Critique of Education in The Plastic Age Is Just Silly Putty

Girl lures college man to find alcohol.“When an American sets out to found a college, he hunts first for a hill.”  Thus Percy Marks begins a novel that attempts unsuccessfully to be an indictment of American higher education in the jazz age. Marks writes:

The college is made up of men who worship mediocrity; that is their ideal except in athletics.

In a nutshell, the plot of The Plastic Age is this: A wholesome, American farm boy named Hugh Carver goes to a college founded so men might “find the true light of God and the glory of Jesus in the halls of this most liberal college.”

Hugh loses the faith he entered college with, finds nothing to replace it, and graduates without enough education to even decide on a career.

Hugh does, however, learn to drink, smoke, gamble, and swear.

The novelist seems to equate the educational system represented by Sanford College with Prohibition era drinking and casual approach to sex. That’s a questionable equation.

But however he defines the problem, in order to skewer the system that produced it Marks must make readers care about its victims.

Percy Marks isn’t writer enough do that.

The novel never gets any better than its opening line.

The Plastic Age
by Percy Marks
Grosset & Dunlap, 1924
1924 bestseller #2
Project Gutenberg EBook #16532
My grade C+

Photo credit: The photo is from the screenplay of Marks’ novel.

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

So Big, a Cameo for Motherhood

Jacket cover of So BigEdna Ferber’s So Big is a gentle, thoughtful novel peopled with believable characters and edged in tears.

Selina Peake grew up wherever her father’s profession—gambling—took them. Life was an adventure to her father. He told Selina to relax and enjoy it:

‘The more kinds of people you see, and the more things you do, and the more things that happen to you, the richer you are. Even if they’re not pleasant things. That’s living. Remember, no matter what happens, good or bad, its’ just so much’—he used the gambler’s term, unconsciously,—’just so much velvet.

When her father dies, Selina goes to teach at a rural school in a Dutch farming community. She causes merriment by saying the fields of cabbage are beautiful and consternation by her frivolous, city clothes.

Within a year, she marries a farmer with no talent for farming. They have one child, Dirk, whom Selina calls by his childhood nickname, “So Big.”

Widowed before Dirk is 10, Selina takes over running the farm, making it profitable so that Dirk won’t have to be a farmer.

She teaches Dirk life isn’t an adventure, that something good isn’t just around the corner. Dirk believes her, and at the time she believes she’s telling the truth.

Dirk does what’s necessary to becomes a success short of outright illegality.

Though Selina and Dirk remain close, as she grows older, Selina senses that she failed her son.

The Pulitzer committee agreed with readers that So Big is a gem.

Read it and find out for yourself.

So Big
By Edna Ferber
© 1924, Doubleday
1924 bestseller #1
283 pages
My grade: A

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

1924 bestseller review list July–August

Very few of the novels from the 1924 bestseller list are read often today, but several of them should be.

Finding print copies to read can be a challenge. Some of the titles are still under copyright, which means readers must rely on used booksellers.  I linked to the free Project Gutenberg downloadable ebook if a digital copy of the novel is available.

Cover of So Big by Edna Ferber

If you have time to read only one novel from the list, I suggest you try Edna Ferber’s So Big. It’s a good novel—it won a Pulitzer and was adapted for  film three times— and is readily available from booksellers. If you are interested in knowing Ferber herself, the Appleton Wisconsin Public Library collection includes information and photos of Ferber who lived in Appleton.

Here’s the list with the dates I’ll be posting my reviews:

  1. So Big by Edna Ferber [July 5]
  2. The Plastic Age by Percy Marks, ebook #16532 July 8]
  3. The Little French Girl by Anne Douglas Sedgwick [July 12]
  4. The Heirs Apparent by Phillip Gibbs [July 15]
  5. A Gentleman of Courage by James Oliver Curwood [July 19]
  6. The Call of the Canyon by Zane Grey, ebook #1881  [July 22]
  7. The Midlander by Booth Tarkington [July 26]
  8. The Coast of Folly by Coningsby Dawson [July 29]
  9. Mistress Wilding by Rafael Sabatini, e-book #1457 [Aug. 2]
  10. The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher [Aug. 5]

Project Gutenberg

WWI Veterans “Backed the Wrong Horse”

American flag waving in breeze

Since this is Memorial Day weekend when America stops between barbeques and ball games to remember those who served in its military, this excerpt from Conningsby Dawson’s 1924 bestseller The Coast of Folly is perhaps apt. The speaker, an American heiress in her twenties, is reflecting on how World War I —”the Great War” — affected her generation.

