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.
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.
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.
By John Steinbeck
Viking Press, 1954
My grade B +
The 1942 bestseller list introduced me to several novels I quickly added to my list of novels to read again—probably several times.
The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck and Dragon Seed by Pearl S. Buck are novels about life in occupied territory. Steinbeck sets his novel in a European town where an invading army learns that occupation is far more difficult than invasion.
Buck tells a story of Japanese-occupied China. An illiterate farmer Ling Tan and his family organize the local resistance. As they succeed in harassing the occupying enemy, Ling Tan worries about whether their facility for killing won’t ultimately destroy them.
Marguerite Steen’s The Sun Is My Undoing has a third perspective on the relationship between the conquerer and the conquered. Her whopping, great novel looks at the financial rise and personal disintegration of a British slave trader in the late 1700s.
Henry Bellamann’s King’s Row is a striking contrast to those three novels about sweeping events in history. History detours around King’s Row. All that happens in that sleepy little country town is that one man is quietly noble.
If at least one of these four novels doesn’t give you goosebumps, you should turn in your library card: your obituary will be in Friday’s paper.
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+
Each of these books gives a sense of being about real people in real situations. Even though the situations are invented, they feel as if they could have happened to your nighbor’s cousin. Moreover, each is a novel that you can read repeatedly and enjoy every time. For me these three are books to buy in hardback.
As The Winter of Our Discontent opens, Ethan Allen Hawley is clerking for an Italian immigrant who bought Hawley’s grocery after Ethan’s father went broke and lost it. Ethan has a wife and two kids to support; some extra cash wouldn’t come amiss.
Sweet and funny, educated and articulate, Ethan escapes from the routine of his life in words. Ethan orates to the canned goods, engages in one-sided conversations with the banker’s red setter, and declaims to his children on patriotic ideals.
Joey Morphy inadvertently shows Ethan how to rob the bank next door to the grocery, and Ethan’s fertile imagination takes over from there.
Others in New Baytown are also looking for an easy buck. Some of the town leaders are trying to get hold of the only local site suitable for an airport. A grocery supplier offers Ethan kickbacks to secure orders. Ethan’s son is hoping to win an essay contest.
The Winter of Our Discontent holds pleasing and plausible surprises on every page. John Steinbeck merges a clever plot with characters that are more believable than most people I know. Beneath the novel’s superficial froth lie truths as durable as the sea that licks the New England coast.
The Winter of Our Discontent
By John Steinbeck
1961 bestseller # 10
My Grade: A
Of the bestsellers from 1940, the only ones familiar to today’s readers are by iconic American writers Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck. Hemingway’s novel is the better book; Steinbeck’s the more memorable: it was on the bestseller list two years running.
Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tollsis a war story told from the perspective of weary guerrilla fighters. Although the novel is set in Spain in the 1930s, the story could just as well be about an insurgency anywhere in the world in 2010.
Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is a propaganda piece about America’s working poor displaced by the dust bowls and economic upheaval of the Great Depression. The novel elicits an orgy of compassion that ends with emotionally exhausted readers feeling they’ve been manipulated.
Several other novels on the 1940 bestseller list deserve a resurrection. Oliver Wiswell by Kenneth Roberts, The Family by Nina Fedorova, Night in Bombay by Louis Bromfield, and Kitty Foyle by Christopher Morley (another novel on the bestseller list two years in a row) are readable second-rate novels relevant to contemporary readers.
If you find any of these in a yard sale or Salvation Army store, pick it up. It will be well worth the investment.
Of the top ten bestselling novels for 1939, five are still super reading today.
Two of the five are inside looks at the lives of the working poor.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings The Yearlingtops my list of the 1939 bestsellers with the most value for today’s readers. Although the main character is a young boy, The Yearling is not just a kid’s book. If you’ve ever had to tell your son or daughter, “we can’t afford that,” you will see the Baxter’s situation through adult eyes.
John Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath has to be on my list. Like The Yearling, it looks at the lives of the working poor. Unlike the Baxters to stay on land nobody wants, the Joads are kicked off their farm and become migrant workers. Steinbeck uses his novel as a soapbox,
Two other books from 1939 that have held up well are thrillers: Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Ethel Vance’s Escape. Rebecca totters on the brink of being a chick-lit novel. There’s nothing feminine about Escape. Mark Ritter’s attempt to smuggle his mother out of a prison camp is in the best tradition of war novels.
My final top pic, Kitty Foyle by Christopher Morley, is a romance as seen through the eyes of a woman who cannot afford to endulge in romance. Kitty wisecracks her way through the loss of both parents, an unwanted pregnancy, the depression. She’s one tough cookie with a tender heart.
Whatever your mood, one of these novels should provide suitable entertainment.
The Grapes of Wrath is a novel told from a soapbox.
Unable to keep up payments on their miserable Oklahoma farm, the Joads are forced to leave the land. Lured by handbills promising jobs, they pack 12 family members, an ex-preacher and a dog into a Hudson and set out for California.
Only eight of the Joad clan make it.
California turns out not to be the promised land. As thousands compete for harvesting jobs, wages drop. Men see their children starving. The Joads are in a bad way, but not so poor that they won’t share what little they have.
Substitute Hispanics for Oakies and much of The Grapes of Wrath will sound contemporary. The story remains gripping today because the search for a better life is timeless.
John Steinbeck alternates a chapter about the Joads with a chapter of his own take on history. He does it seamlessly, but sentimentally. The final scene of Rosasharn giving her milk to the starving man is Hollywood at its worst.
But by making the Joads the poster family for the working poor, Steinbeck trivializes the very conditions he’s trying to condemn. The working poor—and we poor readers—deserve more respect.
The Grapes of Wrath
By John Steinbeck
1939 #1, 1940 #8
My grade: A-
Of Mice and Men is a perennial on high school reading lists; it is short, easy reading, well-plotted, and gruesome. It’s theme, however, is anything but adolescent.
George Milton and Lennie Small are itinerant farm laborers. George does the thinking for both of them. Unaware of his own strength, big, dumb Lennie has to be be watched constantly or his fondness for soft, silky things gets him and George into trouble.
The pair arrives at a remote ranch for harvest. The boss’s son has recently married a good-looking slut with a wandering eye. Her presence has everyone in the bunkhouse wishing for something to call his own. They see that George cares for Lennie as if he were family. Before long the other hands are asking George if they can’t join him and Lennie on the place they plan to buy where they can “live on the fatta the lan’ and have rabbits.”
The story’s climax is both shocking and inevitable.
John Steinbeck’s characterization rings true as well. The bunkhouse crew are losers. As individuals, they are totally forgettable.
When you close the covers of the novel, all you’re left with is the knowledge that sometimes love carries an awful responsibility.
Of Mice and Men
By John Steinbeck
#8 on the 1937 bestseller list