Monday, April 1, 2019

reading some famous U.S. novels of the 1920s - in America the successful writer or picture-painter is indistinguishable from any other decent business man

Not writing is a lot easier than writing, but I have some things I at least imagine I want to write, so I guess I will see if I remember how to write.  American books, Mimesis, British books, French books.  I am tired of being ignorant in private, so I will return, for a while, to being ignorant in public.

I feel that I do not know American literature especially well, but of course I know it better than any other; the feeling of not knowing it is an illusion caused by being surrounded by the stuff my whole life.  I also feel that I have recently immersed myself in American literature of, mostly, the first half of the 1920s, although when I add it up it is not really that many books.  Another illusion, caused by reading not just a pile of novels but also Langston Hughes’s great memoir of the ‘20s, The Big Sea (1940) and Edmund Wilson’s The Shores of Light (1952), like I am really digging in.

But many of the books – well, the fiction, not the poetry, whole ‘nother world there – are famous ones, sizable Humiliations that I have avoided for decades, so famous that they seemed all too familiar even if I did not really know exactly what was in them.  The Age of Innocence (1920), An American Tragedy (1925), Babbitt (1922) and F. Scott Fitzgerald, some Willa Cather novels – they seemed maybe a little dull.  They're not really so dull.

I am not used to reading such popular books.  They were big best-sellers, top 10 of the year, or close.  Cather was not in that game, although she sold pretty well, and Dreiser’s novel does not make the Top 10, but it made him instantly wealthy, allowing him to spend the rest of his life trying to write a “book of philosophy entitled The Formula Called Man” (Library of America timeline, 1935) and advocating for Stalinism.  Terrific.

Learning about Fitzgerald’s finances explained half of his life to me.  In 1919, he is almost unpublished; in 1920 he is selling stories, several of them, to the Saturday Evening Post for $3,000 a pop*. How much would that be today?  $39,291.61 – holy cow!  Plus he is getting movie money, options and so on, although at this point Fitzgerald and Dreiser and Wharton make as much money from selling books, not the rights to books.

Lewis was a hack writer who with Main Street (1920), which I have not read, hit on a perfect satirical comic formula, perfect for his audience but more importantly perfect for his talent.  Every couple of years he could write one on a new topic: business, religion, science, politics.  Let me fill out the magnificent quotation from Babbitt I put in the title:

“In other countries, art and literature are left to a lot of shabby bums living in attics and feeding on booze and spaghetti, but in America the successful writer or picture-painter is indistinguishable from any other decent business man; and I, for one, am only too glad that the man who has the rare skill to season his message with interesting reading matter and who shows both purpose and pep in handling his literary wares has a chance to drag down his fifty thousand bucks a year, to mingle with the biggest executives on terms of perfect equality, and to show as big a house and as swell a car as any Captain of Industry!” (Ch. XIV.iii)

The irony goes a couple of different directions there, doesn't it?  Another irony is that this, or something like it, wins Lewis a Nobel Prize.  Dreiser was a real possibility for a Nobel, too, for that big clunker of all things.  Plenty of prizes, plenty of prestige, are attached to these books, along with the cash.

I’ll wander through American literature for a few days and see what I remember.  Then it will be back to the booze and spaghetti.

* I made a grotesque error of memory here, which I corrected in a later post. Fitzgerald quickly hopped to $900 per story, and pretty soon "Benjamin Button" earned $1,000 - but not $3,000. Still, the basic point, about the huge amount of money suddenly dropped on Fitzgerald, is intact. Just not so much per story


  1. Wow, I had no idea Fitzgerald made that much!

    I haven't read much 20s literature yet, mainly The Great Gatsby and This Side of Paradise. I want to get into the genre even more, but it's strangely intimidating for some reason, like I won't be able to get out of it once I get in. :P

  2. Fitzgerald kept crude but clear records of his earnings. They are fascinating. I believe I studied the reproductions of them in Before Gatsby: The First Twenty-six Stories (University of South Carolina Press), but they must be on the internet, too.

    Luckily most of the surviving U.S. novels of the 1920s are pretty short, with a few exhausting exceptions, like Dreiser. And Stein. I have not read The Making of Americans. Tempted.

    But Wharton, Fitzgerald, Cather, Hemingway, Wilder - who else - Toomer, Larsen, Porter - short books. Hammett, Lovecraft.

    It's a fun period.

  3. When I look down the list of Nobel laureates in literature, I have my suspicious about obscure names like Rudolf Christoph Eucken, Verner von Heidenstam, and Carl Spitteler, but since I've never read a word they wrote, I don't have any standing to complain about them. I can, however, state with assurance that Lewis did not deserve his. What a travesty! That said, I enjoyed Babbitt when I read it many many many years ago, though I remember nothing of the plot. I thought I remembered Babbitt having a piece of paper that said YSTDMYPDF, short for "you smoke too damn much you poor damn fool" (people keep telling him he smokes too much), but I can't find it or anything like it by searching this complete text. Did my teenage brain invent it, or is it from another novel, or am I misremembering just enough detail that it's eluding my Ctrl-F? Does this ring a bell?

  4. I'd recommend an out-of-print, forgotten novel of the 20s that was a big success in its day: Samuel Ornitz's Haunch Paunch and Jowl. It's available to read for free on I wrote a review of it a few years ago.

  5. I loved Main Street, and I'be been meaning to read Babbitt for quite some time. It's interesting what you said in the beginning about "the feeling of not knowing is an illusion caused by being surrounded by the stuff my whole life." That could be a whole post in itself.

  6. The Ornitz novel, which I do not think I have heard of, sounds quite good, a response to The Rise of David Levinsky and a step on the way to Call It Sleep. Interesting.

    I should read Main Street. And Dodsworth, which mocks Americans in Europe, inexhaustible fun. I can see enjoying a Lewis novel every couple of years, the way the original readers read them.

    The slip of paper is in I.iv., part of the description of the contents of Babbitt's wallet. The slip says "D.S.S.D.M.Y.P.D.F." and is in there with "the newspaper editorials from which Babbitt got his opinions and his polysyllables."

    Yes, the Lewis Nobel is hilarious. I in fact have read Eucken, just his Nobel lecture. I felt obligated after having such a nice dinner in his restaurant.

    Let's see, I have added a missing word to Bellezza's quoted bit, and put in a link to the best-sellers of the 1920s. Meant to and forgot. Blogging is so hard.

  7. The slip of paper is in I.iv., part of the description of the contents of Babbitt's wallet. The slip says "D.S.S.D.M.Y.P.D.F." and is in there with "the newspaper editorials from which Babbitt got his opinions and his polysyllables."

    Thanks so much, that's bothered me for years!

  8. Welcome back--missed your posts last month, but then "not writing is a lot easier than writing" indeed. Where does Dos Passos fall/not fall on your list of 1920s Humiliations? I've had 1925's Manhattan Transfer on my list for over a decade, but the physical book just keeps getting dustier and dustier. Oh, well.

  9. I've read the USA books, but not Manhattan Transfer. The lack of the latter thus does not feel all that Humiliating, although I believe it is better regarded in France than in the U.S., which is interesting.