The Decade That Started in 1920 Had Great Novels Aplenty

Last month, I posted a piece about how impressive the 1860s were for famous novels: War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, Great Expectations, Silas Marner, Les Miserables, Little Women, The Woman in White, etc.

Now picture renowned writer Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) reading some of those iconic 1860s novels as a young man and then later enjoying another blockbuster decade of novels during the last eight years of his life. Yes, this post will be about how the 1920s — which of course started a century ago this year — became an especially memorable time for fiction.

It was the decade when F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway saw the publishing of their early novels, including The Great Gatsby (1925) and The Sun Also Rises (1926). There was also Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (1920), the first novel by a woman to win the Pulitzer Prize.

The ’20s also featured hit after hit from Sinclair Lewis — who produced Main Street (1920), Babbitt (1922), Arrowsmith (1925), Elmer Gantry (1927), and Dodsworth (1929).

Modernists such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce also had quite a writing period with works such as Ulysses (1922), Mrs. Dalloway (1925), and To the Lighthouse (1927). And several volumes of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time were published that decade.

Meanwhile, L.M. Montgomery produced Rilla of Ingleside (a 1921 sequel to Anne of Green Gables), her three semi-autobiographical Emily novels (1923/1925/1927), and the stand-alone adult classic The Blue Castle (1926).

Also: Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), Rabindranath Tagore’s Shesher Kobita (1929), Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point (1928), Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem (1928), Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927), Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf (1927), Upton Sinclair’s Oil! (1926), W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil (1925), Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925), Booth Tarkington’s Alice Adams (1921), Colette’s Cheri (1920), D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (1920), and Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) — that author’s very first mystery.

While John Steinbeck’s work didn’t achieve greatness until the 1930s, his Cup of Gold debut novel appeared in 1929 — the same year of William Faulkner’s incomprehensible (to me) The Sound and the Fury.

Oh, and P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves novels and stories began coming out in the 1920s.

Last but not least, Billy Budd — Herman Melville’s final novel, and one of his best — was posthumously published in 1924. Like Thomas Hardy, he was around to read great 1860s novels when they first came out.

Was there something about the 1920s that made that decade such an excellent one for fiction? Maybe living through a brutal world war had a major subsequent impact on writers. Perhaps it had something to do with the excitement and cultural loosening of The Roaring Twenties. Maybe it was all just a fluke.

Some of your favorite 1920s novels?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about whether or not in-person schooling will resume in my town next month in this time of Covid — is here.

Trivia About Far-From-Trivial Authors

When I researched and wrote my 2017-published book on literary trivia, I decided to focus on interesting facts about deceased novelists. Figured I needed to narrow down my subject area somewhat. 🙂 But there are of course many interesting facts about living authors, and this post will focus on some of them — in alphabetical order by last name.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (author of novels such as Americanah) did a widely viewed TED talk called “We Should All Be Feminists” that was sampled in Beyonce’s 2013 song “Flawless.”

Isabel Allende always starts writing a new book on January 8 — the date she sent a letter to her dying 99-year-old grandfather that she expanded to create her widely read debut novel, The House of the Spirits.

Margaret Atwood, while primarily known for The Handmaid’s Tale and other novels, has written just as many books of poetry.

Lee Child (born James Grant) chose the Child pen name so his Jack Reacher novels would appear on bookstore and library shelves between the works of crime-fiction greats Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie.

Suzanne Collins was a writer for a number of relatively upbeat children’s TV shows before writing the much darker, widely popular The Hunger Games trilogy.

Louise Erdrich is not only an author but the owner of an independent Minneapolis bookstore called Birchbark that focuses on Native-American literature.

Jeffrey Eugenides, best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Middlesex, took time off from college to volunteer with Mother Teresa.

Diana Gabaldon of Outlander series fame holds three science degrees — in Zoology, Marine Biology, and Quantitative Behavioral Ecology — and was a university professor before starting to write fiction.

Lisa Genova, a neuroscientist, self-published Still Alice before Simon & Schuster acquired the debut novel about a woman suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s. It became a bestseller and film that won an Oscar for Julianne Moore in the title role.

John Grisham was not only a lawyer but served as a Democratic member of the Mississippi House of Representatives (from 1984 to 1990) before becoming a renowned novelist.

Stephen King, while a student at the University of Maine, wrote a column for the campus newspaper called…”Steve King’s Garbage Truck”!

Cormac McCarthy, whose work has been compared to William Faulkner’s, sent the manuscript of his first novel to Random House having no idea the man who had been Faulkner’s editor still worked there and would become Cormac’s editor.

Liane Moriarty is the first Australian author to have a novel (Big Little Lies) debut at number one on The New York Times bestseller list.

Arundhati Roy wrote her second novel a whopping 20 years after her Man Booker Prize-winning first novel The God of Small Things. She devoted much of those two decades to political activism in India.

Anne Tyler (The Accidental Tourist, etc.) didn’t attend public school or use a telephone until she was 11 years old, because her family lived in a Quaker commune.

Alice Walker, another activist author who’s best known for her Pulitzer-winning novel The Color Purple, was in a romantic relationship with Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Tracy Chapman in the 1990s.

Any trivia about living novelists you’d like to mention?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started, award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — which envisions new construction sinking my town’s downtown — is here.

Some Intersections Between Literature and Cartooning

This past Thursday, October 2, was the 70th anniversary of the 1950 debut of Charles M. Schulz’s “Peanuts.” The comic strip’s initial success was modest, but it grew to become a cultural phenomenon that appeared in more than 2,600 newspapers and spawned many TV specials, books, licensed products, and more.

I was privileged to meet and interview Schulz (1922-2000) many times when I covered cartoonists and columnists for a magazine.

Anyway, with that 70th-anniversary milestone in mind, I thought I would devote this piece to some intersections between cartooning and literature. Schulz himself was an avid reader of novels — among his favorites were Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby — and of course the cartoonist’s famed Snoopy character was a frustrated author often banging away on his typewriter atop his doghouse.

Speaking of novels, one of the most cartooning-imbued is Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, published in 2000 — the year Schulz died. That Pulitzer Prize-winning book stars two men modeled on the creators of Superman (who first appeared in comic books) and also mentions various newspaper-strip legends such as “Terry and the Pirates” and “Steve Canyon” creator Milton Caniff (1907-1988), who I got to meet and interview as well.

John Steinbeck was among the millions of people who admired Caniff’s stunningly drawn and plotted story strips, and even wrote him a fan letter in 1942.

Then there are renowned authors who did some cartooning — either in their youth and then stopping, or continuing into their authorial careers. Among them were Flannery O’Connor (whose art is atop this blog post), Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Kurt Vonnegut, Tom Wolfe, James Thurber, and John Updike.

I was there when Updike received an award at a 1990 National Cartoonists Society dinner in New York City. One thing Updike (jokingly?) said was that doing a comic strip was harder than writing books. “A cartoonist needs seven ideas a week; as a novelist, I only need one idea every two years,” he quipped.

And some artists known mostly for their cartooning have written novels. Among them: editorial cartoonists/comic creators Doug Marlette and Jeff Danziger, and The New Yorker cartoonist Peter Steiner.

Then there are graphic novelists/graphic memoirists — with the most famous ones including Art Spiegelman (Maus) and Alison Bechdel (Fun Home), among others. Bechdel first became known for her compelling and comedic “Dykes to Watch Out For” comic strip.

Any literature-cartooning connections you’d like to discuss?

My next blog post will appear on either the usual Sunday (October 11) or next Monday (October 12). Not sure yet. 🙂

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started, award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about such topics as the welcome launch of a group opposing gas-powered leaf blowers — is here.