1954 Not Great Year for Bestsellers

1954 did not produce a bumper crop of bestselling novels. Even Taylor Caldwell, Frances Parkinson Keyes, and Daphne du Maurier — authors whom I usually count on to provide entertainment and a bit more besides — disappointed me.

John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday and Hamilton Basso’s  The View from Pompey’s Head are the best of the lot and neither of them is a novel I want to have close at hand for convenient rereading.  Sweet Thursday is a bit too light, Pompey’s Head a bit too studied.

The best of the novels of 1954 is the one that didn’t make the bestseller list that year: Lord of the Flies by William Golding. It’s a keeper.

Share Your Top Picks of 1954

Use the form below to tell us your three favorites of the 1954 bestsellers. The comments section is always open if you want to do more than just click your opinions.

I’ll share my own favorites on April 5.

I have surprises planned for March 29 and April 1.

Benton’s Row Is Uneven and Unoriginal

If I were asked whether Frank Yerby’s Benton’s Row is

a) a typical Yerby novel
b) better than the typical Yerby novel
c) worse than the typical Yerby novel
d) all of the above

I’d choose D.

Benton’s Row is in three parts. The first is standard Yerby: Tom Benton, an ambitious poor boy, irresistible to women, achieves fame and fortune in America’s South before the Civil War.

Part two, set during during Reconstruction, focuses on Tom’s widow, Sarah, remarried to the local doctor, and the extended family of Tom Benton’s legitimate and bastard children.

Yerby, who usually uses paper dolls for his female characters, does a surprisingly good job portraying Sarah.

In this middle section, Yerby also surprises with his depiction of plantations of the interior South as an unpainted log homes and the planters as not substantially better off financially than their slaves.

Unfortunately, Yerby destroys the impact of his original elements by ending the middle section with an incident distressingly similar to a scene from Zane Grey’s  To the Last Man.

The third part of Benton’s Row is a hodgepodge of stories about Tom Benton’s progeny and grandchildren during and after World War I. It’s hard to keep track of who’s who — and even harder to care.

Benton’s Row
by Frank Yerby
Dial Press, 1954
280 pages
1954 bestseller #10
My grade: C-

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Never Victorious, Never Defeated Is Vintage Taylor Caldwell

cover of Never Victorious, Never Defeated (1954)Never Victorious, Never Defeated is a typical Taylor Caldwell novel: a good yarn with vivid characters against a backdrop of political and spiritual decay.

The setting is Pennsylvania during the years when America, aided by immigrants fleeing certain starvation in Europe for the mirage of banqueting in America, changed from an agricultural to an industrial nation.

Greedy men are vying for wealth: They must have markets for their goods.

Cornelia Marshall, granddaughter of a railroad entrepreneur Aaron deWitt, uses her brain and cunning to achieve power and wealth.

Like her father before her and greedy men around her, Cornelia is amoral, willing to use or destroy anyone who stands in her way, including her siblings, her husband, her children.

A few patriots and saints — including Cornelia’s brother-in-law and son — see the destructive force at work in the world and attempt to counter it.

They see American society being undermined by the rise of cities, the cultivation of war as a business tool, the growth of central government, the disappearance of moral teaching.

Nevertheless, they believe eventually men of good will and common sense will defeat evil at the ballot box.

Whether their optimism is valid remains to be seen.

Read Never Victorious, Never Defeated and draw your own conclusions.

Never Victorious, Never Defeated
by Taylor Caldwell
Mc-Graw Hill, 1954
549 pages
#9 on the 1954 bestseller list
My grade: B

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The View from Pompey’s Head shows South and self

Cover of The View from Pompey's Head

The View from Pompey’s Head by Hamilton Basso is a novel about  New York City lawyer Anson Page whose work takes him back to his southern home.

Anson’s task is to determine whether a recently deceased editor for a publishing house embezzled a client’s royalties.

Anson’s law firm and their client assume his local connections will make it easy for him to find out why Mrs. Garvin Wales is sure Phillip Greene stole her husband’s royalties.

Anson assumes his local connections will make it difficult, if not impossible, for him to find out the truth.

Basso explores not only the murky process of growing up, but the Southern mindset, which Anson calls “Southern Shintoism.”

Basso takes his time telling the story, letting Anson delve into his memories of how things appeared to him more than 15 years before.

Anson’s memories are still vivid, some painfully so, but his understanding of their meaning has changed as he matured. Anson finally finds the solution to the mystery of the re-directed royalties through his adult understanding of Southern culture.

Though the novel moves with Southern summer speed, Basso keeps it moving without any extraneous elements. Without exerting himself to entertain, he keeps readers engaged, leading them effortlessly to understand the value of the South’s myths.

The View from Pompey’s Head
By Hamilton Basso
© 1954 by Hamilton Basso
Introduction by John W. Aldridge © 1985
Arbor House, 1985  [paper]
409 pages
1954 bestseller #8
My grade: A-

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Sweet Thursday: Humor Without Sarcasm

In Sweet Thursday, John Steinbeck rambles back to Cannery Row a couple years after World War II has ended. The pilchers have been fished out, the canneries are closed. There’s not much left in Cannery Row except a bunch of social misfits.

Dust jacket of Sweet Thursday showsOcean front docks Cannery Row’s most distinguished resident, a marine biologist known throughout town as Doc, has been unsettled since the war.

Doc gets an idea for a paper about changes in octopi that mimic apoplexy in humans but lacks a good microscope and the persistence to write it.

His neighbors think Doc needs a wife, pick one out for him, and arrange for the pair to fall in love.

The plot is sophomoric because that’s as close to higher level thinking as Cannery Row’s yahoos can reach. The Cannery Row crowd are dull as hoes, but they genuinely love and care for one another. That love puts Steinbeck’s homely non-heroes beyond the reach of sarcasm.

