My picks of 1906’s bestselling novels

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.

My top pick for 1955: Something of Value

I had no difficulty picking my favorite of the 1955 bestsellers. Something of Value by Robert Ruark is head and shoulders above the rest.

Marjorie Morningstar would be my number two choice of the best of 1955 bestsellers. Herman Wouk’s exploration of a start-struck girl’s growing up won’t ever go out of date, but it’s too personal to have the impact that Ruark’s broad canvas achieves.

Photo of Robert RuarkNot only is Something of Value well-plotted and peopled with believable fictional characters, but it is written with a reporters eye for telling detail.

With Africa’s rise as a center of influence, the background Ruark presents in an accessible fashion presents a timely introduction to one of its most rapidly developing nations: Kenya.

In the foreword written in 1954, Ruark says

This is considerably more than a book about the Mau Mau terror which has claimed constant attention on the front pages of the world for the last two years. A great deal has been written about the Mau Mau. A great deal of foolishness has been committed in the failure of the British to recognize that what they saw happening to themselves in Kenya was not, as they first thought, a local brush fire but a symptomatic ulcer of the evil and unrest which currently afflict the world.

…..

This might be possibly a true story of Kenya and of the events over the last fifty years which lead to the present tragedy of the Mau Mau uprising, with all its sadistic murder and counter-murder. The book is completely true in reporting that its early skeletal structure rests on stony fact, which may be found in reference as fact. Some of these facts have been altered and condensed to comply with novel form, a it always customary But they remain facts. The characters in this book are entirely fictitious.

There is much blood in the book. There is much killing. But the life of Africa was washed earlier by blood, and its ground was, and skill is fertilized by the blood of its people and its animals. This is not a pretty book….And it certainly is not a political book.

A North Carolina native, Ruark served in the navy during World War II.  Afterward, he became a newspaperman. achieving national prominenance as a syndicated columnist for the Scripps Howard newspaper chain.

Ruark’s love of hunting, fishing, and the outdoors in general led him to Africa. That in turn inspired him to abandon the security of New York and a regular paycheck for the uncertainty of freelance writing.

Ruark said , “Without the African experience, there would have been no topics for the scores of articles and stories and the two books which have combined to make me financially secure…”

He had published five nonfiction books and 500 magazine articles before Something of Value. In all, Ruark published 12 novels, including the 1959 bestseller Poor No More. A list of his novels are on the Robert Ruark Society website.

On his death in 1965 at age 49, Ruark left all his letters (including one containing the quote above), manuscripts, and published work to the The University of North Carolina.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni