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.

A Far Country is reached via expediency

A Far Country is presented as the autobiography of a corporate lawyer, a “typical American” disciple of the doctrine of enlightened self interest.

Winston Churchill dealt the results of that doctrine in his 1913 bestseller. This time, however, he treats it from the perspective of the man who pursues expediency.


A Far Country by Winston Churchill

     MacMillan, 1915, 509 pages. 1915 bestseller #2. Project Gutenberg ebook #3739 My grade: C​+.


After his father’s death, Hugh Paret goes into law. He learns to use the law to manipulate, and thus becomes a behind-the-scenes political power.

Cartoon shows corporate interests running the US Senate
The Bosses of the Senate, a cartoon by Joseph Keppler from 1889

Hugh is opposed by Hermann Krebs, skillful advocate for the powerless, whom Hugh respects and despises.

Only his childhood friend Nancy seems to see Hugh’s career as a downward path, but she, too, chooses expediency.

Hugh marries a woman without ambition and soon regrets choosing Maude, though it draws him and Nancy closer than ever.

Maude keeps up appearances until the children are in their teens. Then she quietly takes them off to France just as Hugh is being considered for a run for the US Senate.

The timing couldn’t be worse. Hugh faces strong opposition from his old opponent, Krebs.

The plot of the novel is essentially a romance, albeit an unconventional one.

Churchill’s characters are believable enough to keep readers’ interest, but not believable enough to make the book memorable two weeks after reading it.

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni