Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Century Project: Fiction, 1900-1999, Pt. 6: The 1950s

--by Hanje Richards

The Century Project: Part 6, Fiction from the 1950s

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 older 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 reflected by the books in this wonderful 100+ year old building?

Here are some of the books from our collection published in the 1950s that have become classics:

Advise and Consent (Allen Drury) - This 1959 political fiction explores the United States Senate’s deliberations on the confirmation of controversial Secretary of State nominee Robert Leffingwell, a former member of the Communist Party.

Atlas Shrugged (Ayn Rand) – This 1957 novel explores a dystopian US where leading innovators, ranging from industrialists to artists, refuse to be exploited by society. The protagonist, Dagny Taggart, sees society collapse around her as the government increasingly asserts control over all industry, while society's most productive citizens, led by the mysterious John Galt, progressively disappear. The theme, as Rand described it, is "the role of man's mind in existence," and she explores a number of philosophical themes that she subsequently developed into the philosophy of Objectivism.

The Caine Mutiny (Herman Wouk) - This 1951 novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1952 and grew out of Wouk's personal experiences aboard a destroyer-minesweeper in the Pacific during World War II. The story is told through the eyes of Willis Seward "Willie" Keith, an affluent, callow young man who signs up for midshipman school with the United States Navy to avoid being drafted into the Army during World War II, and deals with, among other things, the moral and ethical decisions made at sea by the captains of ships. The mutiny of the title is legalistic, not violent, and takes place during an historic typhoon in December 1944. The court-martial that results provides the dramatic climax to the plot.

The Catcher In the Rye (J.D. Salinger) - Originally published for adults in 1951, Catcher... has since become popular with adolescent readers for its themes of teenage confusion, angst, alienation, language, and rebellion. Written in a subjective style from the point of view of protagonist Holden Caulfield, there is flow in the seemingly-disjointed ideas and episodes, as Holden runs away from Pencey Prep in the middle of the night and takes a train into New York City. He spends three days in the city, his time largely characterized by drunkenness and loneliness and, eventually, returns home to visit his younger sister, Phoebe, the only person with whom he seems to be able to communicate...

Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White) – White’s 1952 novel tells the story of a pig named Wilbur and his friendship with a barn spider named Charlotte. When Wilbur is in danger of being slaughtered by the farmer, Charlotte writes messages praising Wilbur (such as "Some Pig") in her web in order to persuade the farmer to let him live. Written in White's dry, low-key manner, Charlotte's Web is considered a classic of children's literature, enjoyable to adults as well as children. The description of the experience of swinging on a rope swing at the farm is an often cited example of rhythm in writing, as the pace of the sentences reflects the motion of the swing.

A Death in the Family (James Agee) - An autobiographical novel by author James Agee, set in Knoxville, Tennessee. He began writing it in 1948, but it was not quite complete when he died in 1955. It was edited and released posthumously by editor David McDowell in 1957 because Agee's widow and children had been left with little money after Agee's death, and McDowell wanted to help them by publishing the work. The novel is based on the events that happened in 1915 when Agee’s father went out of town to see his own father, who had had a heart attack. During the return trip, Agee's father was killed in a car accident. The novel provides a portrait of life in Knoxville, showing how such a loss affects the young widow, her two children, her atheistic father and the dead man’s alcoholic brother.

East of Eden (John Steinbeck) - Often described as Steinbeck's most ambitious work, this 1952 novel tells the interwoven stories of two families, the Trasks and the Hamiltons. The novel was originally addressed to Steinbeck's young sons, Thom and John (then 6½ and 4½ respectively) to describe the Salinas Valley for them in detail: the sights, sounds, smells, and colors. The Hamilton family in the novel is said to be based on the real-life family of Samuel Hamilton, Steinbeck's maternal grandfather.

The End of the Affair (Graham Greene) - Set in London during and just after World War II and published in 1951, the novel examines the relationships among three central characters: writer Maurice Bendrix; Sarah Miles; and her husband, civil servant Henry Miles. Bendrix and Sarah fall in love, but he soon realizes that the affair will end as quickly as it began. The relationship suffers from his overt and admitted jealousy and her refusal to divorce Henry, her amiable but boring husband.

Exodus (Leon Uris) – The biggest bestseller in the US since Gone with the Wind, this 1958 novel is based on the founding of the State of Israel, with its title coming from the name of the 1947 immigration ship, Exodus. The main strength of the book is its vivid description of different people and the conflicts in their lives. As in several of Uris' novels, some of the fictional characters are partially based upon one or more historical personages or act as metaphors for the various peoples who helped to build modern Israel.

Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury) – This short, dystopian novel from 1953 presents a future American society in which the masses are hedonistic, and critical thought through reading is outlawed. Written in the early years of the Cold War, the novel is a critique of what Bradbury saw as issues in American society of the era. The central character, Guy Montag, is employed as a "fireman" (which, in this future, means "bookburner"), and the books he burns – at Fahrenheit 451, the supposed temperature at which book paper combusts – include famous works of literature, such as William Shakespeare, Walt Whitman and William Faulkner, as well as the Bible and all historical texts.

From Here to Eternity (James Jones) - This novel is loosely based on Jones' experiences in the pre-World War II Hawaiian Division's 27th Infantry and the unit in which he served, Company E ("The Boxing Company"). Fellow company member Hal Gould said that while the novel was based on the company, including some depictions of actual persons, the characters are fictional, and both the harsh conditions and described events are inventions. The 1953 film, 1979 miniseries, and 1980 dramatic series were all adapted from the novel, published in 1951.

Lord of the Flies (William Golding) – Published in 1954, the story is set in the midst of an unspecified war. Some of the marooned characters are ordinary students, while others arrive as a musical choir under an established leader. Most (with the exception of the choirboys) appear never to have encountered one another before. The book portrays their descent into savagery. Left to themselves on an island paradise, far from modern civilization, the well-educated children regress to a primitive state. Themes include the tension between groupthink and individuality, between rational and emotional reactions, and between morality and immorality. How these play out, and how different people feel the influences of these, form a major subtext of the novel.

The Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison) - The only novel Ellison published during his lifetime (his other novels were published posthumously), it was released in 1952 and won the National Book Award in 1953. The novel is narrated in the first person by the protagonist, an unnamed African American man who considers himself socially invisible. His character may have been inspired by Ellison's own life. The narrator may be conscious of his audience, writing as a way to make himself visible to mainstream culture; the book is structured as if it were the narrator's autobiography although it begins in the middle of his life. The story is told from the narrator's present, looking back into his past. Thus, the narrator has hindsight in how his story is told, as he is already aware of the outcome.

The Old Man and the Sea (Ernest Hemingway) - Written in 1951 in Cuba and released in 1952, this short novel was the last major work of fiction to be produced and published by Hemingway in his lifetime. One of his most famous works, it centers upon an aging fisherman who struggles with a giant marlin far out in the Gulf Stream. The fisherman, Santiago, has gone 84 days without catching a fish. He is so unlucky that his young apprentice, Manolin, has been forbidden by his parents to sail with the old man and been ordered to fish with more successful fishermen. On the eighty-fifth day, Santiago sets out alone, taking his skiff far onto the Gulf. He sets his lines and, by noon of the first day, a big fish that he is sure is a marlin takes his bait…

On The Road (Jack Kerouac) - A largely autobiographical work that was based on the spontaneous road trips of Kerouac and his friends across mid-century America, this 1957 novel is often considered a defining work of the postwar Beat Generation that was inspired by jazz, poetry, and drug experiences. While many of the names and details of Kerouac's experiences are changed for the novel, hundreds of references have real-world counterparts. When the book was originally released, The New York Times hailed it as "the most beautifully executed, the clearest and most important utterance" of Kerouac's generation.

Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe) - A 1958 English-language novel by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, this is a staple book in schools throughout Africa and widely read and studied in English-speaking countries around the world. It is considered to be the archetypal modern African novel in English and is one of the first African novels written in English to receive global critical acclaim. The novel depicts the life of Okonkwo, a leader and local wrestling champion in Umuofia — one of a fictional group of nine villages in Nigeria, inhabited by the Igbo ethnic group. In addition, it focuses on his three wives, his children, and the influences of British colonialism and Christian missionaries on his traditional Igbo community during the late nineteenth century.

The Tin Drum (Gunter Grass) – From 1959, the story revolves around the life of Oskar Matzerath, as narrated by himself when confined in a mental hospital during the years 1952-1954. Born with an adult's capacity for thought and perception, he decides never to grow up when he hears his father declare that he would become a grocer. Gifted with a piercing shriek that can shatter glass or be used as a weapon, Oskar declares himself to be one of those "auditory clairvoyant babies" whose "spiritual development is complete at birth and only needs to affirm itself." He retains the stature of a child while living through the beginning of World War II, several love affairs, and the world of postwar Europe. Through all this, a tin drum that he receives as a present on his third birthday remains his treasured possession, and he is willing to kill to retain it.

Wapshot Chronicle (John Cheever) - The debut, semi-autobiographical novel by John Cheever about an eccentric family that lives in a Massachusetts fishing village. Published in 1957, the book won the National Book Award in 1958, and was later followed by a sequel, The Wapshot Scandal, published in 1964. The Wapshot Chronicle is the sometimes-humorous story of Leander Wapshot, his eccentric Aunt Honora, and his sons, Moses and Coverly, as they all deal with life.
Blood (Flannery O’Connor) - Hazel Motes begins this 1952 novel just back from the Army. He is traveling by train to the city of Taulkinham after having just found his family home abandoned. His grandfather was a tent revival preacher, and Hazel himself is irresistibly drawn to wearing a bright blue suit and a black hat. Although he despises preachers, sneers at communal and social experiences of Christianity, sees the followers of itinerant, Protestant preachers as fools, and sets out to deny Christ as violently as he can, he is told repeatedly that he "looks like a preacher" and faces the tendency of all around him to identify him as such. Enoch Emery, a friend of Motes’ who is in search of a new Jesus, explains the way Hazel dresses by saying that some people have "wise blood:” that the blood knows even if the mind does not.