Octavia E. Butler (photo credit: Curious Fictions)
Sometimes, a novel falls into obscurity or semi-obscurity before returning to wider public consciousness many years later. This leap might happen because of a new screen or stage adaptation of the book or a change in societal conditions, or for both reasons, or for other reasons.
A current example is Octavia E. Butler’s mind-boggling 1979 novel Kindred, which inspired a 2022 TV series that just began streaming on Hulu. New York Times critic Mike Hale expressed mixed feelings about the production (which I haven’t seen), saying it only did partial justice to Butler’s book (which I found riveting). But it’s hard for even a so-so screen adaptation to totally ruin a searing, compelling, intricate story — in the case of Kindred, about a 20th-century Black woman repeatedly yanked back in time to the plantation where her ancestors lived in the slave-holding American South.
Turning Kindred into a TV series is timely this year because of the recent rise in overt racism in the U.S., partly “thanks” to white supremacists such as Donald Trump (who still has the support of about a third of Americans) and other prominent Republicans. Also in the news have been the efforts by U.S. conservatives to try to prevent schools from teaching the country’s disturbing racial history, the harrowing murders of George Floyd and other victims of police brutality, the protests against those killings, and more.
There’s renewed interest, too, in Butler’s 1993 novel Parable of the Sower, with its prescient theme of climate change’s disastrous effects.
Butler (1947-2006) was considered a science-fiction writer but her novels are wider in scope — offering more social commentary (including anti-racist and pro-feminist elements) and more diverse casts of characters than many other sci-fi authors. She grew up in a low-income family, and became an avid reader with the help of her mother, who, as a housemaid, would bring home her employers’ discarded books and magazines for young Octavia to read.
Another novel that recently saw revived interest was Sinclair Lewis’ gripping It Can’t Happen Here (1935), about the rise of an American dictator. That dystopian political novel was never a totally obscure part of the Lewis canon, but for decades was not as well known as the author’s 1920s classics such as Main Street, Babbitt, and Elmer Gantry. Then, when the authoritarian/admirer-of-authoritarians Trump became president in 2016, It Can’t Happen Here suddenly felt prescient — and jumped up best-seller lists again. Trump of course went on to embellish his fascistic credentials by never conceding the 2020 election he convincingly lost and encouraging his followers to storm the U.S. Capitol in early 2021.
Zora Neale Hurston achieved some renown for books such as her excellent 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, but was mostly forgotten in her later years and after her 1960 death — with one reason being the difficulty for an African-American woman of that era to maintain a high profile in a mostly white-male publishing world. Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and her other books were eventually “rediscovered” largely thanks to another author, Alice Walker, finding Hurston’s unmarked Florida grave in 1973 and writing an influential article about her for Ms. magazine in 1975 (seven years before the release of Walker’s The Color Purple). Obviously, Black authors had a somewhat better chance of attaining prominence in the 1970s and beyond than they did decades earlier.
After some early-career 1840s writing fame, Herman Melville also become largely unknown by the time of his death in 1891 — the year Hurston was born. Nearly three decades later, the 1919 centennial of Melville’s birth moved some scholars to revisit his life and his Moby-Dick opus — which had garnered notice when published in 1851 but mostly for negative reasons: the novel was given a thumb’s down by many critics and sold poorly. Those 20th-century scholars helped turn the profound saga of Captain Ahab and crew into a belated sensation in the 1920s and after. Also, the manuscript for Billy Budd was found among the keepsakes of Melville’s descendants and published for the first time in 1924, to great acclaim.
Part of Melville’s “problem” was being so ahead of his time. A 2019 Columbia magazine article by Paul Hond contained this quote: “Melville was a nineteenth-century author writing for a twentieth-century audience,” explains Columbia professor Andrew Delbanco, author of the 2005 biography Melville: His World and Work. “He used stream of consciousness long before Stein or Joyce; he acknowledged America’s predatory power as well as its great promise; he defied convention in writing about sex; and perhaps most shocking of all, he took seriously the possibility of a godless universe. In his time, there was a limited market for these insights and innovations.”
Miguel de Cervantes’ iconic 1605 novel Don Quixote has nearly always been famous, but it jumped even more into public consciousness after inspiring the hit Broadway musical Man of La Mancha that made its debut in 1965. An appropriate decade for that to happen, because Don Quixote’s idealism and unconventionality made him a 1960s-type character of sorts.
I’ll conclude with a strange tale involving Colleen McCullough, whose novels include the terrific The Thorn Birds and the nearly as good Morgan’s Run. She also wrote The Ladies of Missalonghi, which, when published in 1987, turned out to be a blatant rip-off of L.M. Montgomery’s exquisite 1926 novel The Blue Castle. McCullough said this one blot in an exemplary career was not intended — she called it a case of “subconscious recollection” — but the situation did have the positive result of reviving interest in The Blue Castle, an underrated part of the wonderful Montgomery canon best known for Anne of Green Gables.
Any thoughts or examples relating to this week’s blog theme?
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 every Thursday. The latest piece — about an imagined tour of my town by a cynical fake Santa — is here.