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Archive for the ‘Social criticism’ Category

In August, 1831, a few dozen slaves in Southampton, Virginia, revolted, slaughtering whites mercilessly.

The confession of the revolt’s leader, Nathaniel Turner, presented at his trial and subsequently published as a pamphlet, is the factual basis of William Styron’s novel.


The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron
Random House, 1966, 1967; 428 p. 1967 bestseller #2. My grade: A.

sketch shows Nat being captured by white man

Nat Turner’s capture.


Nat’s mother was a cook, so Nat became a “house nigger.” The Turner family taught him to read and figure, gave him carpentry training, bought a Bible, and promised he’d be given his freedom at age 25.

By the time Nat was 25, faced with dwindling income from over-worked land, Turner family had sold all their possessions—including Nat—and left Virginia for good.

Nat’s freedom disappeared with Marse Samuel.

Nat’s Bible reading and his ache for companionship with like-minded people, gradually twist into the conviction that God wants him to lead a slave rebellion.

Styron avoids the familiar clichés of slave novels. Characters, both black and white, are victims of conditions they can’t control. The worst physical and mental suffering among blacks and whites occur among those least affluent even at the best of times.

Styron’s tale could easily be moved to Baltimore or St. Louis in 2015.

His novel is a wrenching reminder that how we treat individuals matters more than our opinions about race.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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The Plutocrat is a very good novel, but one that I suspect modern readers will find as alien as Jane Austen.

The book is about a young playwright, Laurence Ogle. Flying high on the success of his first play, he books passage for North Africa.

against photos of 2016 rich people, text says before the Forbes list, there was The Plutocrat.


The Plutocrat by Booth Tarkington
1927 bestseller #2. 543 pp. My grade: A-

On board ship, Ogle is smitten with the sophisticated good looks of a Parisian woman with a son about his own age.

Mme. Momoro, however, is more interested in an American businessman who is dragging his family across the Atlantic to get daughter Olivia away from an unsuitable young man.

To Ogle, Mr. Tinker appears to be a course, back-slapping shopkeeper, totally lacking in culture and sensitivity; the wife appears dull; the daughter sullen.

Ogle has been brought up to believe in a natural aristocracy of intellectual, artistic individuals. He’s shocked that other intelligent people express high regard for Tinker and his buying power.

When Ogle finds himself far from home, short of money, without friends, he’s forced to re-think his prejudices.

Even if Booth Tarkington weren’t such a fine writer, The Plutocrat would be worth reading just to see how far we Americans have come — or gone — in the last century in our regard for the power of money.

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Handsome, aimless Elmer Gantry is sent by his mother to small Baptist college where he plays football, drinks, and chases women.

By a fluke, he becomes the champion of the campus preacher boys and is sucked into becoming a Baptist preacher.

religious tent meeting

Tent  were frequently used by itinerant ministers for large meetings.


Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis
Harcourt, Brace, 1927; 432 pp. #1 on the 1927 bestseller list; My grade: B.

Elmer escapes a shot-gun wedding at his first church, blows his chance at another church by getting drunk, and ends up as a traveling salesman for a farm equipment company.

On the road, Elmer falls in with a female evangelist, then with a “New Thought” lecturer until he attracts the notice of a Methodist bishop.

Elmer converts to Methodism, and uses his considerable talent for promotion and publicity to good advantage.

There’s money to be made in religion, plenty of applause, and lots of willing women.

Elmer comes close to catastrophe more than once, but he always seems to land on his feet.

The term “Elmer Gantry” has become synonymous with clerical hypocrisy. However, Sinclair Lewis is less concerned with Elmer’s womanizing than with the mercenary religious establishment that shelters him.

The novel is more satire than exposé. Elmer Gantry is too funny for anyone to take Lewis seriously.

I laughed out loud at lines like, “He had learned the poverty is blessed, but that bankers make the best deacons.”

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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When she learns of her sister’s engagement, eight-year-old Bettina “Betty” Vanderpoel cries, “He’ll do something awful to you….He’ll nearly kill you. I know he will.”

Sir Nigel Anstruthers turns out as nasty as Betty predicts.


The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett
1908 bestseller #5.
Project Gutenberg ebook #506. My grade: A-.

Green, hilly English countryside with a few sheep grazing, no people in sight.When he realizes Reuben Vanderpoel won’t support him, Sir Nigel craftily isolates Rosalie from family back in New York, then bullies her into transferring her property to him.

While Rosalie withers, Betty is educated in France, Germany, and in company of her astute capitalist father.

At 20, Betty goes to England to see Rosalie.

Sir Nigel has thoroughly cowed Rosalie and Ughtred, his son to whom the estate is entailed.

Betty takes charge, using her charm and her father’s money to make the estate liveable and her sister comfortable.

Inevitably, the Vanderpoel heiress is swarmed by suitors.

Betty’s heart, however, throbs for Lord Mount Duncan, who scorns the practice of marrying American money to put a deteriorating English estate to rights.

Although Frances Hodgson Burnett gives the novel the love-interest of a romance and the suspense of a thriller, the novel is deeper than those categories.

Burnett explores personalities, digs into gender roles, and shows how England and America were separated by culture and reunited by money.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

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It was fitting that I read The Amazing Interlude  on July 4, because the plot of Mary Roberts Rinehart’s novel grows out of a young girl’s developing sense of what being an American means.


The Amazing Interlude by Mary Roberts Rinehart

Illustrations by the Kinneys. 1918 bestseller #3.
Project Gutenberg ebook #1590. My grade: A-.


Sara Lee Kennedy, 19, is planning to marry a man “as slow as he was sure, as unimaginative as he was faithful,” when a letter telling of the appalling conditions of the Belgian Army touches her imagination.

Sara offers to go to France before marrying Harvey if the Methodist women donate money for her to run a soup kitchen.

Though she knows no French, has no credentials, and has no contacts to help her, Sara gets to Europe and sets up a soup kitchen in a roofless house in Dunkirk, a few hundred yards from the front.

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Her finacé regards her decision as treacherous. While Sara makes soup and cleans wounds, Harvey fumes at home.

Finally Harvey explodes.

He accuses the Methodist ladies of being publicity hounds just as Sara’s letter arrives asking them for more funds for the kitchen.

She’s recalled to America.

When Harvey refuses even to listen to Sara’s stories of what she saw in France, Sara breaks the engagement.

She saw him for what he was, not deliberately cruel, not even unkindly, but selfish, small, without vision. Harvey was for his own fireside, his office, his little family group. His labor would always be for himself and his own. Whereas Sara Lee was, now and forever, for all the world, her hands consecrated to bind up its little wounds and to soothe its great ones. Harvey craved a cheap and easy peace. She wanted no peace except that bought by service, the peace of a tired body, the peace of the little house in Belgium where, after days of torture, weary men found quiet and ease and the cheer of the open door.

Rinehart lets Sara find love, but the romance is secondary to Sara’s finding herself.

©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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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.

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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

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