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America’s Unwritten Novels

The mostly-forgotten novelist Coningsby Dawson, speculated in 1920 that America would have difficulty producing great novels moving forward.

“I believe American novelists as a class to be the most unobservant and the least local in their affections. When I say local, I use that term in its best sense. Hardy and Kipling and Tolstoy and Balzac are local, but none of them is provincial. They select a certain area which they know and love and make it the mirror of the passions of the entire world. Very few American novelists have that love of a locality; they seem to lose their traditions and sense of race in the cosmopolitanism of the larger cities.”

Dawson also pinpointed another problem, at least in his view: the limited urban perspective of the novels being produced at that time.

“America, as she is today, is in the main totally unrepresented in the fiction of her contemporary novelists… New York, which is decidedly not a representative of the States, would certainly provide the setting for the biggest percentage of the novels; Chicago and Boston would tie for second place. Those three cities together would probably afford the background of 75 percent of the year’s output. To choose another great city at random, I can think of only one novel of consequence which places Cincinnati on the map — Susan Lennox [sic] — and Susan Lennox does not picture Cincinnati in such a way that you could recognize it.”

The novel Dawson references, a misspelling of 1912’s Susan Lenox, Her Fall and Rise is largely forgotten today but was adapted into a 1931 film with Greta Garbo and Clark Gable.

Dawson, for what its worth, seemed unable to write a great American novel himself. The man at least has a Wikipedia entry, but not a single one of his 20+ works does.

At least his 1920 article took a cautious tone on whether America will continue to write great novels. By contrast, a 1916 New York Times article — which SundayMagazine.org previously covered in 2016 — was pessimistically and more definitely titled “The Great American Novel Never Will Come.”

Still to be written in 1920 were many of what are now considered among the greatest American novels:

  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951)
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953)
  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)
  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)
  • Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)
  • Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (1977)
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987)
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1952)
  • The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (1926)
  • The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner (1929)
  • On the Road by Jack Kerouac (1957)
  • Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (1936)
  • Roots by Alex Haley (1976)

 

America’s Unwritten Novels: A Chart of the Country Shows What Has Already Been Done and Suggests the Vast Possibilities Still Open for Fiction Writers (PDF)

Published: Sunday, July 4, 1920

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Written by Jesse

July 5th, 2020 at 11:59 am

Posted in Books,Future

The Corner Where Traffic Cop and Fairies Meet

In 1919, Benjamin de Casseres described New York Public Library children’s section as a world apart from the hustle and bustle just outside its walls at 42nd St. and 5th Ave.:

Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue… is, as we all know, right in the very heart of practical, jazzing, money-scrambling little old New York. Only, and still more wonderful to relate, one suddenly disappears through a wall of solid marble into this little kingdom of what Peter Pan called the Never-Never Land, and those who can accomplish this miracle are not only your little believing Alices and Peters but any work-a-day person regardless of age, opinion or previous condition of incertitude about such miracles.

The quiet solitutde was the opposites of the pandemonium mere feet or yards away:

The contrast between the rip-roaring movement outside, with the jumble of autos, trolley cars, traffic cops, show windows, and moving care-laden and fashionable throns and this room is astonishing, and, if one is sentimental and imaginative, almost eerie. Here, in one step from the street, was a transposed world of silent adventure, flower decorated alcoves, fantastically colored panels and plates, and a great many kiddies of all ages, ranging from the tiny tot to boys and girls of 12 and 13 years, bent over books of strange and bloody deeds and fairy stories.

Which made re-entering the real world a tremendous letdown:

I went back into the dazzling light of Fifth Avenue, but the flash from the wheels and the sparkle on the cop’s badge and the long array of buildings stretching either way on the avenue seemed to me unreal and of no importance, and that room in the library that I had just left behind was the real thing, and the Fairy Godmother and the little heads concentrated on another world seemed to contain the thing we are all seeking.

That library at 42nd Street and 5th Avenute is still thriving: the Mid-Manhattan Library, featuring its Children’s Center with 40,000 volumes.

 

The Corner Where Traffic Cop and Fairies Meet: Just a Few Steps from Fifth Avenue and Forty-second Street: Wonderland, With All Its Miracles (PDF)

Published: Sunday, July 27, 1919

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Written by Jesse

July 24th, 2019 at 11:01 am

Posted in Books,Life