Although the 1952 bestseller list featured some famous names from literature and pop culture, none of them has the blend of engaging plot, engaging characters, and timeless theme that that makes it stick in my memory.
My favorites of the year are Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny and Agnes Sligh Turnbull’s The Gown of Glory. Neither of them is Literature with a capital L, but both tales make you believe the characters could have lived and done exactly as their authors depict. By contrast, the big name novelists on the list John Steinbeck, Edna Ferber, and Ernest Hemingway offer novels that skimp on characterization.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from rereading the 1952 bestsellers, it may be that a well-told small story is superior to a adequately told big one.
For years, Howard Spring was intrigued by the idea of writing a novel about why the peaceful world promised by the Crystal Palace in 1851 was never realized. Spring takes his answer from a line in a music hall song “You could see the Crystal Palace if it wasn’t for the houses in between.”
Sarah Rainborough Undridge, born in 1848, was three when her parents took her to the opening of the Crystal Palace. Before long, Sarah’s parents were divorced, her mother remarried to Baron Burnage, whose first wife has gone off with another man.
Sarah spends most of her childhood and youth in the company of a governess, Maggie Whales, who becomes a successful novelist (published by Charles Dickens) but remains a sensible and loving friend to Sarah for decades.
Sarah is not beautiful, brilliant, or talented. Through Maggie’s influence she becomes perceptive, thoughtful and reflective. As she grows older, Sarah begins writing the story of her life. The Houses In Between, including its title, is presented as her fictional memoir, finished shortly before her death on New Year’s Day 1948.
Spring is a fine writer. He conveys personalities and atmosphere so vividly they appear in the mind’s eye in streaming video. Yet the book, for all its richness of character and history, feels flat, which is Spring’s point: Virtue is lovely and fragile; reality is ugly and durable.
The Houses in Between
1952 Bestseller #10
My grade: A-
Frank Yerby’s speciality is novels about men and women who rise from poverty to wealth, fame, and marital bliss through their brilliance, loyalty, and sexual prowess.
Yerby sets The Saracen Blade in the 13th century. Pietro di Donati, a blacksmith’s son, is born on the same day and in same town as the baby who will become Frederick II of the Holy Roman Empire.
In that era, the aristocracy ruled by violence, usually having become aristocrats by violence. Though slightly built, inclined to intellectual rather than physical pursuits, Pietro becomes part of the violent world in which kingdoms clash, religions compete, and the poor suffer the consequences.
Pietro seeks his fortune in the only way boys of his era know: attaching himself to powerful knight and hoping to rise with him. For 30 years, he trudges around Europe, North Africa, and Asia as squire, knight, Crusader and trader. He pauses occasionally to admire the women and to retch when someone other than himself inflicts mayhem.
When Pietro finally gets back home, his childhood sweetheart is waiting. By that time, I was ready to retch.
I recommend reading the appendix. Yerby’s notes are better than his novel.
The Saracen Blade
Dial Press (book club edition), 1952
1952 Bestseller #9
295 pages + notes
My grade: C
The Gown of Glory is a quaint, gentle novel, ideally suited to an afternoon when your cold is a little better but not all gone yet.
David and Mary Lyall came to the small village of Ladykirk planning to stay at most five years—just long enough for the world to see what a wonderful choice David would be to pastor a big city congregation. Twenty-five years and three children later, they are still in Ladykirk, still hoping for better things to come.
The Lyalls have good sense, kind hearts, abundant humor, and enough faults to be believable. Their world may be provincial, but its crises are none the less real: envy is envy, whether its object is a millionaire’s wealth or an evangelist’s converts.
Surely there’s no funnier scene in religious fiction than when Mary realizes she’s given all her savings for a much-wanted kitchen cabinet to a visiting missionary and sobs, “I hate the heathen. I want my cabinet.”
The Gown of Glory is not great literature, but it’s a durable novel that will make you smile, perhaps shed a tear, and maybe even decide to go to church next Sunday.
The Gown of Glory
Agnes Sligh Turnbull
Houghton Mifflin, 1952
1952 Bestseller # 8
My grade: B
Photo credit: “Country Church” uploaded by organmaster
It’s impossible to say anything really bad about Ernest Hemingway’s 1952 literary classic The Old Man and the Sea.
In the first place, it’s awfully short—I read it standing up at the local laundromat while my clothes sloshed and tumbled. A book that short doesn’t really give you much to not like.
If short isn’t enough, it’s also simple.
The characters are simple: an old man and a fish.
The plot is simple: man catches fish, man loses fish.
The dialog is simple, too: the old man has all the lines.
Even the vocabulary is simple, if you ignore phosphorescence, which Hemingway likes to throw into the story every so often, just to show he knows some big words.
Probably the worst thing you can say about The Old Man and the Sea is that it’s Literature, with a capital L. That means there is deep significance to the story. The old man isn’t just an old man, he’s All Men; and the fish isn’t just a fish, it’s human aspiration; and sharks aren’t sharks, but adversity with fins.
If you aren’t into Literature with a capital L, just watch the laundry tumble: it’s more interesting than this novel.
Leslie Lynnton falls in love with Texas, sight unseen, when a rancher who came to buy a horse from her father inspires her to sit up all night reading Texas history. A few weeks later, as Mrs. Jordan Benedict, she finds Texas isn’t at all what she expected, nor, for that matter, is her husband.
Leslie is sophisticated, cultured, politically liberal. Texans like her husband are red-necks by choice: Ivy-league educated but tumble-weed ignorant, champagne and caviar masquerading as hogs and hominy.
Jett Rink, a nasty ranch hand whom Bick has thrown off the ranch, strikes oil and the Benedict’s fortunes fall as Rink’s rise and the face of Texas changes.
The Benedict’s marriage is a rack on which Edna Ferber hangs her speculations about what makes Texans different from other people. Unfortunately, there’s not much to the book other than her speculations.
The plot is thin. Most of the characters have mere walk-on parts. Bick and Leslie, while well-drawn, aren’t engaging people. Leslie is too intellectual and arrogant, her husband too pragmatic and callous. It’s hard to care enough about them to keep reading. My advice: don’t bother.
Ornate mansions reminiscent of Mississippi riverboats were the inspiration for Steamboat Gothic. Like the architecture, Frances Parkinson Keyes’ novel is massive, ornate, and richly detailed. But like its architectural counterpart, the novel lacks the realistic characters that are the literary equivalent of indoor plumbing. And the book is so long, I kept wishing Keyes had been inspired by Bauhaus.
The story concerns Clyde Batchelor, an orphan boy who makes a fortune as a riverboat gambler. He woos and wins a Civil War widow, Lucy Page, and settles her in a Louisiana mansion.
The two live happily ever after, happily, that is, except for problems created by Lucy’s two children. Bushrod, an unpleasant child, grows into a thoroughly despicable man. Cary, the apple of her stepfather’s eye, is a delight until on her honeymoon she falls in love with a man other than her husband.
The last half of the novel traces the adventures of Cary’s son, Larry, as he grows to manhood during World War I. Larry inherits not only the family real estate, but the consequences of wrongs committed by his grandparents. He triumphs in the end, but by then nobody cares.
My Cousin Rachel is a murder mystery. The mystery is whether there was a murder at all—or whether there might have been two.
Philip Ashley tells the story. His bachelor cousin Ambrose, who brought him up as his heir, goes off to Italy for his health. While there, Ambrose meets and marries a half-Italian distant cousin, Rachel. Ambrose’s health deteriorates and he dies abroad, but not before sending Philip letters full of dark hints that Rachel was trying to poison him.
Philip is fully prepared to hate Rachel, but when she arrives in England on his doorstep, he is as smitten as Ambrose. Before long, he has turned over to her the family estate, the family jewels and his own virginity.
The tale is dark and sinister in the tried-and-true English manner, all polished mahogany and deviled kidneys for breakfast. Rachel in her mourning dress is appropriately bewitching and mysterious, as befits a leading lady of foreign birth. But Philip is simply a twit, a condition caused, perhaps, by growing up entirely without hormones.
Daphne Du Maurier writes well enough that you will keep turning pages, but when you’re finished you’ll wonder why you bothered.
My Cousin Rachel
Daphne Du Maurier
1952 Bestseller #4
My grade: C
Adam Trask and his brother, never on good terms, part after Adam marries Cathy Ames, whose depravity is hidden by golden beauty. Cathy bears twin boys, leaves Adam, and worms her way into the ownership of a brothel. Sam Hamilton intervenes to see that the twins are taken care of. He helps select their names after he, Adam and Adam’s Chinese servant, Lee, discuss the account of Cain and Abel.
The twins, Aron and Caleb, grow to manhood. Aron is everyone’s favorite, Caleb the overlooked boy yearning for his father’s love. The story of Cain and Abel is repeated again in their lives, but with a happier ending. Lee has studied the Biblical account and learned that people can turn from sin if they choose.
East of Eden starts slowly, but gathers momentum as Steinbeck begins to weave the lives of Adam, Sam and Cathy together. When the book was published, readers might have found Cathy’s sordid story unsettling. Today’s readers, I fear, have read far worse in the daily paper. They are more likely to be upset by Steinbeck’s treatment of the Bible as a true account worthy of study.
East of Eden
The Viking Press, 1952
1952 Bestseller #2
My Grade: B+