Name that novelist

Some of the bestselling authors of the first half of the 20th century had wider name recognition among Americans than many of today’s celebrities.

That may seem odd, but the total population was smaller then, and there were fewer media outlets competing for attention.

Having books in a home was a indication of social status or at least social aspirations.

Besides that, books were not ephemeral products; for the most part, they were printed on high quality paper that lasted.

Can you identify the novelists in these descriptions?

Below are descriptions of five novelists who were names were household words in their heyday. See how many you can identify. (Answers below the photos.)

1. He had the same novel on the bestseller list four times in a span of 11 years.

2. This ex-preacher is said to be the first man to have a novel sell a million copies and the first novelist to become a millionaire.

3. Critical acclaim and sales don’t always go together, but this novelist took first-place honors on the bestseller list before her novel netted a Pulitzer and was instrumental in her the Nobel Prize for literature.

4. This outdoorsman and conservationist was a prolific novelist who wrote nonfiction and children’s literature, too. Today, however, he’s primarily remembered for his writing about the occult.

5. Despite his famous English name, prolific novelistic output, and regular appearance on the bestseller list between 1900 and 1915, this American novelist is virtually forgotten today.

photos of four novelists
Does any of these novelists fit one of the descriptions?


The names of the bestselling novelists

1. Lloyd C. Douglas made the bestseller list with his biblical epic The Robe in 1942, 1943, 1944, and again in 1953 when the film version of the novel was released.

2. Harold Bell Wright is the ex-preacher who made money and historical footnotes in the publishing business. Wright published his first novel at the insistence of his congregation. When he published his second, they kicked him out. From then on, writing became his full-time occupation.

3. Pearl S. Buck  won popular and critical acclaim for The Good Earth before making a name for herself as a civil rights and women’s rights activist.

4. Late in life, The Silent Places author Stewart Edward White became interested in psychic phenomena. White wrote The Unobstructed Universe (1940), which he based on communications from his late wife.

5. The Winston Churchill whose name is nearly always joined to the phrase “American novelist” was a household name in the early twentieth century. Churchill  hit the bestseller list with Richard Carvel (1900) The Crisis (1901), The Crossing (1904), Coniston (1906), Mr. Crewe’s Career (1908), A Modern Chronicle (1910), The Inside of the Cup (1913 and 1914), A Far County (1915).

Sons Eyes Chinese Modernization and Disappointments

A view of downtown Guangzhou, China
Modern Guangzhou is far from The Good Earth

Sons ends the story of Wang Lung begun in Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth and traces the stories of his three sons who despise the land their father worked all his life to acquire.

The eldest son, a fat, womanizing lout, rents out land to tenant farmers, from which he gets the nickname Wang the Landlord.

The second son, Wang the Merchant, makes money in financial transactions that are not always entirely respectable.

The third son, Wang the Tiger, is a soldier. By courage, cunning and luck, he builds a hundred rag-tag illiterates into a mercenary army.

Wang the Tiger keeps returning to the family to get money to support his army. He adopts a son of each of his brothers, but both disappoint in different ways.

Finally at his request, the brothers find two wives for Wang the Tiger, one of whom gives him a son. He trains the son to become a military man. The son, however, chooses to be a farmer like his grandfather, repeating the theme of sons rejecting their fathers’ values.

Focused on life’s disappointments, Sons is a novel most readers would prefer to forget. Today it seems more highly valued as a guide to understanding the forces driving Chinese modernization than as a piece of literature.

Pearl S. Buck
The John Day Company, 1932
467 pages
1932 bestseller #3

Photo Credit: “Guangzhou across the Pearl”   by Integam

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Good Earth Top Seller Second Year in Row

In 1932, Pearl S. Buck’s fictional portrait of a Chinese peasant whose backbreaking work and sacrifice made him wealthy took the number one bestseller spot for the second year running.  In an era when being a bestselling author meant more than selling 79 copies of a 99¢ ebook, being top of the bestseller list two years in a row was a true achievement.

In addition to winning  popular acclaim, The Good Earth won the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1932. A half-dozen years later, The Good Earth was influential in winning Buck the 1938 Nobel Prize for Literature although by that time she had already published the other two novels in the trilogy she began with The Good EarthSons in 1932 and A House Divided in 1935.  (Look for a review of Sons here at GreatPenformances in June.)

Today The Good Earth is probably more highly regarded by critics than by readers. Contemporary readers are less interested in farmers than in the murder and mayhem found in some of Buck’s less-well-known novels, like Dragon Seed,

Nonetheless, the novel is still good reading, and remarkably easy reading for such an acclaimed literary success.

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Great rereading found among 1942 bestsellers

The 1942 bestseller list introduced me to several novels I quickly added to my list of novels to read again—probably several times.

The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck and Dragon Seed by Pearl S. Buck are novels about life in occupied territory. Steinbeck sets his novel in a European town where an invading army learns that occupation is far more difficult than invasion.

Buck tells a story of Japanese-occupied China. An illiterate farmer Ling Tan and his family organize the local resistance. As they succeed in harassing the occupying enemy, Ling Tan worries about whether their facility for killing won’t ultimately destroy them.

Marguerite Steen’s The Sun Is My Undoing has a third perspective on the relationship between the conquerer and the conquered. Her whopping, great novel looks at the financial rise and personal disintegration of a British slave trader in the late 1700s.

Henry Bellamann’s King’s Row is a striking contrast to those three novels about sweeping events in history. History detours around King’s Row. All that happens in that sleepy little country town is that one man is quietly noble.

If at least one of these four novels doesn’t give you goosebumps, you should turn in your library card: your obituary will be in Friday’s paper.

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Dragon Seed Eyes Killing in a Good Cause

Rice paddies and mountains near Yangshuo in Southern China

In Dragon Seed, Pearl S. Buck returns to her beloved China to explore an important question: does killing change people into killers?

Ling Tan is an illiterate farmer. He and his wife Lao San have three married children and a younger son and daughter.

When the Japanese invade China, Ling Tan and the other farmers hope that by being civil to the conquerors, they can lead fairly normal lives.

They are merely fooling themselves.

The invaders rape and pillage, then set up local puppet governments to systematically bleed the country.

Ling Tan and his family organizes a local resistance. But Ling Tan worries about whether the killing at which he and his family become adept will not fundamentally change them, dehumanize them. Secret radio broadcasts from the Allies give them courage to wait for the light for the invaders to be repelled.

With its secret rooms, guerrilla raids, and the constant threat of exposure hanging over the characters’ heads, Dragon Seed will attract more readers today than Buck’s better known novel The Good Earth.  Dragon Seed covers less time and has more action, much of it horrifying, though tastefully presented. It also has a vivid characterizations and a wealth of telling detail.

Above all it has that nagging question every thoughtful person must consider in an era of conflict: does killing change people into killers?

Dragon Seed
Pearl S. Buck
John Day, 1942
378 pages
1942 Bestseller #3
My Grade: A-

Photo credit: “Chinese Landscape” showing rice paddies and mountains near the town of Yangshuo in Southern China. Uploaded by bewinca

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

1931 top novel picks are not for those who skim

My choices for the most enduring novels of 1931 are an odd lot. Though very different,  each is difficult reading for readers accustomed to stereotypical characters and happy endings.

Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth surely belongs on the list both for its vivid prose and its glimpse into nearly extinct Chinese culture. However, I don’t think the novel is appealing to most people in the world today. In a metropolitan world that values  property, The Good Earth celebrates an agrarian society that values land.

Maid in Waiting by John Galsworthy has a similar set of vitues and deficits. I’m afraid the self-controlled, cultured, public-sprited citizens who keep populate this and others of Galsworthy’s 9-volume Forsyte saga will appear as preposterous to today’s readers as farmer Wung Lu. However, Galsworthy has amazing facility to reveal character in undramatic contexts, and he’s a wonderful writer.

The Road Back by Erich Maria Remarque is a glimpse of Germany after World War I. As soldiers return home, they find their country and themselves changed forever. The novel provides  insight into the origins of World War II. It also is a powerful glimpse into the effects of post traumatic stress.

Equally compelling reading is Fannie Hurst’s Back Street. This novel about  a kept woman might better be called a novel of an ill-kept woman. Even the son is appalled by the conditions in which his father’s mistress was forced to live while her financier-philanthropist lover lived in luxury.

Linda Gorton Aragoni

Good Earth Gives Easy Access to Dying Chinese Culture

The Good Earth follows a Chinese farmer, Wang Lung, from his wedding day to his death.

Novelist Pearl S. Buck spent most of her life in China. She knows the pre-revolutionary rural life intimately. Through Wang Lung, Buck shows an entire culture.

Wang Lung puts his heart and soul into farming and O-lan, a former kitchen slave, is beside him every step. Besides doing housework, she works with Wang Lung in the fields, stopping only to bear his children.

Hard work — and good luck — eventually make them rich. But wealth is a mixed blessing.

Wang Lung buys a second, expensive wife. His sons are rebellious. He’s forced to take in his uncle’s family. And the doctor cannot cure O-lan’s fatal illness for any amount of money.

The Good Earth reads more like biography than like fiction. Perhaps that’s one reason the novel has endured. Wang Lung’s bafflingly un-American ways of thinking would seem preposterous in a standard American novel format.

Don’t be put off by all Buck’s literary awards. Her writing is simple and direct, not in the least “literary.” You’ll find The Good Earth easy reading.

The Good Earth
By Pearl S. Buck
John Day Co., 1931.
#1 bestseller  in 1931
My grade: Grade: A
© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni