Journey in the Dark casts light on early 20th century

Martin Flavin’s fictional memoir Journey in the Dark traces the footsteps of Sam Braden, who, his best friend says, is “a lonely man, going nowhere, in the dark.”

Sam grows up poor, the son of a honest woman of good character and a lazy adventurer who ran out of money in the Mississippi Riverbank town of Wyattville, Iowa, in the 1880s.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Journey in the Dark by Martin Flavin

Harper & Brothers, 1943.  The Franklin Library Limited Edition, 1978,

Illus. Charles Hamrick, 456 pp. My grade: A-.


Sam decides early in life that he doesn’t want to remain poor. He also decides he wants to marry Eileen Wyatt.

All of Wyattsville, including Eileen, knows she is destined to marry her cousin Neill Wyatt.

Sam works from the age of 10, making enough money to marry Eileen, but not enough to make her love him instead of Neill.

Though Sam spends his life trying to live down the ignominy of growing up poor, he never escapes his Wyattville roots. His family is intertwined with others in town on both sides of the tracks.

After he’s made his millions, Sam returns to Wyattville in time to see the sleepy town transformed by America’s preparations for World War II.

Through Sam, Flavin shows how the social and economic conditions of childhood influence the kind of adults Sam, his siblings, and his peers become.

Flavin won a Pulitzer Prize in 1944 for this novel.

The book deserves it.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Arrowsmith stumbles and bogs down

Sinclair Lewis says Arrowsmith is the biography of a young man who was “in no degree a hero, who regarded himself as a seeker after truth yet who stumbled and slid back all his life and bogged himself in every obvious morass.”

The novel also stumbles and bogs down.

Arrowsmith in laboratory graces 1952 dust jacket of novel


Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis

©1925. 1952 ed. Harcourt, Brace & World, includes a biographical sketch of Sinclair Lewis and “How Arrowsmith was written,” both by Barbara Grace Spayd. 464 pp. 1925 bestseller #7. My grade: B.


A drunken doctor lets Martin Arrowsmith read his Gray’s Anatomy and points him toward medical school.

Martin takes a BA, a MD, and a wife. He wants to do research, but is forced into general practice to support Leora.

He’s hopeless as a doctor: He has no people skills.

A lucky discovery leads him into a research job under the great Max Gottlieb.

Martin wants respect among scientists, but he’s willing to throw even that away when his emotions are touched.

An epidemic on a Caribbean Island gives Martin a chance to run a controlled test of a vaccine. Martin promises Gottlieb that  he won’t give in to demands to supply it to all residents.

Lewis makes Martin, Leora, and Gottleib plausible, if not particularly likeable. He sketches minor characters with broad strokes of sarcasm.

The total effect is neither serious enough or funny enough to satisfy today’s reader, but the Pulitzer committee thought the novel worthy of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

So Big, a Cameo for Motherhood

Jacket cover of So BigEdna Ferber’s So Big is a gentle, thoughtful novel peopled with believable characters and edged in tears.

Selina Peake grew up wherever her father’s profession—gambling—took them. Life was an adventure to her father. He told Selina to relax and enjoy it:

‘The more kinds of people you see, and the more things you do, and the more things that happen to you, the richer you are. Even if they’re not pleasant things. That’s living. Remember, no matter what happens, good or bad, its’ just so much’—he used the gambler’s term, unconsciously,—’just so much velvet.

When her father dies, Selina goes to teach at a rural school in a Dutch farming community. She causes merriment by saying the fields of cabbage are beautiful and consternation by her frivolous, city clothes.

Within a year, she marries a farmer with no talent for farming. They have one child, Dirk, whom Selina calls by his childhood nickname, “So Big.”

Widowed before Dirk is 10, Selina takes over running the farm, making it profitable so that Dirk won’t have to be a farmer.

She teaches Dirk life isn’t an adventure, that something good isn’t just around the corner. Dirk believes her, and at the time she believes she’s telling the truth.

Dirk does what’s necessary to becomes a success short of outright illegality.

Though Selina and Dirk remain close, as she grows older, Selina senses that she failed her son.

The Pulitzer committee agreed with readers that So Big is a gem.

Read it and find out for yourself.

So Big
By Edna Ferber
© 1924, Doubleday
1924 bestseller #1
283 pages
My grade: A

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Outrageous man makes The Store worth revisiting

This is another of my occasional reviews of notable vintage novels that did not make the bestseller lists when they were published.  The Store won novelist T. S. Stribling a Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1933. A two-page illustrated biography of the author in pdf format is available from the Tennessee Literary Project.

Cotton Plant
Natural Cotton

Before the Civil War, Colonel Miltiades Vaiden was comfortably well off. Then he lost a year’s income when J. Handback declared bankruptcy the day Vaiden assigned him his cotton crop.

Vaiden’s fortunes haven’t recovered yet in 1884 when he learns Handback keeps a mistress, a former Vaiden slave named Gracie. Vaiden uses that knowledge to blackmail Handback into giving him a job in his store.

When Handback puts Vaiden in charge of the cotton bales, Vaiden sells them and pockets the proceeds, which he insists Handback owes him.

Though forced to return part of the money, Vaiden has enough to start his own store, invest in property, and think of himself as a Southern planter again.

Vaiden doesn’t realize the South’s future lies with shopkeepers not planters.  And he certainly doesn’t see that children of former slaves like Gracie’s son, Touissant, are becoming a force to be reckoned with.

Although T. S. Stribling hangs his hangs together on a string of coincidences, they are plausible coincidences. Even Vaiden’s descent into crime is more happenstance than choice.

But interesting as the historical portrait is, it can’t compete with the fascination of Vaiden himself. He is, as his one-time fiancée says, “an outrageous man” who “stick[s] at nothing and regret[s] little.”

Miltiades Vaiden doesn’t just invent his own facts; he believes every word he fabricates.

Look for The Store.

You won’t begrudge the time you spend there.

The Store
by T[homas] S[igismund] Stribling
Original publication 1932 by Doubleday, Doran
Republished 1985 by The University of Alabama Press
with an introduction by Randy K. Cross
571 pages

Photo credit: Natural Cotton 22 by robertz65

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

True winners on 1931 best-selling novels list

The 1931 bestseller list contains some true winners.

The list of 1931 bestselling novels is topped by Pearl S. Buck‘s famous novel The Good Earth, which won the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel the following year.

The 1931 list includes  other another Pulitzer winner,  Years of Grace by Margaret Ayer Barnes, and another Putlizer-winning author, Willa Cather.

John Galsworthy, winner of the 1932 Nobel Prize in Literature, has a work on the 1931 bestseller list, too.

And Erich Maria Remarque‘s novel The Road Back put him on another list: that of author’s whose works were banned by the Third Reich.

Here’s the entire 1931 list of bestselling novels, with dates the reviews are scheduled noted in parens:

  • The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck (2-Jul-2011)
  • Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather (6-Jul-2011)
  • A White Bird Flying by Bess Streeter Aldrich (9-Jul-2011)
  • Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum
  • Years of Grace by Margaret Ayer Barnes
  • The Road Back by Erich Maria Remarque (16-Jul-2011)
  • The Bridge of Desire by Warwick Deeping (20-Jul-2011)
  • Back Street by Fannie Hurst (23-Jul-2011)
  • Finch’s Fortune by Mazo de la Roche (27-Jul-2011)
  • Maid in Waiting by John Galsworthy (30-Jul-2011)

© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Pulitzer winner Magnificent Ambersons no great prize today

Booth Tarkington didn’t have a novel on the bestseller list in 1918, but he did win a Pulitzer Prize for a novel he published that year.

The Magnificent Ambersons is a coming of age novel plastered on top of a study of the rise and fall of an American family.

During the panic of 1873, General Amberson made a killing that propelled his family to the top of the Midland social ladder.

Grandson Georgie is a snob of the nastiest sort. Most of the town would like to see him get his comeuppance.

Georgie falls for a charming girl whose father, Eugene Morgan, had been in love with his mother years before. Eugene is in the automobile business, on his way to becoming far richer than the Ambersons.

When his widowed mother begins seeing her old beau again, Georgie throws a fit. Used to doing everything Georgie wants, his mother gives in and dies without seeing Eugene again.

Georgie finds himself sudenly penniless, jobless, homeless. He’s gotten his comeuppance, but the people who wished it on him are not around to see. Autos and industrialization have changed the town beyond recognition.

The Magnificent Ambersons is one of Booth Tarkington’s less successful stories. Georgie is too nasty to be an appropriate target for Tarkington’s usual gentle satire, and Georgie’s growing up is too sudden to be plausible.

The Magnificent Ambersons
By Booth Tarkington
Illus. Arthur William Brown
Doubleday, Page, 1919
516 pages
Project Gutenberg ebook #8867
My grade: C+
© 2008 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

The Bridge of San Luis Rey Toppled by Weighty Prose

The Bridge of San Luis Rey won Thornton Wilder a Pulitzer Prize in 1928. The novel has since been ignored in favor of less literary but more entertaining reading.

The story is this. In 1714, a woven-willow bridge outside Lima broke plunging five people to their deaths. A monk who saw them fall decides to prove that the collapse was not an accident but a demonstration of God’s perfect wisdom.

Brother Juniper spends six years investigating. He accumulates mountains of information, but never gets any closer to knowing why those people died rather than some other five people.

When the Inquisition burns Brother Juniper and his book, he’s not even sure of the purity of his own motives.

After Brother Juniper’s death the paths of those the victims left behind cross just as the victims’ paths had. And an observer wouldn’t be able to say what, if any, purpose their lives served.

Like Brother Juniper’s book, Wilder’s book is a report, not a memoir. He builds his characters from bits; they aren’t organic wholes. And, like Brother Juniper, Wilder tacks a vague moral on the tail end of ponderous prose.

Unlike Brother Juniper’s book, Wilder’s novel doesn’t require burning. It’s so dull, it will just crumble away.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey
By Thornton Wilder
Grosset & Dunlap, c1927
235 pages
#1 bestseller in 1928
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni