Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Best Books of the Year - 1860 - the mysterious tracts that separate waking from sleep

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.


  1. It's a shame that The Woman in White probably wouldn't have made the critics' lists simply because it was part of the sensation school. Even Margaret Oliphant admired Count Fosco even if she hated most of Collins' work.

    I suppose it all depends on whether the critics or the readers decide. Dickens and Eliot would still definitely have been in there if the three-decker and serial readers had a say but also Collins. Then again, I'm quite biased!

  2. The Woman in White is fully deserving, a quite astounding example of narrative technique wedded to memorable characterizations and deft prose. Wilkie had it all going on.

    Max Havelaar is well worth your time. It's quite the experimental novel -- very 20th century for the 19th century, if you know what I mean.

    Good on you for acknowledging Bjornson and Becquer, too! Those are my kind of authors -- in the second or third rank of fame, they don't always get the wide love and recognition, but I frequently enjoy their stuff immensely. (Charles Reade, Charles Dickens's and Wilkie Collins's excitable pal, is another excellent example of such a writer.)

  3. What an amazing year that was! I read a lot of diaries and letters written in 1860 in the US South, and even though the writers are deeply concerned about sectional tensions at the time, somehow Dickens always seems to come up.

    Not only do we have "our" Dickens and Collins--but both might actually be on our lists this year. With Oprah choosing Dickens and Collins' new-found popularity, their books are probably pretty high on the sales lists.

    As for poets, I'll give a nod to Kevin Young and Natasha Trethewey. They aren't as big as Dickinson--but of course Dickinson wasn't big in her day, either.

  4. Charmed - I'm definitely thinking of critics' lists. Anyway, Collins, in spirit, has had the last laugh, assuming "now" is "last." He's doing all right.

    I'd love to see actual numbers about sales. I should look that up. I wonder where to look.

    Thanks, Patrick, for the Max Havellar recommendation. That fits what I have read. Someday.

    I thought about mentioning Charles Reade - The Cloister and the Hearth, his most famous book (I think) is from 1860. But it would be a stretch to say it has many readers now, and the post was already overstuffed.

    Lifetime Reader - thanks for those recommendations. I will seek them out. But - but! Both of those poets are much bigger than Emily Dickinson or Whitman or Tuckerman! Young is published by Knopf, Trethewey by Houghton Mifflin. Young is in The Best American Poetry of 2008, 2009, and 2010. Trethewey won a Pulitzer Prize at the age of 40!

    I need recommendations for the 2010 versions of the Whitman and Dickinson of 1860, so to speak, a real challenge, since the 2010 Dickinson of 1860 won't even publish a book until, let's see, 2040.

  5. Regarding sales figures, you often get announcements of 'this sold 50,000' or whatever but I'm not sure about their sources! I'll try and remember to check next time I come across one of those claims.

    As for Charles Reade, I haven't read the book you mentioned (yet) but I really couldn't get into Hard Cash. Reade seems to have passed me by I'm afraid.

  6. The Cloister and the Hearth was published in 1861, so one year off. Definitely Reade's most celebrated work; but, since it is a historical novel, not his most characteristic -- he specialized rather in sensationalist exposes of contemporary abuses. He is a slapdash technician -- he should have taken lessons from his bud Wilkie! -- but an engaging writer nonetheless. I'm glad to see that someone even tried Hard Cash, as Reade is little read or reprinted nowadays. I can firmly recommend his odd saga of prison life in England and emigration to Australia, It Is Never Too Late to Mend; the prison scenes are grimly powerful.

  7. The Oxford Companion to English Literature has 1861 for the Rade, too. So, good thing I left it out. Thanks for the note - and thanks for the Reade recommendation. I'm just the sort of madman who might read it someday.

    The Richard Stang book I mentioned has a bit about Reade, and describes him pretty much like you do. Sort of knocks him up against Dickens for the contrast.