In early 1934, Malcolm Cowley, then literary editor of The New Republic magazine, sent out a series of letters to a number of America’s leading novelists and critics. “Each year,” he wrote,
… a few good books get lost in the shuffle. It may not be the fault of the publisher, the critic, the bookseller–it may not be anybody’s fault except that of the general system by which too many books are distributed with an enormous lot of ballyhoo to not enough readers. Most of the good books are favorably reviewed, yet the fact remains that many of them never reach the people who would like and profit by them, the people for whom they are written. Then, after a while, the publisher remainders them and they are forgotten.
Some week we should like to run a list of books like this, as a means of making amends to their authors–and perhaps also to the public that has so far missed the chance of reading them. Couldn’t you think of two or three or four and jot down their names, preferably with a few sentences identifying them?
About a dozen writers responded–and they include some of the biggest names of the era: Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, John Dos Passos, and Edmund Wilson. Cowley reprinted their lists and comments in two articles: “Good Books That Almost Nobody Has Read,” which appeared in the 18 April 1934 issue; and “More About Neglected Books,” which appeared on 23 May 1934. In addition, several readers responded to the first article with suggestions of their own, and their letters appeared in the 30 May 1934 issue. Although Cowley concluded the first article with an observation that, “American criticism ought to be given a chance, too, for sober second judgment of the books that deserve it,” the New Republic did not return to the subject until its brief series, “Lost and Found”, which is included among the Sources on this site.
Several titles came up on multiple lists–most notably Robert Cantwell’s Laugh and Lie Down, Catherine Brody’s novel of striking Detroit autoworkers, Nobody Starves, and Rudolf Brunngraber’s Karl and the Twentieth Century. Of these three, none has ever been reissued. The few available copies of Cantwell’s novel start at $150 and Brody’s at $55. Brunngraber’s novel, a fable of how Taylorism and mechanization ground down the common man, commands a mere $14.95 for a good copy without dust jacket.
Although a few titles, such as Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts and Kafka’s The Castle are now well-established classics, there are more titles that even I haven’t heard of than in perhaps any other of the Sources included on this site so far.
So dig in and enjoy this treasure trove of forgotten books.
See the full list at The New Republic, 1934