My recent reading of Dark Hester, published in 1929, was pleasurable for more reasons than just the delightful story (review forthcoming). The beautiful art deco dustjacket is still perfectly intact, and printed on the inside and on the back are a catalogue of Grosset and Dunlap’s bestsellers of the time, under the title of ‘Other Novels for the Discriminating Reader’. This snapshot of what the average middle class person would have been reading in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s absolutely fascinated me. I wasn’t surprised that I hadn’t heard of most of the authors; I doubt many of the novels on today’s bestseller lists will be remembered in 80 years’ time, after all. However, what did shock me, after some preliminary research, was how distinguished and highly acclaimed many of these authors had been at the time of their heyday. Many had won the Pulitzer prize, and still, had fallen spectacularly out of favour. The vast majority of the books listed in the catalogue have been out of print for decades, and the remaining copies are probably languishing unloved and unnoticed on many a second hand book seller’s shelf. A sobering thought.
On the back of the dustjacket, most prominently placed, are a mixed list of most recommended authors and novels. This list particularly caught my eye, a blend, as it is, of novelists both known and unknown to me. Listed are Booth Tarkington, whose Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Magnificent Ambersons I so enjoyed a few months ago, Julia Peterkin, another Pulitzer Prize winner who I had never heard of before, Louis Bromfield, whose Mrs Parkington I randomly chose from the dollar bin at the Strand Bookstore, Jim Tully, once the most hated man in Hollywood and lauded by Ernest Hemingway no less, Upton Sinclair, Martha Ostenso, who apparently wrote beautifully about Minnesotan farm life, Phyllis Bottome, a prolific and brilliant Diplomat’s wife who taught Ian Fleming, Walter D Edmonds, a historical novelist of the same popularity as Margaret Mitchell in his time, Mazo de la Roche, Sinclair Lewis, Josephine Herbst, a radical, communist leaning feminist, Warwick Deeping, a British novelist best known for his novels of Edwardian England, Edna Ferber, who won the Pulitzer Prize and wrote the novel that became the musical Show Boat, Michael Arlen, whose The Green Hat was recently reprinted by Capuchin Classics, my beloved Dorothy Canfield, whose novels have been brought back to life by both Persephone and Virago, Philip Gibbs, one of only five official British reporters of WWI, and Elizabeth Von Arnim, whose beautiful novels are thankfully still in print courtesy of Virago.
A mixed bag, no? Some of these, such as Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis, are considered canonical authors, and their books have never been out of print. Others have seen recent revivals thanks to feminist presses, or remain in print due to their ‘classic’ status, but have not seen the enduring success and wide readership of some of their contemporaries. Others have fallen out of favour and print altogether, and will perhaps never see the light of day again. However, at some point, they were all as widely read and respected by the reading public as the others. So what happened? Why did some endure and others fall by the wayside? What makes a book stand the test of time and makes another become so out of touch with the contemporary reading public that it is no longer considered of enough value to be read?
This dustjacket list of ‘Other Novels for the Discriminating Reader’ has made me wonder what I am missing. If I have read and enjoyed half of the authors Grosset and Dunlap are recommending to me on the back of Dark Hester, then it surely follows that I’d enjoy the rest. These novels may not be easy to get hold of, but I’m going to try and track them down, slowly but surely. Much like Danielle’s admirable Lost in the Stacks project aims to do, I want to revive some of these novels and keep them in circulation. I am excited at the thought of how many lost gems there could be out there, waiting for me to discover them. No longer will I discard a dusty old hardback because I have never heard of the author; I’m going to be a more adventurous reader from now on. For every reprinted novel, there must be thousands of equally worthy ones waiting to be picked up and enjoyed again. What a literary adventure I could embark upon!