1903’s Best Novels None Too Good

Although the bestsellers of 1903 include some good stories and some intriguing detail, none of the novels is literature. Most are not even novels you’d seek out for a second reading.

With the exception of Owen Wister’s The Virginian, each seems to be very much a novel of its era. It’s hard to imagine any of the 10 becoming a bestseller even a decade later.

Lady Rose’s Daughter by Mrs. Humphrey Ward was arresting enough while I was reading it, but within a few weeks I’d forgotten all but the broad outline of the story.  The same was true of The Pit, by Frank Norris, and The Letters of a Self-Made Merchant to his Son, by George Horace Lorimer.

Unfortunately, those three are so much better than the others from 1903, that I have to chose them as my top picks.

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Little Shepherd Wins the War, Loses Readers

The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come is an improbable tale of an orphan boy genetically predisposed to become a paragon of virtue.

As the novel opens, the family with whom Chad lived has died. Chad and his dog, Jack, take off across the mountains.

They land in Kingdom Come, Kentucky, where Jack wins a dog fight and Chad wins lifelong enemies.

He also wins Melissa, whose family takes Chad in.

By accident, Chad meets Major Calvin Buford who discovers that Chad is his grandson and gives him a home. Chad wants to be friends with the Major’s neighbors, the Deans, especially Margaret Dean, but they think he’s a bastard.

When Civil War looms, Chad chooses the blue uniform. The Major and his Bluegrass friends turn their backs on Chad.

In the war, Chad wins the respect of the Dean men and love of Margaret Dean, but loses all the other people he holds dear.

John Fox Jr. can write great description, but he flunks character development and plot creation. Most of the novel is a recital of Civil War battles.

The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come is as dumb as the summary sounds and even more boring.

The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come
By John Fox. Jr.
Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1903
404 pages
1903-bestseller #10
My Grade: C-

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The One Woman Is Too Ridiculous

The early 1900s saw a spate of novels about clergymen who came under bad influences in big cities. Thomas Dixon Jr.’s The One Woman: A Story of Modern Utopia is one of the more ridiculous examples of group.

The One Woman contains some interesting insights into what today are sneeringly called traditional values, but the novel’s plot and characterization are implausible even by the standards of melodrama.

The title character, Ruth Gordon, is the jealous wife of the Rev. Frank Gordon, a handsome and charismatic preacher who is packing a New York City church with a beguiling blend of scriptures and socialism.

Ruth has reason to worry: Frank has an ego twice the size of his church’s sanctuary.

When sexy, sophisticated heiress Kate Ransom tells Frank his words seem divine, Frank’s a gonner.

Frank leaves Ruth and the kids for Kate.

Ruth throws herself at Frank's feet
Ruth is overcome when Frank says he’s leaving her

Frank invents a new, utopian religion that features open marriage.

When Kate tells Frank she’s leaving him, Franks kills her new lover.

In the nick of time, Ruth rescues Frank from the electric chair, restoring the confessed murder to his rightful place as husband, head of the household,  and father to their dear, innocent little children.

The One Woman: A Story of Modern Utopia
by Thomas Dixon Jr.
Life Country Press, 1903
350 pages
1903 bestseller # 9

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Letters of a Self-Made Merchant to His Son: A Businessman’s Home Companion

If Garrison Keillor had been CEO of a pork-packing business in the 1890s, he might have written Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son.

Since he was not, George Horace Lorimer undertook the task, producing a bestselling novel brimming with funny stories, shrewd advice, and love.

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Each of the 17 chapters of the novel is presented as a letter from John Grahman to his son, Pierrepont, beginning when Pierrepont enters Harvard University.

From the other letters, readers can trace Pierrepont’s career.

Without describing either of the Graham men, Lorimer develops such vivid portraits of them, I felt I’d known them for years. What’s more, I felt I was a better person for that acquaintance.

The father is nobody’s fool. He wants his son to be a good man, a good businessman, and, eventually, a good husband and father.

After graduation, Pierrepont joins his father’s firm at the bottom rung. Pierrepont’s less than stellar performance In the mail room draws a rebuke from his rather.

The son mends his ways, buckles down, and, thanks to some coaching from Dad, begins learning the business he will some day manage.

If you love a good yarn, or aspire to a leadership role, don’t miss this novel.

Common sense rarely appears in such attractive wrappings.

Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son
Being the Letters written by John Graham, Head of the House
of Graham & Company, Pork-Packers in Chicago, familiarly
known on ‘Change as “Old Gorgon Graham,” to his Son,
Pierrepont, facetiously known to his intimates as “Piggy.”
by George Horace Lorimer
Illus. F. R. Gruger and B. Martin Justice
1903 bestseller #9
Project Gutenberg EBook #21959
 

Photo credit: Pork Loin by morderska

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Mettle of the Pasture Probes Ethics of Truthfulness

The Mettle of the Pasture by James Lane Allen combines two of life’s most essential themes—  love and ethical behavior — into an incredibly forgettable novel.

The plot pivots on the question of whether it is ethically necessary for a couple about to marry to reveal their moral lapses to their intended partner.

When he proposes to Isabel Conyers, Rowan Meredith decides that he must reveal his dark secret.

She would rather not have known.

Knowing, Isabel sees no option open to her but to uphold her virtue by refusing to marry. For Rowan’s sake, Isabel attempts to conceal the reason for the break-up.

Her grandmother, an accomplished scandalmonger, makes a shrewd guess.

Allen clearly wants readers to admire Rowan and Isabel for their “mettle.” Readers might admire Rowan if his honesty were accompanied by a realistic appraisal of the situation.

Rowan, however, doesn’t see having sex outside marriage as in any way immoral. He expects Isabel to regard it as unfortunate at worst — which shows how little he knows Isabel.

Rowan comes out looking like a fool.

Isabel is not much better.

Her high moral standards generally take back seat to her high regard for her own social standing. She (and Allen) may wish to believe her acquaintances respect her, but from what Allen shows, I believe that, like her grandmother, her acquaintances fear Isabel’s tongue.

The Mettle of the Pasture
by James Lane Allen
1903 Bestseller #7
Project Gutenberg eBook #12482

Lovey Mary gets help from Mrs. Wiggs

In Lovey Mary, Alice Hegan Rice returns to the Cabbage Patch with a cheerful novel that redeploys Mrs. Wiggs from her 1902 bestseller.

Orphaned Lovey Mary, 13, is acutely aware that she’s not loved.

When Mary’s former tormentor, Kate Rider, drops her infant at the orphan asylum, Mary becomes his foster mother.

Two years later, when Kate returns for Tommy, Mary kidnaps him rather than give him up.

The pair end up in the Cabbage Patch. Mrs. Wiggs and her children help Mary find work, make friends, and overcome her feelings of inadequacy.

Mary wants to live up to her friends’ good opinion. She visits Kate, who is hospitalized after an accident, and brings her back to the Cabbage Patch, where Kate dies.

gp_niagara-falls-1014159-m

Mary and Tommy return to the orphanage.

Mary’s good behavior is rewarded: She and Tommy are taken on a railroad trip to Niagara Falls.

Lovey Mary has slender plot and inadequate character development. The novel’s best scenes, such as Mary’s recitation of her lines from Faust “with a volubility that would have shamed an auctioneer,” have no bearing on the plot.

Five years later, Lucy Maud Montgomery will use themes and incidents similar to those of Lovey Mary with far greater skill in Anne of Green Gables.

Go with the redhead.

Lovey Mary
by Alice Hegan Rice
1903 bestseller #4
Project Gutenberg ebook #5970
 
Photo credit: Niagara Falls by jnystrom

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Pit Makes Commodities Trading Exciting

In The Pit: A Story of Chicago, Frank Norris combines a very good story with a mediocre one.

The better story, believe it or not,  is about speculating in wheat futures.

field of sprouted winter wheat
How much is this field of sprouted winter wheat worth?

Norris shows the challenge of beating the market becomes as addictive as heroin. Once hooked, traders risk their fortunes, their families, their very lives for fractions of a cent per bushel.

The weak, secondary story is a romance. The leading lady of this story marries the leading man of the other.Even she cannot understand her own behavior, which is equally bewildering to readers.

Despite the handicap of the secondary story, The Pit is powerful and very contemporary.

Norris assumes his readers know how commodities trading works. That might have been true in 1903, but I doubt many novel readers today have the necessary background.

However, if you know or are willing to look up how the market works (there’s a good, short explanation in another 1903 bestseller, George Horace Lorimer’s Letters of a Self-Made Merchant to His Son) will find that Norris’s 110-year-old novel gives a remarkably accurate picture of how the global economy of 2013 affects the daily lives of those who haven’t money to play the markets.

The Pit: A Story of Chicago
by Frank Norris
1903 bestseller #3
Project Gutenberg EBook #4382
My grade B-
 
Photo Credit: Sprouting Winter Wheat by Krappweis

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Gordon Keith Piles Up Implausibilities

Thomas Nelson Page’s Gordon Keith is a novel you’ll be glad to have read, but much happier if you never begin reading it.  (The illustrations below from the novel are more entertaining.)

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The title character is the son of a Southern gentleman. Sidelined by his war injuries, General Keith is sent to England to represent the Confederacy. He takes his son along.

In England, Gordon meets one Yankee, Norman Wentworth, who will become his lifelong friend; another, Ferdy Wickersham, who will become his lifelong enemy; and a little girl who will grow up to become the second love of his life.

Page piles up coincidences the way a logger piles up cord wood. He has his rural, Southern hero tramping the hills on engineering surveys one week, leaving his card in New York drawing rooms the next.

Page doesn’t do any better with characterization than he does with plot.

Gordon’s honor code generally takes the form of demanding satisfaction of anyone who disagrees with him. Gordon wins the respect of men by ever so politely knocking out his opponents.

Page is even less successful with his female characters than with the men.

When Gordon promises his young bride they will share their home with his aged father and equally elderly town doctor, according to Page, she’s thrilled.

If that strikes you as plausible, you’ll probably like Gordon Keith.

Gordon Keith
By Thomas Nelson Page
lllustrated by George Wright
Published 1903
1903 bestseller #2
Project Gutenberg eBook #14068

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Lady Rose’s Daughter Bewitches, Bothers and Bewilders

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Lady Rose’s Daughter, by Mrs. Humphrey Ward, is a tantalizing psychological study simmered in a broth of mystery, romance,  and adventure.

Lady Rose’s husband refused to divorce her when she ran off to the continent with a lover. After her parents’ deaths, their illegitimate daughter goes to England under an assumed name.

Lady Henry Delafield discovers Julie’s real identity. She hires the younger woman as her companion with the proviso Julie is not to seek out her English relatives.

When Julie turns out to be better than her employer at creating a salon for politicians and leaders, Lady Henry is resentful.

Lady Henry’s grandson and her granddaughter side with Julie against their grandmother even as they worry Julie is too friendly with an Army captain conspicuous for bravery — and for pursuit of a young heiress in India.

Given the complexity of both plot and characters, the tidy ending feels rather too neat. It’s not totally implausible, but it doesn’t feel psychologically fitting either. My instinctive response was to reread the novel to see if I’d missed clues the first time, or if Mrs. Ward left out something vital.

Perhaps if the worst that can be said of a novel is that it elicited a desire to read the book again, it hasn’t done too badly.

Lady Rose’s Daughter
by Mrs. Humphry Ward
Illus. Howard Chandler Christy
Project Gutenberg EBook #13782
1903 bestseller #1

 © 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni