Isabel Paterson on Four Neglected Books by Women

In this year of reading the work of women writers, I should take a moment to note the remarks of Isabel Paterson, whose 1933 novel, Never Ask the End, was one of the earliest neglected masterpieces I came across after starting this site, on four of her contemporaries whose own work has long gone unread. These come from some of the book reviews Paterson wrote for The Bookman magazine before and after it was bought by her mentor, Burton Rascoe.

Entranced, by Grace Flandrau (1924)

There is much more sting and sharpness to the work of Grace Flandrau in Entranced. It is like the difference between the American and English air. And Mrs. Flandrau’s special quality, which is brought to perfection in this book, is her ability to render atmosphere; not mere local color, nor even a personal background, but the tension and temperature, the shading and tone, of a certain group of persons involved in a given relation to each other at a definite place and time.

The action of Entranced passes in St. Paul, and it really is St. Paul, not even Minneapolis, or perhaps anything but Minneapolis, since unplumbed spiritual abysses separate the Twin Cities. So this is no vague, delocalized ‘midwestern metropolis,’ but St. Paul. The Robinsons belong in it, are rooted there. Richard and Rita Malory, marrying into the Robinson family, attempt to amalgamate themselves with it. They fail.

That is the story. Richard and Rita are not of the same stuff as the Robinsons; there is a difference in texture, in density and specific gravity. The Robinsons are solids and the Malorys are fluids. They are cursed with the curse of Reuben: “unstable as water, thou shalt not excel.” Richard Malory is a dilution of Lucien de Rubempre, a man lacking in that inner integrity which is essential to success. Rita does not lend herself to glib definition. I should like to read more of her — what happened to her and Ives and Gordon, afterward. There is, by the way, an especially delicious chapter — what a woman thinks about when she is annoyed at her husband. Don’t miss this.

From “Drawing Room Fiction,” The Bookman, December 1924

Entranced is so rare now that there appear to be only two copies for sale at the moment, both priced over $100. It was Flandrau’s second novel. Of her first, Being Respectable (1923), F. Scott Fitzgerald said it was “better than Babbitt” and reported that Edith Wharton liked the book “better than any American novel in years.” Joel Van Valin published a long article on Flandrau’s life and work in his Whistling Shade literary magazine in 2008.

The Matriarch, by G. B. Stern (1925)
In The Matriarch Miss Stern accepts the universe. She presents a panorama stretching over almost a century, but focused on the figure of a gorgeous, eccentric, autocratic old lady. To get so much into one volume requires a perilous process of foreshortening. All the same, it is a fine rich jumbled hamper Miss Stern has packed.

One is willingly subjugated by old Madame Anastasia Rakonitz, chieftainess of a far spreading Jewish clan noted for its masterful womenkind and its straight Greek noses. Disraeli sprang from just such a brilliant, mercurial strain as this. I believe he had a grandmother very like Anastasia. They are the kind of Jews who form a yeasty element in the countries of their adoption, who make an adventure of business, a business of art, and an art of living. Their essential stability consists in their strong family feeling; they rise and fall and rise again together, so tightly interlocked that an outsider pitchforked among them comes near to suffocation. One could pick flaws, but the main point is that The Matriarch is a decidedly likable book.

From “Deuces Wild in the Spring Fiction,” The Bookman, March 1925

G(ladys) B(ronwen) Stern, who was one of most successful and prolific of that generation of successful and prolific British women “middlebrow” writers that included Ethel Mannin, Storm Jameson, and Phyllis Bottome that collectively published thousands of novels over of course of fifty-some years between 1920 and 1970. From The Matriarch alone, Stern produced as much as some writers do in an entire career, turning it into a play that was a hit in both London and New York, and following it up with three more novels about the Rakonitz family–A Deputy was King (1926), Mosaic (1930), and Shining and Free (1935)–that were then combined in a massive 1400-page tome titled, The Matriarch Chronicles, in 1936. The Matriarch was reissued several times in paperback, most recently in the mid-1980s as a The Matriarch“>Virago Modern Classic. It was originally published in England as Tents of Israel (1924).

Orphan Island, Rose Macaulay (1925)
We may as well swallow the bitter pill first, reserving the jam for consolation. But since Miss Macaulay’s tonic is sugared with tolerant amusement, it goes down most easily. It is an antidote to Victorianism, containing a salutary reminder that we may have achieved a distinction without a difference in our Georgian emancipation. If the Victorians were self righteous, aren’t we a little smug in our superiority to those benighted creatures? The plot belongs to the great universal stock; Miss Macaulay helps herself to it gracefully. She premises that in 1855 there sailed from England a shipload of some forty orphan children of tender years, London waifs philanthropically destined for San Francisco under the aegis of a virtuous maiden lady of the Anglican persuasion, a clergyman’s daughter. Miss Charlotte Smith had all the prejudices proper to her social status. A decent Scotswoman had been brought as a nurse. The ship’s doctor was Irish, bibulous. Rabelaisian, and a Roman Catholic.

The ship was wrecked in the lee of a fertile and uninhabited South Sea Island. Seventy years later a rescue party arrived. They found that the orphans had thrived and multiplied, preserving in their island home an undiluted mid-Victorian atmosphere. Miss Smith, aged ninety eight, was a reduced but still majestic replica of the late dear Queen. The social, political, and economic problems of the tight little island had reproduced themselves with the same grotesque fidelity. If the microcosm is funny, the author implies, what of the original? And if they were funny, what of ourselves? How shall we look to our grandchildren?

It is all done in good humor, with a touch of broad comedy for a high light in the distressing circumstances of Miss Smith’s marriage. She had been deceived by the doctor; he had a wife in Ireland. Miss Smith never knew it until she had borne ten children in this bigamous union; and she kept the secret thereafter, reacting to her hidden shame by a more rigid respectability in law making. Illegitimacy she would not tolerate. On principle she was also a teetotaler, though she fuddled herself on palm wine with great dignity, calling it fruit juice prescribed for her health. It is excellent satire, and if to youthful readers it seems inapposite, that is because they can’t visualize the object. Their elders will enjoy it.”

From “Deuces Wild in the Spring Fiction,” The Bookman, March 1925

Orphan Island is among the hundreds of books by fine mid-century British men and women writers that have been reissued in e-Book format by Bloomsbury Press in the last couple of years. You can find a Kindle version on Amazon.

The Crystal Cup, Gertrude Atherton
For me to assume an attitude of impartial criticism of ” The Crystal Cup, or any other of Gertrude Atherton’s novels, would be sheer pretence. I am biased, if not totally disqualified, by my enthusiastic admiration of the author, which cannot be set aside, even hypothetically, for the consideration of her work “on its merits”, because her books are charged with her personality. Not that they are intimate confessions nor factual autobiography; it is self-evident that they are very far from being anything of the kind; but the dynamic quality with which she was so greatly and fortunately dowered by nature flows through the point of her pen; and her attitude toward life, which she has not only accepted but welcomed and enjoyed, determines her choice and treatment of material.

Always her characters are positive. Confronted by the dilemma which is prerequisite to a story, they arrive at definite decisions and act upon them with energy and even ruthlessness. And, though in some instances the power which moves them is felt as directly owing to the writer rather than to the fictive characters in their own right — which is the final achievement of creative art — nevertheless it is genuine, and it serves its purpose: to rivet the reader’s attention. The degree of illusion she creates varies considerably. In The Crystal Cup, the problem is the main thing, rather than the subtleties of character analysis, although the story hinges on character. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it is a question of a certain type breaking through fortuitous and adverse circumstance to find a normal channel of expression.

Gita Carteret, inheriting the beauty and charm which made the women of her family successively the reigning belles of their period, was warped by the unhappy experiences of her girlhood into a fierce antagonism toward men. Her father was a rake, a spendthrift, and a drunken brute. Besides reducing his wife and child to poverty, he exposed them to the insulting gallantries of his raffish associates. Gita grew up hating her own femininity, wishing herself a man; and in self defense she dressed and acted as much like a boy as possible. But at twenty-two, already an orphan, she found herself an heiress in a small way, through the death of her grandmother. The singular expedient to which she resorted to secure her share of life while excluding men from her personal scheme of things, and the unexpected result of it all, provides a very brisk plot, enlivened with a touch of melodrama and one scene (at least) of fine tense drama. It is safe to say The Crystal Cup will be among the best sellers. It marches.”

From “Men, Women, and Manikins,” The Bookman, September 1925

Not all reviewers shared Isabel Paterson’s enthusiasm for Atherton’s work. In the Saturday Review, H. W. Boynton wrote, “Again Mrs. Atherton has made an elaborate gesture and produced a stuffed rabbit out of the hat. Its skin is real but its eyes are glass, and its little insides are cotton and excelsior.” The Crystal Cup is available in a ridiculously over-priced direct-to-print paperback–or you can get an original edition for just $2.99.

Thanks to her canonization* as a Libertarian saint, Paterson’s own works, including Never Ask the End, are in print now in Kindle format. You can get one for $9 from Laissez Faire Books, or without an introduction for $0.99. Or you can just get the PDF version for free from the Mises Institute and convert it (also for free) using Calibre. Which option would a good Libertarian choose?

*I do have to say that I fear this embrace of Paterson by Libertarians has put the kibosh on her chances of getting accepted by academia and published by any mainstream reissue press (e.g., New York Review Books) anytime soon.

Lost Writers of the Plains, from Nebraska Educational Telecommunications


A new series of radio shows, along with a free accompanying ebook, featuring the lives and works of eight neglected writers of the American Plains, has just been released by Nebraska Educational Telecommunications. This series, organized by Professor Wendy Katz from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is a little multimedia treasure trove. For each of the eight men and women featured on the site, you can find a radio essay, one or more video clips, photos and illustrations, and links to some of their articles or stories. You can also find an accompanying book, written by Claire Harlan-Orsi, available free on iTunes (link). Among the writers covered are:

Burton Rascoe on Neglected Books, from The American Mercury, August 1940


California conservative and entrepeneur Ron Unz has set up a website,, with PDF versions of articles from over 100 American periodicals from the 20th century, ranging from The Abolitionist, a mimeographed newsheet from the Rutgers Libertarian Alliance, to Yank, the U. S. Army’s magazine from World War Two. Of particular interest to book fans are complete records of magazines such as The American Mercury, The Literary Digest, and The Saturday Review, which are rich in reviews, articles and ads about books from the past. Although the site’s interface is very HTML 1.0-ish and pages can only be downloaded and printed individually, a stroll through almost any issue will produce at least one long-forgotten title worth investigating.

One article that caught my eye, naturally, was “Neglected Books,” written by Burton Rascoe, an influential editor and critic of the first half of the century, published in the August 1940 issue of H. L. Mencken’s magazine, The American Mercury. Rascoe’s intention was “to call attention to a few books published within the last eighteen months which are literary works of outstanding merit and deserving of a wide and appreciative audience, but which, because of the many imponderables of book publishing, not only failed to catch on with the wide reading public but reached such a small number of book buyers, in some instances, as to be downright calamities to both author and publisher.” In other words, these are books that went straight from press to neglect without passing “Go.”

Of the eight titles discussed, half are back in print now. The Rockville, Maryland-based Wildside Press, which has brought almost all of James Branch Cabell’s books, including Hamlet Had an Uncle, back into circulation. Thanks to the strong support of university presses for the works of regional writer of the past, the novels of James Still, including River Of Earth, are available from the University Press of Kentucky . As is E. C. Abbott’s cattle-drive memoir, We Pointed Them North, which the University of Oklahoma Press has kept in print since 1976. And the University of Ohio’s Swallow Press offers not only Frank Waters’ The Dust Within the Rock but twenty others, including his best-known novel, The Man Who Killed The Deer.

Cover of first U.S. edition of "Hamlet Had an Uncle"

Hamlet Had an Uncle, by James Branch Cabell

“Urbane, brilliant and beautiful treatment of the Hamlet legend, in which Cabell adheres more closely to the earliest historical account, the Danish history of Saxo-Grammaticus, than did Shakespeare. As with all of Cabell’s novels, it is an analogue of happenings in our own time–in this instance, it is an analogue of the rise of Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini.”

Sun and Storm, by Unto Seppänen

“A Finnish peer of Knut Hamsun’s Nobel Prize-winning novel, Growth of the Soil. One of the most powerful, realistic novels in modern literature.” Kirkus Reviews described it as a historical novel that recounts “the emergence of Finland from vassal statehood to independence, the growth of the peasantry to power” as experienced by one family. In The Saturday Review, Agnes Rothery–a prolific travel writer of the time–wrote, “This is a book of exceptional merit. It possesses every ingredient required to make a first-class novel: a romantic setting of a remote and little known country, a powerful theme of an ambition peasant dominating successive generations of the family he founded, and a plot which is concerned with the century-long struggle of Finland against her tyrant, Russia.” Seppänen’s work has been so utterly forgotten that he doesn’t even rate a Wikipedia listing in any language but his own.

River Of Earth, by James Still

“This young novelist has such a mature and original style, such an acute sense of character and effective dialogue that he bids fair to become one of our most widely read and highly praised creators of imaginative literature.” Still, who lived most of his life in a cabin in the hills of eastern Kentucky in which this and his other books were set. A documentary on the book and Still’s life produced by Kentucky Educational Television can be viewed online at You can also read an appreciative essay on the book, written by Jerry Salyer in 2009, on the Front Porch Republic website.

Cover of first U. S. edition of "The Last Hunt"

The Last Hunt, by Maurice Genevoix

“This is a delicately beautiful woodland story of the understanding and affection between a huntsman and a deer, which somehow makes the reader recall W. H. Hudson, Felix Salten and the legends of St. Francis of Assisi.” Rascoe also compares it to the works of a frequent American Mercury contributor, Alan Devoe. Devoe published a half-dozen or so books on animals, birding, and country life and is remembered now by the Alan Devoe Bird Club of Columbia County, New York.

We Pointed Them North: Recollections of a Cowpuncher, by E. C. Abbott and Helen Huntington Smith

“The recollections of ‘Teddy Blue’ Abbott, a Texas and Montana cowpuncher of the seventies and eighties, who rode here up the Long Trail four times, knew Buffalo Bill and Calamity Jane, gamblers, cattle thieves, Indians, dead-shots, man-hunting marshals, and, above all, the plains and mountains, peoples and customs, songs and legends of the country. It is inconceivable that this book shouldn’t delight the millions who read cowboy fiction and love the Hollywood ‘horse-operas’….”

O Canaan!, by Waters E. Turpin

“Here is the intensely moving and significant story of the migration North of a group of Negro farm-hands in response to the industrial demand for labor in 1916 (a year in which rains and the boll weevil devastated the cotton crop of the South), and of their several maladjustments to the new environment, a new way of living, a new kind of social antagonism and, worse perhaps, a sudden (if not long-lived) acquaintance with wealth in the form of daily wages in excess of what they would earn in a month in the South.” O Canaan! is now so rare that Amazon has no listings and the only copy I could find available for sale online has a price tag of $295.

Dust Within the Rock, by Frank Waters

“The third volume of a notable trilogy of three generations in the mining regions of Cripple Creek and during the rise of Denver and Colorado Springs; but a novel complete in itself.” A more skeptical critic, writing for Kirkus Reviews, concluded that, “As a picture of a family gone to seed, keeping the surface veneer of aristocracy, and of March Cable, symbolizing his generation as a sort of rebirth of the frontier spirit, it does not quite come off.” The preceding novels in the trilogy are Wild Earth’s Nobility and Below Grass Roots. In 1971, Waters compiled the novels into a single volume, Pikes Peak: A Mining Saga.

Cover of first U. S. edition of "Jubal Troop"

Jubal Troop, by Paul Wellman

“A thrilling, well-documented and deeply felt novel of the trans-Mississippi immigration into Texas and Oklahoma when the prairies were first attracting settlers and the cattle industry of the plains was just developing.” Ironically, of all these books, Jubal Troop fared the best for its first thirty-some years, staying in print through four or five paperback editions, and being made into a film (Jubal) starring Glenn Ford, Ernest Borgnine and a remarkable supporting cast (Rod Steiger, Charles Bronson, Jack Elam, Felicia Farr). The director, Delmer Daves, recast the story into a Western version of “Othello”–which earned it a reputation as one of the first “adult” Westerns.

“In each case no doubt,” Rascoe concludes after a consideration of the rationale behind the failure of Cabell’s novel, “there are good and plausible explanations for undeserved neglect. Which is no consolation to author and publisher. Worse than that, the neglect is a real loss to the reading public.”

Amen, brother!

Michael Dirda on “Out of Print” books

Michael DirdaPatrick Kurp brought my attention to a posting in Michael Dirda’s column/blog on the website for The American Scholar, the magazine of Phi Beta Kappa. In “Out of Print,” posted in early August, Dirda writes, “These days I gravitate increasingly to books almost no one else has heard of, let alone is interested in, books that are odd and quirky and usually out of print.” He also remarks that, “I’ve also come to feel that if I don’t write about a book—in a review or essay—then I haven’t actually read it”–a feeling I have come to share since starting this site. I encourage any fan of lost books to check out the post: mentions over 25 different titles, most of them obscure and hard to find, a few darned near impossible to find. Personally, I’m now on permanent lookout for the novels of Claude Farrère.

Dirda–like his former Washington Post colleague Jonathan Yardley–has long been an enthusiast for odd and little-known books. You can find more than a few overlooked gems in each of his collections of essays, particularly in Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments, first published in 2000 and still in print. But, he notes, “Most literary publications don’t publish essays—no matter how enthusiastic—about fiction or nonfiction that is out of print or otherwise unavailable.” “What can you do?,” he asks?

Well, Mr. Dirda, you have a standing offer here. The pay is poor, the audience tiny, but the karma boost is to die for.

“The 10 Best Neglected Literary Classics,” from the Guardian

Source: Rachel Cooke, “The 10 best Neglected literary classics – in pictures,”, The Observer, Sunday 27 February 2011

The always-watchful Robert Nedelkoff passed along this link from last month. Noting the BBC’s dramatisation of Winifred Holtby’s long-neglected novel, [amazon_link id=”0006136540″ target=”_blank” ]South Riding[/amazon_link], Rachel Cooke proposes ten more titles worth rediscovering. Fortunately for interested readers, all are in print–at least in the U.K.–thanks to Virago Press, Persephone Books, Capuchin Classics, NYRB Classics, and others.

Here is the full list of titles:

• [amazon_link id=”190742914X” target=”_blank” ]The Real Charlotte[/amazon_link], by Somerville and Ross (1894)

• [amazon_link id=”1590170296″ target=”_blank” ]The Vet’s Daughter[/amazon_link], by Barbara Comyns (1959)

“[amazon_link id=”1590170296″ target=”_blank” ]The Vet’s Daughter[/amazon_link] tells the story of 17-year-old Alice, who lives with her savage veterinary father (a “terrible genie” in a waxed moustache and yellow gloves) in a horrible south London suburb. When she escapes his tyranny – she moves to the country, where she discovers a peculiar talent – Alice’s life seems to be improving. But it can’t last. A return to Daddy and his new wife and things grow nastier than ever. Nightmarish.”

• [amazon_link id=”0140035753″ target=”_blank” ]The Rector’s Daughter[/amazon_link], by FM Mayor (1924)

• [amazon_link id=”1590173031″ target=”_blank” ]School for Love[/amazon_link], by Olivia Manning (1951)

“[amazon_link id=”1590173031″ target=”_blank” ]School for Love[/amazon_link] tells the story of Felix Latimer, a young orphan who is marooned in wartime Jerusalem, alongside other flotsam and jetsam, in lodgings belonging to the repulsive Miss Bohun. A tremendous book about the way in which war makes adults of children – and avarice monsters of us all.”

• [amazon_link id=”0743456661″ target=”_blank” ]The Wife: A Novel[/amazon_link], Meg Wolitzer (2003)

• [amazon_link id=”094032279X” target=”_blank” ]A Way of Life, Like Any Other[/amazon_link], Darcy O’Brien (1977)

“[amazon_link id=”094032279X” target=”_blank” ]A Way of Life, Like Any Other[/amazon_link] is a coming-of-age story like no other. Set in 50s Hollywood, the novel is narrated by a teenager called Salty, whose father once starred in westerns and whose mother was a goddess of the silver screen. In the old days, they enjoyed the high life, but now their careers have crashed, their marriage is broken, and the only way is down.”

• [amazon_link id=”0199538301″ target=”_blank” ]The Odd Women[/amazon_link], George Gissing (1893)

• [amazon_link id=”B002C4HDE8″ target=”_blank” ]The Blank Wall[/amazon_link],Elisabeth Sanxay Holding (1947)

“[amazon_link id=”B002C4HDE8″ target=”_blank” ]The Blank Wall[/amazon_link] has been filmed twice – as The Reckless Moment in 1949, and as The Deep End in 2001 – and its author was admired by Raymond Chandler. But does it hold up today? Oh, yes. Lucia Holley is a suburban housewife coping alone while her husband serves in the Pacific. Then, one morning, she finds the body of her teenage daughter’s dubious lover and, desperate to protect her family, rapidly becomes implicated in his murder. Will she keep her cool? Atmospheric and difficult to put down, Sanxay Holding is as clinical and as clever as Patricia Highsmith.”

• [amazon_link id=”0460873067″ target=”_blank” ]Ann Veronica[/amazon_link], by H. G. Wells (1909)

• [amazon_link id=”0953478041″ target=”_blank” ]The Victorian Chaise-longue[/amazon_link], Marghanita Laski (1953)

“Melanie Langdon, spoilt and sickly and recovering from TB, lies down on her antique chaise-longue one afternoon in 1953 and wakes up trapped inside the body of a young Victorian woman called Milly. Is she dreaming? No. Melanie really is marooned in a claustrophobic world that stinks of stale clothes, rancid butter and hypocrisy (judging by the whispers of the servants, Milly has been involved in some kind of scandal). More terrifyingly, the body Melanie inhabits is far frailer than her own. A book that will cure you for ever of your secret longing to live in Barsetshire.”

The Art of Slow Reading, from The Guardian

Patrick Kingsley, “The art of slow reading,” The Guardian, Thursday, 15 July 2010

I missed my weekly late Friday afternoon ritual of scanning through Arts and Letters Daily and printing off 6-8 of its featured articles for weekend reading while I was on vacation, so I didn’t get to read Patrick Kingsley’s piece from mid-July until a few days ago. I wanted to take a moment to steer slightly off topic and offer my own response, because Kingsley touches on a couple of themes I find myself often thinking about:

      • The Internet’s impact on reading

      • The benefits of deep and narrow reading versus those of broad and shallow reading–or slow reading vs. skimming

If you’re reading this article in print, chances are you’ll only get through half of what I’ve written. And if you’re reading this online, you might not even finish a fifth. At least, those are the two verdicts from a pair of recent research projects – respectively, the Poynter Institute’s Eyetrack survey, and analysis by Jakob Nielsen – which both suggest that many of us no longer have the concentration to read articles through to their conclusion.

I can add my own experience as both consumer and producer to this evidence. This is the second website I’ve created: the first, which has nothing at all to do with books, went online in late 1996. And the data from both shows exactly the same trends. Setting aside robots, spiders, links to images incorporated in other sites’ pages and everything thing else that represents automated traffic rather than real people making real mouse clicks, 95 per cent or more of visitor spend a minute or less on the site. Of the rest, most click around a page or three, and a tiny but persistent number spend ten to thirty minutes perusing its contents in depth.

It makes perfect sense. Both sites deal with an esoteric subject and are intended to as an alternative resource, filling a few gaps in material otherwise substantially covered elsewhere. It doesn’t take much looking to find plenty of material aboutThe Red Badge of Courage, just to take an example–nearly as much as there is about the works of William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon. But for the foreseeable future, I’ve got the corner on stuff about the works Herbert Clyde Lewis or Isabel Paterson (aside from her libertarian tracts).

Which is something about one in a million people have the slightest interest in–and the emphasis is on slightest. But I’m a firm believer that a little thing done well serves, if nothing else, as grit in the machinery of our inevitable descent into entropy. And so I’m not surprised that a tiny, tiny, tiny speck of the trillions of link clicks in the Internet land on my sites, or that most flit off to another page in a heartbeat or two. It’s the one person every week or so who spends twenty minutes truly reading and discovering the sites who tells me this more than the world’s 12th largest ball of lint.

Nor am I surprised that these studies find reading of material on the Internet is more a matter of hopping quickly from lilypad to lilypad than of focused, patient concentration. Now that most of us have speedy connections, the marginal cost of clicking along to the next link is just a moment’s delay. And if the material proves unworthy of the click, just click on. It’s the world’s biggest and best salad bar and you don’t even have to waste the time to chew and swallow what you sample. Just spit it out and click on. There’s a new page, with new colors and different pictures and adifferent arrangement of material on screen. It appeals so directly to the wiring of our minds, bound as they are to sight as our primary sense, that the wonder is not that so much traffic merely skitters across the tops of pages, but that anyone manages the self-control to stop and resist the urge to click on.

So are we getting stupider? Is that what this is about? Sort of. According to The Shallows, a new book by technology sage Nicholas Carr, our hyperactive online habits are damaging the mental faculties we need to process and understand lengthy textual information. Round-the-clock news feeds leave us hyperlinking from one article to the next – without necessarily engaging fully with any of the content; our reading is frequently interrupted by the ping of the latest email; and we are now absorbing short bursts of words on Twitter and Facebook more regularly than longer texts.

I refuse to see this trend as a matter of “getting stupider.” Any father who’s been thoroughly humiliated on a video game by his ten year old son understands that it’s not a matter of smarter or dumber but of a shift from one type of intelligence to another. One could as easily argue that those of us who grew up in a low-speed analog world are the ones getting stupider. Twitter still baffles me, for example. Oh, I fully understand how it works. I just fail to understand why on God’s Earth anyone would use it.

Which means, of course, that I am out of the loop–out of the intelligence loop–when it comes to Twitter’s content, to its function as an element of a nervous system, if you will. I haven’t even got a ticket for that Cluetrain.


While I side with Darwin and believe that adaptation to its environment is a species’ greatest survival skill, I also believe that we have a tendency, at least in the U. S., to think that momentum carries us further than is the case. As Timothy Wilson shows in Strangers to Ourselves, when it comes to self-knowledge, we don’t know what we don’t know–but we’re finding out that it’s a whole bunch. So while some of us are Twittering into the future, we are still only a few steps from the cave in much of our unconsciously-driven behavior.

And our environment is not changing that quickly, either. Our culture still has strong roots going back thousands of years. Our institutions go back decades and centuries. And our knowledge is still deeply bound to materials, practices, and skills that cannot be mastered in a few clicks. I wouldn’t be too happy to learn that my surgeon earned his license by surfing through “Cardiology for Dummies.” There is a vast amount of information relevant to our world that offers almost nothing of value to a skimmer. I well remember highlighting sentences in my calculus of variations text in college that were grammatically correct and mathematically valid and utterly incomprehensible to a non-mathematician. I’m not sure I could even understand them now, thirty years later. There is no way to unlock material such as this aside from time and close attention.

What Malcolm Gladwell calls “the 10,000 hour rule” is just the latest rediscovery of something my mother, who grew up caring for ten brothers on a Kansas farm in the Depression used to say: “There’s no substitute for hard work.” Sticking to material that can be read quickly and lightly leaves merely proves the saying that a little learning is a dangerous thing. I heard a defense company executive recount recently that a senior NATO official had complained that a two-page paper the executive had written was “too long.” Relying exclusively on skimming as one’s way of acquiring knowledge is the intellectual equivalent of eating baby food–which is, essentially, pre-chewed food.

Real men chew their own food and real readers roll up their sleeves and dig in. As John Waters put in his recent book, Role Models, “You should never read just for ‘enjoyment.’ Read to make yourself smarter! Less judgmental. More apt to understand your friends’ insane behavior, or better yet, your own. Pick ‘hard books.’ Ones you have to concentrate on while reading.” Or, as Charles Ives one retorted to an audience member who booed a difficult piece of modernist music by Carl Ruggles, “Why can’t you stand up before fine strong music like this and use your ears like a man?”

I actually think we’re remarkably fortunate to be living in a time when both types of knowledge are accessible and relevant. In 1985, if I wanted to do something as simple as book an airline flight to another city, arrange for a rental car, and book a hotel room, I had two choices: ferret out copies of the OAG, a hotel register, Yellow Pages for the town, or some other rare and expensive information source–or turn the problem over to a travel agent. Travel agents had access to these vital resources and the specialist knowledge of how to use them. I probably traveled twenty times on business in 1985: I know just how time consuming and unpredictable this process was. Now, I can complete the same transaction myself in a few minutes and a couple dozen clicks. We are living in a time when both skimming and mining have their uses.

[Henry] Hitchings does agree that the internet is part of the problem. “It accustoms us to new ways of reading and looking and consuming,” Hitchings says, “and it fragments our attention span in a way that’s not ideal if you want to read, for instance, Clarissa.”

I mention this quote just to tell a little anecdote from my undergraduate days. One of the first English literature courses I took was some oddly-titled invention of the professor who taught it, in which the class–all ten of us, I think–worked through just two books in the course of a quarter: Bleak House and Ulysses. We spent over two weeks just parsing our way through one chapter–‘Nausicaa,’ I think. I came away in awe of Joyce’s ability to weave meaning and symbolism into every word of every sentence–and of the professor’s skill in revealing how many layers there were to Joyce’s text. It was one the most intellectually stimulating experiences I’ve ever enjoyed.

About a year later, I mentioned how much I enjoyed the course to Prof. Thomas Lockwood, whose survey course on the 18th century English novel I was taking. “Perhaps we should take a similar approach,” he joked. “I can see it now: ‘Attention, everyone! Let’s turn now to Volume 7, Letter XLIV. “My Dear Mrs. Norton: Had I not fallen into fresh troubles, which disabled me for several days from holding a pen ….” Only two volumes and 248 letters left to go, folks!'”

Yes, I confess I skimmed Clarissa. It was about a guy trying to get into a girl’s pants, as I recall.

“Classics lost and found,” from the Independent

Source: “Classics lost and found: Authors pick the modern classic they would like to revive,” The Independent (UK), 30 July 2010

“According to the poet Ezra Pound, literature is the news that stays news. This spring and summer have seen that old saw cut deep,” writes Boyd Tonkin in the Independent last week. Tonkin cites the remarkable success of Alone in Berlin, a masterpiece about resistance to Nazism written shortly after the end of the war by the German writer Hans Fallada but never before translated into English. Alone in Berlin was an unexpected bestseller, making the UK Top 50 list in the spring of this year. When I was in London this April, copies of the book were stacked on tables at the entry of most of the Waterstones and other bookstores I visited.

Alone in Berlin is the title selected by Penguin for their UK edition of the book. Here in the U. S., it’s published as Every Man Dies Alone by Melville House, and culminates a series begun in 2009 that includes three other novels by Fallada (Little Man, What Now?, The Drinker, and Wolf Among Wolves) and a reissue of Jenny Williams’ 2001 biography, More Lives than One.

“To celebrate the second lives of titles from the past,” The Independent asked about a dozen writers to nominate “a work from the first six decades of this [sic] century (1900-1960) that they would like to see in the bestseller limelight again.” Not all the responses qualify as neglected by any stretch of the imagination. The first item on the list, in fact, nominated by Bernardine Evaristo, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God has achieved the most telling sign of having been accepted as a mainstream classic: it has its own Cliffs Notes. Paul Bailey nominates The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel, but unless my eyes deceive me, those words “National Bestseller” across the top of the Norton paperback edition tells me he already got his wish. Likewise, suggestions that works by Nabokov, Wallace Stevens, or even Henry Green–all of which are in print, readily available, and selling respectably, if Amazon’s numbers are any indication–are holding their own.

I do have to take the mention of Green to veer off topic for a moment and link to one of the neatest things I’ve stumbled across in the last month. Sometime in the last six months, the entire contents of LIFE magazine from 1935 to 1972 have been digitized and archived in Google Book. Among the surprising treats to be found in this goldmine of visual material: “The Double Life of Henry Green,” a nine-page profile of written by Nigel Dennis (himself a fully qualified neglected novelist based on the intermittently-reissued Cards of Identity). The article makes significant use (and fun) of Green’s desire to avoid having his face photographed, and Dennis’ text is lengthy, detailed, and revealing. It’s hard to imagine a major American magazine today devoting so much space to a non-American writer with no significant U. S. sales.

Back to the main topic, though.

Most of the titles proposed, in fact, are in print–not bestsellers, certainly, but still strongly supported by publishers. Thanks to Virago, F. M. Mayor’s The Rector’s Daughter and Elizabeth von Arnim’s Vera are available, as is Josephine Johnston’s 1934 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of Midwestern farm life, Now in November, thanks to the Feminist Press. (I recommend taking a stroll through the “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” display for this last title–it’s like a gallery of a midcentury American middlebrow classics.)

Cover of 'The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones'The only genuinely neglected book on the list–out of print in both U.S. and U.K.–is Charles Neider’s 1956 western novel, The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones, nominated by Clive Sinclair. “You’ve probably never heard of The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones, or its author either,” says Sinclair.

But I suspect you’re more familiar with both than you know. Especially if you’ve seen Marlon Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks, which is Neider’s novel renamed. Among the scriptwriters Brando employed was Sam Peckinpah, who picked Neider’s brains, knowing that Hendry Jones was Billy the Kid in mufti. His version of Billy’s brief life is hailed as his masterpiece. But Neider’s book is better, better than any other book on the subject of men, horses and death, except Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry. Not a far-fetched comparison when you consider that Neider — though American-raised — was Odessa-born.

And, in a short review on Amazon, record producer Russ Titelman writes of the novel,

As far as I’m concerned, it is one of the great unsung American masterpieces on a par with A Death in the Family and So Long, See You Tomorrow. It is spare, poetic and honest. The story is a fictional eye witness account based loosely on the myth of Billy the Kid told by his sidekick. Neider uses language the way a photographer uses light. His descriptions of nature and the way the characters speak are so startlingly truthful that it makes you feel as though you had actually been there. I am haunted by this novel.

In a interview years after One-Eyed Jacks came out, Peckinpah called the movie “a piece of shit.” “You see, Marlon has a big penchant for becoming a ….” He went on to say,

Charles Neider, you know, spent two and a half years in New Mexico to get the true story of Billy the Kid. And finally he gave it up, went to Monterey and in six weeks wrote what he called The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones. It’s a great book. It should be read, and someday the picture should be made. So I was lucky enough at least to write a screenplay of it.

Neider (1915-2001) was a prolific editor, best known for his many collections of works by Mark Twain, particularly the release of The Autobiography of Mark Twain in 1959. He also wrote a number of his own works of nonfiction and fiction in addition to The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones. His last book, about his own struggle with prostate cancer, Adam’s Burden, was published just after his death from the disease.

Graham Greene’s “The Century Library”: Neglected English Fiction Classics

In scanning through W. J. West’s The Quest for Graham Greene, I came across a reference to the Century Library, one of Greene’s initiatives while he was an editor with Eyre and Spottiswoode in the late 1940s. West describes it as “a series reprinting neglected literary masterpieces of the none too distant past; even then literary reputation was evanescent.”

A notice in British Book News from early 1946 set expectations high:

The Century Library, a new series announced by Eyre & Spottiswoode, is planned to do for English fiction of the twentieth century what the World’s Classics and the Everyman Library has done for the classics in general. Each volume will appear in an attractive format and will contain a critical appreciation by a well-known critic or novelist and a full bibliography.

The books were to be listed at a bargain price of five shillings each. The item went on to mention over a dozen prospective titles:

West reproduces an ad from the Spectator that lists two further titles: The Nebuly Coat, by J. Meade Falkner, and The Fifth Queen Trilogy, by Ford Madox Ford. From what I can determine, fifteen books were actually published in the series between 1946 and 1950:

  1. The History of Mr. Polly, by H. G. Wells
  2. The Hole in the Wall, by Arthur Morrison
  3. Dialstone Lane, by W. W. Jacobs
  4. The Green Child, by Herbert Read
  5. The Unbearable Bassington, by “Saki”
  6. Widecombe Fair, by Eden Phillpott
  7. The Wings of the Dove, by Henry James
  8. The First Men in the Moon, by H. G. Wells
  9. Frost in May, by Antonia White
  10. The Hampenshire Wonder, by J. D. Beresford
  11. Israel Rank, by Roy Horniman
  12. The Lost World and The Poison Belt, by Arthur Conan Doyle
  13. If there was a #13 in the series, I have been unable to identify it.
  14. Raffles, The Amateur Cracksman, by E. W. Hornung
  15. The Thief in the Night and Other Stories, by E. W. Hornung
  16. Saturday Night at the Greyhound, by John Hampson

It appears that the venture ended in 1950 due to a combination of factors: poor sales, problems with the supply of paper, and Greene’s departure from the firm.

While a number of books in the series–The Wings of the Dove and H. G. Wells’–are now solidly fixed in the literary canon, there are a fair number of titles likely to pique the interest of fans of neglected books:

The Century Library edition of 'Dialstone Lane,' by W. W. Jacobs
The Century Library edition of 'Dialstone Lane,' by W. W. Jacobs

Dialstone Lane, by W. W. Jacobs

Jacobs is best known for that mainstay of middle school English, “The Monkey’s Paw,” but his many stories of sailing and London dockside life have long been highly regarded as works of craft, if not art. Luckily, the text of Dialstone Lane is available free online from Project Gutenberg. Henry Reed’s introduction is also available at The Naming of Parts, a website devoted to Reed’s poetry and other writings.

Widecombe Fair, by Eden Phillpott

In his introduction, L. A. G. Strong (himself a writer whose works are now neglected) wrote, “I am delighted to see Widecombe Fair once more reprinted. It is an important book in the history of the English country novel, for it proves that one can be unsentimental and true to sight and sound….”

The Hampenshire Wonder, by J. D. Beresford

Greene cited Beresford as one of his earliest influences and considered this novel, a fantasy about a superman figure, one of the unjustly neglected classics of the Edwardian era. In his survey of science fiction, critic E. F. Bleiler called it, “The first important novel about a superman, and in many respects still the best.”

Israel Rank, by Roy Horniman

This satire is best known as the source for Alec Guinness’ tour de force comedy, “Kind Hearts and Coronets.” Long out of print, it’s now easily available thank to John Seaton’s terrific Faber Finds series of reprints.

Antigua, Penny, Puce, by Robert Graves

A comic novel of sibling rivalry over a rare stamp referred to in the title. Now back in print, packaged with Graves’ 1957 novel based on the trial of Doctor William Harper, They Hanged My Saintly Billy, thanks to Carcanet Press.

The Position of Peggy Harper, by Leonard Merrick

As far back as 1928, one critic wrote of Merrick, “For twenty-five years, Merrick has continued in the anomalous position of finding himself lauded for every eminent quality that builds the writer’s craft into an art, without attaining popularity. While planning the Century Library series, Greene asked George Orwell to write an introduction to one of Merrick’s works. Orwell reportedly replied, “I’d jump at it,” and suggested The Position of Peggy Harper. Although the book was never published, a victim of the series’ troubles, Orwell’s introduction can be found in In Front of Your Nose, 1945-1950 (Collected Essays Journalism and Letters of George Orwell).

A Waif’s Progress, by Rhoda Broughton

A novelist and short story writer now seen as a pioneering feminist, Broughton’s work still awaits serious rediscovery. As her entry in Wikipedia puts it, “Today most of her works are out of print and even the original ones are very hard to come by. Especially those published after 1900 are very hard to procure.” A Waif’s Progress tells the story of Camilla Tancred, who manages to make the most for herself despite an inheritance of “drink on both sides, immorality on both sides, selfishness on both sides, extravagance and folly on both sides.”

The Case of Bevan Yorke, by W. B. Maxwell

Bevan Yorke is a story about the break-up of an Egyptologist’s marriage over his love for a younger woman. One contemporary wrote when the book was first published in 1927, “Captain Maxwell’s work is extremely well written. He has that happy quality of making his reader feel just what he wants him to feel and he accomplishes this without every becoming loquacious. He does not employ a legion of adjectives to describe an emotion. One well selected word suffices.” Compared to more than a few novels from the period, when the lean prose of Hemingway was just starting to take hold, this is a pretty high compliment. Another contemporary critic, Patrick Braybrooke, said of Maxwell, “It has often been said that simplicity is akin to greatness, not that they are interchangeable. Maxwell is both simple and great and the combinaiton have produced a novelist who is a brilliant artist and a sincere realist. Although he’s managed to earn a mention in Wikipedia, virtually his entire oeuvre is long out of print.

A Dozen Neglected Titles from Mencken’s reviews for “The American Mercury”

I came across a synopsis of H. L. Mencken’s literary criticism from the ten years he wrote and edited The American Mercury with George Jean Nathan. Mencken was one of the magazine’s regular book reviewers, publishing at least one review in each issue. In total, he reviewed eighty-nine works by fifty-eight different authors. Many of the authors–Sherwood Anderson, Theodore Dreiser, Ernest Hemingway–are still familiar and widely read today. But at least a dozen that received his enthusiastic praise have slipped away into obscurity:

The White Robe, by James Branch Cabell

Cabell “… has never done a better piece of work.” Mencken went on to write that, “No man writing in America today has a more strongly individualized, or, on the whole, a more charming style.”

Stuffed Peacocks, by Emily Clark

Mencken wrote that Clark displayed “… plain signs of a fine talent,” and that her characters had “brilliant color, fine insight, and a sort of hard, scientific mercilessness.”

Harvest in Poland, by Geoffrey Dennis

He called Dennis, “[A] story-teller of unusual talent, with a great deal of originality.” The novel was an “… impossible story told in terms of the most meticulous realism.” Mencken praised Dennis’ style with an adjective that probably says less to today’s readers than to his: “His prose has a Carlylean thunder in it; he knows how to roll up gorgeous sentences.”

Backfurrow, by G. D. Eaton

Mencken felt, “There is not much finesse in the story, but it is moving.” But he went on to say that, “Few first novels show so much seriousness or so much skill.”

The Keen Desire, by Frank B. Elser

Mencken found it, “…immensely better than any of its predecessors,” and that Elser had a “sensitive feeling for character,” depicting his protagonist “… with great insight and unfailing skill.”

Wolf Song, by Harvey Fergusson

“[An] extraordinarily brilliant and charming story,” he wrote.”The Old South-west is made to palpitate with such light and heat that they are felt almost physically, and the people that gallop across the scene are full of the juices of life.”

Roundabout, by Nancy Hoyt

“It is a tale of calf love—-not done with superior snickers, but seriously and even a bit tragically.”

A Hind Let Loose, by C. E. Montague

Mencken declared it “satire in the grand manner,” satire managed “superbly.” The work was a “charming and uproarious piece of buffoonery, carried on with the utmost dexterity from start to finish.”

Pig Iron, by Charles G. Norris

Mencken read it, “… with immense interest, and enjoyed it … unflaggingly.” He argued that Norris’s novels “have received a great deal less critical attention than they deserve.”

Rainbow Round My Shoulder, by Howard W. Odum

A “… work of art that lives and glows,” a “story of extraordinary fascination,” and one “managed with the utmost skill.” The book inspired him to summon up the names of the two finest American writers of the 19th century: “Walt Whitman would have wallowed in it, and I suspect that Mark Twain would have been deeply stirred by it too.”

Spring Flight, by Lee J. Smits

Mencken wrote that he could not “recall a first novel of more workmanlike dignity. There is absolutely no touch of amateurishness in it … It would be absurd to say that it shows merely promise.” The writer had handled his “machinery … in an extremely dexterous manner” in producing “an extraordinarily sound and competent piece of work.”

Iowa Interiors, by Ruth Suckow

“Who … has ever published a better first book of short stories than this one? Of its sixteen … , not one is bad—-and among the best there are at least five masterpieces.” The characters were “overwhelmingly real, and not a word can be spared.”

Jo Walton Stirs Up a Hefty List of Neglected SF/Fantasy Authors and Books

Source: “Neglected Books: the list,” at

SF novelist Jo Walton put out a call for recommendations of “authors that should be getting the sales and the attention and yet remain obscure” on the SF/fantasy website, Tor. It generated a tremendous number of responses, which she’s compiled into a list organized into four categories:

  • Books and authors Jo’s reviewed elsewhere on Tor (with links to her reviews)
  • Books and authors she’s read but not reviewed
  • Books and authors she hasn’t read
  • Books and authors that are well known and shouldn’t be on this list

Cover of early U.S. paperback edition of 'Children of the Atom'The last shows that Walton’s kept a discriminating filter on her list. Of Steig Larson’s novels, which someone nominated, she writes, “These are a stupendously successful non-genre best sellers. The opposite of obscure.” I’ve seen them on the end caps of airport bookstores in Belgium, Spain, the U.K., and the U.S. in the last two months: definitely NOT neglected.

On the other hand, she notes, “Other times I was surprised to find an author I’d never even vaguely heard of who published several books. I read a lot, and I’ve spent a lot of time online and in conventions hanging out talking about books.” Two authors in particular she cites are Wilmar Shiras and Wilhemina Baird.

Shiras’ short story, “In Hiding,” is considered one of the best SF short stories of the 20th century. She later incorporated it into her 1953 novel, Children of the Atom. Children, which was something of a precursor to the X-Men series, is back in print in a fine facsimile edition from Red Jacket Press, although cheaper copies of several different paperback editions can be found on Amazon.

Baird is the pen name of Joyce Carstairs Hutchinson, a Scottish woman who quickly turned out four “cyberpunk” novels in the mid-1990s and then stopped–at least for the moment–publishing. Her first book, Crashcourse anticipated the rise of reality TV.

“The Best Books You Haven’t Read,” from The American Conservative

Source: “The Best Books You Haven’t Read,” from The American Conservative, 1 December 2009 issue (

Kevin Michael Derby passed along the link to this article, in which 15 conservative writers, critics, and academics offer their nominations of worthy books their readers have probably overlooked. As seems to be typical of such efforts, there are intriguingly novel titles–and a few that leave any true fan of neglected books wondering if the nominator’s sole criterion is that the book’s not currently on an end cap display at Waldenbooks. How else could Jeffrey Hart suggest that Winesburg, Ohio is underappreciated?

Some of the more interesting titles and comments from the article:

Nemesis of Power: The German Army in Politics 1918-1945, 2nd Edition, by John Wheeler-Bennett

Nominated by Jacob Heilbrunn, author of They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons and a senior editor at The National Interest: “No doubt it’s been superseded in many areas by the latest scholarship. But what Wheeler-Bennett possesses, in contrast to many of his successors, is the ability to transform the corruption of the army by the Nazis into a beautifully written, tense drama, complete with majestic and convincing judgments about the individuals who speeded or tried to resist Germany’s descent into totalitarianism… Once opened, Wheeler-Bennett’s massive history is almost impossible to put down.”

Roger’s Profanisaurus, from the pages of Viz magazine

Nominated by Alexander Waugh, grandson of Evelyn and author of Fathers and Sons: The Autobiography of a Family and The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War. “The Profanisaurus is essentially a dictionary of filthy words and idioms compiled with so much cleverness, wit, and complicated cross-referencing that the reader who consults it for one definition finds himself browsing indefinitely. Profanisaurus brings tears to my eyes and is honestly the funniest, most enlightening, and most enlightened book I know.” Viz, which makes Mad magazine look prim, is the most successful humor magazine in the U. K. (a sample from a recent issue: “A Kettering Man’s Appeal to Space Aliens: ‘Please Leave My Arse Alone!'”). Which is one reason why this volume is probably most often found in the one-seater library. U. K. readers may be happy to learn that a paperback version of the book has recently been released with the title, Magna Farta.

The American Beaver and His Works, by Lewis Henry Morgan

Nominated by Peter W. Wood, author of A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now. “It is what it sounds like: detailed observations on a bucktoothed rodent that devotes itself to hydraulic engineering. The writing is anything but fanciful. Morgan was a serious man with a scientific purpose. But his book grows and grows from mere external characteristics of beavers to a fugue on beaver dams and lodges, culminating in a chapter on ‘manifestations of the animal mind.’ He ultimately sees the beaver not just as a creature of instinct but as a ‘reasoning’ animal.” You can purchase this book from several print-on-demand houses, but why not just download it yourself from the Internet Archive?

The London Dialogues, by David Hirst

Nominated by Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, former editor of the Sunday Telegraph. Easily the rarest title on the list–unavailable from anyone but the author (David Hirst, 24 Kidmore Road, Caversham, Reading, Berkshire, RG4 7LU, England). “About 30 years ago, I gave a rave review to a book called The London Dialogues, which, in spite of most profoundly and originally addressing all the important issues of this or any other age—love, property, beauty, art, science, sex, equality, populism, race—has scarcely been read at all. The trouble is that the author, David Hirst, did not so much contradict all the current intellectual fashions as rise above them, or rather look down upon them. The effect on me was like breathing fresh air—immensely bracing and refreshing if shockingly politically incorrect.” I’m assuming this is the same David Hirst who once wrote for the Guardian and published one of the best-regarded books on the politics of the Middle East, The Gun and the Olive Branch: The Roots of Violence in the Middle East.

A few unusual items on John Cowper Powys’ List of 100 Best Novels

Obooki’s Obloquy recently published the list of titles from a 1916 book, One Hundred Best Books by the sometimes-neglected British novelist, John Cowper Powys. While many of the titles are tried and true standards of the canon–Pride and Prejudice, Faust, Leaves of Grass–there are a number that reflect the tendency of some works to get buried under the shifting sands of taste. So here, for those who might be interested in rediscovering them, are a few notes on the lesser-known items in Powys’ list.

• Sanine [also published as Sanin], by Mikhail Artsybashev

Sanin is a thoroughly uncomfortable book, but it has a fierce energy which has carried it in a very short space of time into almost every country in Europe,” wrote Gilbert Cannan in his preface to the English translation of this book. “In Vladimir Sanine,” he continues, “Artsybashev has imagined, postulated, a man who has escaped the tyranny of society, is content to take his living where he finds it, and determined to accept whatever life has to offer of joy or sorrow.” In other words, a turn-of-the-century Russian take on the old hippy motto, “If it feels good, do it.” A new English translation by Michael Katz was published in 2001 by the Cornell University Press, which wrote that Artsybashev’s novels are “suffused with themes of sex, suicide, and murder.” Also available free from Project Gutenberg.

The Disciple, by Paul Bourget

The Disciple is narrated by Robert Greslou, a private tutor and disciple of the renowned philosopher, Sixte. Based on a true story involving a young disciple of Bourget’s, it centers around an aborted double suicide–aborted by Greslou, after his lover has already taken the plunge. Greslou claims it was all inspired by Sixte’s theories. Contrary to prevailing attitudes today about the teacher-student relationship, Bourget lays most of the blame with Greslou rather than the influence of his mentor.

Round the Corner, by Gilbert Cannan

Subtitled, “Being the Life and Death of Francis Christopher Folyat, Bachelor of Divinity, and Father of a Large Family,” this novel is, in the words of one contemporary review, “The story of the depressing fortunes of an English clergyman and his eight children, for whom happiness seems ‘just round the corner’ and out of reach.” It was also banned by the London censor, mainly for showing the clergy in such grim light. Canan’s first novel had the intriguing title of Peter Homunculus. It can be read online or downloaded in PDF format at the Internet Archive.

The Flame of Life and The Triumph of Death, by Gabriele D’Annunzio

D’Annunzio’s literary reputation has taken a nose dive since Powys’ time. His becoming best buddy and court poet to Mussolini had a little to do with it. That and D’Annunzio’s own super-sized ego. His estate and mausoleum on the hillside above Lake Garda, Il Vittoriale, is a treasure trove of Art Deco and self-glorification, not to be missed if you’re in the area. The Encyclopedia Britannica (1911) describes one of his protagonists as “viciously self-seeking and wholly amoral Nietzschean,” but this could just as easily describe D’Annunzio himself. Like is too short for dreck like this. Probably justly neglected. I quoted a long and funny passage from “Lust and Leprosy,” Rudolph Altrocchi’s essay on one of D’Annunzio’s plays, elsewhere on this site.

A Night in The Luxembourg, by Remy de Gourmont

When Night was first issued in English translation in 1912, the New York Times called de Gourmont “one of the most extraordinary and significant minds putting thought into print in the world to-day.” This short novel, full of atmosphere and symbolism, is said to have been a major influence on Lawrence Durrell when he started planning his Alexandria Quartet.

The Song of Songs, by Hermann Sudermann

Another tale of a cad letting down a lover–this time, for the comfort and prestige of a marriage to a member of Berlin high society. It was made into a film in 1933, one of Marlene Dietrich’s early American films. In his time, Sudermann was better known as a playwright, but now he isn’t known at all. Thomas Hardy had little enthusiasm for the book’s first English translation: “… unfortunately, rendered into the rawest American, the claims that the original no doubt had to be considered literature, are largely reduced, so that I question if there is value enough left in this particular translation to make a stand for.”’s Most Wanted Out-of-Print Books of the Last Year


From’s annual report of their most-requested titles from searches made from July 2008 to June 2009. A real mix of the obscure, the intriguing, and the utterly uninteresting (Mailer’s “Marilyn”–gimme a break!).

A couple of the more interesting samples:

And I’d Do It Again, by Aimee Crocker

The memoir of an heiress to the San Francisco Crocker fortune, published in 1936. Written–according to Time magazine’s review–“with a lurid, Sunday-supplement archness,” it takes the reader to Asia, India, Germany, and Spain, with love affairs at each stop. ‘The impressionable young lady then returned to San Francisco, married, was almost killed in a train wreck on her honeymoon, got a divorce, hired a 70-ft. schooner and set out for the South Seas, scandalizing the missionaries in Hawaii on the way by taking part in an “orgy,” the precise details of which she does not disclose,’ Time’s reviewer continued. And that’s just the first decade or so!

Ticket to Ride, by Dennis Potter

A critically acclaimed novel from 1987. I was astonished to find it out of print in both the U. S. and the U. K., given Potter’s reputation and popular success for The Singing Detective, but even more astonished to find that–at least at first glance–ALL of Potter’s titles are out of print in the U. S. and less than a handful in print in the U. K.!

The King Ranch, by Tom Lea

Lea, a fine novelist, painter, and illustrator, wrote this official history of the legendary Texas ranch in 1957. Issued in a two-volume boxed set illustrated by Lea himself, this is a fine piece of book publishing. But it turns out that it’s not out of print–you can purchase a commemorative reissue published on the book’s 50th anniversary from the King Ranch Saddle Shop.

On the other hand, I will pass on the Associated Press’ hagiographic tribute to JFK, A Torch is Passed: my Grammy sent me a copy back in 1964.

Robert Birnbaum Picks Some Recent Under-Appreciated Novels

Source: “Under-Appreciated Novels,”, 11 August 2009

Robert Birnbaum, The Morning News’ book blogger, recently decided to engage in some of “the anguished hand-wringing that accompanies intoning the cruelty and myopia of the rest of the barbarous world in failing to recognize the brilliance of that which we (meaning I) deem to be genius.” His list of works deserving more recognition and respect than they’ve earned so far has only one unifying criterion: “[T]hey were all read in this century.”

Birnbaum’s list leans heavily to products of this century, too: Don Winslow’s rich novel of drugs and crime, The Power of the Dog, from 2005; Tim Gautreaux’s bayou novel, The Clearing from 2003; Joseph O’Connor’s multi-faceted story of the post-Civil War West, Redemption Falls, from 2007.

But a few fall to the far side of the bell curve: Philip Kerr’s futuristic A Philosophical Investigation dates from 1993, and The Criminalist, the last work published by Eugene Izzi, a Chicago crime novelist, before his suicide, from 1999.

For me, the most intriguing item on the list is Michael Doane’s 1994 novel, Bullet Heart. Chris Goodrich of the L. A. Times had some pretty enthusiastic things to say when the book first came out:

Truth is better captured by fiction, we’re often told, than by purely factual accounts; tied not to external events but to feelings and impressions and ineluctable human character, fiction supposedly brings to life what nonfiction paints by number. Well, here’s one case where the analogy actually works, for in Bullet Heart, Michael Doane Cover of first U.S. edition of 'Bullet Heart'tells the story of a confrontation between whites and Native Americans to which neither journalism nor scholarship could possibly do justice. The novel takes place in South Dakota in the 1970s, when local developers start the short-lived Bones War while building a golf course on an ancient burial ground. The American Indian Movement is at its height, government authorities feel under constant siege, the U.S. appears on the verge of living up to its ideals or of falling flat on its face; Michael Doane uses this real-life civil strife to illuminate the individual troubles, and principles, such rebelliousness brings to the fore…. Bullet Heart, Doane’s fifth novel, may be too thoughtful and too well-written to make headlines, but in its own quiet way it’s a literary milestone.

A couple of Doane’s books are still in print–sort of. In the Path of the Whirlwind is print but “out of stock’. His 1990 novel, Six Miles To Roadside Business is available now–until Amazon sells the one copy they have left. Several of Doane’s works, including Bullet Heart, Six Miles, and The Surprise of Burning garnered 5-star reviews from Amazon readers, so there’s got to be something there worth a look.

Isabel Paterson on “If It Prove Fair Weather”, from September 1939

Cover of the 7 September 1940 issue of 'The Saturday Review'Thumbing through issues of The Saturday Review while in the U.S. this summer, I came across an interesting item. A review by George Dangerfield of Isabel Paterson’s last novel, If It Prove Fair Weather, which I featured here a few months ago, was juxtapositioned with a piece about the book by Paterson herself: “As the Author Sees It.”

In my continuing interest in advancing the cause of Paterson’s fiction, I’m taking the liberty of ignoring whatever copyright may or may not still apply and reprint the piece here in its entirety:

What this country needs is a good stiff course in ethics and moral theology. Why I think so is because I have written a novel–If It Prove Fair Weather. To understand the question fully you might have to read the book; but that does not worry me. The main point is, those who have done so, with advance copies, are almost unanimously severe on the man in the story (his name is Wishart). It is a love story. Especially the men readers seem to feel–well, I don’t know what. He makes them mad. There is an unmistakable implication that they would have behaved far otherwise, in his position.

Portrait of Isabel Paterson from 1939Possibly so; and it may be my fault that they don’t seem to notice there was no way for him to behave well. He had only a choice of behaving badly in different ways. What I mean is that like is like that. Many of the most admired moral examples really will not stand close and logical examination. It is so in the nature of things. Human beings are inevitably in an appalling predicament between their emotions and their obligations; the two elements are not even conveniently distinct, but inextricably snarled in a cat’s-cradle. And the more you try to untable it the worse it becomes.

I admit, of course, that Wishart is not wholly admirable. He is a man. He is an upright citizen, with a business and a family; and he becomes interested in a woman not his wife. This is ethically reprehensible, if you allow any ethical standards whatever. I speak seriously. What is more, you’ve got to have ethics. (At present, some countries are saying that you don’t have to, but the results are not entirely satisfactory). Then ethics apparently tell you that you must, if necessary, be completely insensible, incapable of being interested or of wanting personal satisfactions. That is a very hard saying, surely. Shade it a bit, and say rather that it is your duty to repress and restrain such feelings if they go beyond the boundaries of previously established obligation. That sounds very lofty; but it may still be at the expense of another person, or even two other persons. It is not so nice to be the recipient of duty either.

This is extremely obvious, and twenty years ago was thought to be a complete answer. It was then affirmed to be a higher duty to discard the inconvenient obligations and go ahead on the new path. Now one may see what comes of that. A trail of wreckage. It doesn’t work even as well as sticking to the old line.

But let us imagine duty as the constant lodestar from the beginning. All of us have favorite characters; one of mine is Sir Thomas More. He took and held a straight course. Deeply religious, with a strong intellect and character, and scholarly tastes, as a young man he thought of entering a monastic order. But as he was also robust and of an affectionate nature, he feared he had not the authentic vocation, and decided it was better to be a good layman than a sinful cleric. So he married and was a faithful and kind husband and father, all his days.

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'If It Prove Fair Weather'He married twice. The first time, he was undecided between two sisters. His personal preference was for the younger and prettier of the two; one may assume he was in love with her. But out of sheer altruism, he felt it would be invidious to leave the elder and plainer sister slighted. So he married the elder. It is not known whether the younger was in love with him. She might have been. He was a man of charm, wit, and general attractiveness. And if the younger girl was in love with him, I can’t make up my mind–I am very fond of him–which of the two girls had the best right to murder him on the spot. Both of them, in my opinion, had every right to do so. He had injured the girl he loved and insulted the one he married.

Nobody but me has ever noticed that, so far as I know. He is always held up as a model of masculine virtue. I guess he was. That’s what I’m talking about…. In later life, he became a widower, and married again, a woman he didn’t like much, to be a mother to his orphaned children. She should have killed him too, if she cared for him. Otherwise, I suppose it was all right. He was one of the best men that ever lived, so he only needed to be murdered three times by justly infuriated females, if he had got his desserts. He is highly praised by men. Though of course a less worthy man would have married the pretty sister, and then maybe fallen for a more attractive woman later.

Women are annoyed at Wishart. They have reason. Still, women also might examine the premises. That masculine line, “loved I not honor more,” has always filled women with silent rage. Because they can’t answer it. A woman friend of mine says that, reading the book, she hated every hair of Wishart’s head. She ought to. She is married to a delightful and honorable man, a sea-captain. I can’t think what she would answer if compelled to decide whether her husband, in the course of his vocation, ought to go down on the bridge as the rules prescribe, and never mind about her; or should he leap into the first lifeboat and save himself for her sweet sake. The fact is, in such contingency, when a woman might have to think whether her husband must put his duty or herself first, she really believes he ought to do both, and could if he put his mind to it. That’s where there is no other woman in question at all. In case another woman deflects his thoughts from her, she isn’t going to debate the matter for a moment. She will merely scalp him and boil him in oil, and see how he likes it.

[Published in The Saturday Review, September 7, 1940.–Ed.]

Now, if that isn’t one of the most astute and amusing things ever written on the subject of men and women, I’ll eat my hat. The world is long overdue for a Portable Isabel Paterson with a collection of her Herald Tribune columns, Never Ask the End, and excerpts from The Golden Vanity and Fair Weather. Her libertarian tracts can fend for themselves.

Cheever’s Neglected Friends and Neighbors

I recently finished listening to the audio book of Blake Bailey’s Cheever: A Life. Although I can’t imagine anyone finishing it and then thinking, “You know, I want to know even more about John Cheever,” it’s a remarkable work.

While Cheever often thought himself an unjustly neglected writer, he now stands in the pantheon compared with others he met, befriended, lived near, and/or slept with.

Ivan Gold

Ivan Gold, 1963Gold lived in the same apartment building during one of the worst periods of Cheever’s life, when he was drinking himself to death during a teaching gig at Boston University. Gold, whose drinking problems were slightly more manageable than Cheever’s, had released a short story collection, Nickel Miseries back in 1963. Lionel Trilling praised it as “a masterly collection” and predicted that Gold would become “one of the commanding writers of our time.” Instead, he became overwhelmed by such expectations. He wrote one novel, Sick Friends, that did get published in 1969, but then struggled with alcoholism until he joined AA in 1976. Sobriety did not solve his writer’s block, though, and Gold only published one more book, Sams in a Dry Season, in 1992. Sams picked up the protagonist of Sick Friends, a writer named Jason Sams, and took him and the reader through the slow, difficult process of drying out and learning to live without booze–a process very much based on Gold’s own experiences. Philip Roth praised it as, “a brave, open book, harsh, dogged, and relentless, a confession bursting through the contours of a novel, convincingly truthful and inventively written.” Gold died in early 2008.

Calvin Kentfield

Cover of paperback edition of 'All Men Are Mariners'Cheever met Kentfield during a stay in Hollywood in 1959 and the two men had a brief, intense affair that left Cheever paranoid about his homosexual feelings. Kentfield was a former Merchant Marine sailor whose most successful novel, All Men are Mariners, was published to strong reviews (“… [A] brilliant story told by a first-rate storyteller”) a few years later. But he also had his problems with drink, as well with money and a stormy-tempered wife. He managed to publish a few more stories in the New Yorker after that, but aside from a coffee table book about the Pacific Coast, his only other serious work after All Men are Mariners was his 1974 memoir of life as a merchant seaman, The Great Green. I tried reading it about a year ago but gave up after 50-some pages of self-indulgent, meandering prose. Kentfield died under suspicious circumstances in 1975. It was ruled a suicide, but Cheever claimed that Kentfield’s wife was responsible.

Edward Newhouse

First U.S. editon of 'Many Are Called'Newhouse, who was born in Hungary, started out as a radical novelist whose 1934 novel about the down-and-out, You Can’t Sleep Here, earned him the label, “the proletarian Hemingway.” But Newhouse quickly developed a much subtler sense of things and by the time he and Cheever met and their families shared an apartment house during World War Two, he was on a par with Cheever as one of the New Yorker’s most prolific short story writers. Although out of print for over 50 years now, Newhouse’s 1951 collection, Many Are Called, was considered at the time to be as good as Cheever’s breakthrough collection, The Enormous Radio. Cheever, however, considered Newhouse a sell-out, particularly for his 1954 novel, The Temptation of Roger Herriott, which he thought written expressly for the purpose of selling the story to Hollywood. Other critics had a much different opinion, calling it “one of the really good books of this or any other year” and “a novel of quiet and great distinction.” Newhouse did, in fact, sell a number of stories to Hollywood studios, but he had the wisdom and luck to invest the proceeds in a series of stock purchases that left him very comfortable, probably one of Cheever’s wealthiest friends. He stopped writing and lived off his investments until he died at the ripe age of 91 in 2002, once again illustrating the saying that living well is the best revenge.

Head Butler Serves Up Michael J. Arlen’s Exiles

Cover of U.S. paperback edition of 'Exiles'Head Butler, AKA New York City writer and editor Jesse Kornbluth, took a moment from featuring books, movies, music, and other products of today to recognize the merits of Michael J. Arlen’s 1970 memoir of his parents, Exiles: “a book so astonishingly well-written you won’t believe it’s out of print and can be bought, used, for as little as a penny.”

Arlen’s father, Michael Arlen, was one of the most famous and best-selling authors of the 1920s–as well known or better than Fitzgerald back then. Arlen’s most popular novels, The Green Hat
(now reissued by Capuchin Classics). As Mark Valentine summarizes the book in a fine article on the Lost Book Club website,

The novel was quite simply the novel of the year, seized upon as the poetically true testament to a brilliant, daring and doomed generation. The owner of the green hat is Iris Storm, whose wild pursuit of pleasure in the parties, masquerades, night clubs and restaurants of London and Paris has led to her reputation as a ‘shameless, shameful’ woman: but paradoxically there is some calm reserve in her which seems to imply a secret inner grace. The melodramatic narrative, written in what one critic called an ‘opium dream style’, sonorous with exotic and cosmic images, may only draw a wry smile today. The heroine’s first husband, clean-cut ‘Boy’ Fenwick, commits suicide on their wedding night by throwing himself out of their bedroom window. She allows it to be assumed he did this because of something he learned about her, and her reckless career serves to support this view. But an ardent admirer reveals at last the truth to her friends and Fenwick’s family: that her husband had syphilis and she has sacrificed her reputation to protect his good name. Furious at this betrayal of the ‘one fine thing’ in her life, Iris rushes off in her sleek yellow Hispano-Suiza car and is killed in a collision with a great ancient tree, her rakish green hat floating free beyond the flames.

But Michael Arlen the successful novelist, hob-nobber with the likes of Maugham, Churchill, Nancy Astor, and Sam Goldwyn, was something of a chameleon. Born Dikran Kouyoumdjian, he was one of hundreds of thousands of exiles from the Turkish campaigns against Armenians at the end of World War One, the story Franz Werfel tells in his epic, Forty Days of Musa Dagh (also out of print). After his bright successes of the 1920s, however, Arlen quickly fell in the eyes of both the reading public and the critics. By the end of the 1930s, he was completely blocked, and he spent much of the remaining thirty years of his life depressed and isolated.

Exiles was the first of two books Michael J. Arlen wrote about the Armenian genocide. His 1976 travel book/memoir, Passage to Ararat won the National Book Award for that year and is still in print.

Arlen (the son) worked for the New Yorker as a television critic for many years, and two collections of his articles, Living Room War, which was, in part, about news coverage of the Vietnam War, and The View from Highway 1, are back in print from the Syracuse University Press. Thirty Seconds, a 1981 book-length expansion of an article about the making of an AT&T long distance ad, is one of the best and funniest pieces of television criticism ever written and well worth seeking out for a quick evening’s read.

In looking into the works of Arlen (fis), I learned that he had made a stab at novel-writing in 1984, Goodbye to Sam. Although most reviews dismissed the book as “slight” and “less than fully successful,” Time‘s reviewer did comment, “… with much of its detail is so close to Arlen’s life that it is tempting to read the book as therapy or revenge. But it works, elegiacally and sometimes forcefully, as fiction.”

Joseph Epstein on I. J. Singer’s The Brothers Ashkenazi

Cover of first U.S. Edition of 'The Brothers Ashkenazi'The Wall Street Journal published one of the very few, I’m sure, pieces in its history devoted to an out-of-print and neglected book recently. Titled “A Yiddish Novel With Tolstoyan Sweep,” the piece, by Joseph Epstein, describes the novel by the brother of the more famous Isaac Bashevis Singer, as “the best Russian novel ever written in Yiddish.” Epstein, former editor of the American Scholar and one of the best essayists of the last forty years, calls The Brothers Ashkenazi I. J. Singer’s best-known work–which tells you how well the rest of his oeuvre is faring these days. Depicting the contrasting careers of two Jewish brothers attempting to get ahead in the Russian Pale of Settlement before the First World War. It ends with a horrific pogrom that leaves the city of Lodz, in Singer’s words, “like a limb torn from a body that no longer sustained it. It quivered momentarily in its death throes as maggots crawled over it, draining its remaining juices.” Such, he leads us to believe, is the fate of a city that “knew that with money you could buy anything.”

Although Singer’s characters do not find the same solace in religion as many in his brother’s works do, the novel is not all bleakness and despair. Still, Epstein credits I. J. Singer for foregoing “a happy ending to render instead a just one.” One hopes this long-out-of-print novel finds some interest among today’s publishers through this rare mention of a neglected book in such a prominent outlet as the Wall Street Journal.

A much earlier piece from Commentary magazine by Dorothy Rabinowitz, about Singer’s 1943 novel, The Family Carnovsky, can be found on the Featured Books section of this site.

Tributes to Two Neglected Gay Writers: George Baxt and Irving Rosenthal

George Baxt

Brooks Peters, who writes some of the most interesting and thoughtful pieces on literary, celebrity, and cultural figures of the past, recently posted a a href=”″>long review of the diverse career and works of George Baxt. Although Baxt worked in theater, film, television, magazines, and just about every other medium requiring written words, he will probably be best remembered as the creator of a pioneering series of mysteries featuring the first openly gay detective, Pharoah Love, starting with A Queer Kind of Death in 1966. Baxt also wrote a popular series of mysteries based on celebrities from the 1930s, including The Dorothy Parker Murder Case and The Mae West Murder Case, in the 1980s and early 1990s. Brooks quotes from Wendy Werris’ memoir, An Alphabetical Life, who recalls Baxt as,

If you can imagine a swish, fey and girlish Phil Silvers, you’ll have a picture of George Baxt. He was hilarious and irreverent. He batted his eyelashes to make a point when telling a dirty joke. His Brooklyn accent was delicious, and he had stories to tell about every great star from the Golden Age of Hollywood and beyond. You never heard dirt dished until you heard it from the mouth of George Baxt.

Irving Rosenthal

Earlier this year, Dennis Cooper reposted an article from a previous blog on Irving Rosenthal, whose 1967 novel/memoir/cut-up assemblage, Sheeper, was one of the most outrageous and unashamed celebrations of gay life to emerge from the Sixties’ wave of sexual liberation. Although Sheeper is currently out of print, its name often pops up in discussions of favorite forgotten books.

Afterwords on a few neglected books, from BookSlut


Michael Antman passed along links to a short series of articles he wrote for back in 2006. Titled “Afterwords,” the series focussed on “… some unfairly neglected books of the past century that may not survive much longer in this one.”

Unfortunately, only 5 articles were posted, and even these can only be located by searching for Antman’s contributions to the site. But the essays are eloquent, personal, and insightful, and well worth savoring.

The titles he covered were:

· All the Little Live Things, by Wallace Stegner

“… one of those novels that, from the standpoint of the official arbiters of culture, has very little to recommend it except for its near perfection.”

· The Collected Poems of Conrad Aiken

“But it is sometimes hard to remember that not very long ago, poetry was, if nothing else (and, admittedly, sometimes there was nothing else) a pleasure to read in an almost physical, sensuous way, in the rush and the rhythm of its words. And there were few poets in the twentieth century more purely pleasurable to read in this regard than Conrad Aiken, who possessed a quality of musicality not only greater than any current poets but greater, I think, than nearly any of his contemporaries.”

· The Log from the Sea of Cortez, by John Steinbeck

“… Steinbeck took the world on its own terms then, as he would do if he were alive and writing today…. And it is this clear-eyed view of the world in both its fecundity and its ongoing destruction that makes Steinbeck’s worksuch an absorbing account of a time long past. In an age when ocean-dwelling, and for that matter, land-dwelling, creatures are being depleted at an ever-increasing rate, Log from the Sea of Cortez remains an enriching and indelible document.”

· The Night Country, by Loren Eiseley

“Read The Night Country for its beautiful prose and its scientist’s eye. But read it, as well, for its calm assurance that we are part of something much bigger than us, that we cannot know the future with absolute certainty, and that we should proceed with a little less dread of what unknown or self-created terrors may some day desecrate “the very heart of the human kingdom,” and with a little more open-mindedness and, perhaps, playfulness even as we walk into the uncertain dark.”

· The Power of the Dog, by Thomas Savage

“… when a novel succeeds (as Anna Karenina of course does) in creating a character that at least begins to approach the unfathomable complexity of an actual flesh-and-blood human, we consider it to be at least in some degree a great work….

By that measure, Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel The Power of the Dog, set on a Montana ranch some time in the 1920s, is a great, and greatly neglected, work of art, because it contains one of the most complex and fully realized, if utterly loathsome, characters I have ever encountered in a work of fiction.”

[Editor’s note: The Power of the Dog was also cited as an unfairly neglected book by Roger Sale way back in 1979 in his American Scholar article on “Neglected Recent American Novels”.]

Lee Sandlin on “Ten Novels That Not Enough People Have Read”

I stumbled across writer Lee Sandlin’s website ( and was delighted to find, on his “Enthusiasms” page, a list titled, “Ten Novels That Not Enough People Have Read.” Lee is one of the finest essayists working in America today. His remarkable piece on the mythology of World War Two, “Losing the War,” is included in the recent compilation, The New Kings of Nonfiction (and also available online on his website). I couldn’t resist writing him to express my interest in the list and to ask for a few words about the books. I figured he would get back to me eventually, but a couple of hours later, back came an email with the following comments.

· Armed With Madness, Mary Butts

A deliriously unstable version of an English country-house story, about summer guests at an estate who think they’ve found the Holy Grail–something like a Virginia Woolf novel spiralling frantically out of control and throwing off startling ideas and images in all directions.
[Editor’s note: Armed With Madness and a companion novel, Death of Felicity Taverner, have been reissued in a one-volume edition by McPherson & Company.]

· Lud-in-the-Mist, Hope Mirrlees

A unique fantasy novel from the 1920s, light-years away from Tolkien and his imitators, about a stodgy provincial country infiltrated by a sinister fairyland.
[Lud-in-the-Mist is in print from Cold Spring Press, with a foreward by novelist Neil Gaiman.]

· Memoirs of a Midget, Walter de la Mare

De la Mare was a conservative British poet who’s fallen into unjust obscurity; this is his longest and best novel, which treats a fairytale premise with fantastic intensity –as though a Hans Christian Andersen story had been rewritten by Conrad.
[In print from Paul Dry Books.]

· The Asiatics, Frederic Prokosch

The first novel of a young American writer, published in the late 1920s, highly praised by the likes of Camus, Gide and Mann, about a hitchhiker travelling across Asia; hallucinatorily vivid, even though you suspect (and Prokosch later admitted) that the author had never actually set foot in Asia.
[The Asiatics is in print from Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, with an introduction by Pico Iyer.]

· The Curlew’s Cry, Mildred Walker

A slow, evocative, and beautiful novel by a forgotten American regionalist, published in the 1950s, about the lifelong friendship between two women in Montana.
[The Curlew’s Cry is in print, as are all of Walker’s books, from the University of Nebraska Press.]

· A Legacy, Sybille Bedford

A richly imagined and elegantly told autobiographical novel about the intertwined lives of three European families at the end of the 19th century, which slowly turns into an understated parable about what the legacy of European culture really means; the sequel, Jigsaw, about a young woman’s sexual awakening on the French Riviera in the 1920s, is just as good.
[In print, as are a number of Bedford’s books, in attractive editions from Counterpoint.]

· The Stone Book Quartet, Alan Garner

This series by a British writer, ostensibly for children, is a stunningly beautiful evocation of the author’s family history, told through a succession of small, emblematic, fervently re-imagined moments of daily life.
[Currently out of print in the U.S., but it’s available as a Harper Perennial Modern Classic from]

· The Dead of the House, Hannah Green

I’ve never read anything like this book. What appears at first to be a shapeless and garrulous memoir of suburban America in the middle of the 20th century gradually reveals itself to be a visionary prose poem about the way time and history are interfused in the American landscape.
[In print from Turtle Point Press. Of the book, the normally-subdued Publishers Weekly wrote, “Green is known for being a perfectionist in her writing, and this long-out-of-print work is absolute proof. The characterizations are flawless, the descriptions excellent and the overall effect sublime.”]

· Peace, Gene Wolfe

An old man recalls his life in small-town Illinois, and his memories open up into a weird carnival of dreams and reveries; the best book I know of about the surreal underside of the American heartland.
[In print, although in an utterly unappealing edition, from Orb Books.]

· The Fortunate Fall, Raphael Carter

A garish, dark, exhilaratingly original take on 1990s sci-fi cyberpunk, by a writer who seems to have since disappeared without a trace.
[Out of print and selling for as little as two cents on Amazon.]

Many thanks, Lee!

John Banville on “the Simenons”, from the L. A. Weekly

Covers from a collection of paperback Simenons

Source: “The Escape Artist: John Banville on Georges Simenon,” L. A. Weekly, 28 May 2008,

A couple of weeks ago, the L. A. Weekly published a long piece by Irish novelist John Banville on the non-Maigret novels of Georges Simenon. Although best known for the 70-plus detective novels he wrote featuring the unflappable Inspector Maigret, Simenon published a nearly-equal number of masterful psychological dramas. These romans durs, or “hard” novels, are, in Banville’s estimation, “his finest work.”

Banville admits that when he first read one of Simenon’s novels, “I was really blown away by this extraordinary writer. I had never known this kind of thing was possible, to create such work in that kind of simple — well, apparently simple — direct style.” Nine of these novels have been reissued as part of the excellent NYRB Classics series. The typical roman dur is fast, intense, and brief–rarely more than 120 pages. The protagonist–almost always a man who has led a quiet, conventional life–is jolted out of his routine by an act of violence, a momentary lapse of judgment, a flash of passion, or an instant of craven selfishness or greed. A Dutch G.P. murders his wife; a Parisian fonctionnaire finds a briefcase full of cash on a train. A Belgian cafe owner finds himself separated from his family as they flee the blitzkrieg. Or, as in the opening lines of The Accomplices, a wealthy dairy owner causes a school bus to crash, killing and maiming the children inside:

It was brutal, instantaneous. And yet he was neither surprised nor resentful, as if he had always been expecting it. He realized in a flash, as soon as the horn started screaming behind him, that the catastrophe was inevitable and that it was his fault.

It was not an ordinary horn that was pursuing him with a kind of anger and terror, but a mournful, agonizing howl such as one hears in a port on a foggy night.

At the same time, he saw in his mirror the red and black bulk of a huge bus bearing down on him and the contracted face of a man with grizzled hair, and he realized that he was driving in the middle of the road.

It did not occur to him to free his hand which Edmonde continued to press between her thighs.

Here we have all the classic ingredients of a superb Simenon: a trick of fate, an already-guilty hero (his hand between his mistress’ thighs), and a sense “that the catastrophe was inevitable and that it was his fault.” Banville writes that, “Henri Cartier-Bresson used to speak of the ‘decisive moment’ when reality is caught in its unguarded essence, and it is on such moments that Simenon builds his fictions.”

For years now, I’ve been picking up Simenons when I find them in cheap paperback editions–which has become harder and harder. It rarely takes more than a night or two to finish them, but each is a headlong plunge into the dark side of otherwise ordinary characters. Andre Gide thought Simenon possessed enormous talent but frittered it away on these melodramas. “Gide,” writes Banville, “felt that he had not achieved his full potential as an artist, which may be true: If he had tackled his obsessiveness and found a way of slowing himself down, he might have written the leisurely and long-fermented work that Gide apparently expected of him.” But as Banville rightly concludes, “[T]hat book would not have been a ‘Simenon’, and it is in the ‘Simenons’,surely, that Simenon displayed his prodigious and protean genius.”

Some ‘Simenons’ to get started with

The Man Who Watched Trains Go By

In print from NYRB Classics. A self-satisfied middle manager suddenly discovers that his boss has driven the company into bankruptcy. And then ….

Monsieur Monde Vanishes

In print from NYRB Classics. One morning, Monsieur Monde, a comfortable Parisian business man, walks out of his house as his wife is sleeping … and vanishes. And then ….

The Venice Train

Still out of print. A man finds a suitcase full of money belonging to a mysterious stranger. And then ….

The Murderer

Still out of print. A Dutch G.P. plots and carries out the perfect murder of his aging wife and gets away with it. And then ….

The Reader Online on “the most underrated novel in English”

In 1969 critic Laurence Lerner called Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters “the most underrated novel in English.” And Henry James wrote of it, “The hours given to the novel’s perusal seem like actual hours spent.” On The Reader Online, contributor Josie Billington writes a wonderful appreciation of the book, suggesting that,

… the relative neglect of Wives and Daughters might best be explained by the very quality which, for an admirer such as Henry James, gave it a right to the status of ‘genius’; that’s to say its subtlety and the corresponding absence of the kind of decisive life-moment or revelatory event which might compel a reader of a novel by George Eliot or by Charles Dickens.

The full piece can be found at

The Outmoded Authors Reading Challenge


Imani, a “Jamaican lost in Canada”, and a bunch of other Blogspot bloggers have joined together to issue “a reading challenge for all interested in exploring authors who were kicked out of the “in” crowd”. “The idea behind this challenge”, states the site, “is to give some needed attention to authors who have fallen by the way side.”

Their Rules and Requirements are simple:

  • The challenge will last for six months and end on February 29th 2008.
  • During that time you may choose to read however many books by however many authors you like.
  • For reviews or any author-related information or musings you think would be interesting, please submit it to the blog as well as to your own, if you like.
  • With each post you add the relevant tags/labels such as the author’s name (“Dawn Powell”), whether it’s fiction or poetry, a review or a news item (“news”), perhaps a quote from a good essay you found on one of the writers you’d like to share (“essay”) and so on.

The list of outmoded authors is posted on the right side of the blog, linking to sites or pages with information about each. It includes such well-known, but certainly less-read, authors as Walter Scott, Somerset Maugham, and John Galsworthy — and such truly little-known and largely unread writers as Alfred Chester and the Catalan novelist Mercè Rodoreda.

I encourage all fans of neglected books and authors to participate — as the site says, “Owning a blog isn’t required.” on Neglected Author Francis Iles

Source: Francis Iles, “Before the Fact”, from the blog.

Michael, one of the anonymous Blowhards, writes a long and thoughtful piece on the works of Francis Iles, who wrote several examples of the genre known as the “inverted mystery,” a forerunner of the psychological thriller in the 1930s, before disappearing from the publishing scene completely.

Iles is not utterly neglected, as his novel Malice Aforethought is in print again as a reissue, thanks to a 2005 BBC miniseries.

However, Michael lights upon another Iles work, Before the Fact, by way of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1941 film, “Suspicion”, for which it was the source. The basic story, as Michael describes it, has become familiar to us: “a marriage between a charming cad who is also a sociopath, and a mousey, somewhat priggish, and well-off woman.” Joan Crawford chewed up the scenery in the mid-1950s with a similar premise in “Autumn Leaves” (OK, so the Cliff Robertson character was a psychopath instead of a sociopath … the point is, it’s a much-beaten path).

As usual with a familiar story, it’s the telling that makes the difference. Michael delights in Iles’ ironic twists of phrase:

Armed as you are with foreknowledge of what’s going to come, some very simple sentences can make you guffaw: “On the whole, Lina enjoyed her honeymoon,” for example, was one. That “On the whole” hit me like the punchline to a dirty joke. Poor old Lina … She just couldn’t see it coming, could she?

“On the whole” … it reminds me of “Little did he know …” from “Stranger than Fiction. The third-person omniscient voice does allow an author to play God in such devilish ways. In the end, Michael is so impressed by Iles’ success in his telling that he wonders aloud, “Why isn’t Before the Fact widely recognized as one of the most amazing book-fictions of the 20th century?”

Neglected mysteries publisher Crippen & Landru have reissued The Avenging Chance, a collection of short stories Iles published under his real name, Anthony Berkeley Cox.

Movies can sometimes lead us back to long-forgotten gems. Julian Fellowes’ excellent 2005 movie, “Separate Lies”, for example, leads us to Nigel Balchin’s intricate psychological thriller, A Way Through the Wood (reissued and retitled “Separate Lies” to make the journey easier) … although Clive James did not think it one of Balchin’s best novels when he wrote “The Effective Intelligence of Nigel Balchin” a few years ago.

“Who is Harry Sylvester?” from First Things

Source: “Who Is Harry Sylvester?”, by Philip Jenkins, from the March 2007 issue of First Things: the Journal of Religion, Culture, and Public Life

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'Dayspring'“If the Ministry of Truth had devoted their full attention to obliterating the memory of Harry Sylvester, his elimination from the public consciousness could not have been more total,” writes Jenkins in this profile of a neglected American novelist. Of Sylvester’s three novels on Catholic themes, his three Catholic novels, Dearly Beloved (1942), Dayspring (1945), and Moon Gaffney, he writes, “To read them today is to recognize their relevance for modern audiences. In the mid-1940s, a generation ahead of their time, Sylvester’s novels were already exploring such themes as Catholic social activism, church involvement in civil rights, Christian mysticism, and Hispanic religious practice.”

A few traces of Sylvester can be found online, even though Amazon shows only one out of three of the above titles available in used copies:

In American Novelists of Today (1951), Sylvester’s biographical sketch states,

Mr. Sylvester’s first three novels present a comprehensive treatment of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. Strong elements of anti-clericalism mark his serious work, but his central and pervading theme has been that of growth, spiritual and intellectual, and the various ways and the events by which he feels it is sometimes achieved:

  • Dearly Beloved, his first novel, is an ironic and realistic portrayal of the psychological and social problems of a young man, John Cosgrove, who allies himself with a Jesuit priest in an effort to improve the conditions of poor fishermen in St. Mary’s County, Maryland….
  • Dayspring concerns Spencer Bain, an anthropologist, who visits New Mexico to study the Penitentes, a group of Roman Catholics who practice flagellation. He participates in their religious services with strong intellectual reservations, but comes to feel a steadying influence upon his life as a result. Some critics consider the book the first serious novel concerning “grace” by an American.
  • Moon Gaffney traces the career of the son of a Tammany Hall politician in New York City. The young man, who has been reared strictly as a Roman Catholic, is ambitious to become mayor. Yet his friends with social insight and liberal ideas lead him to take a vigorous stand for progress.

  • A Golden Girl (1950) is a sharp departure from the earlier novels and reflects Mr. Sylvester’s two visits and a period of residence in Peru. It concerns Therese Morley, an American girl of exceptional vitality and intuitive honesty, who has misused her talents.

Which forgotten novel do you love?, from the Guardian Unlimited

Source:, Guardian Unlimited Books Blog, 2 September 2007

Following up on The Observer’s feature, “How did we miss this?”, in which 50 contemporary novelists were asked to name the books they considered most “shamefully undervalued,” its literary editor, Robert McCrum, took to his blog to invite readers to recommend their favorite “obscure, half-forgotten, probably out-of-print titles.”

As in The Observer feature, the recommendations include a fair number of in-print, critically recognized, and well-established books neglected only in the assessment of those who proposed them: The Bell Jar? In the Heart of the Country? Le Grand Meaulnes? They may not be Moby Dick, but they’re certainly not “obscure, half-forgotten,” or out-of-print.

But it’s worth a look for the genuinely obscure works that pop up in and amongst these:

• Bernard Gilbert’s “Old England” series

Gilbert “envisaged a sequence of 12 books each in a different form : poetry, drama as well as prose” depicting aspects of “Old England.” In a 2006 post in the Codisdead, writer and artist Herbert Read’s review of one of these books, Old England: A God’s-Eye View of a Village, is quoted in which Read wrote,

His book is so completely planned and neatly executed that it comes into the category of those works of science that in conception give evidence of a poetic mind…. In our own time it will stand as a diagnosis of the diseased heart of the country. In another age it will mean as much as, and even more than, Piers Plowman means to us.

Thinks I to Myself, by Edward Nares

First published as “Says I, Says I” by “Thinks-I-to-Myself Who”, this “Serio-Ludicro-Tragico-Comico Tale”, popular in the early 1800s, is a tongue-in-cheek “autobiography” penned by an English clergyman. The narrator fills his story with all sorts of asides and commentaries, such as this lament upon the decline in the servitude of servants:

It used formerly to be a matter of convenience for any master or mistress to communicate an order or direction through a third person: to tell the butler, for instance, to tell the coachman to wait at the table, or the footman to ask the groom to carry a letter to the post; but this round-about mode of communication is now properly put end to; Mr. Butler no longer dare presume to tell Mr. Coachman to wait at table, nor Mr. Charles the footman Mr. Bob the groom to carry a letter to the post; Mrs. Housekeeper to tell Miss House-maid to help her prepare the sweetmeats; nor the nurse to ask the laundry-maid to bring up little Miss’s dinner.

The full book can be read online or downloaded from Google Books.

• Katharine Topkins’ All the Tea in China

Poster christopherhawtree writes of this 1960s novel,

Nothing like it. Seething, erotic, with an extraordinary meditation upon a woman’s view of depressing a car’s throttle pedal, something I have never seen mentioned anywhere else (it’s hardly a subject one can broach in polite company). Topkins wrote “Kotch”, filmed with Jack Lemmon, and later wrote novels with her husband. I lent my copy to somebody at Virago – it screams out to be a Modern Classic, but I never got it back… It’s not quite Lolita but getting that way. A wonderful novel.

“How did we miss these?”, from the Observer

Source:,,2160644,00.html, The Observer, 2 September 2007

“[B]ooks that seem to speak only to you are, in some ways, the most treasured,” writes Robert McCrum, The Observer’s literary editor, in his introduction to a recent cover feature. The magazine’s editor asked 50 contemporary novelists to name “the novelist or poet whose work they believe to be shamefully undervalued.”

Cover of U.S. paperback edition of 'The Balloonist'Their responses show that undervalue, like value, is very much in the eye of the beholder. Given the wealth of academic attention paid to Flannery O’Connor’s work and the fact that A Good Man Is Hard to Find, it’s hard for me to agree with M. J. Hyland’s nomination of the book. For several other writers, it’s the work, not the author, that’s undervalued: Thackeray, Samuel Johnson, and Edith Wharton are secure in their respective spots in the literary canon, but Pendennis, Rasselas, and The Reef are hardly the titles most likely to be associated with them.

Only few genuinely neglected titles pop up on this list. Philip Pullman proposes The Balloonist, one of the many out-of-print wonders by the late MacDonald Harris, of whom he writes, “Actually, it’s almost impossible to read any of Harris’s first pages without helplessly turning to the next, and the next.” Although Julien Green’s Midnight (recommended by John Mortimer), Hans Fallada’s The Drinker (Beryl Bainbridge), and Frans Gunnar Bengtsson’s Viking saga, The Long Ships (Michael Chabon) are all now out of print, each has had one or more reissues within the last decade or so.

The most significant aspect of the feature is its demonstration of the resurrection of works of the English novelist and short-story writer, Elizabeth Taylor, “the author of some of the finest and subtlest English novels of her time,” in McCrum’s assessment. Three novelists nominate her works, which can now enjoy a revival on the order of Barbara Pym’s in the early 1980s, thanks to new editions of such works as Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, Angel, At Mrs Lippincote’s, and In a Summer Season from Virago Modern Classics and a 2005 film of “Mrs. Palfrey.”

Save These Books!, from

“Save These Books!”, from, December 1997

Way back in its early days, asked some of its contributors and other writers to share their thoughts about a favorite book that has fallen out of print. The feature included over twenty short essays on a hodge-podge of volumes ranging from The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones (now back in print) to The Cooking of Vienna’s Empire, Joseph Wechberg’s contribution to a Time-Life cookbook series from the late 1960s. Of her selection, Diane Johnson writes,

People did not seem to like Nigel Dennis’s A House in Order as much as his earlier Cards of Identity, a novel much admired in the ’60s but now, perhaps, nearly as obscure as the strange little parable that followed, which I have loved since I read it when it came out, in 1966, but have lived without, unable until now to find a copy in libraries or second-hand bookshops. I had even begun to think I had invented this novel in the ensuing 30 years.

My remembered novel is a soothing allegory of order and serenity, concerning a man who isolates himself from the chaos and terror of the actual world when he is confined during a war to a greenhouse, and occupies himself with cleaning it up and growing a garden of flourishing plants. I understand now what attracted me then — it was the making of order out of chaos that, as the mother of young children, I envied. At the time, I saw no way out of personal household chaos, no way to achieve the single-minded and solitary pleasures of a grand project.

Luc Sante celebrates David Maurer’s The Big Con (also now back in print with an introduction by Sante), which he described as “a small masterpiece of the American language, veined with grifter lingo and populated by such characters as the High Ass Kid, the Seldom Seen Kid and the Narrow Gage Kid, whose ‘height was just the distance between the rails of a narrow gage railway.'”

Perhaps the most idiosyncratic suggestion comes from Jane and Michael Stern, who propose the Sears Catalog, a “vast syntagma of American stuff” in which you could find “a hunting rifle, a love seat, a diamond engagement ring or a tractor axle.” It might not qualify as literature, but can anyone who grew up with the Wish Book disagree that it’s a nonpareil sampler of middle American culture of the 20th century?

Lost Literary Classics, from “Talk of the Nation” on NPR

Back on Boxing Day in 2002, the NPR show, Talk of the Nation talked with about a half-dozen writers about their favorite “lost” classics. Among their suggestions:

• Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination — suggested by NPR’s Neal Conan, host of Talk of the Nation

• Darcy O’Brien’s A Way of Life, Like Any Other — suggested by Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient

…[I]t’s about (O’Brien’s) parents, about himself as a boy and his parents, who were silent movie stars. And after they divorced, he’s sort of brought up by both of them very ineptly. It’s a very, very funny book and quite devastatingly critical of his parents, but it’s something like Catcher in the Rye, really, for our time. It’s a very, very good book.

• Louise Bernikow’s The World Split Open: Four Centuries of Women Poets in England and America, 1552-1950 — suggested by Honor Moore, poet, author of Darling, A Collection of Poems

[P]ublished in 1975, and at that time there were so many fewer women poets in the canon than there are today. …the poems that she chose from these poets were chiefly poems about or out of human experiences had mainly by women, like childbirth, relationships between women, mother-daughter, so on and so forth.

• A.R. Luria’s The Mind of the Mnemonist — suggested by Michael Pollan, author of The Botany of Desire

[T]he story of a man, a Russian, in the 1930s whose memory had no testable limits. He remembered everything that ever happened to him. And it became a torment, because, you realize, forgetting is almost as important as remembering things, forgetting through life.

The Collected Poems of Weldon Kees, Donald Justice, editor — suggested by Anthony Lane, author of Nobody’s Perfect: Writings from The New Yorker

[I]’m quite interested in a poet called Weldon Kees, who’s a very semi-mythological figure, which means he’s almost entirely unread. Kees was born in 1914, and in 1955, his car was found near the Golden Gate Bridge, and it’s presumed that he disappeared or went to Mexico like Ambrose Bierce….

You can listen to the full segment at

“Breakthrough” Neglected Books, from Lingua Franca magazine

Lingua Franca, the now-defunct “Review of Academic Life”, has a regular feature called “Breakthrough Books”, where academic experts recommend the groundbreaking books in their various fields. Way back in June 1997, the field in question was neglected books. The magazine asked thirteen writers and academics to share their favorites. Here is a sample of their responses:

• Terry Castle, professor of English at Stanford and author of Noel Coward & Radclyffe Hall: Kindred Spirits

The extraordinary Irish novelist Kate O’Brien is virtually unread today, but her sometimes sentimental-sounding titles — Pray for the Wanderer, As Music and Splendour — conceal works of great beauty, intellectual precision, and moral candor. The pellucid Mary Lavelle (1936) — about an Irish governess’s sensual and emotional awakening in Spain-is perhaps her most subtle, ardent, and delighting fiction.

And I continue to be amazed by the (relative) neglect of Elizabeth Bowen — a novelist, in my view, far superior to Virginia Woolf. Her early novel The Hotel (1927), in which a young woman staying with friends in an Italian pensione falls painfully in love with a Madame Merle-like older woman, is at once heartrending, fierce, and almost achingly well written.

• Wendy Lesser, editor of The Threepenny Review and author of Pictures at an Execution

Two neglected books that I am always recommending are Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows (1956) and Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy about the World War I, Parade’s End (1924-1928). Ford’s portrait of a society dealing with a despised war and its returning veterans will remind my generation of our own Vietnam era; and for readers who love great characters, none can beat Christopher Tietjens and his malicious wife, Sylvia.

The Fountain Overflows is a book that nobody I know has read without my recommending it, yet it is one of the great turn-of-the-century novels. It is about sibling rivalry, musical families, genteel poverty, unreliable fathers, the death penalty, the newspaper business, the market for old master paintings-and it is also, despite all this plot, an invitingly autobiographical, intimate book.

• Sandra Gilbert, professor of English at UC-Davis, author of Ghost Volcano: Poems

Because I am myself a poet as well as a critic, I have a special fondness for fiction produced by poets, a frequently overlooked genre. Karl Shapiro’s novel Edsel is a case in point. Published in 1971 (and currently out of print), it’s been virtually forgotten. Yet it’s a scandalously funny account of the travels and travails of poet-professor Edsel Lazarow, marked by the same verbal pyrotechnics that give Shapiro’s poem “The Bourgeois Poet” (1962) its satiric zing.

• Timothy Brennan, professor of English and comparative literature at SUNY Stony Brook and author of At Home in the World: Cosmopolitanism Now

Even among Caribbean writers, George Lamming is shamefully unheralded, while being in some ways the English Caribbean’s last word. Natives of My Person (1972) is his (and my) favorite. Nothing like it has ever been written anywhere, with its weird mock seventeenth-century prose, its setting in a slave ship off the Guinea coast, and its fantastic allegory of women’s oppression as the intimate result of the triangular trade.

No one thinks of reading Fyodor V. Gladkov’s Cement (1925), because we all suppose Soviet socialist novels are junk, but it’s among the shrewdest and most inspired treatments of the pathos of organizations and the sacrificial impulse of the makers of new worlds.

• William Gass, author of The Tunnel and Finding a Form: Essays

Wyndham Lewis’s greatest novel, Self Condemned (1954) — written after he had gone blind, in Canada and about Canada, in condemnation of Canada, in condemnation of himself for inexplicably abandoning England and coming to Canada, whose bleak unlit winters bore upon even a blind man-was received with some interest in Canada but with unopen arms, selling 7,000 copies during its first two years there. Not bad for Lewis, not bad for Canada, but even in Canada it failed to achieve the audience it ought to have had, an audience which, had it been there, would have condemned the book just as its protagonist, Harding, was condemned…. The book’s movement is glacial and grinding, the writing brilliant, the mood cold and sterile, but the hotel is set on fire (as Lewis’s was) only to become a fire hose’s frozen shell, like Harding himself, who, after his no-longer-loved wife is crushed under a car where she’s rolled herself, is empty enough now, hollow enough now to become an American academic.

The complete article can be found online at

“Their Back Pages”: Forgotten books by famous authors, from the Village Voice

In “Their Back Pages”, from the 26 September 2005 issue of the Village Voice, Paul Collins amusingly discusses forgotten books by famous writers. Among those mentioned:

Casing the Promised Land, by Caleb Carr

A first novel from the author of The Alienist, this rock-n-roll saga led Carr himself to post the following as an Amazon review:

I am the author of this book. It has a few good scenes, but is essentially “roman a clef” nonsense that every writer has to get out of his system early on. Do yourself a favor and read ANYTHING else I’ve written (you’ll be doing me a favor, too).

Franklin Evans: Or, The Inebriate, by Walt Whitman

As Collins puts it, Whitman “fortified himself with hooch while writing his tale of a country boy corrupted by the city and the demon dram.” Of this attempt to emulate the success of T.S. Arthur’s temperance best-seller, Ten Nights in a Bar Room, Whitman wrote, “It was damned rot — rot of the worst sort….”

Invasion of the Space Invaders, by Martin Amis

Nine years before his first Booker Prize nomination (but surprisingly after publishing three novels), Amis wrote this guide to the first generation of computer arcade games, subtitled, An Addict’s Guide to Battle Tactics, Big Scores and the Best Machines. Although copies fetch $130 and up on Amazon, Amis has preferred to omit it from his credits in subsequent books.

Len Deighton’s Action Cook Book, by Len Deighton

“A shockingly good cookbook,” writes Collins, despite the tongue-in-cheek cover showing a holstered Deighton scooping up spaghetti. This is actually a collection of “cookstrips” Deighton wrote for “The Observer” back at the time his first thrillers were being published. Also published as Cookstrip cook book and Ou est le garlic?, this is not only an introduction to cooking even complete novices can handle (historian Simon Schama recalled that it “showed the idiot novice male how to dice an onion without it falling apart”), but also something of an innovation, perhaps the first time comic art came to the aid of cuisine. Writer Matthew Christian salutes the quality of Deighton’s recipes and English graphic designer Richard Weston celebrates its graphic and design on his “Found Things” blog

Collins repeated the story on NPR’s Weekend Edition: you can hear the excerpt here.

Collins takes the punchline of his piece from Annie Proulx, writing on the task of examining used cider barrels in her early (but still in print) work, Cider: Making, Using & Enjoying Sweet & Hard Cider: “Don’t be shy. Put your nose right up to the bunghole.” Good advice for those willing to look beyond the best-seller lists for their reading material.

“Lost Books” from Nextbook Magazine

Since 2005, Nextbook magazine, which focuses on Jewish literature, culture, and ideas, has published a regular feature on “Lost Books”, in which writers such as Meg Wolitzer and David Rakoff discuss the lives and works of neglected writers.

Among the fascinating pieces to be found in the “Lost Books” archive are:

· Earl Ganz’s account of Myron Brinig

Brinig was once mentioned alongside Thomas Wolfe as a rising American literary star, but he suffered a triple whammy sales curse of writing Western novels from the perspective of a gay Jewish man. But who can resist Ganz’s teaser for Brinig’s novels Singermann and This Man is My Brother (which not even AddAll lists a copy of): “Prostitutes, Christian Scientists, cross-dressing teachers—just a few of the temptations faced by the Singermanns in Myron Brinig’s frontier saga”?

[Don Napoli reviews another of Brinig’s novels, the 1939 Anne Minton’s Life on his Reading California Fiction site.]

· Neal Pollack on Ben HechtCover of '1001 Afternoons in Chicago'

Pollack celebrates A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago, a collection of Hecht’s impressionistic newspaper pieces about one of the great American cities at its liviest times: “The book still holds a kind of magical sway over me, because it showed a kind of American life that seems to have disappeared, a time when public eccentricity didn’t merely feed the appetite of cable TV and when cities could be slightly unsavory without feeling overwhelmingly dangerous.”

· Jennifer Weisberg on Stefan Zweig

Zweig, one of my favorite neglected writers, embodies one of the great tragedies of the 20th century: the destruction of enlightened European Jewish culture at the hands of fascism and violence. Weisberg writes that Zweig’s 1938 novel, Beware of Pity , which was reissued by New York Review Classics in 2006, “is in many ways a micro-portrait of life in the late Hapsburg Empire, capturing the overweening attention paid to ritual, detail, and order, and the occasions it afforded for self-transformation.” She also quotes a New York Herald Tribune obituary, which wrote tellingly that Zweig took his own life because he was “overwhelmed by the past, and by the realization that all he had held most dear had been wantonly destroyed.”

· Chloe Veltman on Israel Zangwill

Zangwill’s The Melting Pot was celebrated by President Theodore Roosevelt as a “great play” when it debuted in 1908, but Veltman admits that now it seems a “ham-fisted” melodrama “made worse by Zangwill’s didactic tone.”

· Lawrence Levi on Melvin Shavelson’s “How to Make a Jewish Movie”

In How to Make a Jewish Movie, director Shavelson recounts his diligent and ridiculous efforts to make “Cast a Giant Shadow”, the story of Mickey Marcus, a Jewish American Army colonel who helped jump-start the Israeli Army in 1948. Levi concludes that Shavelson “seems to have learned, as an entertainer, that the story of a nice Jewish filmmaker who finds himself while shooting a $5 million flop has more potential in the hands of a comedy writer than the story of a Jewish general who gets killed.”

I look forward to further installments in this excellent series and encourage neglected book fans to check out all the articles.

Reading California Fiction

Cover of 'The Flesh Merchants' by Ross Thomas, from the Reading California Fiction siteDon Napoli has created a wonderful site, Reading California Fiction, devoted to his admirable quest of reading his way through the archives of fiction set in California.

Don’s work so far has led him to books good, bad, and indifferent. Among the first are some long-forgotten but worthy titles as David Duncan’s The Serpent’s Egg, of which he writes,

A labor arbitration case? Am I going to tell you that someone could produce a great novel about a labor arbitration case? Yes, I certainly am. A skilled writer can present complicated characters and an interesting story against even the most unpromising of backgrounds. And David Duncan is a terrific writer. Here he cuts back a bit on the usual energy of his prose to tell his tale in all of its complexity. I like this book a whole lot. When I get around to compiling a list of favorite California novels, The Serpent’s Egg will be near the top.

Don’s also honest in admitting that his journey sometimes leads to a dead end. Of Ruth Comfort Mitchell’s Play the Game, he writes, “Sometimes the only nice thing you can say about a book is that you’ll never have to read it again.”

Reading California Fiction is well-conceived, attractively presented, well-organized, and full of books you’ve never heard of but may want to pursue, thanks to Don’s literary archaeology. It’s among the very small number of sites I’d care to browse through in entirety.

Larry McMurtry recommends some Lost Novels

Robert Nedelkoff forwards an article by Larry McMurtry from the 23 June 1975 issue of the Washington Post titled, “Two Novels: One a Find, One Better Lost.”

In it, McMurtry lambasts the Lost American Fiction series from the Southern Illinois University Press for floundering “into an area of dry holes, of which the present volume [Janet Flanner’s The Cubical City] is certainly one of the driest.”

“It is in view of the rich possibilities offered by the ’90s, the teens, the ’30s, the ’40s, the ’50s, etc., that it seems to me time that the series stop futzing around trying to breathe life into ’20s artifacts….”

McMurtry offers some candidates of his own for rediscovery:

· The Aging Boy, by Julian Claman

“Julian Claman’s fine novel The Aging Boy was published in the ’60s, but it is already as lost as The Cubical City, and far less deservingly so.”

· Go in Beauty, by William Eastlake

“William Eastlake’s Go in Beauty is an unknown book, already….”

· No Pockets for a Shroud, by Horace McCoy

“Horace McCoy has a vivid novel that has so far been published in America only in paperback — it’s called No Pockets for a Shroud.”

McMurtry also cites Caroline Gordon, John Sanford, David Stacton [him again!], and Calder Willingham as examples of writers with “lost novels that deserve revival.”

Ironically, the other novel McMurtry reviewed in this article, Maurice Edelman’s Disraeli Rising — the second of an unfinished tritypch that started with Disraeli in Love, both of which he described as “highly readable, well-handled narratives, in which the great and near-great figures of Victorian England appear and disappear” — has also been pushed into a dark corner of neglect.

“Good Old Books”, from the National Review, 23 December 1996

A post on the NYRB Classic blog led me to the 23 December 1996 issue of the National Review, which featured two articles, by Florence King and Terry Teachout, about favorite reads — forgotten ones, in particular.

Florence King’s picks and comments:

· The Valley of Decision, by Marcia Davenport

This novel has everything: sex amid the Johnstown Flood, labor-union strife, an expatriate adventuress, a playboy turned monk, a society wife who goes mad, a Czech violinist fleeing the Nazis. And if all this weren’t enough, the author even keeps us glued to the page when she describes the operation of the open-hearth furnace, a tour de force of “writing like a man” that won her high praise from male reviewers in that benighted pre-feminist age.

· The Cardinal, by Henry Morton Robinson

The Cardinal opens in 1915 and traces Steve’s [Stephen Fermoyle] rise from Boston parish priest to prince of the church. My favorite parts are the behind-the scenes accounts of how the Vatican works, and the descriptions of the Roman contessa’s salon: a hierarchy of ecclesiastical guests, their rank denoted by the colors of their flowing capes and birettas (the book answers all the Protestant questions about vestments), soignee women kissing rings, learned Jesuits swapping bons mots, and Cardinal Merry del Val capping quotations from Horace while juggling oranges. That’s what I call a party.

· Jubilee Trail, by Gwen Bristow

Sisterhood eludes feminist novelists, but it fairly leaps off the pages of Gwen Bristow’s Jubilee Trail, a good girl/bad girl western in which the male characters are all satellites.

· Maggie-Now, by Betty Smith

Maggie Moore (her childhood reprimand, “Maggie, now,” becomes her nickname) is a simple Irish-Catholic girl who wants only to marry a good man and have children. But along comes Claude Basset, a Protestant-agnostic college graduate with an ironic wit that goes over her head and a wanderlust she doesn’t find out about until after she marries him. The O. Henry-like twist here is the blissful marriage of this mismatched pair. Under normal conditions they would grow to hate each other, but their strange modus vivendi inadvertently keeps the dew on the rose.

· Kings Row, by Henry Bellamann

Suffice to say that Kings Row is immensely satisfying to read during political campaigns when the Trad Vals pile up too high.

[The movie version of Kings Row gave Ronald Reagan the title of his 1965 autobiography, Where’s the Rest of Me?; as King notes, the novel was a bloodfest of medical malpractice, insanity, and small-town vice. — ed.]

· Katherine, by Anya Seton

Another favorite Anya Seton novel is Katherine, about the love affair between John of Gaunt, the ambitious younger son of Edward III, and Lady Katherine Swynford, whose four bastard children became the progenitors of the York and Tudor lines in fulfillment of the ancient prophecy, “Thou shalt get kings though thou be none.” Richly descriptive of medieval life, the story dramatizes major events of late-fourteenth-century England — the Black Plague, the Lollard heresy, the storming of the Savoy palace in the Peasants’ Revolt — and presents a brilliant fictional portrait of Katherine’s brother-in-law, Geoffrey Chaucer.


Terry Teachout’s picks and comments

· The Dud Avocado, by Elaine Dundy

Anyone capable of marrying Kenneth Tynan must have had a sense of humor, and Elaine Dundy’s first book, originally published in 1958, proves the point. It’s the stock Wanderjahr plot, transposed into a female key: Sally Jay Gorce, young, fairly innocent, and full of beans, heads for Paris in search of romance and adventure, gets more of both than she bargained for, and in the process makes modest headway toward maturity.

[Teachout provided the introduction to the forthcoming NYRB Classics reissue of The Dud Avocado. You can also find more about Dundy at her website,— ed.]

· Pictures from an Institution, by Randall Jarrell

This savage satire of life at a progressive women’s college circa 1954 is so good, it made Whittaker Chambers laugh. Some characters are drawn from life (Mary McCarthy among them), but you don’t need a scorecard to get the point, for every liberal fallacy of our time is here made as flesh.

· Father Malachy’s Miracle, by Bruce Marshall

This lovely, all-but-forgotten book tells the story of what happens when an easily exasperated priest, vexed to the utmost limits of his endurance by the invincible ignorance of the heathen multitude, requests God to confound them all definitively and simultaneously by working a jumbo miracle in broad daylight — and God obliges, leaving the world agog.

· The Locusts Have No King, by Dawn Powell

Long a fixture on short lists of Most Underrated American Novelists, Dawn Powell finally got lucky last year when Steerforth published her diaries and started reissuing her wicked novels. This is the best of the lot, a caustic tale of frustrated love and inadvertent success in postwar New York.

· Max Jamison, by Wilfrid Sheed

Speaking of critics, here’s a minor miracle: a comic novel about a famously ferocious drama critic for a weekly news magazine who awakes one day to find himself athwart a five-alarm spiritual crisis.

Driftwood from “The Sustaining Stream”

Robert Nedelkoff forwards a link to “The Sustaining Stream”, a Time magazine article from February, 1963 that provides “a recommended reading list of American novelists whose first work has appeared within the last few years.” As with any “best of” list from decades past, the names discussed are a mix — those whose works are now accepted into the canon of university curricula, academic studies, and regular reissues, and those whose works merit the dubious distinction of requiring rediscovery and mention on this site.

Among the well-known and established names are Walker Percy, Joseph Heller, Philip Roth, and John Updike. But the article also mentions several novelists worth noting here:

  • David Stacton, of whom it writes,

    David Stacton, 37, is a Nevadan who wears cowboy boots, is fond of both Zen and bourbon, and is as nearly unknown as it is possible for a writer to be who has written, and received critical praise for, 13 novels (all have been published in England, five in the US.). His books, most of which have historical themes, are masses of epigrams marinated in a stinging mixture of metaphysics and blood. Mostly they resemble themselves, but something similar might have been the result if the Duc de la Rochefoucauld had written novels with plots suggested by Jack London.

    Stacton’s story is as interesting as any of his books. He managed to produce 28 books in roughly the same number of years, including 22 novels. Most of these were historical novels, but Stacton shared the same kind of arch omniscience that makes Gore Vidal’s historical novels so entertaining. In addition to these, however, he also produced a number of pulp fiction titles such as Muscle Boy aimed at gay readers, using the pseudonym Bud Clifton, and westerns such asNavarro as Carse Boyd. Stacton rated Sir William, an account of the affair between Lord Nelson and Lady Emma Hamilton, as his best book. Back in 1992, Thomas Disch picked it as his book of the year in a roundup in The Nation magazine, saying he’d intended to read Susan Sontag’s The Volcano Lover, but read Stacton’s account instead when he found a copy in his shelves. Disch said of the book,

    It’s wonderful, paced and cut like an MTV video, so epigrammatic I could extract an enticing quote from almost any page, and, as Sontag’s readers already know, one of the great Believe-It-Or-Not sex scandals of all time. For those who relish Boito’s “Mefistofele” all the more for having enjoyed Gounod’s “Faust”, Stacton should be the perfect complement to Sontag, not an alternative. Seek him out, or if you’re in the book business, republrsh hrm. He’s too good to be gathering dust.

    I bought a copy of Stacton’s Tom Fool, a 1962 novel about Wendell Wilkie, and read it recently, but I have to confess that it’s in the queue for a post under the justly neglected tag. Stacton was just a bit too clever to be tolerable and Wilkie seemed more a bit of flotsam carried off on the tide of history than an effective protagonist.

  • Richard Dougherty. Dougherty’s 1962 novel, Duggan, was described by Time’s reviewer as a “nasty, low, mean and excellent novel.” The book tells the story the friendship and then the betrayal and mutual cuckolding of an honest politician and his more cynical campaign manager. Dougherty’s later novel, The Commissioner was perhaps the first of a wave of grittily-realistic police nobels that Joseph Wambaugh later surfed to success on, and was made into a fairly good movie, “Madigan”, starring Richard Widmark.

  • Richard Bankowsky. In 1958, Time wrote of his first novel, A Glass Rose, which centers on the wake of the scion of a Polish-American family:

    In unfolding this grim tale, Novelist Bankowsky is thoroughly convincing as he enters successively the minds of a tormented religious fanatic, a furtive, greedy storekeeper, a mentally retarded girl. In each character’s rambling recall, his own weaknesses are laid bare and another’s motivation is made clearer.

    On the other hand, Norman Podhoretz, writing in the New York Times, called it “an embarassingly naked imitation of The Sound and the Fury.” In more recent years, however, Thomas Gladsky called A Glass Rose “perhaps the best novel about Slavic immigration in all of American literature.” Bankowsky has put a number of excerpts from his work on the web under his Cal State Sacramento page, including the first dozen or so pages of A Glass Rose.

The article also mentions several names neither too famous nor too obscure: Richard Condon, who will never fade completely away as long as people watch “Prizzi’s Honor,” “The Manchurian Candidate,” and my favorite, “Winter Kills”; John Knowles, whose A Separate Peace rates its own Cliff Notes; and William Gaddis, who may still have a tough time finding casual readers, but who’ll continue to provide raw material for PhD dissertations for many years to come.

Smugging up on forgotten authors, from the Guardian Unlimited

In his Guardian Unlimited blog, author Sam Jordison writes,

I’ve recently been indulging in the literary equivalent of schadenfreude. Not so much pleasure in someone else’s misfortune, as pleasure in everyone else’s lack of knowledge.

It’s not an admirable emotion, I know. Even so, I can’t help it. I’ve just started reading one of the finest writers I’ve encountered for a long time — and my enjoyment is only heightened by the certainty that very few others in the UK have even heard of him, let alone shared the delights of his superb prose.

We fans of neglected books must admit, like Jordison, that a certain amount of the pleasure in discovering them is the knowledge that we’re among the lucky few to have made the discoveries. In this case, the discovery was the works of the writer, Alfred Chester:

They are strange contradictory books. Marked out by Chester’s superb prose, they’re both surreal and unflinchingly true to life, at once light, witty and imbued with heavy existential angst. They deal with everything and nothing. They are sometimes brutal and hilariously waspish, but always humane. Essentially, for all their 1950s existentialism, they are unlike anything else. As Chester himself said in description of The Exquisite Corpse: “… it is probably the most unlike book you have read since childhood. And probably also, the most delicious.”

As one of his commenters points out to Jordison, Chester’s works might be rare in the U.K., but thanks to the efforts of the Black Sparrow Books, long a supporter of such neglected writers as John Sanford and Ed Dorn, three of his books are currently in print, and a fourth is due for reissue later this year:

Jordison invites his readers to suggest an “unsung genius” of their own, and among the names proposed in response are:

  • M. R. James, a Victorian writer of ghost stories whose works are readily available in collections from Penguin and Oxford World Classics.
  • Delano Ames, who wrote dozens of mysteries between 1932 and 1972, including a series featuring Dagobert and Jane Brown “full of arch conversation and bizarre wealthy characters.”
  • James Hanley, an Irish novelist whose 1985 Times obituary was headlined “Neglected Genius of the Novel”. Hanley’s books are out of print in the U.S. but he had at least the honor of his own tribute website (now in archive). You can pick up a copy of A Dream Journey, one of his late and most highly-praised novels, for as little as $0.03 on Amazon. What are you waiting for?

And one of the commenters is even kind enough to mention the Neglected Books page. Thanks!

Richard Yates on Fellow Neglected Writers

Source: An Interview with Richard Yates by DeWitt Henry and Geoffrey Clark, Ploughshares, Winter 1972

Here, in an interview from 1972, Richard Yates, who was one of America’s better-known neglected writers during much of his career, nominates some candidates of his own for overdue recognition:

Q: Who among your contemporaries do you feel have been seriously neglected? What about the work of Edward Lewis Wallant?

A: A fine writer; and yes, seriously neglected today, though he was by no means overlooked or unappreciated when his books first came out. Wallant worked with tremendous energy and tremendous speed. He didn’t even start writing until he was over thirty; then he managed to produce four novels in five years before he died very suddenly of a stroke at the age of thirty-six, ten years ago. He and I were pretty good friends, though we used to argue a lot about working methods: I thought he ought to take more time over his books; he’d disagree. It was almost as if he knew he didn’t have much time. If he’d lived, God only knows how much good work he might have accomplished by now. Anyway, the four books are there, and I do believe they’ll last. [Editor’s note: Wallant’s four novels are The Pawnbroker, The Tennants of Moonbloom, reissued in 2003 by New York Review Classics, The Human Season, and The Children at the Gate.]

Q: What about the novels of Brian Moore?

A: Another very fine writer, also seriously neglected, though he’s very much alive today and still going strong. I just don’t understand why he hasn’t yet won a wider audience. Every good writer I know admires his work. I’ve always thought Judith Hearne is a masterpiece, and An Answer from Limbo comes pretty close. Even in his lesser books there are always fine things — great scenes, fine characterizations. And he’s such a steady producer, a real professional. He’s never yet allowed more than three years to go by without getting out a new book since he began, back in the Fifties.

Q: What about Evan S. Connell?

A: All I’ve read of his work so far is Mrs. Bridge, which I thought was beautiful, and a number of excellent short stories, but I know he’s produced a large body of fiction that’s much admired by people whose judgment I trust; so yes, sure, he too deserves to be much better known. Another excellent, underrated writer is Thomas Williams — or has he become well-established by now? If not, he ought to be. [Williams is best known for his 1975 National Book Award-winning novel, The Hair of Harold Roux

Q: Who do you consider some other good, neglected writers?

A: Read the four spendid books by Gina Berriault, if you can find them, and if you want to discover an absolutely first-class talent who has somehow been left almost entirely out of the mainstream. She hasn’t quit writing yet, either, and I hope she never will.

And read almost anything by R.V. Cassill, a brilliant and enormously productive man who’s been turning out novels and stories for twenty-five years or more, all the while building and sustaining a large influence on other writers as a teacher and critic. Oh, he’s always been well-known in what I guess you’d call literary circles, but he had to wait a long, long time before his most recent novel, Doctor Cobb’s Game, did bring him some widespread readership at last.

And George Garrett. I haven’t read very much of his work, but that’s at least partly because there’s so very much of it – and he too has remained largely unknown except among other writers. I guess his latest book [Latest in 1973, that is: The Death of the Fox, his long and ornate novel about Sir Walter Ralegh], like Cassill’s, did make something of a public splash at last, but that too was long overdue.

And Seymour Epstein — ever heard of him? I have read all of his work to date — five novels and a book of stories, all expertly crafted and immensely readable – yet he too seems to have been largely ignored so far.

But hell, this list could go on and on. This country’s loaded with good, badly neglected writers. Fred Chappell. Calvin Kentfield. Herbert Wilner. Helen Hudson. Edward Hoagland. George Cuomo. Arthur J. Roth — those are only a few.

My God, if I’d produced as much good work as most of those people, with as little reward, I’d really feel qualified to rant and rail against the Literary Establishment.

Jonathan Yardley: “… my own list of unjustly overlooked and underrated writers …”

Source: “‘Woman Within’: An Unlikely Rebel of the Privileged South,” Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post, 29 November 2003, available online at

Reading through the individual articles in Washington Post Book Editor Jonathan Yardley’s excellent series on neglected and revisited classics, Second Readings, I came across the following quote worth highlighting here:

The court of literary opinion is no more fair or just than the court of public opinion. Writers of limited gifts and accomplishments (Ernest Hemingway, Carson McCullers, John Steinbeck) are overpraised and over-rewarded, while others of great gifts and singular accomplishments (William Humphrey, Dawn Powell, Jerome Charyn) are ignored or misunderstood. This of course is true in other endeavors, but somehow it seems especially unjust that writing, the best of which is supposed to stand the ages, so often produces such small recognition for those who do it so well.

My own list of unjustly overlooked and underrated writers is long; it includes, in addition to those mentioned above, John P. Marquand, Thomas Savage, Roxana Robinson, Harold Frederic, Elizabeth Spencer, John Oliver Killens and, at or very near the top, Ellen Glasgow.

A few expository notes on these writers:

  • Marquand is one of the more oft-mentioned underrated writers, and his works appear on a number of lists on this site. In fact, I’ve been toying with the idea of devoting a separate website to his works.
  • A New York Times reviewer once wrote of Thomas Savage: “The best-seller lists make it clear that American readers are powerfully fond of the familiar and the accessible — and if there were justice (or better taste) in the literary marketplace, surely one or another of Thomas Savage’s dozen novels would have been topping those lists for the past 30-odd years.” His 1967 novel, The Power of the Dog, was included in Roger Sale’s “Neglected Recent American Novels” article in The American Scholar. Unfortunately for Savage, he’s taken as his subject the American West, which has often been a kiss of death for critical recognition and sales. Annie Proulx, whose “Brokeback Mountain” avoided the same fate, wrote the introduction to the 2001 Bay Back Books reissue of The Power of the Dog. Even readers who got to the point of picking up the book, though, had to get past this opening sentence:

    Phil always did the castrating; first he sliced off the cup of the scrotum and tossed it aside; next he forced down first one and then the other testicle, slit the rainbow membrane that enclosed it, tore it out, and tossed it into the fire where the branding irons glowed.

  • Roxana Robinson is a biographer, novelist, and short story writer. The youngster of this group, illustrated by the fact that she’s got her own website and domain name.
  • Harold Frederic was a contemporary of Twain and Howells. The texts of three of his novels — The Damnation of Theron Ware, In the Valley, and The Market-Place, can be found at Project Gutenberg.
  • Elizabeth Spencer is known for her novella, Light in the Piazza, but her critical reputation is best reflected in her extensive oeuvre of short stories. And it turns out she also has her own website.
  • John Oliver Killens was twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Of his 1963 novel, And Then We Heard the Thunder, Yardley once wrote that it was “one of the few distinguished novels about World War II.”
  • Ellen Glasgow’s recognition improved, along with that of a number of other women writers such as Kate Chopin, when the eddies of the feminist waves hit the academic and publishing worlds, and all her major works are back in print. Yardley’s article moved me to order a copy of A Woman Within.

Underappreciated Literature: from WNYC’s “Leonard Lopate Show”


During July and August 2006, WNYC’s “Leonard Lopate Show” devotes time to a series of features on “authors that are little-known in America, authors that mysteriously fell out of fashion, and authors who never gained wide recognition in the first place.” Authors discussed include:

The programs can be heard or downloaded in MP3 format at the link above.

Thomas Pynchon’s Favorite Neglected Book


From the Modern Word website, a section devoted to the novelist Thomas Pynchon reprints his contribution to the December 1965 issue of Holiday magazine. Asked to name his favorite neglected book, Pynchon wrote of Oakley Hall’s novel, Warlock:

Tombstone, Arizona, during the 1880’s is, in ways, our national Camelot: a never-never land where American virtues are embodied in the Earps, and the opposite evils in the Clanton gang; where the confrontation at the OK corral takes on some of the dry purity of the Arthurian joust. Oakley Hall, in his very fine novel Warlock (Viking) has restored to the myth of Tombstone its full, mortal, blooded humanity. Wyatt Earp is transmogrified into a gunfighter named Blaisdell who, partly because of his blown-up image in the Wild West magazines of the day, believes he is a hero. He is summoned to the embattled town of Warlock by a committee of nervous citizens expressly to be a hero, but finds that he cannot, at last, live up to his image; that there is a flaw not only in him, but also, we feel, in the entire set of assumptions that have allowed the image to exist…. It is the deep sensitivity to abysses that makes Warlock one of our best American novels.

Note: Warlock has been reissued as part of the NYRB Classics series.

Great underappreciated authors, from The Magnificent Octopus


As part of her literary blog, A Box of Books, Ella asked a number of fellow bookfiends a series of questions about their reading and writing experiences. One of these questions was,

Who’s your favorite underappreciated author, and what makes them great?

Blogger Isabella Kratynski compiled a list of the various responses at her Magnificent Octopus site. Among the names mentioned are the well-known — but perhaps underappreciated (Rebecca West, Mary McCarthy), and the obscure (MeÅ¡a Selimović, Adele Wiseman).

Underrated Writers, from the Syntax of Things


Bloggers Jeff Bryant and Trevor Jackson asked other literary bloggers nominate contemporary writers “who aren’t receiving the attention they should.” Each blogger was asked submit up to five names. The complete list, compiled at the link above, includes 55 different writers. Remarkably, very few of the nominations overlapped. The result is a diverse survey of some of today’s neglected writers and their best works.

Lost Classics: Reader Suggestions

Source: Lost Classics Submissions

As part of its publicity for the first release of Lost Classics in 2001, Random House Canada ran a contest in which readers were invited to submit their own suggested lost classics. Over eighty readers participated. Carol Ann Westbrook won with her nomination of Pamela Brown’s A Swish of the Curtain, a tale about a group of young English children create their own theatre. “I took this book out of the library so often that when it was completely worn out, the librarian gave it to me,” she writes. Other suggestions include Henry Kriesel’s novel, The Rich Man, which I notice Red Deer Press plans to reissue in September 2006, and Joseph Kinsey Howard’s history of the Métis people of Canada and Louis Riel’s attempts to found an independent nation inside Canada.

Hear Susan Sontag talk about lost and forgotten masterpieces


From the great Santa Monica public radio station, KCRW, sound files from the “Bookworm” show of Thursday, 14 February 2002. The late critic and novelist Susan Sontag talks about the discovery of lost and forgotten masterpieces, in particular, on Summer in Baden Baden by Leonid Tsypkin (New Directions) about an odd vacation in the life of Fyodor Dostoevski. She also discusses Artemisia by Anna Banti (University of Nebraska Press); Fateless by Imre Kertesz (Northwestern University Press); and A Book of Memories by Peter Nadas (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

“Lost Classics,” from the Hartford Advocate

“Lost Classics: In a culture where people barely read, it would be an exaggeration to say that writers are overrated. Still, some writers get more credit than they deserve, most get less.”
by Alan Bisbort
Source:The Hartford Advocate, 15 April 2004

“For whatever reasons, many great writers like Gissing have largely been lost to us today. Most are ‘known’ in the sense that they occasionally show up on a syllabus. And yet, most people who consider themselves ‘cultured’ will go through life unbothered by the fact that they’ve never read anything by Ivan Turgenev, Emile Zola, Willa Cather, George Eliot, Nathaniel West (Day of the Locusts should be required reading), Stephen Crane (he wrote more than Red Badge of Courage ), Theodore Dreiser (read Jennie Gerhardt and weep), James Baldwin (rage keeps him timeless), Richard Yates (Revolutionary Road , set in Connecticut, is Cheever with a knockout punch), V.S. Pritchett (the best modern essayist on literature), Dwight Macdonald ( In the American Grain is one of the great works of criticism), Randall Jarrell (for his essays, like “Sad Heart at the Supermarket”), Joseph Mitchell ( Joe Gould’s Secret is a nonfiction Great Gatsby ), A.J. Liebling (food, wars, con men … what more could you want?), and Robert Graves (known for his Claudius novels, but Good-Bye to All That is among the great war memoirs).”

Bisboort goes on to write, “The following books and authors are those I’ve been most guilty over the years of obsessing over, purchasing extra copies for friends, on whom I force them”:

Jernigan, by David Gates

“… Gates’ Jernigan is one of the most fully realized ‘anti-heroes’ (remember them?) ever captured between covers. His life falling apart, his relationship with his son unraveling, Jernigan drives north into a New England winter. It’s the strangest pilgrimage since Kerouac…”

Cell 2455 Death Row, Caryl Chessman

“In the 12 years between his sentencing and his execution, Chessman lived and tirelessly labored on Death Row at San Quentin Prison, shaping one of the most remarkable bodies of work in American legal history…. Chessman was not just a good writer; he was a good thinker whose clarity of mind and ability to bring his thoughts directly to the page….”

Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler

“A masterful polemic disguised as a novel, whose theme was never more pertinent than now, with much of the world emulating the control tactics of the Soviet state that Koestler so intimately knew.”

Journey to Nowhere, Shiva Naipaul

“As a writer, Shiva was the equal of his Nobel Prize-winning older brother, V.S. In this riveting book, Shiva probes the Jim Jones “Guyana tragedy,” sparing no one, widening the target to include California consciousness-raising. He does it with a withering humor that is just this side of suppressed rage….”

Editor’s note

Carroll and Graf recently announced that it was reissuing Cell 2455 Death Row in Fall 2006, with a new introduction by Joseph Longseth.

“Rediscover some of the underappreciated children’s classics of the past,” by Karen MacPherson

Source: “Rediscover some of the underappreciated children’s classics of the past,” by Karen MacPherson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Tuesday, May 30, 2000

“Every once in a while, however, it’s good to take a step back and rediscover some of the underappreciated classics of the past. It’s a bit like finding buried treasure. Two such treasures are Thimble Summer by Elizabeth Enright (Dell, $4.50) and Meet the Austins by Madeleine L’Engle (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $16). Thimble Summer won a Newbery Medal, the most prestigious children’s book award, while Meet the Austins successfully challenged a publishing taboo.”

Moorish Girl’s Unappreciated Books Archive

Moorish Girl’s Unappreciated Books Archive

Since late 2004, Laila Lalami, author of Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, has been “asking readers, writers, editors, critics, librarians, or booksellers to weigh in on a book they loved, but which has remained underappreciated.” Almost every week, contributors ranging from veteran best-sellers (Scott Turow) to simple reading enthusiasts recommend and comment upon one of their favorite neglected books.

Tom Boncza-Tomaszewski on “The lost boys (and girls)”

Source: “The lost boys (and girls),” Tom Boncza-Tomaszewski, The Independent, 14 November 2004

“It’s a dismal afternoon and I’ve ended up searching for lost authors on the internet: writers who once had flourishing careers, but who now face extinction. Like many things that occur online, it’s a kind of sordid game, depressing even; but it’s addictive. I type an author’s name into a search field: Marlowe, Gabriel. He cropped up in a memoir I was reading; a mysterious figure who had a critical and commercial success in the mid-1930s with his first novel, I Am Your Brother, a tale of someone who finds he may have a brother hidden in the attic above his studio, fed offal and fairy stories once a day by their mother. I like the sound of it, and but I’m primarily interested in how many copies of it still exist: how much Marlowe there is left in the world.” At the end of the artice, Boncza-Tomaszewski selects his own “Five Forgotten Gems”: Thru (1975), by Christine Brooke-Rose; The Woman With the Flying Head and Other Stories (1997), by Yumiko Kurahashi; Crisis Cottage (1956), by Geoffrey Willans; L’Ecume des Jours (Froth on The Daydream) (1947), by Boris Vian; and The Life of Cardinal Polatuo (1965), by Stefan Themerson.

Jane Smiley on Emile Zola’s “The Fat and the Thin”

“Try This, 2–Excess in All Things,” by Jane Smiley

In this guest post to Ariana Huffington’s blog, Jane Smiley celebrates The Fat and the Thin (also translated as “The Belly of Paris”), a volume from Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series, which brims with food and characters: “I almost said that the best thing about The Fat and the Thin is the complexity of the characters, major and minor, but really, so many things about the novel are both astute and beautifully rendered that there is no best thing. Foodies should not miss this novel, because it is an incomparable trip to the original monument of cuisine, high, low, and everything in between.” Zola’s Money, an Editor’s Choice, does the same for the world of banking and stock market speculation.

Raymond Chandler’s Neglected Authors

Sept. 22 1954
To: Hamish Hamilton

… If you want to know what I should really like to write, it would be fantastic stories, and I don’t mean science fiction. But they wouldn’t make a thin worn dime. That would be just a wonderful way to become a Neglected Author. God, what a fascinating document could be put together about these same Neglected Authors and also the one-book writers: fellows like Edward Anderson who long ago wrote a book called Thieves Like Us, one of the best crook stories ever written … Then there was James Ross who wrote a novel called They Don’t Dance Much, a sleazy, corrupt but completely believable story of a North Carolina town. I’ve never heard that he wrote anything else … And there was Aaron Klopstein. Who ever heard of him? He committed suicide at the age of 33 in Greenwich Village by shooting himself with an Amazonian blow gun, having published two novels entitled Once More the Cicatrice and The Sea Gull Has No Friends, two volumes of poetry, one book of short stories and a book of critical essays entitled Shakespeare in Baby Talk.

from Raymond Chandler Speaking.

From what I can determine, Aaron Klopstein is a figment of Chandler’s imagination. The Library of Congress never heard of him or his books, nor has the Social Security Death Index, and the only place the name appears to show up is in this letter.

Out of Print Expert Weighs In, from Maud Newton’s Blog

from Maud Newton’s Blog, out-of-print expert Robert Nedelkoff nominates three American novelists for rediscovery:

“What I’d like to do here is to present to any interested editors (at major houses, or at small presses with the kind of resources that would be needed) three American authors, whose oeuvres are extensive, and entirely out-of-print — writers whose work deserves the kind of treatment that Dawn Powell received at Steerforth or Stanley Elkin received at Dalkey Archive.”

His nominees:

Peter De Vries:

“De Vries … invariably hailed as ‘America’s foremost comic novelist.’ A writer whom Robertson Davies, in the Seventies and Eighties, repeatedly called the best American novelist, period. A writer praised by Kingsley and Martin Amis, Christopher Buckley, Julian Barnes, Thurber, Paul Theroux . . . the list could go on for centuries.” [Ed. Note: The University of Chicago Press reissued De Vries’ The Blood of the Lamb and Slouching Towards Kalamazoo in 2005.

Vance Bourjaily

“His first novel, The End Of My Life, was very nearly the last book edited by Max Perkins — and Bourjaily, to my knowledge, is the last living writer who worked with Perkins. (And, speaking of another of Perkins’ writers, Hemingway, in a conversation with Leslie Fiedler in 1960, singled out Bourjaily as the best writer of his generation….)”

Jerome Weidman

“Not long before he died, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote (it’s in his published letters) that Weidman was worth fifty or a hundred Steinbecks (forget which it was). Later in the Forties, Hemingway said in a letter that Weidman, in his first books, certainly proved he could write. Rebecca West liked him too.”