California conservative and entrepeneur Ron Unz has set up a website, unz.org, 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.
- • 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 http://www.ket.org/cgi-bin/cheetah/watch_video.pl?nola=KJSRE_000000&template=_itv. You can also read an appreciative essay on the book, written by Jerry Salyer in 2009, on the Front Porch Republic website.
- • 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.
- • 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.”