The Best Books of 1912 – you know, I usually do not push on to the 20th century. Ignorance is the reason. I have read most of the books I suggested as the Best (surviving) Books of 1812 and 1862, but I do not believe I have read more than three books from 1912, and more importantly I have not spent much time – what metaphor should I use – living in 1912. I do not know what any of it means.
So I will now write pretending that I do know (but I do not). Ideas I might develop if I knew more.
Two of the books I have read are Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and Leo Tolstoy’s posthumous Hadji Murad. What else has lasted as well as these? George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Shaw’s reputation seems to be slipping now, and Johnson’s ascending.
Now I start rummaging. Stefan Zeromski’s The Faithful River is said to be an important Polish novel. Theodore Dreiser’s The Financier is in print. Perhaps our economic hard times have given it new life; I do not know what is in it. Anatole France’s Les dieux ont soif (The Gods Are Thirsty), Saki’s The Unbearable Bassington, D. H. Lawrence’s The Trespasser, Willa Cather’s Alexander’s Bridge – what kind of audience do these books have now? Lawrence and Cather both have big fun in 1913. Max Beerbohm still has a cult audience, of which I am a member in bad standing, so A Christmas Garland, his book of literary parodies, still has some readers.
In art history, 1912 means this:
In other words, everyone has gone innovation-crazy and is turning traditional painting inside-out. But in fiction: Dreiser, France, Tolstoy, for pity’s sake – fiction has not yet taken the Modernist turn. Virginia Woolf said that everything changed in 1910, but she may have been off by a couple of years.
Then again, 1912 saw the first books from Gottfried Benn, Anna Akhmatova, and Robinson Jeffers. Something is changing in poetry:
from Gottfried Benn’s Little Asters
A drowned drayman was hoisted on to the slab.
Someone had jammed a lavender aster
between his teeth.
As I made the incision up from the chest…
[yikes, what have I done, let’s skip this part]
Drink your fill in your vase!
Five more surprising survivors from 1912: The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle, Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town by Stephen Leacock, and two Edgar Rice Burroughs novels, Tarzan of the Apes and A Princess of Mars. That last one I have read many times. The Burroughs books are available in special Library of America editions, and the Leacock has a Norton Critical Edition!
Who would have guessed? If you are lazily speculating on which of today’s books will be read a hundred years from now, do not hesitate to include your favorite massively popular fantasy novel series.
Note to self for future research: is A Princess of Mars a descendant of Flaubert’s Salammbô?
Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2” is a proud possession of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.