When I imagine the Top 10 lists of two centuries ago, long before, it seems, the invention of the Top 10 list, I rarely come up with anything like ten books. Not ten books that have survived. Maybe I could find ten good books, but that distinction is insufficient. The process of canon formation or whatever you want to call it is a means of discarding good books.
The Top 10 list of 1860, for novels, at least, is an unusual one, then. It’s long, and matches surprisingly well with our judgment. I’m not sure which novel would actually win if we polled the English-language critics of 1860, but I have no doubt that Great Expectations and The Mill on the Floss would occupy the first two slots. It’s the twelfth full-length novel of Charles Dickens, and only the second of George Eliot, but I somehow think the newcomer would win. My speculation is based on some of the reading in Victorian criticism I have been doing this year, in Rohan Maitzen’s anthology The Victorian Art of Fiction (2009) and Richard Stang’s The Theory of the Novel in England: 1850-1870 (1959). Dickens was a giant, but that Eliot novel made a heck of a splash.
The Marble Faun would have been on a lot of lists, too. I’m less sure about The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. He was much read but not quite reputable. Still, that makes four novels, in English, that we still read – that are even well-known. An unusual year. An amazing year.
If I spread my reach, I find more books, more and more. Ivan Turgenev published two outstanding novellas, On the Eve and First Love. The mysterious Multatuli published Max Havelaar, the most important Dutch novel of the century, apparently (I ain’t read it). Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson gave Norway, and us, A Happy Boy, a peasant novel. Now I’m joking, but the joke is on my own ignorance. Bjørnson won the Nobel Prize in 1903. I'll bet he’s good. I should find out some day.
John Ruskin had two books out, the outrageous Unto This Last and the fifth, final, volume of Modern Painters. Waldo Emerson’s last important books of essays, The Conduct of Life, is from 1860, as is Jacob Burckhardt’s vivid The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. These books would have been on various Top 10 lists, too, famous and impirtant then, still read now. I could squeeze the bibliographies and find a few more, but I want to switch back to my usual dismal story, and look at poetry.
Some landmark works of poetry were published, or at least written, in 1860. But I doubt they would have made many year-end lists. The crucial third edition of Leaves of Grass is from 1860 – who was reading it? Who knew it existed? Frederick Goddard Tuckerman’s single book, Poems, is from this year, too, but his best poems were not published until 1931, or, in the case of “the greatest poem in English of the century,” 1950.
The image of an arbutus plant at the top of the post is an 1860 painting by Martin Johnson Heade, a reminder of another shadowy poet. Emily Dickinson, identified with the arbutus, or so Christopher Benfey tells me in A Summer of Hummingbirds (2008), and was, in 1860, in the middle of her most extraordinary burst of creativity.
The Murmur of a Bee
A Witchcraft – yieldeth me –
If any ask me why –
‘Twere easier to die –
Than tell – (from #155)
And I have one more example. Spanish literature, torpid for two centuries (with one major exception), was jolted back into life by an enormously influential little book, Rimas,** by Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer:
I did not sleep, but wandered in that limbo
in which objects change shape,
the mysterious tracts that separate
waking from sleep.*
I love Top 10 lists, and think they’re enormously useful. The Top 10 lists of 2010 may very well include our own Great Expectations or The Woman in White or A Happy Boy. But give a thought to the contemporary Whitman, Dickinson, and Bécquer. Are they on anyone’s list?
* Plain prose translation from The Penguin Book of Spanish Verse, 1988, ed. J. M. Cohen, p. 388.
** Or am I simply wrong - was there an actual book in 1860? Or is that simply around the time Bécquer began publishing individual poems? I now think it was the latter.