My Favorites of 1914 Novels: No Stars But Some Twinkles

Perhaps the unsettled state of Europe in 1914 is to blame for the less-than-stellar list of bestsellers that year.

Of the lot, Penrod by Booth Tarkington is the most humorous, T. Tembarom by Frances Hodgson Burnett the most uplifting, and Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter the most familiar.

None of the “mosts,” however, is much more than entertainment.

My choices for three 1914 bestsellers that combine entertainment with insight are The Devil’s Garden by W. B. Maxwell, The Salamander by Owen Johnson, and The Fortunate Youth by William John Locke. Each of these combines an original plot with at least a modicum of reflection on its significance.

The Devil’s Garden looks at a proud man whose respectability covers a violent temper.  Some rather nasty things happen in the novel, but Maxwell suggests redemption may be possible.

The Salamander is a psychological study of a liberated woman who represents the fast, post-Victorian young people whose easy morals and craving for fun appalled their parents. The book is interesting as a picture of young women, who like their brothers, left farms for the excitement of the city. It’s also intriguing because Johnson apparently intended to paint his main character as thoroughly bad, but the novel closes with her headed out of the city to a conventional life as wife and mother.

The Fortunate Youth is a novel about a young man who thinks he’s a prince and discovers he’s only a toad. Because of all the time he spent practicing princely behavior, he’s able to rise above toad-level.  It’s not a great novel, but it’s enough out of the mainstream to be memorable.

That wraps up 1914.

I’ll post the list of 1904 bestsellers on Saturday and begin their reviews next week.

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Whiff of Danger Makes The Salamander Fascinating

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Like many novels before the Great War, The Salamander attempts to explain social changes that terrified people who had grown to adulthood during the reign of Queen Victoria.

Author Owen Johnson focuses on one of the young women — Salamanders — who, like their brothers, were leaving small towns for the easy money and fun of New York City.

For the most part, Salamanders don’t work. They live by their wits and their looks.

One Salamander, Doré Baxter, called Dodo by her city friends, is bright, impulsive, ambitious, and highly principled in a scatterbrained way.

Dodo has dozens of men who dote on her, buy her meals, give her flowers or wine she can sell, but she doesn’t take money or expensive gifts: She is not that kind of girl.

Dodo plays one man against the other until she accidentally sets up a rivalry among powerful men that threatens to tear her like a kitten in among wolves.

The plot skeleton is familiar, as are some of the scenes, but Johnson’s jerky, cinema verity story-telling makes Dodo appealing even to those who find her life appalling.

I found myself holding my breath for fear of what I knew could happen to Dodo that she believed happened only to other people.

Tip: Read the novel before reading the foreword.

The Salamander
By Owen Johnson
Illustrated by Everett Shinn
Project Gutenberg EBook #36355
1914 bestseller #4
My grade: B

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni