Friday, December 19, 2014

The Best Books of 1864 - This could but have happened once, / And we missed it, lost it for ever.

I begin with James McNeill Whistler’s 1864 Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen, on display at the Freer, just because I like it, and for the metaphor, and because it prevents me from using a bizarre and hideous Millais that has tempted me.  No further japonisme follows.

An English reader in 1864 was in serial novel paradise.  Dickens had begun Our Mutual Friend; Trollope had completed Small House at Allington and started Can You Forgive Her?; Elizabeth Gaskell had Wives and Daughters in motion; if he also happened to subscribe to Dublin University Magazine he was getting Sheridan Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas, which sure ain’t Dickens but does have a locked room mystery.

Now, if I were alive in 1864 I would have ignored all of that while hashing away at the Best Books of 1714, but a wiser reader would have had a good time with the above.  Dickens was a celebrity, Trollope and Gaskell famous enough – I don’t know about Le Fanu – so these were all good candidates for Best of the Year lists, if the Victorians had had such vulgar things.

The novels would have had to compete with John Henry Newman’s memoir Apologia Pro Vita Sua, which I read this year but never mentioned here as perhaps a bit over my head, Tennyson’s pathetic Enoch Arden, and Robert Browning’s Dramatis Personae.  The latter is a masterpiece: “Caliban upon Setebos”! “Mr. Sludge, ‘The Medium’”!  Byronism!  I took this post’s title from one of its poems, “Youth and Art,” where the context is a little different.

The great caveat, as always: in English.  My pick for best book of the year is either the Browning or the Dickens, but the winner at this point in influence and status has been Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, one of the many literary responses to Fathers and Sons and that crazy Chernyshevsky novel.  Dostoevsky would likely not have made the Russian Best of the Year list, though, since his novella was ignored at the time.  Maybe Nikolai Leskov’s No Way Out, yet another response to Turgenev and nihilism, would have made it.  Lists would not even make sense in an environment like that, where literature is a branch of political and philosophical argument and no one cares about whether or not a book is a “good read,” whatever that is.

Two almost secret firsts.  Henry James published his first short story – strangely, a noir thriller about a contract murder – in a short-lived abolitionist magazine.  No one could have guessed what was to come.  Not such an important event, since if this one had not worked out the next one would have, or the one after that.

Meanwhile, in Ukraine, Mendele Mocher Sforim published his story “The Little Man” in the Yiddish supplement to a Hebrew-language newspaper, thus inventing modern Yiddish literature, just like that.  What a mystery, for such an act to have such consequences.  Mendele would write better fiction, including a redone novella-length version of this story, and his disciple Sholem Aleichem would write better fiction than that.  Something new had been brought into the world.  Almost no one in the world knew about it, but enough knew, and just the right ones, so it was not missed, not lost, but preserved.


  1. Gustavo Adolfo Becquer's Legends were published on 1864.
    Zola published his first book of short stories on that year, Contes a Ninon.
    Camilo Castelo Branco published his second take on doomed love, Amor de Salvacao, a couple years after his masterpiece Amor de Perdicao.
    Machado de Assis published his first book, the poetry collection Crisalidas.

  2. I also omitted Victor Hugo's egosistic masterpiece William Shakespeare on the grounds that the hugeness of Hugo might take up all of the the room in the post.

  3. Ah, more my era :) I suspect I've probably read more books from 1864 than from 1964...

  4. I was about to reflexively agree with you, but then I realized that if I add in children's books and science fiction and for all I know mysteries - what do I know about the dates of mysteries? - 1964 probably comes out ahead. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is from 1964; Lloyd Alexander's The Book of Three; Fuzzy Sapiens; Martian Time-Slip. And so on. And Bellow's Herzog, maybe the only high status art book I've read from the year.

    Counting on my fingers, and including the not-yet completed serials, I concluded that I have read ten books from 1864. Thank goodness it wasn't more, since I was out of fingers.

  5. Speaking of children's books and science fiction, Jules Verne was also busy that year, publishing four novels, including "Journey to the Center of the Earth." He had his faults, but there are worse writers, and certainly less durable.

  6. Four novels! Sacrebleu! Journey to the Center of the Earth, which I remember I tried and failed to read when I saw six years old, certainly deserves to be mentioned.

  7. Six is too young! Wait until you're twelve. I remember happily plowing through many Verne paperbacks at about that age.

  8. I admire the ambition of the little fellow. Wish I remembered what he had seen or read that set him off after that book.

  9. This is exactly the kind of memory that is likely to be false, but I remember going to the library in search of Verne, as if I had come across the story or title somewhere else. "Dinosaurs" is a good clue. Something on TV, I suppose.

  10. I loved this post for so many reasons. I wonder what would be my optimal reading year.

  11. Thanks - these are always fun to write. Every year, I think about retiring them, but then - too much fun. I already have the perfect quotation for 1865! So I have to keep going.

    The optimal reading year is a good game. You can play under different rules - just in languages I read, or I assume I have any new book available. I think I would pick 1865 over 1864. Strong period there.