Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

Authors and Alcohol

Novels often take 2-3 years to write their works. So during the third year of Prohibition in 1922, the New York Times Magazine asked: do writers need alcohol for greatness, and was Prohibition starting to affect the quality of American literature?

[Sir Arthur] Quiller-Couch asserted boldly that a total abstainer was imperfectly equipped for high literature. [George Bernard] Shaw took violent exception to this statement. He offered Shelley and himself as examples to prove it fallacious. He said, “If Quiller-Couch asserted that alcohol can add a single inch of gray matter to the brain, then I want to know how much he had had when he said it.”

Altogether, it seemed too good a fight to leave tucked away in England. So a number of American writers have been asked how they felt about it. Hamlin Garland supports Shaw. Irvin S. Cobb and Charles Hanson Towne stand up for Quiller-Couch, each in his characteristic manner. So does Samuel Hopkins Adams, with certain reservations. Gertrude Atherton and Robert Chambers find the issue incapable of a general solution.

What actually happened was a number of the most prominent American novelists of the Prohibition area avoided the question entirely by becoming expatriates living in Europe, where they could drink to their heart’s content. Notable examples include Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

As for my personal opinion on whether drinking improves one’s writing? I’m publishing this blog post on a Sunday, after having just performed at a piano bar on Friday and Saturday night… and it’s hard for me to imagine that heavy drinking improves people’s ability to do much of anything cognitive. 

Authors and Alcohol (PDF)

Published: Sunday, May 7, 1922

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Written by A Step in the Write Direction

May 8th, 2022 at 12:01 pm

Posted in Literature

From Molière to America

In 1922, the Western writer and novelist Owen Wister postulated an interesting thesis: that America’s most famous “writers” were not primarily writers at all, not in the way that (for example) Shakespeare was.

Wister notes that America’s most famous words globally had come from the pens of those like Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and Abraham Lincoln:

America has produced neither a Molière nor a Shakespeare as yet… If such are to be found at all, I think we shall discover the best of them in pages written by our men of action.

He who identified lightning with electricity changed science, and his sayings have made the Bonhomme Richard [Poor Richard’s Almanac] remembered. In his day they were translated into almost every tongue, and some still live on the tips of men. He remains our greatest intellect, and he was first and foremost a man of action.

Then, he who wrote a certain Farewell Address which we count among our few classics, was another man of action. And he who wrote “with malice toward none, with charity for all,” left us in that, as well as in his Gettysburg address, two more classics. Each of those three has written enduring pages more widely known today outside their country, and of more intrinsic weight, than any that I can recall by our men of letters.

In an interesting tidbit to modern eyes, Wester then references four works of American literature which had achieved some level of international acclaim, three of which are still widely known today — and one of which has been almost completely forgotten.

It is true that Leatherstockings walked in other lands, that Hester Prynne has made her way beyond English speech, that the gambler of the California mines and the boy on his raft in the Mississippi have voyaged beyond their native shores.

The first, second, and fourth references were to James Fenimore Cooper’s 1828 The Last of the Mohicans (“Leatherstockings”), Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 The Scarlet Letter (“Hester Prynne”), and Mark Twain’s 1884 Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (“the boy on his raft in the Mississippi”). But what is “the gambler of the California mines”?

Googling ‘California mines gambler novel,’ the answer appears to be Bret Harte’s 1868 short story The Luck of Roaring Camp, which Wikipedia says “helped push Harte to international prominence.” Maybe at the time, but that’s the one of the four referenced works which has truly faded to obscurity over the years. You never can predict what will last in the cultural zeitgeist.

From Molière to America (PDF)

Published: Sunday, April 30, 1922

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Written by A Step in the Write Direction

May 1st, 2022 at 12:31 pm

Posted in Literature

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 A Step in the Write Direction

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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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:

https://bluemountain.princeton.edu/bluemtn/?a=d&d=bmtnaap192401-01.2.6&e=——-en-20–1–txt-txIN——-

 

A New Literary Broom (PDF)

Published: Sunday, October 30, 2021

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Written by A Step in the Write Direction

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 A Step in the Write Direction

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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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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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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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 A Step in the Write Direction

March 15th, 2019 at 3:18 pm

Posted in Humor,Literature