Sweet Thursday isn’t a literary masterpiece, but it’s durable.

You might not want the residents of Cannery Row as your house guests for August, but you’ll sleep a little better for believing that even losers are capable of sacrificial love.

Sweet Thursday
By John Steinbeck
Viking Press, 1954
273 pages
My grade B +

 © 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

No Time for Sergeants Not So Funny Today

Cover of No Time for SergeantsMac Hyman’s No Time for Sergeants is a strictly-for-laughs novel about life in the military.

Will Stockdale’s father is opposed to his son being drafted, but Will never makes a fuss about anything.

From what Will tells, readers learn he’s an amiable, Georgia redneck, dumber than a box of wet rocks and totally innocent of how the world works.

(Andy Griffith played Pvt. Will Stockdale in the TV, Broadway, and film versions of the novel, which gives you an idea of the character’s personality. You can see Griffith as Will in the  black-and-white film version  at free movies.)

Bused off to camp to be sorted for duty, Will meets Ben Whitledge, a little guy with big dreams and military knowledge straight from the silver screen.

With the best of intentions, Will and Ben make total fools of the military — and never realize what they’ve done.

Hyman drew on his Air Force experience to create his picture of military life. Readers in 1954 would have understood the military processes that baffle Will and laughed at his ignorance. Readers in today’s post-conscription era will probably be little wiser than Will.

Today’s readers probably won’t laugh as heartily as 1950’s readers either. We’ve seen too many reruns of The Beverly Hillbillies to be delighted by redneck jokes.

In short, No Time for Sergeants is past its sell-by date.

No Time for Sergeants
By Mac Hyman
Random House, 1954
214 pages
#6 on the 1954 bestseller list
My grade C-

                    2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Royal Box: Murder with Happy Ending

Dust Jacket shows theater party in The Royal BoxThe Royal Box is a murder mystery with an epilogue that seems added to let the story end on a upbeat note.

Frances Parkinson Keyes provides a cast of characters in order of appearance. The book jacket provides an account of the love affair in 1926 that led to the murder-by-cyanide in 1951. The fact that both those reader aids were thought necessary in a work of popular fiction shows how complicated the novel is.

The poisoned man is Baldwin Castle, newly appointed ambassador to an oil-rich Middle Eastern nation. Years before, after being jilted by an English aristocrat, he’d had an affair with actress Janice Lester.

He left her pregnant.

When Castle and his new, second wife pass through London, they are entertained with a theater party in the Royal Box at the theater where Janice Lester is starring.

The guests include the woman who Castle thought jilted him; the ambassador of the country to which Castle has been assigned; Janice, her husband, and their adopted son who is really Castle’s and Janice’s son.

A dry-as-dust policeman figures out who done it.

And Keyes makes sure everyone’s life ends more happily than Baldwin Castle’s did.

The Royal Box
By Frances Parkinson Keyes
New York: Julian Messner, 1954
303 pages
1954 bestseller #4
My grade: C

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

History Trumps Story in Love Is Eternal

The trouble with historical novels is that they have to be historically accurate. To meet this demand, authors often must attempt to account logically for illogical human behavior.

Irving Stone’s Love Is Eternal: A Novel about Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln is a case in point.

the Lincoln family
According to the novel’s dust jacket, Stone’s goal is to take readers inside Mary Todd’s heart; however, even getting into her head would take a team of psychiatrists: Both Mary Todd and Lincoln suffered from depression that at times was almost pathological.

(The liner notes also say “Literally the whole [Civil] war was fought across her bosom,” a claim whose veracity I doubt. But I literally digress.)

Irving devotes most of the novel to the Lincolns’ political struggles. Stone shows Mary shrewdly aware of how the successful politician’s wife should behave but totally unaware that her husband’s election to the presidency was a fluke of the electoral system, not an indication of his popularity.

Readers get very little sense of the Lincolns as a couple before the White House and no sense of the Lincolns as a couple afterward.

Stone ends Love Is Eternal with Abraham Lincoln’s widow wanting to die.

And he leaves readers with no reason to want her to live.

Readers may enjoy these photos of Lincoln more than Stone’s novel.  I’m indebted to @dougpete for the link.

Love Is Eternal:
A Novel about Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln
By Irving Stone
Doubleday, 1954
1954 bestseller #3
462 pages
My grade: B-
 

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Mary Anne’s Scandal Is Today’s Snore

Statue of Frederick Duke of York
Statue of Frederick Duke of York, London

Mary Anne is a novel about Mary Anne Clarke and the scandal that she precipitated in nineteenth century England. It was penned by her great-granddaughter, author Daphne du Maurier, who may be suspected of a bit of bias.

A precocious child, to keep the family fed Mary Anne passes her proofreading work off as that of her ailing stepfather.

She marries an scapegrace who prefers the bottle to work. To support their four children, Mary Anne writes gossip columns until she discovers more lucrative employment for her brains and body. Before long, she is mistress of Frederick Duke of York, second son of King George III.

Mary Anne revels in her powerful role but piles up debts furnishing the amenities the Duke is used to. To supplement the Duke’s allowance, she begins pedaling Army promotions — and preparing her own downfall.

Although the characters are historical figures, not one of them seems real. Du Maurier fails to provide plausible explanation for the critical pivots on which the story turns: Mary Anne’s family relationships.

Probably the most interesting aspect of the duMaurier’s account is that although the Duke’s enemies accept his adultery, they are scandalized that he pushed through promotions knowing his mistress was bribed to use her influence with him. He was forced to resign as Commander-in-Chief.

Your life will be none the worse if you leave Mary Anne on attic shelf.

 Mary Anne
By Daphne du Maurier
Doubleday, 1953
351 pages
1954 bestseller #2
My grade: C-

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni