Columnist finds Sinclair Lewis’s novel “eerily familiar fiction”

Here’s what the candidate promises: He’s going to “Make America a proud, rich land again.”

Everything’s going to work if he’s elected. Goods will be manufactured here, not overseas. He has certain (unspecified) plans to make everyone prosper. We’ll rely on American sweat and initiative and know-how. America will stop getting involved in foreign affairs, but will enlarge its military. He delivers coded messages regarding other ethnic groups and religions, and women. He hates journalists. He is a tireless showman, seen to “whirl arms, bang tables . . . and in between tricks would jab his crowds with figures and facts — figures and facts that were inescapable even when, as often happened, they were entirely incorrect.”

Read all Wickersham’s post.

My picks of 1936’s bestselling novels

The best reading from 1936 for today’s readers are both about people caught in tempestuous political and cultural shifts: Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis.

Southerners who put on gray uniforms for the old South were fighting to retain a way of life that was familiar and comfortable—was facing extinction.

That life was already nearly gone when the men in gray mounted up.

Rhett says to Scarlett before he leaves her:

I want the outer semblance of the things I used to know, the utter boredom of respectability—other people’s respectability, my pet, not my own—the calm dignity life can have when it’s lived by gentle folks, the genial grace of days that are gone. When I lived those days I didn’t realize the slow charm of them.

And Scarlett runs home to Tara to Mammy, “the last link with the old days.”

It Can’t Happen Here  is not nearly as good a novel as Gone With the Wind, but it has some uncomfortable similarities.

Although Lewis starts out satirically skewering hot-air politicians, he soon gets seriously interested in his topic and begins wondering what would happen if a charismatic, Hitler-like leader began to rally the discontents in America.

After the Rotary Club meeting in Fort Beulah, Vermont in 1936, men are already wishing for someone who can bring things back the way they used to be.

Fort Beulah’s leading businessman gripes: “These are serious times—maybe twenty-eight million on relief, and beginning to get ugly—thinking they’ve got a vested right now to be supported.”

Local newspaper editor Doremus Jessup responds:

Yes, I agree it’s a serious time. With all the discontent there is in the country to wash him into office, Senator Windrip has got an excellent chance to be elected President, next November, and if he is, probably his gang of buzzards will get us into some war, just to grease their insane vanity and show the world that we’re the huskiest nation going. And then I, the Liberal, and you, the Plutocrat, the bogus Tory, will be led out and shot at 3 A.M. Serious? Huh!

That November Sen. Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip is elected president.

Soon Windrip’s “Minute Men” become his private army.

Civil rights are suspended, and dissidents rounded up and taken to concentration camps.

There’s no Tara for Doremus Jessup to flee to.

Unfortunately, the novel’s uneven tone lessens its literary value and makes Lewis’s story less credible.

But what Lewis got right—the unpredictable, totally unthinkable election of a totally unqualified egomaniac as president of the United States—seems real enough in 2016.

Over the summer, read one or both of these classic novels, and think about the “genial grace of days that are gone” in America and what might be ahead.

©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Eyeless In Gaza is tale of a moral midget

Aldous Huxley wrote extensively in a half dozen genres, making a name as a literary virtuoso.

His 1936 bestseller, Eyeless in Gaza, is a literary novel by a literary man. The book’s chapters are dated; readers have to figure out the sequence of events from the dates.


Eyeless in Gaza by Aldous Huxley

Chatto & Windus, 1936; 620 pp. 1936 bestseller # 10. My Grade: D+.


Samson pushes pillars apart, collapsing building. Engraving by Gustave Dore shows Samson pushib
   Death of Samson by Gustave Dore

The novel’s focus is the emotionally homeless Anthony Beavis.

The boy’s mother dies when Anthony is a lad at boarding school; he has no affection for his eccentric father.

Anthony grows up to become a professional social scientist, a moral midget interested in life as a spectator sport.

Anthony has repeated chances to behave ethically and ignores every one of them.

He has affairs with a woman and her two daughters.

He’s indirectly responsible for the suicide of his best friend.

The story ends with Anthony fearlessly going off to face a hostile audience at a political rally.

The title suggests Huxley intends readers to see Anthony as a second Sampson, ending his life in one redeeming dramatic gesture when he gains spiritual insight.

Nothing in the novel makes that seem plausible.

Huxley doesn’t tell us what happens at the rally, but whatever tomatoes are thrown at Anthony are no less than the rotter deserves.

And the same could be said of Huxley’s novel.

©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Doctor is not a top Rinehart bestseller

Novels about doctors typically are tales about hard-working young men from poor families who, armed with only a stethescope, battle for justice, hand-washing, and marriage to millionaire’s daughters.

Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Doctor follows in that tradition.


The Doctor by Mary Roberts Rinehart

©1935, 1936, 1963, 1964. This copy a Dell Edition, 1977 (paper) 448 pp. My grade B-.


Statue of doctor on pedestal thinking is central figure on cover of paperback edition of "The Doctor"Rinehart’s doctor is Chris Arden, a dedicated MD with hopes of becoming a surgeon.

He has rented office space and a bedroom from a shiftless family, the Walters, whose sole support he becomes when the alcoholic head of the family dies.

Katie Walters is in love with the doctor with a 16-year-old’s passion.

But Chris falls for the daughter of a wealthy, unscrupulous businessman. He won’t think of marrying until he can support her.

Beverly Lewis is equally smitten with Chris but unwilling to wait years for him to build a practice.

Chris is not a particularly appealing character. He’s nice to dogs and old ladies, but treats those closest to him as if they were furniture.

Katie and Beverly are not appealing either: Katie is too selfish, Beverly too much of a doormat.

The romantic ending is a deus ex machina that squeaks as Rinehart lowers it into the final chapter.

The Doctor is not a bad novel; it’s just bad compared to other Rinehart novels.

©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Thinking Reed not worth a second thought

Rebecca West took her 1936 novel title from Pascal’s Pensées in which he says man is only a feeble reed, but a thinking reed, ennobled by knowing that he will die.

West’s Isabelle certainly knows she will die; that fact is quite possibly the only thing she does know.


The Thinking Reed by Rebecca West

© 1936, 1964. Compass Books ed., 1961. Paper, 431 pp. 1936 bestseller #8. My grade C-.


cover of 1961 paperback edition of Rebecca West's The Thinking Reed shows cherubic statue holding flowersIsabelle is a beautiful, rich, young widow, on the loose in Paris between the wars.

Isabelle prides herself on her thinking—she spends some time every day thinking—and on her rejection of impulse.

Isabelle decides to drop a lover who brings out her impulsive side and marry a thinker, but the cerebral guy she’d like to marry thinks she’s too emotional.

Isabelle rebounds and marries industrialist Marc Sallafranque the next week.

Marc is good in bed and good at making money, so Isabelle tolerates his deficiencies in the thinking department.

Eventually her toleration turns to love, and the book ends.

Isabelle’s thought processes are every bit as ridiculous as those of George Brush in Thornton Wilder’s Heaven’s My Destination, but West takes her ridiculous character seriously.

As one reviewer quoted on the back cover says, The Thinking Reed is “among the best novels in the short memory of modern man.”

The shorter your memory, the better this novel is.

©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

The Hurricane is exciting while it lasts

Before he was posted to the Tuamoto Archipelago, Dr. Kersaint was warned “those islands are sometimes visited by hurricanes, and from all accounts, they are most unpleasant things.”

Fifteen years later, Kersaint tells a young colleague the story of a handful of one hurricane’s survivors.

A man, a woman holding a baby, and a second woman cling to branches in a tree as hurricane roars.
Detail from the cover of The Hurricane.

 The Hurricane by Charles Nordhoff & James Norman Hall

Little, Brown, 1935. 275 p. 1936 bestseller #7. My grade: B-.


As the hurricane bears down on the Archipelago, the French, who administer the South Pacific islands, are seeking an escaped criminal, a native lad who a British merchant seaman had been training to take over his shipping business.

Terangi has been pulled from the sea by the local priest and brought home.

When the islands’ administrator accidentally discovers Terangi’s relatives are conspiring to help him get away, he sails off to find  the convict, leaving his wife at home watching the barometer fall.

Writer team Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall skillfully punctuate gray blurs of terrifying sound and sleep-deprived ache with vivid details that make readers feel the narrator truly lived through a hurricane.

