My picks of 1967’s bestselling novels

From the 1967 bestsellers, I can recommend two very good novels and one good collection of quotations.

The very good novels are The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron and The Chosen by Chaim Potok.

The good collection of quotations is The Eighth Day by Thornton Wilder.

The Confessions of Nat Turner

Quote overlaid on photo of Black Lives Matter rally says white people can't help taunting and tormenting blacks.

Confessions is a novel, but one that’s based solidly in fact, with just Styron’s finessing to make it coherent and powerful for a twentieth century audience.

Nat Turner, a Negro slave who was raised as a “house nigger,” was educated by his owners at a time when allowing a black to have any schooling was a crime.

The family also had Nat trained as a carpenter, gave him his own Bible, and promised him his freedom at age 25.

Before that date rolled around, the family fell on hard times and had to sell their most valuable assets.

One of those assets was Nat.

Because of his carpentry skills, Nat manages to survive under the plantation system, but because of his education, in the white South he finds himself without companionship.

Loneliness warps Nat’s mind.

He begins to believe God wants him to lead a slave insurrection.

In August, 1831, a few dozen slaves in Southampton, Virginia — far fewer than Nat expected to join him — rose up against their white overlords, slaughtering mercilessly.

Styron presents Nat’s story from two perspectives. One is the story he tells his lawyer,  who is more interested in making a name for himself from the trial than in defending Nat.

The other is the story he doesn’t tell his lawyer: the story of what Nat saw, felt, and believed about the people and incidents that shaped his life.

Nat’s inner story is gripping.

He can’t ever be friends with white people:

Even when [white people] care, even when they are somehow on your side they cannot help but taunt and torment you. ~

And he can’t even hope to better himself by talent and hard work:

A Negro’s most cherished possession is the drab, neutral cloak of anonymity he can manage to gather around himself, allowing him to merge faceless and nameless with the common swarm: impudence and misbehavior are, for obvious reasons, unwise, but equally so is the display of an uncommon distinction, for the former attributes can get you starved, whipped, chained, the latter may subject you to such curiosity and hostile suspicion as to ruinously impair the minute amount of freedom you possess.

An historical note in the novel’s afterward reveals that Nat was right to be wary of whites:

All of the insurrectionists executed were given a decent burial except Nat. His body was handed over to doctors who skinned it. A purse was made of the hide, the flesh cooked for grease.

The Chosen

Chaim Potok’s novel about Hasidic Jews in New York City, revolves around a teenager with a different sort of relationship issues.

Two Jewish rabbis talk. Both love their sons.

Danny Saunders, a brilliant boy with a photographic memory, is being raised in an Hasidic home. His father, Rabbi Saunders, refuses to speak to Danny on any topic other than the Talmud.

Danny loves his father, but he’s boiling with anger and resentment about his father’s silent treatment.

At a Jewish inter-mural high school baseball game, Danny vents his hostility on the opposing team’s pitcher: Danny’s powerful, carefully directed swing smashes Reuven Malter in the face with the baseball, sending shards of his glasses into his eye.

Later Danny comes to the hospital to apologize to Reuven.

The two boys, finding they are both without intellectual peers among their classmates, become friends.

Reuven’s father becomes a mentor to Danny.

Reuven becomes a conduit by which Rabbi Saunders tells Danny that his father is sincerely, lovingly doing what he believes is best for him.

The Chosen is a shortish novel, and there’s nothing self-consciously literary in Potok’s writing style. Nevertheless, The Chosen isn’t a novel that can be skimmed: It requires thoughtful attention or readers will miss the love underlying the seemingly fractured father-son relationship.

The Eighth Day

Unlike The Chosen and Confessions, which are short novels with emotionally dense stories, The Eighth Day is a long novel with hardly enough story to fill a novella.

Wilder fills space with ramblings. They don’t make a good novel, but they make clever quotes.

These three quotes could be a comments on The Confessions of Nat Turner:

Man is cruel to man and even those who are kind to those nearest them are inhuman to others. It’s not kindness that’s important but justice. Kindness is the stammering apology of the unjust.

♠ ♠ ♠

Suffering is like money… It circulates from hand to hand. We pass on what we take in.

♠ ♠ ♠

There are no Golden Ages and no Dark Ages. There is the oceanlike monotony of the generations of men under the alternations of fair and foul weather.

These two comments might be stimulated by reading The Chosen:

No man can be a good father until he has understood his own.

♠ ♠ ♠

Men and faith and men of genius have this in common: they know (observe and remember) many things they are not conscious of knowing. They are attentive to relationships, recurrences patterns, and “laws.”

Here are three other quotes from The Eighth Day, to show to range of Wilder’s wanderings.

Boredom is energy frustrated of outlet.

♠ ♠ ♠

There is no creation without faith and hope.

♠ ♠ ♠

All mothers love their children. We know that. But maternal love is like the weather. It is always there and we are most aware of it when it is undergoing change.

♠ ♠ ♠

That wraps up my reviews and ramblings about the 1967 bestselling novels. The next time we meet, it will be to look at the bestseller list of 1968.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni


The Eighth Day: A simple story made complicated

The Eighth Day begins with murder of Breckenridge Lansing in his yard as he and his friend John Ashley are engaged in their customary Sunday afternoon rifle practice.

Tried and convicted for the murder, Ashley was rescued from execution by six silent, disguised men and never heard from again.

The Eighth Day by Thornton Wilder
Harper & Row, 1967. 435 p. 1967 bestseller #6. My grade: B+.

Having hooked his readers, Thornton Wilder plays them for another 400 pages, now letting them drift backward on the story line, them abruptly jerking them forward into the Great War era.

Set out in linear fashion, the plot would be fairly simple. Wilder’s literary style makes it complicated—which appears to be his point: The world’s bid and wide and our perspective is narrow.

Wilder dips deep into the histories of the Lansings and Ashleys, seeking family traits that the 1902 characters might have inherited that could explain their behaviors.

The time shifts nearly hide the absurdities in the plot.

Wilder’s characters are clearly drawn, entirely believable bundles of heroism and absurdities.

Despite that, whatever is distinctive about the characters is crushed beneath Wilder’s self-conscious style.

quote : compares way some people naturally idealize to silk moth's secretion

He produces bon mots as continuously as a Bombyx mori secretes silk.

quote: idealism of youth compared to silk moth's silk secretion

Two comparisons to a Bombyx mori secreting silk within 16 pages is one mot too many.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Heaven’s My Destination ridicules stupid faith

Some novels cross genres.

Thornton Wilder’s Heaven’s My Destination tangles them.

Heaven’s My Destination by Thornton Wilder

Harper & Row, 1934. 304 pages. 1935 bestseller #7. My grade: B+.

Cover of "Heaven's My Destination" calls it as a famous novel by Thornton WilderThe book is a funny, coming-of-age, religious novel.

Handsome, young George Marvin Brush, a traveling textbook salesman, is the novel’s ridiculous central character.

George didn’t put himself “through college for four years and go through a difficult religious conversion in order to have ideas like other people’s.”

One of George’s ideas is to found “an American home,” which at 23 he has not yet been able to do.

He’s looking for the farmer’s daughter he comforted in a barn one night at age 22, which made him “her husband until she or I dies.”

Since that night, George hasn’t been able to find the farm or the girl.

Her name might have been Roberta.

Or Bertha.

Wilder’s story romps along Tristram Shandy-style as George stumbles along making enemies by trying to live up to his principles.

The story is saved from farce by George’s shout, “Can’t you see that you don’t know anything about religion until you start to live it?”

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Woman of Andros Too Slim to Entertain or Enlighten

The title character of Thornton Wilder’s The Woman of Andros is an hetaira, a highly cultured and highly discriminating courtesan of ancient Greece.  However, if you are looking for steamy sex, look elsewhere.

Chrysis is the topic of gossip on Brynos primarily because she’s a foreigner from Andros but also because she reaches above her social and economic status. The islanders could tolerate her allowing favored young men to spend the might if she didn’t put on such airs.

Although she is scarcely above slave status, Chrysis reads and recites poetry and encourages young men to study philosophy and debate the best way to live.

For Chrysis, the debate is academic. She’s 35 and dying.

Chrysis has a younger sister.  Glycerium sneaks out to get away from her too-restrictive older sister. By accident she meets Pamphilus, son of one of the island’s leading citizens. Soon she’s pregnant.

When Chrysis dies,  everyone in her household is sold into slavery.  Glycerium, however is rescued by her lover’s father. He takes her to his home where Glycerium dies giving birth to a child, who also dies.

Wilder’s novel is scarcely longer than a short story. The Woman of Andros has some lovely description and an intriguing glimpse into ancient Greek life, but the slender plot is depressing.

Worse, what plot there is lacks substance to hold up a serious philosophical discussion.

The Woman of Andros
Thornton Wilder
Boni, 1930
162 pages
1930 bestseller #3
My grade: C-

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Bridge of San Luis Rey Toppled by Weighty Prose

The Bridge of San Luis Rey won Thornton Wilder a Pulitzer Prize in 1928. The novel has since been ignored in favor of less literary but more entertaining reading.

The story is this. In 1714, a woven-willow bridge outside Lima broke plunging five people to their deaths. A monk who saw them fall decides to prove that the collapse was not an accident but a demonstration of God’s perfect wisdom.

Brother Juniper spends six years investigating. He accumulates mountains of information, but never gets any closer to knowing why those people died rather than some other five people.

When the Inquisition burns Brother Juniper and his book, he’s not even sure of the purity of his own motives.

After Brother Juniper’s death the paths of those the victims left behind cross just as the victims’ paths had. And an observer wouldn’t be able to say what, if any, purpose their lives served.

Like Brother Juniper’s book, Wilder’s book is a report, not a memoir. He builds his characters from bits; they aren’t organic wholes. And, like Brother Juniper, Wilder tacks a vague moral on the tail end of ponderous prose.

Unlike Brother Juniper’s book, Wilder’s novel doesn’t require burning. It’s so dull, it will just crumble away.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey
By Thornton Wilder
Grosset & Dunlap, c1927
235 pages
#1 bestseller in 1928
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni