Back in November 1949, a three-part series called, “The Pearls of Publishing” appeared in the Saturday Review. “In the hope of increasing and prolonging the public’s interest in deserving books,” the magazine’s editors asked American publishers “to think back over the books issued during the past year and select two titles–one issued by their own house, one by another firm–which, in their opinion, failed to get the response they deserved.” This did not have to mean the book was a flop: simply that it “failed to achieve the full impact” it should have.
Despite good sales and critical acclaim that eventually led to its selection as the 1949 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, several publishers still named James Gould Cozzens’ Guard of Honor, which was featured in the early days of this site. Elizabeth Charlotte Webster’s Ceremony of Innocence, a Candide-esque satire on religion and conventional mores that I stumbled across in the great Montana Valley Book Store last year, was nominated twice.
While a fair number of the books were too topical (Strategic Air Power for Dynamic Security) to expect anyone to remember them today, a fair number of intriguing titles pop up in the course of the three articles. Here is a sample:
- • Olivia, by Olivia
- Kurt Wolff, a legendary figure in publishing and then working at Pantheon, nominated Olivia, an anonymous novel published by William Sloane Associates: “A very beautiful and subtly written account of adolescent experience, which has lost nothing of its intensity by maturing in the cellar of memory…. It combines fine writing with moving content, and is a thoroughly civilized book. The anonymous author was later identified as Dorothy Bussy, nee Strachey–one of Lytton Strachey’s sisters. The book was about a young schoolgirl’s crush on the headmistress of her boarding school and was based on her experiences at the school run by Marie Souvestre before she founded Allenwood, where Souvestre had a profound influence on the young Eleanor Roosevelt.
- • Mr. Preen’s Salon, by Robert Tallant
- Theodore Purdy of Appleton-Century-Croft called this Doubleday novel, “A witty and delightful picture of New Orleans life … a good antidote to the innumerable lush and overheated books on that city which have been published in recent years.” Tallant was something of a scribe of New Orleans, with other titles such as Voodoo in New Orleans and The Pirate Lafitte and the Battle of New Orleans to his credit.
- • The Golden Warrior, Hope Muntz
- With four mentions, this historical novel about the Norman Conquest was the favorite among those polled. LeBaron Barker of Doubleday wrote of the book, “Miss Muntz’s success with the chronicle form, to my way of thinking, is going to have a decided effect on the whole historical-novel categoy,” and Edward Shenton of Macrae-Smith called it “a stark, somber story, written with great restraint but with a depth of feeling and power that set it apart from most books of its kind.”
- • The Willow Cabin, by Pamela Frankau
- “One of the finest novels I have read in a long time. The writing itself should stand as an example for young novelists, and the characters come alive in a fashion that very few novelists have been able to achieve. There is little or no sensationalism, no extreme exaggeration or histrionics; yet the story and the people have stayed with me very clearly since I read it.”–W. E. Larned, Whittlesey House
- • The Witness, by Jean Bloch-Michel
- Kurt Wolff recommended this French novel, which Pantheon published in translation, as did George Pellegrini. “Its central theme–the destructiveness of moral solitude–is of timely and universal interest. Though hailed by a majority of critics as an outstanding piece of sober, fine and compelling writing, sales have nor corresponded to our expectations.” Pellegrini called it, “The kind of book that people talk about once they’ve read it.”
- • Trials of a Translator, by Ronald Knox
- Marigold Hunt, an editor of Sheed & Ward, a publisher specializing in Catholic books run by novelist Wilfrid Sheed’s father, recommended this account of Knox’ struggles in translating the Bible: “Msgr. Knox’s own explanations of the kind of translation he was aiming at, and his replies to his foremost critics would have had a much wider appeal than has so far been the case. It isn’t as if he was the stuffy kind of scholar, or as if, at this date, anyone was likely to suppose him to be: Trials of a Translator is not only instructive, but exceptionally good fun.”
- • Napoleon: For and Against, by Pieter Geyl
- Conceived while a prisoner at Buchenwald, Napoleon: For and Against was one of the first works of meta-history–an assessment of how Napoleon was viewed by a series of French historian, and a fine illustration of Geyl’s view of history as an “argument without end.” Nominated both by its own house, the Yale University Press, and an editor from the rival Princeton University Press, who wrote, “The message–for all of us, not just for historians–is that we should search our souls pretty thoroughly before claiming that we have discovered objective truth.”
- • Last of the Conquerors, by William Gardner Smith
- Robert Haas of Random House recommended this novel from Farrar, Straus: “A fine novel … about a Negro in our Army of Occupation in Germany … a disturbing commentary on the way democracy sometimes fails to work. Extremely well written and with something really important to say.”
- • Late Have I Loved Thee, by Ethel Mannin
- Frank Bruce of Bruce Publishing compared this to Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain: “Conveying a message of deep significance for all, in the vein of ‘What profiteth a man if he gaineth the whole world, etc.’–a philosophy which many have completely ignored–Ethel Mannin’s book is a masterful work which could do an immense amount of good in its revelation of today’s basic problem.”
- • The Man Who Carved Woman from Wood, by Max White
- John Fischer from Harper & Brothers picked this as his firm’s best under appreciated title: “Admittedly not a book for every reading taste but those of us here who like it for its odd and spirited blend of fancy and humor are convinced that there are fifteen or twenty thousand readers in the country who would enjoy it.”
- • The Saracen’s Head, or, The Reluctant Crusader, by Osbert Lancaster
- “A ‘children’s book’ which should really be read for pleasure by ‘children from eight to eighty,'” wrote John Fischer of Harper & Brothers. This account of a knightly equivalent of Ferdinand the bull was the first of three, which chronicled the history of the the Littlehamptons of Drayneflete from prehistory to 1940. They were ultimately collected as The Littlehampton Saga. The other titles were
Drayneflete Revealed and The Littlehampton Bequest. Lancaster, who illustrated Nancy Mitford’s novels and created cartoons for Punch filled his drawings for these books with Easter eggs for those familiar with odd bits of English history and architecture.
- • My Place to Stand, by Bentz Plagemann
- John Farrar of Farrar, Straus nominated this from his own catalog: “One of the finest accounts of the overcoming of a physical handicap ever written. It has tenderness, honesty, and spiritual overtones, and a personal narrative. It has taste. It has made more friends and will make more, but it is difficult to understand why they have not been quicker to discover one of the books of the year that has wisdom and hope in it.”
- • Cream Hill
- This account of life on a Connecticut farm, written by editor and weekend countryman Lewis Gannett, led a usually-sober Kirkus Review to gush, “This opened a new door & me — a peek into the past of our countryside, a realization that it is not only in manmade things that we are the melting pot of the world. For here–along our roadsides–are flowers and grasses, shrubs and trees, immigrants from all parts of the world… It is a potpourri of Connecticut’s countryside natural history, the flowers and trees and shrubs, the vegetables, the wild plants he grew–and the ones he couldn’t grow. There’s nature lore, too,–the tomato has a wholly new personality for me. The thrill of his fern garden is contagious. And the seasonal round of week-end country living was alluring for its likes and its unlikes to our own, not very many miles away.”
- • My Place to Stand, by Bentz Plagemann