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.