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.

77 thoughts on “The Decade That Started in 1920 Had Great Novels Aplenty

  1. Wonderful post! The Great Gatsby is always associated with my mind with the 1920s, and I never even think abut The Age of Innocence because it is set in the world still far from the 1920s standards and perception of living (at least in my mind). Apart from Hesse and Kafka, I cannot even say what or who is my favourite, which means I need to read a lot more novels written in the 1920s!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Diana! Great observations! “The Great Gatsby” is indeed almost a quintessential 1920s novel, and “The Age of Innocence” does feel older given that it’s set in a 19th century with far from a 1920s mindset.

      And, yes, it’s hard to choose a favorite 1920s novel given that there are so many terrific ones. Though it’s not as deep and “masterpiece-y” as a number of other books I mentioned in my post, L.M. Montgomery’s “The Blue Castle” might be my favorite novel of that decade.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The received wisdom under which we’ve all wandered around– that the Great War was a crucible that produced great art– is so pervasive I won’t go directly against it. But the Spanish Flu killed more people than the Great War, and I think, has been somehow underestimated as a cause for the heedless speed and exuberance of the age.

    After all, relatively few Americans saw much combat, while a great many families here watched loved ones die a terrible death for which there was no cure. When it finally vanished from the scene, it would be only natural, in the face of such recent and pervasive loss of life, to seize life with both hands and live for pleasure.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I couldn’t find any matches of writers from that time period that I had read. So, in the list that you mentioned, I decided to order Upton Sinclair’s Oil. It’s the title that draws me in. I’ll be eager to read it once it arrives.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Dave and his wonderful Astorers!

    I’m going off-topic, and you know what an on-topic stickler I can be. I have not been here the entire COVID-19 season because people’s profile pictures are not wearing masks 😀 that or that WP stopped sending me new posts prompts. I hope you and yours have been untouched by the pandemic.

    The 20’s, I remember them so well. I used to hang around the Flatiron building waiting for the wind to blow ‘Dames’ skirts to see some bare ankle “23 Skidooooo!” Ok this may be fancy but so was “The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle” ~Hugh Lofting, one of my childhood faves, besides Astorers already discussed all the “Great” (allusion here) works of this time period. Who doesn’t like a man that can talk to the animals?

    interesting factoid: The book began as illustrations to his children while he was in the WW1 trenches.

    I see I have a lot of catching up to do. I’ll try to fix this WP mess and be around this wonderful place more often.

    As always, my typos and grammaticals are baked in a 350-degree oven, made with love and free for all to enjoy.
    PS, I’m also working on a Vegan version.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Jack! You and your interesting/hilarious comments have been much missed! (Profile pictures not wearing masks — LOL! 🙂 ) WP can get tricky when it comes to notifying people (or not).

      Great mention of Hugh Lofting’s 1922 book, and the story behind it!

      Last but not least, vegan typos work for me. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, mostlyanything, for that great mention! Arthur Conan Doyle was definitely still writing Sherlock Holmes stories during the 1920s — perhaps somewhat reluctantly, but readers wanted them!

      Like

  5. gatsby obvi..lol.. Anita Loos Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. TS Eliot, the Wasteland. The 20s were such a glass bubble shaped by war and always destined to burst. But an amazing time to read about and the literature reflected that time

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Aged about 14, a much older relative asked me to read The Well of Loneliness…
    Not for myself – for them. I didn’t exactly enjoy the novel, but
    I did read it. Maybe I learned a lot, including the nature of trust, and respect too.

    Liked by 2 people

    • What a great mention! Thank you, Esther! Wonderful that you agreed to your older relative’s request, and got something out of “The Well of Loneliness.”

      I wasn’t familiar with this important novel until seeing your comment, and now have it on my to-read list. Very early and brave of Radclyffe Hall to sympathetically focus on lesbian characters in a 1928 book. Heck, Rita Mae Brown’s “Rubyfruit Jungle” (an excellent novel) was considered pioneering in 1973.

      Wikipedia has a detailed entry about “The Well of Loneliness”:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Well_of_Loneliness

      Liked by 1 person

  7. January 1, 1927 Thornton Wilder’s “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” was first published. I read this book when I was 15 years old and I still go back to it over and over again, which is a testament to how books defy time and location. Authors and readers connect with ideas, shared experiences, even through the gulf of time. We are changed because a writer touched our soul. “We ourselves shall be loved for awhile and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses
    of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.” Thornton Wilder

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Clanmother! I also read “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” as a teen, and it has also stuck with me over the years despite never reading it a second time. A very deep novel about chance, fate, the meaning of random events, love (as Wilder notes), etc. Eloquent comment by you, and eloquent words from Wilder.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Have you read “In the Garden of Beasts” Dave? It is a brilliant book and I understand a movie with Tom Hanks was in the works, but I haven’t found it anywhere. In this book, Martha, the daughter of William Dofd the American Ambassador to Germany fro 1933 – 1937, was a friend of Thornton Wilder. One book leads to another and another and another… Life is the best when surrounded by books!

        Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Martina, for the comment! I’m also a fan of Thomas Hardy’s work, and an even bigger fan of George Eliot’s work!

      Reading groups are so great. I imagine that a number of them during the pandemic these days are either on hold or taking place virtually on Zoom. Hope it’s not TOO long before people in those groups can meet again in person. I consider this blog and its comments area a wonderful reading group of sorts for commenters and myself, but readers meeting in person to discuss books (and other topics) is a whole other thing. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Wow! Thank you, dear Dave. You took me into the paradise of the wonderful time; from 19th with so many fantastic writers into 20th as Gertrude Stein called it “the golden age”. an unforgettable time. I remember my late mather told us that she had only one wish; just let her alone in a big library with a loaf of bread and some water, nothing else.

    Liked by 2 people

    • You’re welcome, lampmagician, and thank you for the comment! The 1920s and the 1860s were indeed memorable times for literature — and of course every other decade has some great novels as well.

      Many readers (including myself) can relate to your late mother’s wonderful wish! Hoping many libraries around the world will reopen soon for people to spend at least some time in them. My town’s library just partly reopened yesterday, with people allowed in for up to 30 minutes to take out books.

      Liked by 2 people

  9. Certainly not a novel, but Karl Barth’s “Epistle to the Romans,” a commentary on the Apostle Paul’s letter, came out, I thought, in 1920. But I’m wrong. It first was published with a 1919 publication date. But his extensively revised second edition came out in 1922. The book spurred to live a movement called “neo-orthodoxy” in Christianity and was a repudiation of so-called liberal theologians who, prior to World War I, were advancing the idea that humanity was perfectible. But as poet Ezra Pound wrote after the war, it was fought over a “botched civilization,” which he described as “an old bitch gone in the teeth.” Barth was right to nuke the idea of human perfectibility. Had he done it in a novel, maybe you’d have included his book in your list, Dave.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Bill!

      Sounds like a really consequential commentary, well-described by you, and “Epistle to the Romans” is definitely an honorary 1920s release for its extensively revised second edition.

      There were certainly a few novels (such as “Billy Budd”) mentioned in my post and in the comments section that were written before the 1920s but weren’t published until that decade.

      Like

  10. I am enjoying these looks at specific decades–very thought-provoking! The 1920s was a remarkable one, I agree. Agatha Christie published her first novel, as you note, and Dorothy Sayers published the first Lord Peter Wimsey novel, Whose Body?, in 1923.

    My book club read a biography of Max Perkins, the editor at Scribners who discovered Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe, among others. You might find it interesting. The author is Scott Berg (published in 1978, which seems like a long time ago!)

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you! Great mention of Dorothy L. Sayers’ first Lord Peter Wimsey novel being in the 1920s! I’ve read and enjoyed Sayers’ “Strong Poison” and “Gaudy Night” from the 1930s.

      Max Perkins was indeed an editing legend. That biography must be fascinating.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I have to go with The Great Gatsby as my favorite novel from the 1920s. (In my college Craft of Fiction course, it was taught as the perfect novel.) Dashielle Hammett’s Red Harvest is another that comes to mind, as well as Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt. One of my all-time favorite books from the 1920s isn’t a novel, but it has “novel” in the title: E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel. He write about craft in such a droll fashion.

    Liked by 4 people

  12. Oh nice, Dave! I’ve read a few of these but would add: Kafka’s “The Trial,” Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms,” and Milne’s “Winnie-the-Pooh” books (because why not?). Sifting the Goodreads list for titles I’ve read, I notice an abundance of Chesterton and Lovecraft novels. What contrasting subject matter! Lots of good poetry on that list too 🙂

    Liked by 5 people

  13. Another fascinating and thought-provoking post. You have reminded me that I recently bought Francesca Wade’s book Square Haunting (title take from Woolf’s 1925 diary) about the amazing women (including Woolf) who lived in the same London square in the famous Bloomsbury area. (I really must find time to actually read it!!) I love the idea of authors in the 1920s having read what we see as the masterpieces of the 19th century. And what an incredible decade the 1920s was for a new direction in literature. I guess that in some cases this was recognized at the time (The Wasteland perhaps?). I often wonder what it must have been like to read something at the time that we now see as ground-breaking. It begs the question: Which of the novels that we are all reading now will be revered in 100 years’ time? Now there’s a good topic for another post….!

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Liz! Many excellent observations!

      Yes, some 19th-century fiction had a big impact on some authors who wrote 1920s classics. For instance, if I’m remembering right, Virginia Woolf was fascinated by the Brontes’ work, Hemingway was a fan of Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” etc.

      And definitely interesting to think of what 1920s readers thought of 1920s novels vs. what later readers thought of 1920s novels. Works by authors such as Woolf and James Joyce must have been viewed as quite groundbreaking back then.

      Novels by current living authors that’ll be revered a century from now? Wow — that’s a thought-provoker! Off the top of my head, perhaps some books by Isabel Allende, Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, Barbara Kingsolver, Cormac McCarthy, Liane Moriarty, Richard Russo, and Donna Tartt, among others. Maybe not revered in every case, but at least read. And of course some novels by authors — such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Toni Morrison — who recently died will probably be widely read 100 years from now.

      Liked by 4 people

      • What a great response, thank you! I think that Ali Smith, Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie would be important additions to your ‘future’ list – at least I hope so. Wouldn’t it be great to fire up the time machine and go see! 😀

        Liked by 1 person

        • Liz, absolutely Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie! (I’ve read two impressive novels by each, but have not read any by Ali Smith.) And, yes, seeing who’s still being read in 100 years would be well worth a time-machine trip!

          Liked by 1 person

  14. The 1920s was indeed a good one for novels, and I absolutely do think WWI (and the subsequent Influenza) had a lot to do with that. I’ve done a lot of reading about how that war profoundly impacted the arts, some of the impressions lasting well into the modern era. As for some of my faves, I do love Hemingway. “The Sun Also Rises” is very good but I think “A Farewell to Arms” is my favorite of his, which came out in 1929. And “All Quiet on the Western Front” would probably rank up there as one of my favorite novels. And… one of my great literary failings – I haven’t read “the Great Gatsby” 😦 I’ll get to it soon, I promise.

    Liked by 4 people

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