They do not, however, go beyond telling an exciting story.

The survivors of  “the wind that overturns the land”  survive unchanged.

That’s would be impossible for anyone whose adventures occur outside their armchairs.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

White Banners entertains inoffensively

White Banners is the best sort of bad religious novel.

Its religion is so nondescript it won’t offend an ardent atheist; its story’s so entertaining the devout won’t notice the religion is tepid.


White Banners by Lloyd C. Douglas

P. F. Collier and Son., 1936, 400 p. 1936 bestseller #6. My grade: B.


A woman selling apples knocks on Paul and Marcia Ward’s door one snowy afternoon. Marcia buys an apple from her, gives her a meal, learns she’s just been released from the hospital after having a child.

Hannah feels as sorry for Marcia as Marcia feels for her, though for different reasons.

Hannah talks Paul Ward into letting her stay as housemaid until after Marcia’s third child is born.

By the time infant Sally joins the other two children, Hannah is an indispensable part of the Ward home.

Wards are so pleased with Hannah, they overlook her peculiar belief that refusing to fight those who hurt her makes her stronger than her antagonists.

Wards also don’t inquire where Hannah goes on her days off.

The plot is complicated and, in many respects, absurd.

The Wards and Hannah’s friends are sufficiently endowed with peculiarities to make them seem human.

Lloyd C. Douglas sees that virtue is rewarded, sin is punished enough to jog repentance, and that everyone gets a chance to try living happily ever after.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

It Can’t Happen Here: Timely and Terrifying

In 1935, Europe was preparing for war against the Jews and Socialists and anybody else who didn’t care to knuckle under to the likes of Hitler and Mussolini.

Watching Europe fall into the clutches of dictators, Sinclair Lewis pondered how a dictator could come to power in America.

Novel title  "It Can't Happen Here" superimposed on photo of German army officers listening to Adolph Hitler.


It Can’t Happen Here: A Novel by Sinclair Lewis

Sun Dial Press, 1935. 458 p. 1936 bestseller #6 My Grade: B+.


It Can’t Happen Here opens as the Rotary Club in Fort Beulah, Vermont, makes patriotic speeches.

In the audience, newspaper editor Doremus Jessup views both the flag-waving and the potential for dictatorship with skepticism.

Before long, however, America elects Berzilius Windrip president and what couldn’t happen begins to happen.

First the “Minute Men” become Windrip’s private army.

Then civil rights are suspended to fight unspecified threats to national security.

Dissidents lose their jobs, go into concentration camps, are killed.

Jessup is drawn into the opposition.

The personalities are credible, the places recognizable, the situations horrifying.

The nightmarishness of the story is oddly intensified by the flatness of Lewis’s presentation: It’s as if none of the characters dares feel deeply.

Doremus doesn’t turn into a hero.

No one does.

That’s what’s terrifying about this once more timely novel.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The inevitable doesn’t happen in Sparkenbroke

Charles Morgan’s Sparkenbroke is about art and the artist’s relationship to the world.

The plot is only of marginal interest.


Sparkenbroke by Charles Morgan

MacMillan, 1936. 553 p. 1936 bestseller #3. My grade: B.


The novel is set in an English country town at the edge of the Sparkenbroke estate. Lord Sparkenbroke, a renowned poet and novelist, flits back from Italy occasionally, spending most of his time writing in a cottage on the estate.

Sparkenbroke’s wealthy wife runs the estate which she is restoring to profitability for their children to inherit.

Mary Leward comes to Chelmouth to visit her former teacher, Helen Hardy.

When Mary’s father practically disowns her for breaking her engagement to a wealthy man, Helen’s brother, George Hardy, steps in with a proposal of marriage.

Mary meets Lord Sparkenbroke, whom she knows through his poetry.

Mary thinks she can be Sparkenbroke’s muse and George’s wife, too.

Morgan explores Sparkenbroke’s vision of death as the ultimate transcendent experience. All most readers will see, however, is a picture of a working writer.

The seemingly inevitable affair is never consummated.

All the characters love, or at least are fond of, the others.

And Sparkenbroke’s one true love his is writing.

In the end, the solid, reliable George appears as the book’s hero.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni