Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

The Year in Books

This late-1921 article recapping the year in books predicted: “The average of fiction was but fair, and it is to be doubted if anything of lasting import appeared.” Well, now we know: nothing of lasting import appeared.

Looking at the Publishers Weekly list of the 10 bestselling novels of 1921, as of this writing, only four of them even have Wikipedia articles. (And Wikipedia seemingly has an article about everything.) The most famous of the 10 today is unquestionably #4, The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton — but that was actually published the year prior, in 1920.

There were certainly novels of lasting fame published in other 1920s years: Ulysses in 1922, The Great Gatsby and The Trial and Mrs Dalloway in 1925, The Sun Also Rises in 1926, All Quiet on the Western Front and A Farewell to Arms and The Sound and the Fury in 1929.

In 1921, though, not so much.


The Year in Books (PDF)

Published: Sunday, November 27, 1921

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Written by Jesse

November 28th, 2021 at 10:57 am

Posted in Books,Literature

The Child, the Book and the Movie

In 1921, as the nascent medium of film had recently soared in popularity, New York Times Magazine commissioned a debate: would movies decrease or increase children’s love of reading books?

Alexander Black predicted it would increase, though his argument was in no small based on how movies of the time required considerable reading with title cards and written dialogue, as the first “talkie” The Jazz Singer wouldn’t debut until 1927:

It may be significant that nine-tenths of the demonstrations in a movie audience are for the flashed words. The pictures may have prepared the way, but the words precipitate the emotion.

The author William Heyliger took the opposing view:

The movie is moving the boy away from good literature. He is getting his fictional entertainment in bald elementary action pictures. Once he develops the movie type of mind he will be lost to good books forever. The repose and repression, the atmosphere and background that are part of all good books, will bore him. His artistic perceptions and appreciations will become of the five-and-ten-cent-store kind, a counterfeit of the real thing.

Curious that he should dwell on boys specifically in that prediction. Over the summer, I visited the Book Barn in Niantic, CT and noticed that only girls were in the young adult section. Why? My theory is that the boys’ entertainment has been completely overtaken by video games.

Alas, Heyliger’s view largely seemed to win out, as this graphic from Pew Research Center (based on U.S. Department of Education data) demonstrates:

The Child, the Book and the Movie (PDF)

Published: Sunday, November 13, 1921

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Written by Jesse

November 11th, 2021 at 1:05 pm

A New Literary Broom

This 1921 article predicted potentially great things for the new literary magazine Broom. Its final issue was published less than two and a half years later, in January 1924.

There can be no doubt of the potentialities of Broom, the international magazine of the arts whose first issue, dated November, has just reached this side of the Atlantic Ocean from its headquarters [in Rome].

The future of Broom will be watched with interest. Its first number sharpens the appetite for more of the same kind. Its editors have much to learn, but, at the same time, it must be admitted that there is much that they have learned.

The title was chosen because the two co-founders wanted a one-syllable name. At 50 cents per copy or five dollars for a yearly subscription, the publication limped along for a few years. It was already facing financial trouble when the U.S. Postal Service refused to mail copies of their January 1924 issue because it contained the word “breasts” (seriously), and the publication was forced to shut down.

If interested, here’s the text of the short story Prince Llan: An Ethical Masque in Seven Parts, including a Prologue and a Coda by Kenneth Burke, which ruined the publication financially:——-en-20–1–txt-txIN——-


A New Literary Broom (PDF)

Published: Sunday, October 30, 2021

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Written by Jesse

October 30th, 2021 at 12:21 pm

Posted in Literature

One Soldier on “Three Soldiers”

Even the most popular cultural phenomena can fade away. A 1921 New York Times Magazine article begins: “Every one now seems to have taken part in the discussion of John Dos Passos’s brilliantly written novel” Three Soldiers.

Today, the novel’s Wikipedia article barely contains any information, while its Goodreads page has 1,131 user ratings. For comparison, the most famous fellow World War I-set novels include 378,971 user ratings for All Quiet on the Western Front and 281,251 for A Farewell to Arms.

This 1921 analysis by Harold Norman Denny criticized Three Soldiers for an excessive focus on the negative in its tale of combat soldiers, particularly galling when the novel’s author himself did not serve in combat but rather was an ambulance driver.

Mr. Dos Passos has combed the army for every rotten incident that happened, could have happened, or could be imagined as having happened, and welded it into a compelling narrative. He pictures this conglomeration as the army. This was not the army, of course, any more [sic] than a graphic description of Jefferson Market Police Court would do for a picture of New York.

“Three Soldiers” purports to be a description of the actions and reactions of men in the combat forces; even to describe them on the battlefield, and in so doing it makes them out abject or malignant. The offense of the book is that Mr. Dos Passos does not know what he is talking about. He was a non-combatant.

Then again, when Bruce Springsteen began writing his iconic songs about cars and the open road, he didn’t know how to drive.


One Soldier on “Three Soldiers” (PDF)

Published: Sunday, October 16, 1921

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Written by Jesse

October 16th, 2021 at 12:28 pm

Book Reviews — Signed or Unsigned?

A relatively recent trend was emerging around 1921: reviewers appending their names to their reviews.

It is only in this twentieth century that the newspapers of New York have chosen to declare the authorship of their reviews of books, of plays, of pictures and of music…. [But] even now, a certain proportion of the book reviewing, even in the best of our newspapers, is anonymous; and it is very properly so, the works of salient importance being dealt with by experts whose names are given, while the less significant volumes are briefly considered by a competent office staff.

In modern times, the largest outlets for book reviews don’t publish anonymously. Neither the New York TimesWall Street JournalWashington Post, nor New York Review of Books does so, at least not that I can find.

However, anonymous or pseudonymous reviews abound on websites like Amazon and Goodreads.


Book Reviews — Signed or Unsigned? (PDF)

Published: Sunday, August 14, 1921

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Written by Jesse

August 15th, 2021 at 10:01 am

Psychiatric First Aid for Fiction Writers

Walter B. Pitkin, a professor of feature and short-story writing at Columbia University School of Journalism in 1921, had an unusual piece of advice for how to write better love and romance stories: don’t fall in love yourself.

One young man, for instance, began by writing love stories as class exercises, and did them with such skill and lyric feeling that Professor Pitkin soon told him: “Young man, go your way in peace; I have nothing to teach you; you are a successful writer.”

A year later this same student returned with a bunch of rejected manuscripts — all love stories. To all, he said, he had given the best he had in him. He was in despair. He had sold his first three stories readily, and then came a string of failures.

“What on earth is the matter with me?” he asked his former instructor.

Professor Pitkin soon discovered that, within the year, the young man had married! He was living love stories and so could not write them.

“Psychology,” said Professor Pitkin, “explains that a certain type of person can express himself deeply only about those things he yearns for, not about what he understands or possesses.”

The professor then turned to the young man and asked: “Now what would you like most to do?”

“Oh, sail the South Seas and live the life of a freebooting pirate!” was the prompt answer.

“Then write adventure stories!” advised Professor Pitkin. The young man took the advice. Soon he began to receive checks again instead of rejection slips.

The bestselling romance novelist of our time, Danielle Steel, seems to have taken this “don’t stay in love too long” advice to heart: she’s been married and divorced five times. It gets crazier: her first marriage was at only 18, while another marriage was to a man who she met while he was in prison for robbery.


Psychiatric First Aid for Fiction Writers (PDF)

Published: Sunday, June 19, 1921

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Written by Jesse

June 17th, 2021 at 3:05 pm

Posted in Life,Literature

The Future of the Novel

A 1921 article predicted novels would move towards action and adventure.

That happened… eventually. While the biggest novels of recent decades have been action-heavy, perhaps the least action-heavy classic ever — Ulysses by James Joyce — was published only the next year.

This is the age of the airplane, the wireless telegraph, of radium, of “relativity.” Very well! It is also the age of the novel. Perhaps the future will create a new literary genre such as no one can at present foresee, but for the moment the novel is the summary of modern life; and when people ask what the literature of the coming years is going to be, the question they really ask is: What kind of a novel is the public going to read?

Indeed, an explosion in novel formats has occurred in recent years and decades, from e-books to audiobooks to fan fiction to books written with serialized chapters online.

Which of these two types will the novel of the future… approach? Will we have more and more realism, as the tendency seemed to be in 1914? Or will we turn back to the old novel of adventure, of action?

The novel of adventure is becoming fashionable again in Europe. Not only are publishers accepting new books of this kind, but they are reprinting many stories that were written a generation ago, but had no success at that time — the heyday of the naturalists.

Particularly interesting, for instance, is the new vogue of Robert Louis Stevenson. The Continentals who had read “Treasure Island” in the years following the publication of that masterpiece of adventure could be counted almost on the fingers of the hand. Now Stevenson is all the rage.

In the last 30 years, the biggest authors have included J.K. Rowling, Tom Clancy, Suzanne Collins, Dan Brown, John Grisham, Stephenie Meyer, James Patterson, Veronica Roth, and Michael Crichton. There’s still a place for realism in fiction, but increasingly that place doesn’t seem to be on the bestseller list.


The Future of the Novel (PDF)

Published: Sunday, May 15, 1921

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Written by Jesse

May 14th, 2021 at 11:31 am

Posted in Future,Literature

Must We De-Alcoholize Literature?

Two months after the 18th Amendment established prohibition, this satire wondered how far the movement would go. Would Dickens and Shakespeare’s references to alcohol be expunged?

The losses would be appalling; Chaucer would be a walking casualty, Shakespeare a stretcher case, and the forces of Dickens would be decimated. Think of Mr. Pickwick bereft of the mellowing influence of punch! He would undergo a complete character transformation. Remembering the Cherryble Brothers, old Fezziwig, Mr. Micawber, Bob Cratchet at his humble Christmas dinner, and a score of others, one asks: “Can a Dickens character realize good cheer without the artificial aid of liquid inspiration?” The sheer capacity exhibited by Dickens’s world for exhilarating beverages suggests the principle of unlimited supply responding to the call of unceasing demand. Other times, other manners, indeed! Expurgate Dickens in terms of intoxicants and about the only unmangled characters will be Little Nell and Paul Dombey.

These fears went unrealized, as written references to alcohol were not removed. Indeed, even the most beloved book nearly a century later, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, would contain references to copious alcohol consumption by the character Hagrid — and that book has an 11-year-old protagonist!

However, what would be later censored in the 2010s were the n-word and the word “injun” in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.

In 1919, those words were okay but alcohol was not. In 2019, those words are not okay but alcohol is. Times change.


Must We De-Alcoholize Literature?: How Shakespeare, Rare Ben Jonson, Robert Burns, and Omar Khayyam Will Sound if They Are Revised to Fit Those Sober Days Soon to Come (PDF)

Published: Sunday, March 16, 1919

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Written by Jesse

March 15th, 2019 at 3:18 pm

Posted in Humor,Literature

Captain Rupert Hughes Calls Authors to War

A then-popular novelist and National Guard member advised all writers and authors who were eligible to serve in World War I to do so. Indeed, some of what are considered the greatest novels ever written came out of experience in World War I: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo. Then again, we’ll never know how many potentially transformative works of literature from that era never saw the light of the day because their would-be authors were killed in action.

Captain Rupert Hughes Calls Authors to War: In a Talk About the Work Done by Men Who Write Country’s Popular Books He Praises the New York National Guard (PDF)

From Sunday, May 13, 1917

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Written by Jesse

May 12th, 2017 at 1:01 pm

Three Stories a Year Are Enough for a Writer

When I was in late elementary school, my grandfather got me a book collection of Ring Lardner’s “You Know Me Al” comic strips, about the hijinks of a major league baseball player and his teammates. The comic strip was published in the 1920s, several years after the original fiction short stories that made the lead character famous. To be honest, I never thought the comic strip was that funny. The fact that Ring Lardner ranked Elinor Glyn (who?) above Mark Twain among humorists alive in 1917 might explain why.

Three Stories a Year Are Enough for a Writer: Ring W. Lardner, Humorist, Who Makes Fiction Out of Life for Baseball Players, Thinks Fewer and Better Short Stories Needed (PDF)

From Sunday, March 25, 1917

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Written by Jesse

March 31st, 2017 at 7:01 am

Posted in Humor,Literature

Mystery of Authorship of Chinese Lyrics Solved

Pai Ta-shun was a successful poet, a mysterious Chinese man praised by critics and read by the masses. Turns out he was so mysterious because the works actually came from the pen of white American medical physician Frederick Peterson, author of such poetic works as The American Textbook of Legal Medicine and Toxicology.

According to this 1917 article recounting the then-recent controversy, Peterson was a student of Chinese poetry and wrote his poems according to Chinese literary tradition, using the name Pai Ta-shun as a Chinese-sounding homophone of Peterson.

His poems could actually be quite beautiful regardless of the con regarding the author’s identity. Here is his verse from The Dragon:

Ever-changing the cumulus surges above the horizon,

Black with thunder or white with the glitter of snow-capped mountains,

Rosy with dawn or with sunset, an age-long shifting pageant.

Stuff of chaos for dreams to forge into magical visions,

Ranged below it the common earth and the tiger-forces,

Behind and above it unfurled the starry deeps of the heavens.

Out of the formless clouds we shaped the deathless Dragon,

Symbol of change and sign of the infinite symbol of spirit.

In 2015, poet Michael Derrick Hudson caused national controversy when the anthology Best American Poetry published his poem that he submitted under the name Yi-Fen Chou. The anthology was unaware of the author’s true identity at first, but upon acceptance the author revealed the truth to the anthology’s editor, who published it under the Asian pseudonym regardless. As Mark Twain once quipped, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.”

Mystery of Authorship of Chinese Lyrics Solved: Poems of Pai Ta-shun, Widely Discussed for Past Two Years, Were Written by Dr. Frederick Peterson, New York Physician (PDF)

From Sunday, March 4, 1917

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Written by Jesse

March 13th, 2017 at 6:56 am

Posted in Literature

Library of Congress Sends Books to Any Town

Did you know that the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. is a lending library? It remains so to this day, sending (almost) any item in their collection completely free of charge for two months at a time, so long as you live in the 50 states or Puerto Rico. Then all you have to do is return the item by FedEx or UPS. In this 1917 article on the subject, Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam explained the specifics.

“And we find that people all over the country are eager to take advantage of this service. We are constantly sending out books to borrowers sometimes as far distant as San Francisco and Cuba. During the year ended June 30, 1914, we sent out 2,030 volumes. During the year ended June 30, 1915, we sent out 2,258 volumes, and during the year ended June 30, 1916, we sent out as interlibrary loans 3,460 volumes to 393 different libraries in forty-eight States and in Canada.

“We lend music on the same condition as books. We do not, however, allow musical scores so lent to be used for public performances.”

Strangely, the number of items that the Library of Congress loans today is curiously difficult to find. Their website features a number of statistics in their annual report, but that’s not one of them. But with both the U.S. population and the library’s collection far larger than they were a century ago, the number of loans is surely much greater than the 3,460 volumes it comprised in 1916.

Library of Congress Sends Books to Any Town: If You Want a Rare Work of Reference Your Home Library Will Get It for You from the Great Washington Institution (PDF)

From Sunday, February 25, 1917

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Written by Jesse

March 10th, 2017 at 6:56 am

Posted in Literature,Politics

Is This Manuscript in Shakespeare’s Writing?

Several handwritten pages of a play had been housed in the British Museum. In 1917, Edward Maunde Thompson determined based on handwriting analysis and stylistic similarities that the pages were likely written by William Shakespeare, as a contribution to the play “Sir Thomas More” which was primarily written by Anthony Munday.

So were the pages indeed written by Shakespeare? Most subsequent analyses in the past century agree that it was. The Oxford Shakespeare compilation now includes the pages, and the Royal Shakespeare Company also recognized it as a Shakespeare work in 2005. This would make it the only surviving original manuscript in Shakespeare’s hand, as every other surviving example of Shakespeare’s work in a reprint or a folio. It’s also our only surviving example of Shakespeare in the process of writing, with words and phrases crossed out or inserted throughout.

