Pt. 5: The 1940s

--by Hanje Richards

The Century Project: Part 5, Fiction from the 1940s

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 1940s that have become classics.

Animal Farm (George Orwell) - A dystopian allegorical novella published in 1945. The book reflects events leading up to and during the Stalin era before World War II. Orwell, a democratic socialist. was a critic of Joseph Stalin and hostile to Moscow-directed Stalinism. References to the novella are frequent in other works of popular culture, particularly in popular music and television series.

Brideshead Revisited (Evelyn Waugh) – Published in 1945, this is the story of Charles Ryder, a lonely student at Oxford, who is captivated by the outrageous and exquisitely beautiful Sebastian Flyte. Invited to Brideshead, Sebastian's magnificent family home, Charles welcomes the attentions of its eccentric, aristocratic inhabitants. But he also discovers a world where duty and desire, faith and earthly happiness are in conflict; a world which threatens to destroy his beloved Sebastian.

The Fountainhead (Ayn Rand) – Rand’s 1943 novel tells the story of Howard Roark, an individualistic young architect who chooses to struggle in obscurity rather than compromise his artistic and personal vision. The book follows his battle to practice what the public sees as modern architecture, which he believes to be superior, despite an establishment centered on tradition-worship. How others in the novel relate to Roark demonstrates Rand's various archetypes of human character, all of which are variants between Roark – the author's ideal man of independent-mindedness and integrity – and what she described as the "second-handers."

The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry) - An earlier memoir by the author recounts his aviation experiences in the Saharan desert. He is thought to have drawn on these same experiences for use as plot elements in this 1943 version. Though ostensibly a children's book, The Little Prince makes several profound and idealistic observations about life and human nature. For example, Saint-Exupéry tells of a fox meeting the young prince as he exits the Sahara desert. The story's essence is contained in the lines uttered by the fox to the prince: "One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye."

Native Son (Richard Wright) – This 1940 novel is about 20-year-old Bigger Thomas, an African American living in utter poverty on Chicago's South Side in the 1930s. The novel is a powerful statement about racial inequality and social injustices so deep that it becomes nearly impossible to determine where societal expectations/conditioning end and free will begins – since, as a lawyer in the novel points out, we are all products of the societies that form us.

Nineteen Eighty-Four (George Orwell) - A dystopian novel published in 1949 about a society ruled by an oligarchical dictatorship. The Oceanian province of Airstrip One is a world of perpetual war, pervasive government surveillance, and incessant public mind control. Oceania is ruled by a political party called simply The Party. The individual is always subordinated to the state, and it is in part this philosophy which allows the Party to manipulate and control humanity. Since its publication, many of its terms and concepts (Big Brother, doublethink, thoughtcrime, Newspeak, memory hole) have become contemporary vernacular. In addition, the novel popularized the adjective Orwellian, which refers to lies, surveillance, and manipulation of the past in the service of a totalitarian agenda.

The Pearl (John Steinbeck) - This 1947 story is based on a Mexican folk tale and explores the secrets of man's nature, the darkest depths of evil, and the disastrous effects of stepping out of an established system. Bad things will happen if people do not accept their “places” – at least according to the privileged townspeople, among them the pearl traders, who participate in continuing the oppression of the indigenous people by offering pearl diver Kino an unfair price for his pearl.

The Razor’s Edge (Somerset Maugham) - This novel, published in 1944, tells the story of Larry, an American pilot traumatized by his experiences in World War I, who sets off in search of some transcendent meaning in his life. We first see Larry through the eyes of his friends and acquaintances as they witness his personality change after the War. His rejection of conventional life and search for meaningful experience allows him to thrive while the more materialistic characters suffer reversals of fortune. Larry moves to Paris and immerses himself in study and bohemian life. Then, after spending several months with the Benedictines but being unable to reconcile their conception of God with his own, Larry takes a job on an ocean liner and finds himself in Bombay, where he has significant spiritual adventures.

The Stranger (Albert Camus) - The theme and outlook of Camus’ 1942 novel are often cited as examples of existentialism, though Camus did not consider himself an existentialist; in fact, he explores several philosophical schools of thought, including (most prominently and specifically) absurdism, as well as determinism, nihilism, naturalism, and stoicism. The title character is Meursault, an Algerian who seemingly irrationally kills an Arab man whom he recognizes in French Algiers. The story is divided into two parts: Meursault's first-person narrative view before and after the murder, respectively.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith) – This 1943 story focuses on the Nolans, an Irish-American family in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York City. The novel is set in the first and second decades of the 20th century. The main metaphor of the book is the hardy Tree of Heaven, native to China and Taiwan, now considered invasive, and common in the vacant lots of New York City. Although the book addresses many different issues – poverty, alcoholism, lying, etc. – its main theme is the need for tenacity: the determination to rise above difficult circumstances. Like the Tree of Heaven, Brooklyn's inhabitants must fight for the sun and air necessary for their survival.

Under the Volcano (Malcom Lowry) – This 1947 semi-autobiographical novel by English writer Malcolm Lowry tells the story of Geoffrey Firmin, an alcoholic British consul in the small Mexican town of Quauhnahuac (the Aztec name of Cuernavaca), on the Day of the Dead. Surrounded by the helpless presences of his ex-wife, his half-brother, and acquaintances, he descends into a mescal-soaked purgatory, moving inexorably towards his tragic fate. His self-destructiveness reflects a spiritual struggle born of willful abnegation and passivity, a depressed, existential acquiescence to the futility of positive action.

Waiting For Godot (Samuel Beckett) – Written in 1948-49, this is an absurdist play in which two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, wait endlessly and in vain for someone named Godot to arrive. They claim him as an acquaintance but in fact hardly know him, admitting that they would not recognize him were they to see him. To occupy themselves, they eat, sleep, converse, argue, sing, play games, exercise, swap hats, and contemplate suicide – anything "to hold the terrible silence at bay." Godot's absence and numerous other aspects of the play have led to many different interpretations since the play's premiere in English in 1955.