My picks of 1906’s bestselling novels

The best of the 1906 bestselling novels for most twenty-first century readers are books that clothe social or political criticism in a strong story: Coniston by Winston Churchill, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, and The Spoilers by Rex Beach.

Each of the novelists had some first-hand, emotional connection with his subject, which makes their stories especially powerful. The characters may have been invented, but the situations are true.

The Spoilers

Photograph of novelist Rex Beach wearing a Stetson hat
        Rex Beach

The Spoilers is probably the most accessible of the three for today’s readers. Rex Beach’s novel is a thriller with the requisite amount of romance.

Two film versions of the novel were made. Gary Cooper played the male lead in one and John Wayne was leading man in the second, which tells you all you need to know about Beach’s characterization.

The protagonists of The Spoilers confront a scheme cooked up by politicians to legally rob Alaska miners of their gold. The scheme, promoted as a plan to protect the miners, has the blessing of the federal government and its courts.

The intrepid heroes not only have to figure out what’s going on but also defeat the men in suits back in the lower 48 with little more than their wits and shovels.

The Spoilers is based on true events that Beach observed while in Alaska. He had trained for the law in Chicago, but the gold fields had more allure than the law courts.

During the Klondike Gold Rush, Beach spent five years unsuccessfully prospecting for gold.

The Jungle

Photograph of writer Upton Beall Sinclair, Jr.
  Upton Sinclair

In The Jungle, Upton Sinclair follows a fictional Lithuanian immigrant family who have come to America early in the 1900s seeking new opportunities.

They find only the same old oppressions.

They arrived with little and, despite their hard work, that little is gradually taken from them.

Sinclair uses the family to expose the working and living conditions experienced by immigrants who found jobs in Chicago’s stockyards, slaughterhouses, and meat packing plants.

The lead character in the novel turns toward socialism which offers some hope of a better future.

Sinclair himself was a socialist and a muckraker (the Progressive Era term for an investigative reporter). He went undercover, working in the Chicago meatpacking plants to get a first hand look at conditions.

The Jungle was first published as a serial in the Socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason for which Sinclair worked.

Besides writing on political topics important to socialists, Sinclair became a socialist politician. He ran as a Socialist Party candidate for Congress, and in 1934 ran for governor of California as a Democrat.

He was unsuccessful both times.

Coniston

Photograph of American novelist and New Hampshire politician Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill

Coniston focuses on the figure of Jethro Bass, a cloddish country lad from the lower socioeconomic class, which in the middle half of the 19th century was usually called “the wrong side of the tracks.”

Jethro becomes a a deal maker, a behind-the-scenes string-puller. Smoke-filled rooms are his natural habitat.

Jethro exploits the vulnerabilities of the New Hampshire political system to amass great power.

Coniston‘s author Winston Churchill knew a thing or two about New Hampshire politics. He was twice elected to the New Hampshire state legislature.

The same year that Coniston was topping the bestseller list, Churchill lost a bid to become the Republican nominee for governor. Six years later he ran for governor again, this time as a Progressive, and was again defeated.

In summation

The Spoilers, The Jungle, and Coniston are novels whose subjects readers will remember but whose stories will slip the mind.

The value of such books is that they can be picked up and read again without ruining the story or lessening the value of the writing.

Their downside is that they aren’t memorable enough for readers to seek them out for a second reading.

The Wheel of Life too much of a good thing

Writing fiction is like making pie crust; you need to know when you’ve done enough.

Ellen Glasgow hadn’t learned that lesson yet when she published her second bestseller, The Wheel of Life.


The Wheel of Life by Ellen Anderson Gholson Glasgow

Doubleday, Page & Co. 489 p. 1906 bestseller #10.
Project Gutenberg eBook #14696. My grade: B+.


The novel contains several stories that regularly idle alongside one another, like city transit buses at interchanges.

One story is about Laura Wilde, rising poet and seemingly confirmed spinster.

A second is about magazine editor Roger Adams, married to a woman with whom he has little in common. Adams’ wife, Connie, has mental problems, is using cocaine, and having an affair with a married man

A third story is about Gerty Bridewell, Laura’s best friend, and Gerty’s philandering husband, Perry, who, oddly enough, admires Roger Adams enormously.

A fourth story is about Arnold Kemper, a divorced cousin of Perry Bridewell reputed to have had an affair with opera star Madame Alta.

There’s much to admire and enjoy in this novel. Glasgow does all the right things, except cut out what she doesn’t need—like the budding playwright in love with Laura and the old lady selling kittens to finance her husband’s funeral

On the whole, however, the best we can say is, “It shows promise.”

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Predictable plot can’t spoil The Spoilers

An immediate success in 1906, Rex Beach’s The Spoilers seems shopworn today because of its overused romantic plot.

But however tired the romance, even today Beach holds readers’ interest with his fast paced, action-adventure plot.


The Spoilers by Rex Beach

1906 bestseller #8. Project Gutenberg ebook #5076. My grade: B.


First edition cover ot The Spoilers shows village at the foot of Alaskan mountain.Handsome young Roy Glenister and his older sidekick, Bill Dextry, are headed back to their Midas Mine when Helen Chester makes a dash for their ship with several sailors in hot pursuit.

The men help Helen aboard and escort her safely to Nome where she has important business.

On the trip, Roy decides he’s going to marry Helen.

She disagrees: He’s too uncouth for her tastes.

There are the usual plot complications: misunderstandings on both sides, the girl’s guardian who’s a scoundrel, the suitor who’s an even worse scoundrel, the hero’s old girl friend.

The novelty is the plot trigger: Unscrupulous politicians have devised a way to steal gold from the Alaskan mines with the blessings of the courts and the US government.

The plan is simple, looks legal, and seems to be aimed at protecting honest miners.

Beach trained as a lawyer before spending five years prospecting in Alaska. The romance didn’t happen, but the skullduggery did.

Fraud on such a scale is mesmerizing—and well worth a read.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Awakening of Helena Richie joins orphan to widow

When Dr. Lavendar needs a home for orphan David Allison, he thinks the 7-year-old might be good for young, pretty widow, Helena Richie, newly arrived in Old Chester.

Sam Wright, son of Mrs. Richie’s landlord, thinks Mrs. Richie might be good for him. At 23, “Sam’s Sam” is ready to fall in love with anything or anyone not from Old Chester.


The Awakening of Helena Richie by Margaret Deland

1906 bestseller #7. Project Gutenberg eBook #6315. My grade: A-.


David is good for Helena. He likes her well enough, though not as much as he likes Dr. Lavendar. Here are the two in conversation:

“That is a Bible picture,” Dr. Lavendar observed.
“Who,” said David, “is the gentleman in the water?”
Dr. Lavendar blew his nose before answering. Then he said that that was meant to be our Saviour when He was being baptized. “Up in the sky,” Dr. Lavendar added, “is His Heavenly Father.”
There was silence until David asked gently, “Is it a good photograph of God?”

David intensely dislikes Mrs. Richie’s widowed brother, Mr. Pryor, whose occasional, brief visits are too long and too frequent for David’s liking.

Margaret Deland makes her characters pop off the page. Even the most disreputable of them has some virtues, and the most virtuous has some flaws.

Helena’s best features, unfortunately, are skin deep: She’s neither bright nor perceptive.  You’ll have to read the novel to learn about her flaws.

The Old Chester community becomes the real story.

An A- is too high a grade for this book, but Helena’s spiritual awakening is believable, which is almost unheard of in a religious novel.

And David may be the funniest, serious, little boy to appear between the covers of a book.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

The Jungle is ferocious fiction

Anyone who could call Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle entertainment is morally bankrupt.

The novel, which rocked America in 1906, is exposé, propaganda, political theater.


The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

Viking, 1905. 343 p. 1906 bestseller #6. My grade B-.


Corrupt Chicago politicians. Salmonella-tainted food. Sub-prime mortgages. Water supplies poisoned by industrial waste.

Sinclair exposed them all.first edition cover of The Jungle shows industrial age factories.

Sinclair weaves a journalist’s reporting around the fictional story of a Lithuanian peasant family that comes to the US for a better life.

They have little money, no English. The only person they know lives in Chicago, so that’s where they go.

They get jobs in the vast meat packing industry.

It’s brutally hard, dehumanizing work.

They can’t make a decent living.

They are dependent on credit.

One slip—an accident, an illness—and they may starve or freeze to death.

Sinclair is less interested in his characters as persons than as representatives. His omniscient narrator keeps readers from getting too close to them.

Scenes are Sinclair’s forté: Slaughterhouses, boarding houses, jails, saloons, and brothels are described in sickening detail.

Sinclair’s protagonist, Jurgis, finally comes to see that his personal problems are epidemic, systemic.

Jurgis becomes a socialist.

The socialists have one advantage over other workers: They believe someday things will be better.

©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

June Cable a mystery with Dickensian overtones

In Jane Cable, George Barr McCutcheon gives readers a break-neck paced mystery with characters that make zombies look benign.

The mystery is the Jane Cable’s parentage.


June Cable by George Barr McCutcheon

1906 bestseller # 5. Project Gutenberg EBook #5971. My grade: B+.


David Cable’s wife led him to believe Jane was his own daughter. Jane was actually a founding Frances had adopted.

Frances has never told either David or Jane that Jane is adopted.

Jane, now 20, is devoted to the couple she calls her parents.

The lawyer who handled the adoption, James Bamsemer, learned Jane’s parents’ identity and blackmailed Jane’s father’s family.

When Bamsemer turns up in Chicago, Frances knows she has to tell her secret.

Bamsemer terrifies her, but she’s even more frightened of his law clerk, Elias Droom.

James Bamsemer develops a crush on Frances; his son Graydon and Jane fall in love.

The story gets more complicated and more exciting with every chapter.