This is all assuming, of course, that Shakespeare actually wrote most of the plays generally credited to him. In his book The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History, author Michael H. Hart presents the quite convincing evidence that most (if not all) of the plays were in fact written by Edward de Vere.

Is This Manuscript in Shakespeare’s Writing?: Expert Believes Pages of a Play, “Sir Thomas more,” Were Written by the Bard’s Own Hand (PDF)

From Sunday, February 25, 1917

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Written by Jesse

March 7th, 2017 at 6:56 am

Posted in Literature

Popular Catchwords Are a National Menace


Back in 1916, Mary Watts lamented what she saw as the pervasive influence of New York City dictating the thoughts of those in Cincinnati suburb Walnut Hills and elsewhere:

“These people who think they are thinking,” she said, “do not make up their own phrases or originate their own ideas. They think in catchwords.”

“What are some of these catchwords?” The Times man asked.

“Well,” she replied, “‘the relation of capital and labor’ is one. And ‘the child in the house’ is another. And then there is that very popular catchword ‘social consciousness.’ But out here in the Middle West we aren’t so much bothered with social consciousness as you are in the East.”

“Now and then we make desperate attempts to be Eastern and cosmopolitan, and all the rest of it. We try hard to get up a bohemian atmosphere among our writers and painters — we try to do this even out here, in Cincinnati. But we haven’t enough writers to form a separate class.”

There was a time when New York City had a great influence on the rest of the country, despite a 2016 election cycle where the candidate New York City voted for at a greater margin than in almost any other location got crushed and there was something of a public revolt against the media and journalism industries headquartered out of Manhattan.

Popular Catchwords Are a National Menace: Mary S. Watts Laments “Social Consciousness,” Deliberate Bohemianism, and Influence of New York on Rest of Country (PDF)

From January 7, 1917

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Written by Jesse

January 4th, 2017 at 7:26 am

Posted in Life,Literature

Barrie, Saddened by the War, Writes Little Now

From November 12, 1916


Barrie, Saddened by the War, Writes Little Now: Famous Author of ‘Peter Pan’ Is More Shy and Elusive Than Ever Since the Struggle Began — Supports a Hospital in France (PDF)

I’ve had a long and complicated relationship with Peter Pan as a novel. I first read it in elementary school and found it magical, in fact it was one of my favorite books. I read it for the second time the week that I turned 18 and became an adult, at least in the eyes of the law. I still loved it but took a different lesson from the ending. (Spoiler alert for the next sentence or two.) Wendy, John, and Michael all go back to London from Neverland, bringing the Lost Boys with them, so that all the main child characters eventually grow up, but Peter himself remains forever a boy on the island. Instead of just a light fun harmless story as I found it in elementary school, I now saw the lesson as “Become an adult, but keep a little bit of childlike joy and wonder within yourself.”

The third time I read it was in 2014, shortly after the NBC live musical version aired. I was now fully an adult — a young adult maybe, but still an adult, no question about it. I came to dislike what I now perceived as the lesson, namely “Childhood is good, therefore adulthood is bad.” I agree that childhood is good, but that doesn’t mean the opposite of childhood is therefore bad. I had become an adult and loved many aspects of it — no more curfew, for one thing! I found the film Boyhood, released that same year, to be a much better and more meaningful fictional encapsulation of from the transition from childhood to adulthood.

But there’s still no denying that J.M. Barrie remains one of the few writers from the early 1900s who is still regularly read, thanks largely to Peter Pan. World War I hit the man extremely hard. Already shy and a little odd to begin with — as can be seen through Johnny Depp’s brilliant Oscar-nominated portrayal in the film Finding Neverland — Barrie’s godson George Llewelyn Davies was killed in action in 1915. George was one of the main inspirations for the Lost Boys characters, and his first name was used as the name of Wendy’s father in Barrie’s book and play.

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November 12th, 2016 at 4:53 pm

Spent 22 Years Collecting 15,000 Similes

From October 22, 1916


Spent 22 Years Collecting 15,000 Similes: Frank J. Wilstach’s Ardent and Relentless Hunt for This Elusive Figure of Speech Results in a Remarkable Collection (PDF)

Lexicographer Frank J. Wilstach Wilstach spent 22 years compiling all the similes he could find. Some of them still hold up a century later: “Cold as an enthusiastic New England audience.” Some of them don’t: “Had about as much chance as a Prohibition candidate in a Democratic ward.”

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Written by Jesse

October 20th, 2016 at 11:26 am

Posted in Literature

Italy Proud of Soldier-Poet Killed in Action

From October 8, 1916


Italy Proud of Soldier-Poet Killed in Action: Giosue Borsi’s “Letters from the Front” and “Spiritual Colloquies” Are Considered Remarkable Products of Days of War (PDF)

After the poet Giosue Borsi was killed during World War I in November 1915, a letter he wrote to his mother in event of his death, his “Letter to his Mother” went around the world and was translated into many languages — the 1916 equivalent of going viral. Much of the letter is reprinted in the above article, but one passage I found particularly tragically beautiful:

With this beautiful and praiseworthy past, fulfilling the most desired of all duties as a good citizen toward the land that gave him birth, I depart, in the midst of the tears of all those that love me, from a life toward which I felt weary and disgusted. I leave the failings of life, I leave sin, I leave the sad and afflicted spectacle of the small and momentary triumphs of evil over good.


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Written by Jesse

October 7th, 2016 at 1:52 pm

Will This New Author Prove a Second Conrad?

From August 20, 1916

Will This New Author

Will This New Author Prove a Second Conrad?: James Huneker, the Noted Critic, Prophesies About William McFee, Whose Story of the Sea Has Captured Literary London (PDF)

William McFee was the hot new author sensation in 1916, with his nautical-themed novels including Casuals of the Sea and Letters from an Ocean Tramp. He would go on to write dozens more novels for decades to come, through the early 1950s.

But to answer the headline’s title question of whether McFee would come to be considered another Joseph Conrad, by 2016 none of McFee’s works would still be as widely read or renowned by critics as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or Lord Jim.

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Written by Jesse

August 17th, 2016 at 4:08 pm

Posted in Literature

Is O. Henry a Pernicious Literary Influence?

From July 23, 1916

Is O. Henry

Is O. Henry a Pernicious Literary Influence?: Mrs. Katharine Fullerton Gerould Says That He Wrote Expanded Anecdotes, Not Short Stories, with Nothing But Climax (PDF)

William Sydney Porter, popularly known as O. Henry, is perhaps one of the most beloved short story writers in the American canon. (I would recommend the wonderful Christmas story The Gift of the Magi.) But not everybody loved him. The author Katharine Fullerton wrote:

In the very shortest of Maupassant’s stories you find the people etched in so clearly that you know them; you know how they would act whatever extraneous conditions might enter. But you do not find this to be the case in O. Henry’s stories; you know how the people acted in one set of circumstances, but you have no idea how they would act at any other time…

In the modern short story the bad influence of O. Henry is to be seen in the treatment of material. In concrete incident the short story is better than it used to be, but it shows lamentable moral unconscientiousness. The author does not stand his short story up and relate it to life as he used to. O. Henry has taught him that this sort of labor is unnecessary.

Given America’s obesity problem in the 21st century, I think it’s more likely that O. Henry’s namesake candy bar is a more “pernicious influence” than the man himself.


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Written by Jesse

July 24th, 2016 at 2:14 pm

Posted in Literature

The Great American Novel Never Will Come

From July 16, 1916

The Great American Novel

The Great American Novel Never Will Come: James Huneker, the Famous Critic, Discussing Certain Phases of Modern Fiction, Says There May Be Thousands but Not One (PDF)

Huneker’s main point in this essay was not that America will never produce great novels, but that America was so varied that it would be impossible for merely one to represent the whole country.

The question is, after all, an affair for critics, and the great American novel will be in the plural; thousands perhaps. America is a chord of many nations, and to find the keynote we must play much and varied music.

Among the novels published in the century after this essay ran: “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger, “Gone With the Wind” by Margaret Mitchell, “Roots” by Alex Haley, and “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee. All are considered among the greatest American novels.

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Written by Jesse

July 14th, 2016 at 5:04 pm

Posted in Literature