In April 1922, age 25, already with one best-seller (This Side of Paradise) to his name, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote his publisher, Charles Scribner II, with a proposal for a series drawn from the firm’s backlist:
I am consumed by an idea and I can’t resist asking you about it. It’s probably a chestnut, but it might not have occurred to you before in just this form.
No doubt you know of the success that Boni and Liveright have made of their “Modern Library.” Within the last month, Doubleday Page & Company have withdrawn the titles that were theirs from Boni’s Modern Library and gone in on their own hook with a “Lambskin Library.” For this they have chosen so far about 18 titles from their past publications–some of them books of merit (Frank Norris and Conrad, for instance) and some of them trashy, but all books that at one time or another have been sensational either as popular successes or as possible contributions to American literature….
Now my idea is this: the Scribner Company have many more distinguished years of publishing behind them than Doubleday Page. They could produce a list twice as long of distinguished and memorable fiction and use no more than one book by each author–and it need not be the book by that author most in demand.
Take for instance Predestined and The House of Mirth. I do not know, but I imagine that those books are kept upstairs in most bookstores, and only obtained when some one is told of the work of Edith Wharton and Stephen French Whitman. They are almost as forgotten as the books of Frank Norris and Stephen Crane were five years ago, before Boni’s library began its career.
To be specific, I can imagine that a Scribner library containing the following titles and selling for something under a dollar would be an enormous success.
- The House of Mirth (or Ethan Frome), by Edith Wharton
- Predestined, by Stephen French Whitman
- This Side of Paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come, by John Fox, Jr.
- In Ole Kentucky, by Thomas Nelson Page
- Sentimental Tommy, by J. M. Barrie
- Some Civil War book by George Barr Cable
- Some novel by Henry Van Dyke
- Some novel by Jackson Gregory
- Saint’s Progress, by John Glasworthy
- The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, by George Meredith
- Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson
- The Turn of the Scree, by Henry James
- The Stolen Story (or The Frederic Carrolls), by Jesse Lynch Williams
- The Damnation of Theron Ware, by Harold Frederick
- Soldiers of Fortune, by Richard Harding Davis
- Some book by Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews
- Simple Souls, by John Hastings Turner
Doubtless a glance at your old catalogues would suggest two dozen others. I have not even mentioned less popular writers such as Burt and Katherine Gerould. Nor have I gone into the possibilities of such non-fiction as a volume of Roosevelt, a volume or Huneker, or a volume of Shane Leslie….
One more thing and this interminably long letter is done. It may seem to you that in many cases I have chosen novels whose sale still nets a steady revenue at $1.75–and that it would be unprofitable to use such property in this way. But I have used such titles not only to indicate my idea–Gallegher (which I believe is not in your subscription set of Davis) could be substituted for Soldiers of Fortune, The Wrong Box for Treasure Island, and so on in the case of Fox, Page and Barrie. The main idea is that the known titles in the series should “carry” the little known or forgotten. That is: from the little known writer you use his best novel, such as Predestined–and from the well-known writer you use his more obscure, such as Gallegher.
I apologize for imposing so upon your time, Mr. Scribner. I am merely morning that so many good or lively books are dead so soon, or only imperfectly kept alive in the cheap and severe impermanency of the A. L. Burt editions.
I am, sir,
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald’s list illustrates the vagaries of critical and popular opinions. Of the 18 titles and authors, one-third are solidly established classics, recognized in the American canon, taught and discussed, and filmed at least once. Another third are forgotten titles from authors certainly less well-known or -regarded now (Galsworthy, Harold Frederic, Richard Harding Davis) but still of at least historical interest.
And then we have the well-forgotten or (now) poorly-regarded. From a critical angle, Predestined probably best stands the test of time (I’m in the middle of reading it now, in fact). It was reissued as part of Southern Illinois University Press’ fine Lost American Fiction back in the 1970s, though it fell back out of print until companies started mining Project Gutenberg and other digital archives for over-priced direct-to-print editions. The soft-focus Christianity and sentimentalism of John L. Fox and Henry Van Dyke lost its prime readership within a decade or so of Fitzgerald’s list and may forever forward seem archaic. The name of Jackson Gregory came back to me from my distant past, when I spent many a Saturday in downtown Seattle, scouring the high stacks of Shorey’s Bookstore, which had a whole room devoted to novels from the turn of the (20th) century. Gregory might once have vied with Zane Grey as American’s leading writer of Westerns, but Grey’s work has managed to hold on into its second century. Jesse Lynch Williams’ name will stay in the books as the first winner of a Pulitzer Prize for drama (“Why Marry?” (1918)), but The Married Life of the Frederick Carrolls doesn’t even rate an entry in Goodreads or LibraryThing. And last and least-known, we have John Hastings Turner. His Simple Souls sounds like a dull version of the cliche story of nobleman rescues poor beauty, but I’m intrigued by the opening lines of his 1920 novel, A Place in the World:
There is a kind of man who appears to be fashioned in circles. His body is a collection of curves topped by a round and shining head. His soul is as round and polished as his body, with no mad and jagged comers to scarify society’s epidermis. Even his life is a circle, for, as a rule, he will die, as his temperate habits deserve, at a ripe old age, on the very threshhold of infancy once more.