Ow, my eyes. You can see the 1863 “Birth of Venus” by Alexandre Cabanel in the flesh – or in the marzipan (see the Zola quotation at the following link) – at the Musée d’Orsay, although I do not know why you would, since that museum has so many good paintings.
The Best Books of 1863 were better than this painting. But it was the year of the second-rate.
I would pick The Cossacks, Leo Tolstoy’s clear-eyed look at the desire to romanticize other cultures, as the best book of the year, but it is not quite first-rate Tolstoy. Now that is an absurd standard, but the fact is that The Cossacks is dragged along behind Tolstoy’s great masterpieces. It is read as much as it is, and will continue to be read, because of other books.
My list of surviving English novels for 1863 looks like this:
Romola, George Eliot
The Water-Babies, Charles Kingsley
Salem Chapel, Margaret Oliphant
Rachel Ray, Anthony Trollope
The Small House at Allington, Trollope, in the middle of its serialization.
Boy, there is always plenty of Trollope in the 1860s. I have only read two of the five. We see some of the same phenomenon here, I think, certainly with Romola, possibly with the Trollope novels. The exercise is to imagine that Romola were the only George Eliot novel. Would anyone still read it? The exercise is preposterous, so I will move on. The English class of 1863 seems a little weak, is all I am saying. Go to those links, though, the ones not to Wuthering Expectations. A good case is made for every one of those books.
No idea what was going on in French literature this year (or Spanish, or Italian, or German). American literature was almost put on hold by the Civil War. Without a doubt, the great American work of the year is a speech, the Gettysburg Address, elegant, forceful, rhetorically brilliant, and now, in its way, one of the key texts of the United States.
Louisa May Alcott’s charming Hospital Sketches and Henry Longfellow’s Tales from a Wayside Inn can hardly stand that kind of competition, although both are enjoyable books. The Longfellow book contains “The Birds of Killingworth,” a bizarre and superb poem of ecological apocalypse.
One more novel was not even second-rate artistically, but was all too significant, Nikolai Chernyshevksy’s What Is to Be Done?, a radical Utopia, written in prison, smuggled out, published illegally, eventually becoming a founding text of the Russian Revolution. So if not such a great year for novels, 1863 was unusually well equipped with important political literature.
I wrote a bit about the Chernyshevsky novel while discussing Fathers and Sons, where I was startled to see a number of people declare that they wanted to read What Is to Be Done? Are you all nuts? But I will suffer along with the rest of you. I should organize a readalong – it would be the least popular book blog event since the readalong of Herman Melville’s Clarel a few years ago. And if it turned out a fifth as well, that would be something.
I wonder what I am missing? I never mean these posts to be completely comprehensive, and how could they be, but I do hope that any additional suggestions sound a bit desperate and little-read – Walter Savage Landor’s last book of poems, how about that one?
Come to think of it, I have read that book. Landor, eighty-eight years old in 1863, was a fine poet; it is a fine book. But that is hardly my point here, as Landor knows:
The Poet Bees
There are a hundred now alive
Who buz about the summer hive,
Alas! how very few of these
Poor little busy poet bees
Can we expect again to hum
When the next summer shall have come.
One hundred and fifty years is a long lifespan for a book. Seven novels, the Alcott book, the Longfellow poems, one of the greatest funeral orations, not bad, really.