McCutcheon gives his charming characters flaws and softens the dastardly ones with an occasional generous impulse.

Droom is worthy of Charles Dickens: Ugly and devious in aiding Bamsemer, Droom grows geraniums and loves Graydon like a son.

Droom also invents things, such as a do-it-yourself guillotine.

You’ll stay up past your bedtime to see how McCutcheon fits that into the plot.

©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The House of a Thousand Candles: Its wax has waned

The House of A Thousand Candles opens with John Glenarm learning the conditions of his grandfather’s will from Arthur Pickering, a man John dislikes “as heartily as it is safe for one man to dislike another.”


The House of a Thousand Candles by Meredith Nicholson

Howard Chandler Christy, illus. ©1905 Bobbs-Merrill. 1906 bestseller #4.
Project Gutenberg eBook #12441.  My grade: B.


An orphan, John was raised by his grandfather, who wanted him to be an architect. John chose engineering and dissipated the fortune his father left him.

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The will confines John to occupying Glenarm House without leaving the rural Indiana county or having company for a year.

John agrees out of respect for his grandfather and shame for the grief he caused him.

If John violates the conditions, the property reverts to Marian Devereux, a young woman whose aunt runs the Catholic girls school on property adjoining Glenarm House.

Meredith Nicholson spins this opening into a mystery-romance that is as ridiculous as the will is eccentric.

There are rumors of treasure hid on the property, secret passages, attempts on John’s life, the grandfather’s butler-companion who knows more than he lets on, and one very attractive girl at the school next door.

The House will provide pleasant diversion, but both story and characters will be snuffed from memory within a few days of reading.

©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Fighting Chance doesn’t land a punch

The Fighting Chance is about upper crust young Americans who have nothing they must do but can’t do nothing well.

Leading lady Sylvia Landis hails from a line of promiscuous women. She’s engaged herself to filthy-rich bachelor Howard Quarrier hoping—but not believing—his money will secure her fidelity.


The Fighting Chance by Robert W. Chambers

Project Gutenberg EBook #7492. My Grade: B.


Although Sylvia is sure she needs mega-millions for happiness, she falls for Stephen Siward, who has only enough to live on without working.

Stephen was recently dropped from an exclusive club for conduct unbecoming a gentleman while drunk.

Drink has been the downfall of the Siwards for generations.

The story begins to get interesting when a sharp, amiable young businessman with upwardly mobile ambitions comes on the scene.

Beverly Plank is socially inept, but he’s the sensitive, tough-minded friend Siward needs.

Plank not only gets Siward off booze, but provides him with challenging work figuring out what financial shenanigans Quarrier is up to.

When it was that [Siward] first began to like Plank very much he could not exactly remember. He was not, perhaps, aware of how much he liked him. Plank’s unexpected fits of shyness, of formality, often and often amused him. But there was a subtler feeling under the unexpressed amusement, and, beneath all, a constantly increasing sub-stratum of respect. Too, he found himself curiously at ease with Plank, as with one born to his own caste. And this feeling, unconscious, but more and more apparent, meant more to Plank than anything that had ever happened to him. It was a tonic in hours of doubt, a pleasure in his brief leisure, a pride never to be hinted at, never to be guessed, never to be dreamed of by any living soul save Plank alone.

Robert W. Chambers does a lot that’s right in his characterization, plot development, and refusal to do the expected, yet somehow the novel doesn’t work.

The romance is too prosaic for escapism, and the most intriguing component of the plot—the friendship between the two men—is inadequately developed to become the novel’s core.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Lady Baltimore is multiple-layer novel

I had to read Owen Wister’s Lady Baltimore a second time last week, having failed to save the review I wrote of the bestselling novel in May of 2015.

Despite its confectionary name, it’s a novel that withstands repeated reading.


Lady Baltimore by Owen Wister

1906 bestseller # 2. Project Gutenberg Ebook #1386. My grade: B.


A young gentleman named Augustus tells the story. His snobbish aunt has sent him to Kings Port, South Carolina, to research family history.

Augustus is having lunch at the Women’s Exchange, when a young man comes in and orders a Lady Baltimore cake for the following Wednesday.

It’s clear to Augustus and to pretty, young counter clerk (who also happens to bake the cakes) that young man is ordering his own wedding cake.

When he’s not in the library, Augustus uses his letters of introduction and his fondness for Lady Baltimore cake to find out about the would-be bridegroom, John Mayant; his finacée, Hortense Rieppe; and the charming cake baker.

Readers must pay close attention to figure out how Augustus figured out what happened.

Wister called Lady Baltimore a romance. It’s that and more: Mystery, history, social criticism, and generous dollops of humor mingle pleasantly in its pages.

Augustus’s view of the American “Negro” may offend readers—but it’s an accurate picture of “enlightened” whites’ attitudes in the 1906.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Readers will find mouthwatering photographs, historical information, and recipes for the Lady Baltimore cake on the What’s Cooking America website.