During My Year in 1918, I’ll be reading books that were available to a reader of a hundred years ago. This includes “recent” books as well as earlier books that a reader of 1918 might have read. So Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice are okay, but not Moby Dick, which was forgotten at the time. I’d appreciate any reading suggestions!
Here are the books I’ve read so far:
2. January 21: The Thirty-Nine Steps, by John Buchan (1915). A man goes on the run in the English countryside after uncovering a fiendish plot. Unlike in the Hitchcock film, he doesn’t get handcuffed to a beautiful woman.
3. January 31: A Preface to Politics, by Walter Lippmann (audiobook) (1912). 23-year-old Lippmann expounds sensibly about what’s wrong with politics: basically, that our system is organized around a notion of how people should be, rather than how they really are. I wrote about it here.
4. February 2: Sanctuary, by Edith Wharton (1903). A novella about a woman who places truthfulness above everything, and the impact this has over two generations.
7. March 9: Bab: A Sub-Deb, by Mary Roberts Rinehart (1917). The hilarious misadventures of a seventeen-year-old girl from a wealthy family.
8. March 10: Fighting France, by Edith Wharton (audiobook) (1915). Wharton, who lived in France, toured the front lines in 1915 and reported on the ruined towns, gallant soldiers, and resilient villagers she encountered. A vivid account of France in wartime.
9. March 26: O Pioneers! by Willa Cather (1913). The beautiful, gripping story of the triumphs and tragedies of a Swedish family in Nebraska. One of the best novels I’ve read in a long time.
10. April 9: Married Love by Marie Carmichael Stopes (1918). A British sex manual written for the tragically ignorant newlyweds (especially women) of the time.
11. April 13: Anarchism and Other Essays by Emma Goldman (audiobook) (1910). America’s most famous anarchist writes sensibly about women’s emancipation, prison reform, and social justice and kind of scarily about political violence.
12. April 16: Mrs. Spring Fragrance by Sui Sin Far (1912). A fascinating collection of stories, written by a writer (real name Edith Maude Eaton) of mixed Chinese-English ancestry, about how Chinese immigrants in Seattle and San Francisco adapt–or, just as often, fail to adapt–to their new country.
13. April 26: Songs for a Little House by Christopher Morley (1917). Light verse about Morley’s house, his wife, who by his account never thinks about anything except her baby and when he’s coming home from work, and his neighborhood in bucolic Queens, New York (there are milkmaids).
14. May 15: The Railway Children by E. Nesbit (1906). This is the (non-magical) story of three children from a prosperous London suburb who move to the country when their father mysteriously disappears. (He’s obviously in jail, although this never dawns on the otherwise bright children.) They become obsessed with the nearby railway station, and various adventures ensue. But something bothered me about the book, and I finally realized what it was. For the most part, the children have no agency; they just dump their problems on a random old guy who commutes on the train, and he solves them. This violates Rule #1 of children’s books: adults are useless; children solve their own problems.
15. May 18: Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton (audiobook) (1908). Chesterton engages in facile wordplay and takes aim against all manner of straw men in defending his Christian faith. Example: “Oscar Wilde said that sunsets were not valued because we could not pay for sunsets. But Oscar Wilde was wrong; we can pay for sunsets. We can pay for them by not being Oscar Wilde.” Now I understand why T.S. Eliot and the modernists were always dumping on him.
16. June 7: An American in the Making: The Life Story of an Immigrant by Marcus Eli Ravage (1917). In this witty and engaging book, one of my favorites of the year, Ravage describes coming to the United States from Romania alone at age sixteen, working in a Lower East Side textile factory, becoming a socialist, and struggling to fit in among his gung-ho classmates at the University of Missouri.
17. July 5: Buttered Side Down by Edna Ferber (1912). Ferber is known today mostly for the shows and movies made from her books (Show Boat and Giant and Cimarron), but, judging from these wonderful stories, written in her early to mid twenties, she should be more widely read. She writes of the dreams, disappointments, and, very occasionally, triumphs of department store saleswomen and accountants and stenographers. No book has given me a more visceral sense of what early twentieth-century life was really like–pot roasts and corset patterns and strawberry socials and small-town Main Streets on summer evenings. She breaks the fourth wall to tell of her own life as a writer, opening one story by saying that she wrote it for a saleswoman in her town who asked for a really homely heroine, not one like Jane Eyre who, Ferber says, is “constantly described as plain and mouse-like, but there are covert hints as to her gray eyes and slender figure and clear skin, and we have a sneaking notion that she wasn’t such a fright after all.”
18. July 17: Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley (1917). I finally got around to this popular novel after trash-talking Morley in April for his overly manly bookshelf. It turns out to be a fun read, and not manly at all. A 39-year-old spinster impulsively buys a horse-drawn bookshop after getting fed up with her farmer-turned-folksy-writer brother, who has left all the farm chores to her after finding literary success. Picaresque adventures ensue. The edition I read also includes the sequel. The Haunted Bookshop, published in 1919 so off limits to me for now.
19. July 19: The Tree of Heaven by May Sinclair (1917). When I started this project, The Tree of Heaven was the big book everyone was talking about–the North American Review’s February 1918 book of the month, rave review in The New Republic, etc. (The Bookman said “we found it stupid,” but The Bookman was so fuddy-duddy that that’s practically a badge of honor.) It’s strange, then, to see that it has more or less disappeared—some call it a classic, but it’s not in print except by print-on-demand, where you can find just about everything. The book takes us through two decades, from the end of the nineteenth century to mid-World War I, in the life of the Harrison family: doting parents Frances and Anthony, sensitive Michael, pragmatic, big-hearted Nicky, idealistic Dorothy (not doted on as fondly by Frances as the boys), and forgettable younger son John. There’s also Anthony’s scandalous sister-in-law, Vera, and her daughter from an adulterous affair, Ronny (for Veronica—the book has a confusing plethora of nicknames), whom Michael and Nicky are in love with even though she’s theoretically their cousin. There’s suffrage, which the book treats as self-indulgent even though Sinclair, real name Mary Amelia St. Clair, was a suffragist herself; and modernism (Michael becomes a Wyndham Lewis-like modernist writer); and, of course, the war, which literally and figuratively tears the family apart. It’s a compelling story with some vivid characters, particularly Nicky, but in the end it doesn’t entirely come to life. Still, I can see how important it is–it’s a fascinating snapshot of upper-class England in mid-war, and Sinclair was paving the way for better modernist books by writers such as Virginia Woolf. In spite of its flaws, it deserves a wider readership.
20. August 1: The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen (audiobook) (1899). I’d always imagined this book as an entertaining romp through the world of the privileged class–a sociology-book equivalent of the movie High Society. Wrong! It’s more like what would happen if an alien visited our planet and set out to explain bewildering phenomena like liveried butlers, football, corsets, and Christianity. And it’s dry. Here is a sentence that I swear I picked at random, rather than for its exceptional boringness: “The effect of the pecuniary interest and the pecuniary habit of mind upon the growth of institutions is seen in those enactments and conventions that make for security of property, enforcement of contracts, facility of pecuniary transactions, vested interests.” I’m not sure I would have survived the printed version. But letting Veblen’s words wash over me as I listened to the well-narrated audiobook with varying levels of attention was well worth the (relatively minimal) effort. It’s a brilliant book that changed the way I think about the world ca. 1900, and the world today.
21. August 8: Dear Enemy by Jean Webster (1915). This sequel to the better-known Daddy-Long-Legs, which I wrote about here, was written the year before Webster died in childbirth. It’s the story of DLL narrator Judy’s best friend Sallie McBride, whom Judy guilt-trips into giving up her vapid life as a Worcester, Massachusetts, socialite to run the orphan asylum where Judy grew up. It’s not as engaging as DLL, but it’s a fascinating depiction of the treatment of orphans and abandoned children in the early 20th century. Sallie, who originally plans to stay on for just a few months, gradually falls in love with her work (and with the asylum’s on-call doctor) and sets out to improve the factory-style upbringing of her 100+ charges. Like DLL, the story is told in letters, mostly to Judy, who is now married to her DLL pen pal/benefactor Jervis. He is now doing business in Central America and the Caribbean, including financing a railroad in Honduras, which, I can tell you as someone who has lived in Honduras, is not an admirable occupation. Also, Sallie’s doctor friend spouts eugenic theories that Webster apparently agrees with. Still, a worthwhile read.
22. August 11: Molly Make-Believe by Eleanor Hallowell Abbott (1910). Carl, living alone in an apartment in Boston, is seriously ill with rheumatic fever. His fiancée has decamped to Florida, saying that she’ll write once a week, maybe, if she feels like it. He comes across an advertisement for a correspondence service that will send a love letter every day (available in three varieties: shy, medium, and very intense), and impulsively signs up. The woman behind the letters turns out to be the original Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and it all plays out like you’d imagine. Still, Abbott’s harrowing descriptions of Carl’s miseries, the hilarious callousness of his fiancée, and the letter-writer’s wonderfully off-beat correspondence (one time she just sends two hats and asks him which one she should buy), makes this short novel a worthwhile read.
23. August 22: Roast Beef, Medium by Edna Ferber (1913). I was eager to read Roast Beef, Medium because I loved Ferber’s short-story collection, Buttered Side Down. And I did enjoy this episodic novel (clearly serialized in magazines) about Emma McChesney, a divorced mother in her late thirties whose passion is her work as a traveling petticoat saleswoman. Like Ferber’s short stories, it paints an evocative picture of early twentieth-century middle-class America and tells us, with both anger and humor, of the indignities faced by single working women back then. Emma’s adventures continue in the next two books, and I’m looking forward to reading them. Still, if I had to recommend one of these two books, I’d choose Buttered Side Down, because of the broader sweep of characters and locales.
24. September 9: Oh, Money! Money! by Eleanor Porter (1918). Sometimes, like when you’re on a really long plane flight, as I was recently, all you want is a well-told story. And Porter, most famous as the author of Pollyanna, knows how to tell one. Stanley Fulton is a fabulously successful businessman (it’s never clear exactly how he made his millions) whose wealth and fame haven’t brought happiness, love, or health. In his early fifties, it dawns on him that he has no one to leave his fortune to, his closest relatives being three distant cousins in the New England town of Hillerton whom he’s never met. He fakes an expedition to South America, “disappears,” shows up in Hillerton under an assumed name, leaves a provisional bequest of $100,000 to each cousin, and watches what they do with the money. The one who spends it most wisely will get his millions. Along with the three cousins–the one with the extravagant wife, the one with the pathologically cheap wife, and the ditzy spinster (all flaws in this novel are doled out to the women), there’s their stepsister Maggie, who turns out to be the most sensible one of the lot. The story is slow in unfolding at the beginning–just give them the money already, Stanley!–but it’s fun to watch what unexpected wealth does to these ordinary people.
[Note: Finding decent-quality editions of 1918 books, especially the more obscure ones, can be tricky. If the edition I read is reasonably readable, I’ve included a hyperlink. Hyperlinks for audiobooks are also included. Most of those books can also be found on Kindle (often for free) and Project Gutenberg.]