My top picks from the 1915 bestseller list are each windows into America’s transformation from the horsepower age to the motor age: The Turmoil by Booth Tarkington and The Harbor by Earnest Poole.
Tarkington and Poole were each Pulitzer Prize winners, though they didn’t win for their 1915 novels.
The two novels have several common threads. Each focuses on the boy who tries to pick his own way in the world despite a dominant, even domineering, father.
In each novel, the son never approaches his father’s stature, either for good or ill. The father in The Turmoil is a scoundrel; the father in The Harbor is an honest man, but rigid.
In each book, the setting acts almost as a character, influencing how the humans behave. The Turmoil is set in a mid-size American City obsessed with growing bigger, wealthier, more powerful. The Harbor‘s setting is the New York City Harbor in which new ideas wash up with the tides.
Reading these two novels as a set would provide a fairly good introduction to American economic history from the Civil War to the First World War.
The Harbor is a fictional history of the major upheavals in American life between 1865 and 1915 as experienced by a family who lived and worked on New York City’s waterfront.
[The New York Public Library’s digital book New York City Harbor puts the novel in its historical and visual setting.]
The Harbor by Ernest Poole
Grossett & Dunlap, 1915. Project Gutenberg ebook #29932. 1915 bestseller #8. My grade: B+.
Part owner of a warehouse on the docks, Bill’s father dreams and works his entire life for a golden age of shipping dominated by America and delivered by honorable men in beautiful vessels.
Bill’s college-educated mother is repelled by the harbor’s scenes and people. The family is not rich enough for New York society.
Following his mother’s lead, Bill first sees the harbor as an unpleasant place.
As a youth, Bill comes under the sway of an engineer, soon to be his father-in-law, who serves the god of efficiency and the pocketbooks of Wall Street.
Later Bill falls under the spell of a revolutionary who shows him the human cost of efficiency, and Bill becomes enamored of the wisdom of the masses and organized labor.
Bill narrates with the detachment of hindsight. He is, however, sufficiently self-aware to realize he’s all too likely to jettison today’s struggle for the next big thing.
Into this framework, novelist Ernest Poole pours the personal stories of Bill and his extended family who are as real as the folks at your family reunion.
© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni