Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Best Books of the Year - 1909

Every year at Wuthering Expectations at this time, I look back 200 years and mourn the heroic deaths of all of the good books that have been culled by the fine-toothed winnowing machine that is time.

Or I am mocking people who make Best of 2009 lists.  Whatever.  That's not my point.

Perhaps I am cheating by going back so far.  Perhaps the first decade of the 19th century was unusually bad for literature.  That might be true.  But in my judgment, there is more to it.  The winnowing process, however it works, has pretty much run its course after 200 years.  Older books can still receive more or less attention - the process never entirely ends - but much of what will be, is.  Look back one hundred years, and the process is more visible.

Warning: from, here on out, I don't know what I'm talking about.  Nevertheless, my guess about the current status of the literature of 1909 gives me the following list of fiction:

Robert Walser, Jakob von Gunten
Gertrude Stein, Three Lives
Jack London, Martin Eden
H. G. Wells, Ann Veronica and Tono-Bungay.

I have read none of those.  I have read Sholem Aleichem's Wandering Stars, and Lamed Shapiro's single best story is from 1909. 

I don't know how to judge the children's books that came out this year:  Gene Stratton-Porter's The Girl of the Limberlost, or Lucy Montgomery's Anne of Avonlea, or Frank Baum's The Road to Oz (altough I have read that one).   Kids' books follow a different path. These are all still read, certainly, probably more than those Wells or London novels.

William Carlos Williams's first book of poetry was self-published in 1909.  Ezra Pound released two little collections.  My Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume 2, Third Edition, politely ignores both books, as does the Library of America Selected Poems of WCW.  The first book of the modern Greek poet Angelos Sikelianos seems to be genuinely important, but now I have moved from ignorance to total ignorance.  How about Thomas Hardy's Time's Laughingstock, and Other Verses?  Or George Meredith's Last Poems?

I want to read all of these, at least the one's that are for adults.  But I doubt many will be read by non-scholars one hundred years from now.  Meaning, I predict that Tevye the Dairyman will still be read, and that there will be Sholem Aleichem scholars, and that some of them will read dusty old copies of Wandering Stars.  Same goes for some of the others, maybe all of them.

Have I cheated again, by picking a year that I knew in advance was thin?  Yes.

The 1909 painting is Both Members of This Club, by George Bellows.  Visitors to Washington, DC can see it in the National Gallery.


  1. I read Walser's Jakob von Gunten in July, Amateur Reader. Thought it was outstanding and would definitely include it on a list of my top 10 things I've read this year if I were going to make a list of that kind. Cheers!

  2. Walser may be my favorite writer I've never read. I know, a silly concept. So if I had to pick a single book from this post to carry forward 100 years, it would be Walser's.

  3. It seems like the "interregnum" period or whatever was actually great for childrens' and what we would now call "Young Adult" lit. The L.M. Montgomery books are all still read VORACIOUSLY, to the point that Prince Edward Island is a huge tourist destination for Anne-lovers (I am partial to her Emily of New Moon series myself). And Frances Hodgson Burnett didn't publish anything in 1909, but she was writing right at that same time. Then Baum's Oz books were coming out - what a star-studded cast, compared to the more "adult" stuff from the same period.

    More generally, I'm a fan of lists if they're openly personal - if they don't claim to be a statement about WHICH BOOKS PUBLISHED THIS YEAR ARE NOT FOR AN AGE BUT FOR ALL TIME, but are just a glance back at a year of reading, citing high points (and possibly low/weird/complicated points). That seems like a pleasant, contemplative way to spend a rainy afternoon.

  4. Emily, you're right about the kiddie lit. The Wind in the Willows is from 1908 (as is Anne of Green Gables). The Peter Pan books are around there somewhere. Kipling's fairy books. Something is in the air, or in the publishing houses.

    I like the Books for the Ages lists as well as the personal ones. I can be stronger: I think they're both necessary, actually. I'm going to try to write about that tomorrow.

  5. I think it's kind of cool that so many kid-friendly books from the 1900s are still really popular today. Does this say something about Harry Potter in 100 years?

  6. I would not be at all surprised if the Harry Potter books continue to have substantial numbers of readers 100 years from now. It's a question of the transmission mechanism.

  7. I'm also a huge Gene Stratton-Porter fan, though to be fair I don't know any others. But she's still in print.