Everyone has favorite novels that many people have not read. They could be less publicized novels by famous authors, or novels by authors who were never well known or who are not well known now.
I discovered the books in this list in many ways:
- Flipping through the pages of reference books on literature (After Noon, Point of No Return).
- Browsing the shelves of used bookstores (Where the Blue Begins, One More Spring, Years Are So Long).
- Exploring the lesser known works of a favorite author (Poor White, One of Ours, In Dubious Battle, Lucy Crown, Searching for Caleb).
Poor White (1920), by Sherwood Anderson
A man of humble beginnings drifts through life until he finds his calling as an inventor. At the same time, he becomes part of a general shift in the American economy from agriculture to industry.
Sherwood Anderson is best known for the book Winesburg, Ohio. That collection of closely related short stories was published in 1919, one year before the publication of what is probably Anderson's most acclaimed novel, Poor White.
Some critics saw Poor White as part of a trend by novelists to chronicle the small town life of Midwest America. That trend also included Main Street by Sinclair Lewis.
In Poor White, Anderson showed how the inventions of main character Hugh McVey attracted interest from the different parties who help drive innovations and make an economy function:
- Organized labor
Anderson also examined the negative effects of the new industries and technologies, both for McVey and society.
Anderson closely explored the introverted personality of McVey, who expressed himself most eloquently through his inventions. It was an insightful portrait of a loner and a drifter who struggled to find both purpose and expression.
Inventions weren't the only things that pulled McVey out of his isolation. Marriage also gave him some foundation, and the book gives a subtle, skillful portrait of the intimate understandings between a husband and a wife.
Like other writings of Anderson, Poor White is written in a simple, straightforward style that often has a slight edge of bemusement.
One of Ours (1922), by Willa Cather
A son in a Nebraska farming family is drawn into military service in World War I to find meaning in what so far felt like an unfulfilled life.
Although Willa Cather won the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours, today she is better known for her prairie novels like Oh Pioneers! and My Antonia. The first part of One of Ours does have a strong rural flavor, and it provides a vividly described setting for Claude Wheeler's early life.
The later sections of the book that focus on France have almost a documentary feeling. Cather showed a special regard for the everyday people of France, and how they welcomed American soldiers. One of Ours includes stirring scenes of battles in France that make good use of Cather's background in journalism.
Claude Wheeler's journey was told in prose that had a crisp, emphatic rhythm, with the assertive use of details to describe scenes. The section titles of One of Ours have an impressionistic feeling, for example, "On Lovely Creek" and "Sunrise on the Prairie". After One of Ours, Cather developed a more spare style in her writing, with less emphasis on pictorial details, as shown in A Lost Lady and The Professor's House.
One of Ours has been criticized as a sentimental view of World War I, especially in comparison to another war novel of that time—Three Soldiers by John Dos Passos. But readers should also understand that One of Ours was a very personal project for Cather. It was based in part on the life of her cousin Grosvenor (G.P.) Cather, who was killed in World War I in 1918 in France.
Where the Blue Begins (1922), by Christopher Morley
This playfully serious novel describes the spiritual journey of a dog named Gissing. Like most individuals, Gissing is trying to find the meaning of life, which the title of the book metaphorically represents.
Christopher Morley is probably best known for two related novels about book selling (Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop), as well as a provocative best-selling novel that became an Academy Award-winning movie (Kitty Foyle).
In Where the Blue Begins, Morley skillfully convinced the reader that a dog can live like a human being. That reader is pulled along by the adventurous path of Gissing's life after he adopts some stray puppies. An entertaining part of the book is watching Gissing experiment with different occupations.
Where the Blue Begins is almost a children's book for adults. It is written in a very witty, tongue-in-cheek prose style, with just enough seriousness to give it substance and meaning. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle called it "A readable story full of quaint absurdity, laughter and satire." (September 30, 1922)
After Noon (1926), by Susan Ertz
This solid, competent, and intelligent novel concerns a middle aged romance that is conducted in a restrained, adult manner. A highlight of the book is the thoughtful conversation between the two participants in this romance, Charles Lester and Lydia Chalmers.
In After Noon, Charles has two adult daughters from a first marriage that failed. Ertz skillfully used the different personalities of these two daughters to provide different views of youth of the 1920s. The daughters also act as a mediating presence between their father and Lydia.
A review of After Noon in the Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) Sunday Courier on May 30, 1926 read:
After the over-indulgence of ultramodern fiction how refreshing to lose oneself in a book radiating the wholesome simplicity and charm which is prevalent in a story which is keenly interesting and peopled with characters which really live through the pages.
I discovered Ertz while leafing through the big green literature book that has been part of the reference book shelves of many libraries—the 1942 edition of Twentieth Century Authors: A Biographical Dictionary of Modern Literature that was edited by Stanley J. Kunitz and Howard Haycraft. After Noon was the third novel by Ertz, whose debut novel was the acclaimed Madame Claire.
One More Spring (1933), by Robert Nathan
This poignant, quiet novel about the early years of the Great Depression focuses on the interactions of people from different backgrounds in Central Park in New York City. Hardship has forced these people to live together in a small building.
One More Spring tries to show the ordinary, everyday pain and sorrows of people trying to survive the depression. People connect in new ways, and can even find romantic love that might help them survive to see "one more spring."
Robert Nathan wrote more than 50 books, but is probably best known for two novels that were made into well-known movies (The Bishop's Wife and Portrait of Jennie).
But Nathan's first big success was One More Spring, which was published on February 1, 1933 and went through ten printings by July of 1933.
This novel came out about one month before the inauguration of United States President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who many people thought might help improve the economy. In this atmosphere of cautious hope, One More Spring helped to humanize the sufferings of many American people.
Nathan knew how to capture the small, significant moments between people, especially friends and family members. In One More Spring, the lives of his characters are told in a restrained, straightforward style that Nathan developed during the 1920s in a series of quietly memorable books that included The Bishop's Wife.
Nathan also moved his stories along with philosophical statements that form a mosaic of impressions that say just as much as the plot developments.
Years Are So Long (1934), by Josephine Lawrence
An older couple can no longer financially support itself, but when it turns to its children for help, the couple is surprised by the children's resistance to this request.
Years Are So Long became part of a public discussion about how to care for the elderly after their earning years had passed. It was published one year before the Social Security Act was passed in the United States.
The novel's serious, journalistic tone was provided by a writer who regularly worked as a newspaper columnist. Josephine Lawrence didn't see her novels as artistic endeavors, but as creative extensions of her newspaper work.
Years Are So Long shows the financial strains of the Great Depression on middle class people. Historical accounts have focused on the most extreme victims of the economic downturn, but there were many other stories of how the depression pushed people from all walks of life out of their financial comfort zones.
The title of this book jumped out at me one day at the large John K. King Used & Rare Books store in downtown Detroit. The title had an intelligently dramatic tone that appealed to me. I pulled it off the shelf, and on the back cover, Lawrence was quoted as saying:
Plain people have the most complicated problems and usually work them out in terms of their emotions, not their intelligence. This is deplorable from the psychologist's point of view, but vastly more interesting for the novelist.
In Dubious Battle (1936), by John Steinbeck
A Communist organizer leads a labor strike by migratory farm workers in California. This novel reflects the financial challenges of the 1930s for men who had been forced by economic conditions to seek low-paying unskilled jobs. It includes themes that appeared three years later in Steinbeck's best known novel, The Grapes of Wrath.
"Here is a perfectly gorgeous novel about a bunch of Communists; but the author's interest seems to lie in his characters as individual human beings, not as Communists; and because of this his story hits you with an impact like that from one of Joe Louis's left hooks," read a review in the February 3, 1936 edition of The Indiana (Pennsylvania) Gazette.
The sharp, tough-edged dialog of the novel is reminiscent of many Warner Bros. movies of that same era. The dialog perfectly captures the plain-speaking ways of men in this economic world; how they perceived their challenges; and how they absorbed these perceptions into their own experiences.
Steinbeck's mastery of vivid, research-based description is also on display. I was particularly impressed by his description of how a labor camp was set up in preparation for a strike.
In Dubious Battle seems very sympathetic towards labor, but a character named Dr. Burton voices concerns about how the collective thinking of different labor organizers could lead to loss of identity and manipulation by outside forces. Steinbeck also portrayed the risks taken by employed people who tried to help the strikers.
Point of No Return (1949), by John P. Marquand
A New England businessman in the immediate years after World War II quietly and carefully works toward a job promotion. In the process, he reflects on the formative experiences of his early life in his hometown.
Marquand was a prime example of the popular middle class novelist that was described in the 2009 book What America Read: Taste, Class, and the Novel, 1920-1960, by Gordon Hutner. Marquand did not have an overly artistic style of writing, but he worked well within his limitations to create intelligent and readable stories.
Point of No Return shows how a cautious person tries to pay attention to the little professional details that could later make an important difference in his career. It shows how a quietly ambitious person could push himself to get a better job.
Marquand had a gift for description that mixed both sociology and journalism. For example, he didn't just say that the main character went to see a movie in 1928. He also described the past and future history of the theater that is showing the movie, which adds to the reader's understanding of the changing times of the main character.
Different characters provided mirrors of the main character Charles Gray:
- A sociologist plays the role of a narrator in parts of book, through his observations of the town where Gray grew up.
- Gray's father John makes general observations about life that help Charles understand the differences between him and his father.
- Gray's wife Nancy is shown as an assertive and strong-minded housewife who functions as a valuable sounding board for Charles.
The novel came out at a time when writers could reflect on how both the Great Depression and World War II affected the world. Life would continue to move forward from these significant events, and novels like Point of No Return would help people try to make sense of where they had been and where they were heading.
Lucy Crown (1956), by Irwin Shaw
A husband and his wife, the title character, slowly drift apart. This leads to a love affair by the wife that drives the couple's son away from his mother until they re-unite later in life.
This book shows an author in transition. Irwin Shaw was moving from an early career as the author of serious and skillfully crafted plays, short stories, and novels to a later life as the author of much more commercial work.
Lucy Crown has some of the elements of the best-selling content that gradually took over Shaw's writing by the time of the release of the big bestseller Rich Man, Poor Man in 1969. But it is handled in a more restrained way. Shaw doesn't rely on sex and drinking and exotic locations as much as he did later.
The novel has the observant tone of Shaw's best short stories, many of which were collected a few years earlier in Mixed Company (1950). You see Lucy and her husband Oliver Crown from different perspectives—the objective third person narrative; through their own private thoughts and reflections; and through other peoples' eyes.
Searching for Caleb (1976), by Anne Tyler
An elderly man named Daniel and his granddaughter Justine embark on the journey that is the title of this book. Caleb is Daniel's long-lost brother. The book spreads out to describe the life journey of Justine and her cousin Duncan, who later marries her.
This novel is my favorite Anne Tyler book from the first half of her career that led up to the two books that I feel are the peak of her career—Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982) and The Accidental Tourist (1985).
Searching for Caleb has that heartfelt jumble of impressions that after Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant was replaced by a cooler tone and a more subtle accumulation of detail.
The early Tyler style of Searching for Caleb helps create a fascinating reproduction of early 20th century life. If Tyler had focused on historical fiction, she would have excelled in that genre as well as she excelled in the comic literary genre.
The book contains a line that to me sums up the basic theme of all of Tyler's work:
Life is not the same here when Maggie Rose is gone.
Searching for Caleb was Tyler's sixth novel, and her following had grown to the point where the Washington Post asked her to write about her career as a novelist a few months after Searching for Caleb was published.
In that essay (as published in the September 4, 1976 edition of the Tucson (Arizona) Daily Citizen), Tyler wrote:
Mostly it's lies, writing novels. You set out to tell an untrue story and you try to make it believable, even to yourself. Which calls for details; any good lie does.
Newspaper quotations were accessed through newspapers.com.
© 2015 Bob Smith