While it had lasted, it had made us postpone our youth by dazzling us with visions of the rewards of sacrifice. From the moment it had ended, we had grown increasingly certain that, if such rewards had ever existed, during our generation they were going to be withheld. We grew cynical about the advantages of goodness. They seemed to be more profitable to preach about than to practice. We saw those who had gone in search of them in the face of wounds and death, sleeping out in parks like broken speculators. They’d backed the wrong horse in doing their duty; the bottom had fallen out of the hero-market. Selfish people and shirkers had come out on top. No one thought the worse of them. They were fussed over and courted, these far-seeing investors who had refused to accept ideals at an inflated value. They’d kept their heads in the frenzy of patriotism, their hands in their pockets, their skins whole. While the gullible had been smashed in trenches, they’d converted calamity into business opportunity. We girls who had looked on, had learned a lesson in disillusionment: sin was a bug-a-boo; God a legend; right and wrong party cries in the game of self-advantage. To live for oneself and go in quest of pleasure seemed the only wisdom to adopt.

In the wake of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, has the bottom fallen out of the hero-market again?


The Coast of Folly is slated for review here July 29.

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Rereading for 2014: Vintage Bestsellers on Their Anniversaries

Linda Aragoni reading a vintage novel
Rereading “Bambi: A Life in the Woods”

If your New Year’s resolution is to get mentally fit in 2014, good books may well be best equipment to help you shape up. You don’t need to buy expensive volumes on astrophysics or advanced macroeconomics. Novels will give your little grey cells a workout and entertain you at the same time.

During 2014, we’ll pay anniversary visits to the bestseller lists of five or more decades ago, beginning with the 1964 list and working backward to 1904. Posts will be published Tuesdays and Saturdays.

In addition to the seven sets of bestsellers celebrating their anniversaries, GreatPenformances will be looking at some novels that didn’t make the bestseller list the year they were published but went on to become classics.

Reading sets of novels  from different decades a painless way to learn about how society has changed since 1900. Reading just the bestsellers lets you make some reasonable inferences about such current news topics as the gap between rich and poor in society, America’s attitude toward immigrants, and popular attitudes toward Congress.

A handful of bestsellers we missed on their anniversary years will round out the year.

Here are bestsellers slated for review here at GreatPenformances in 2014, with review publication dates  in brackets. If a novel was reviewed here previously, the title is linked to the review.

1964 novels slated for review in 2014

dust jacket of ArmageddonFirst, we’ll look at the bestsellers for 1964. From first to tenth place, they are

  1. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré [Jan. 4]
  2. Candy by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg [Jan. 7]
  3. Herzog by Saul Bellow [Jan. 11]
  4. Armageddon by Leon Uris [Jan. 14]
  5. The Man by Irving Wallace [Jan. 18]
  6. The Rector of Justin by Louis Auchincloss [Jan. 21]
  7. The Martyred by Richard E. Kim [Jan. 25]
  8. You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming [Jan. 28]
  9. This Rough Magic by Mary Stewart [Feb. 1]
  10. Convention by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II [Feb. 4]

1954 novels slated for review in 2014

  1. Not As a Stranger by Morton Thompson [Feb. 22]
  2. Mary Anne by Daphne du Maurier [Feb. 25]
  3. Love Is Eternal by Irving Stone [Mar. 1]
  4. The Royal Box by Frances Parkinson Keyes [Mar. 4]
  5. The Egyptian by Mika Waltari
  6. No Time for Sergeants by Mac Hyman [Mar. 8]
  7. Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck [Mar. 11]
  8. The View from Pompey’s Head by Hamilton Basso [Mar. 15]
  9. Never Victorious, Never Defeated by Taylor Caldwell [Mar. 18]
  10. Benton’s Row by Frank Yerby [Mar. 22]

Then on March 29  we’ll look at a 1954 novels that was not a bestseller  but went on to become a classic:  The Lord of the Flies by William Golding.

dust jacket of The Royal Box

1944 novels slated for review in 2014

  1. Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith [Apr. 12]
  2. The Robe by Lloyd C. Douglas
  3. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
  4. Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor [Apr. 15]
  5. The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham [Apr. 19]
  6. The Green Years by A. J. Cronin [Apr. 22]
  7. Leave Her to Heaven by Ben Ames Williams [Apr.26]
  8. Green Dolphin Street by Elizabeth George [Apr. 29]
  9. A Bell for Adano by John Hersey [May 3]
  10. The Apostle by Sholem Asch

1934 novels slated for review in 2014

  1. Anthony Adverse by Hervey Allen
  2. Lamb in His Bosom by Caroline Miller [May 24]
  3. So Red the Rose by Stark Young [May 27]
  4. Good-bye, Mr. Chips by James Hilton [May 31]
  5. Within This Present by Margaret Ayer Barnes [June 3]
  6. Work of Art by Sinclair Lewis [June 7]
  7. Private Worlds by Phyllis Bottome [June 10]
  8. Mary Peters by Mary Ellen Chase [June 14]
  9. Oil for the Lamps of China by Louis Bromfield [June 17]
  10. Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen [June 21]
Students harrass country box enterering college
Hazing the first year students, 1920’s style

1924 novels slated for review in 2014

  1. So Big by Edna Ferber [July 5]
  2. The Plastic Age by Percy Marks [July 8]
  3. The Little French Girl by Anne Douglas Sedgwick [July 12]
  4. The Heirs Apparent by Phillip Gibbs [July 15]
  5. A Gentleman of Courage by James Oliver Curwood [July 19]
  6. The Call of the Canyon by Zane Grey [July 22]
  7. The Midlander by Booth Tarkington [July 26]
  8. The Coast of Folly by Coningsby Dawson [July 29]
  9. Mistress Wilding by Rafael Sabatini [Aug. 2]
  10. The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher [Aug. 5]

1914 novels slated for review in 2014

  1. The Eyes of the World by Harold Bell Wright [Aug.19]
  2. Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter
  3. The Inside of the Cup by Winston Churchill
  4. The Salamander by Owen Johnson [Aug. 23]
  5. The Fortunate Youth by William J. Locke [Aug. 26]
  6. T. Tembarom by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  7. Penrod by Booth Tarkington [Aug. 30]
  8. Diane of the Green Van by Leona Dalrymple [Sept. 2]
  9. The Devil’s Garden by W. B. Maxwell [Sept. 6]
  10. The Prince of Graustark by George B. McCutcheon  [Sept. 9]

1904 novels slated for review in 2014

  1. Rebecca with big eyes and big straw hatThe Crossing by Winston Churchill [Sept . 27]
  2. The Deliverance by Ellen Glasgow [Sept . 30]
  3. The Gambler by Katherine Cecil Thurston [Oct. 4]
  4. In the Bishop’s Carriage by Miriam Michelson [Oct. 7]
  5. Sir Mortimer by Mary Johnson [Oct. 11]
  6. Beverly of Grustark by George Barr McCutcheon [Oct. 44]
  7. The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come by John Fox Jr.
  8. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm by Kate Douglas Wiggin [Oct. 18]
  9. My Friend Prospero by Henry Harland [Oct. 21]
  10. The Silent Places by Stewart Edward White [Oct. 25]

1919 novels slated for review in 2014

I previously posted reviews of a few bestsellers of 1919. I’m going to post reviews of the rest before year’s end.

  1.  The Four Horsemen of the Apocalpse by V. Blasco Ibanez
  2. The Arrow of Gold by Joseph Conrad
  3. The Desert of Wheat by Zane Grey
  4. Dangerous Days by Mary Roberts Rinehart [Nov. 18]
  5. The Sky Pilot in No Man’s Land by Ralph Connor [Nov. 22]
  6. The Re-Creation of Brian Kent by Howard Bell Wright [Nov. 25]
  7. Dawn by Eleanor H. Porter [Nov. 29]
  8. The Tin Soldier by Temple Bailey s [Dec. 2]
  9. Christopher and Columbus by Elizabeth von Armin s [Dec.6]
  10. In Secret by Robert W. Chambers [Dec. 9]