I’m no longer reading only as if I were living 100 years ago, as I did in 2018, but I’m still spending some of my reading time ca. 1919. Here are the books I’ve read this year.
1. January 20: My Antonia, by Willa Cather (1918). This story about a young Bohemian immigrant woman in Nebraska in the late 1800s, closely based on the life of a woman Cather knew, is widely, and rightly, considered the best novel written in 1918 (although the enjoyable but far inferior The Magnificent Ambersons beat it out for the second-ever Pulitzer). I wrote about My Antonia here.
2. February 11: Hazel, by Mary White Ovington (1913). For Black History Month, I looked into whether there were any children’s novels a hundred years ago that featured African-American characters. This book, written by a progressive white woman, turned out to be the only one. The story of a middle-class Boston girl who is sent to stay with her grandmother in Alabama, it turned out to be not just a fascinating historical artifact but a great read, full of adventure and friendship and adversity and humor and all the things a children’s book should have. I wrote about Hazel here.
3. February 27: The Education of Henry Adams, by Henry Adams (1918) (audiobook). In this posthumously published memoir, Henry Adams recounts his life as the grandson and great-grandson of presidents (as a child, he assumed that he would live in the White House when he grew up) and a student of life . Some parts are fascinating, like when Adams is living in DC, working as a journalist, and gets an offer from President Eliot of Harvard to be a professor of medieval history. When he points out that he doesn’t know anything about the subject, President Eliot says, “If you will point out to me any one who knows more, Mr. Adams, I will appoint him.” Professor of medieval history it is! Other parts are less compelling, like Adams’ looooong account of a naval dispute between the United States and Great Britain during the civil war. Strangely, Adams makes no mention of his wife, Clover, who committed suicide thirteen years after they married. (In addition to listening to the audiobook, I bought this edition of the book.)
4. May 15: Marion: The Story of an Artist’s Model, by Winnifred Eaton (1916). Eaton, who was born in Canada to a British man and his Chinese wife, was perhaps the first Asian-American novelist. (Her sister Edith, AKA Sui Sin Far, was the author of the short story collection Mrs. Spring Fragrance, which I read last year.) Marion is the fictionalized story of Winnifred’s sister Sarah, who moved to Boston and then New York to work as an artist and artist’s model. I wrote about this entertaining book here.
5. June 29: The Circular Staircase, by Mary Roberts Rinehart (1908). Rachel, a wealthy spinster, is moving to the country for the summer while her New York home is being renovated. Where to go? Bar Harbor? The Adirondacks? A way-too-big house where the servants refuse to stay overnight? No prizes for guessing. Spooky goings-on ensue: a mysterious figure at the window, strange noises, and soon a murder. The narrator has an entertaining voice, and Rinehart subtly skewers the American class system. (Did I imagine the homoerotic subtext in Rachel’s relationship with her maid?) There’s too much rattling around on the stairs and too little psychological development for my taste, though; I enjoyed Rinehart’s 1917 comic novel Bab: A Sub-Deb a lot more. Nevertheless, this book, which sold a spectacular 1.25 million copies and pioneered the “had I but known” school of mysteries, is worth a read. (I wrote about Rinehart here.)
Finding decent-quality editions of 100-year-old books, especially the more obscure ones, can be tricky. If the edition I read is reasonably readable (including downloaded versions), I’ve included a hyperlink. Hyperlinks for audiobooks are also included. Most of these books can also be found on Kindle (often for free), Project Gutenberg, and/or Google’s Hathitrust.