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Best-Selling Novels of the 1950s

Updated on August 26, 2012


In the 1950s the top-selling novels were a mix of Christian stories, World War II themes, and social novels which reflected the culture of the time – as well as one astonishing epic novel acclaimed worldwide yet rejected in the author's home country. The movie industry was booming, and it was inevitable that these bestsellers which had already proved their popularity would be made into motion pictures. Here they are. The list is from Publisher's Weekly.


1950: The Cardinal by Henry Morton Robinson


This is the story of a young American priest of Irish background who eventually rises in the Catholic Church to become a cardinal. On the way he encounters various moral dilemmas that he must resolve. In 1963 it was made into a film which was nominated for several Academy Awards.


1951: From Here to Eternity by James Jones


This is the famous novel of men stationed in Hawaii just before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. It won the National Book Award. It was considered brutal and even obscene at the time, but is still acclaimed by many as a realistic portrait of American soldiers at the eve of the Second World War. It became a famous movie starring Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Frank Sinatra, Donna Reed, and Montgomery Clift.


1952: The Silver Chalice by Thomas B. Costain


Set in the early Christian era just after the death of Jesus, this novel concerns an artisan named Basil, who is sold into slavery, gains his freedom, becomes a Christian, and is commissioned to create a silver covering for the chalice Jesus used at the last supper. In order to accomplish this task he travels to Jerusalem, Greece, and Rome in order to personally meet the apostles. At the time this book was very well-received, and the film version featured Paul Newman in one of his first roles.


1953: The Robe by Lloyd C. Douglas


This novel, about a Roman soldier who wins Christ's robe in a gambling contest and eventually becomes a Christian, was first a bestseller in the 1940s. Then when the movie version starring Richard Burton appeared in 1953 the book once again became a number one bestseller.


1954: Not as a Stranger by Morton Thompson


This melodrama about doctors and their careers was very popular when it was first published but it is long out of print and is little remembered today. The film also, quite popular in the 50s, today is forgotten and has never been released on DVD.


1955: Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk


This novel concerns a young Jewish woman in New York in the 1930s who dreams of becoming an actress. She struggles to realize her dream but does not achieve success, eventually settling for a staid middle-class life. It became a movie starring Natalie Wood.


1956: Don't Go Near the Water by William Brinkley


This is a humorous novel about Navy public relations officers near the end of World War II. It is set on a fictitious island in the Pacific, presumably modeled upon the island of Guam. It's broken up into different chapters dealing with the escapades of the various officers involved. It was adapted into a successful movie starring Glenn Ford.


1957: By Love Possessed by James Gould Cozzens


This novel is about a lawyer in a small town in Pennsylvania. The story concerns 49 hours of his life, but also has flashbacks which include characters from the protagonist's past. As the title implies, it is mostly about the relationships of love between the various characters. Critically acclaimed and award-winning when it first appeared, it is now considered conservative and even prejudicial in the light of modern viewpoints.


1958: Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak


This is the classic novel that takes place in Russia during the revolution of 1905, the communist takeover during World War I, and its aftermath. It concerns the doctor and poet Yuri Zhivago, the great love of his life Lara, and Zhivago's family. When Pasternak finished it in 1956 it was refused publication in the Soviet Union, whereupon it was smuggled into Italy and first published in both Italian and Russian. A copy was submitted to the Nobel Committee, and Pasternak was subsequently awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958. However, threatened by Russian authorities Pasternak was forced to refuse the prize. "Doctor Zhivago" was not published in the Soviet Union until 1988, and in 1989 Pasternak's son was finally allowed to travel to Sweden to accept his father's medal. "Doctor Zhivago" was made into a very popular film which won five Oscars; it was directed by David Lean and starred Omar Sharif and Julie Christie.


1959: Exodus by Leon Uris


This is a novel on the founding of the nation of Israel, a long, complex story with multiple characters. It was a huge hit when it was first released, and became a major movie starring Paul Newman.


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    • Paul Perspicacity profile image
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      Paul Perspicacity 5 years ago from California

      Thanks. I found it fascinating as I researched it too.

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      JThomp42 5 years ago

      Very interesting Hub!!