I’m no longer reading only as if I were living 100 years ago, as I did in 2018, but I’m still spending some of my reading time ca. 1919. Here are the books I’ve read this year.
1. January 20: My Antonia, by Willa Cather (1918). This story about a young Bohemian immigrant woman in Nebraska in the late 1800s, closely based on the life of a woman Cather knew, is widely, and rightly, considered the best novel written in 1918 (although the enjoyable but far inferior The Magnificent Ambersons beat it out for the second-ever Pulitzer). I wrote about My Antonia here.
2. February 11: Hazel, by Mary White Ovington (1913). For Black History Month, I looked into whether there were any children’s novels a hundred years ago that featured African-American characters. This book, written by a progressive white woman, turned out to be the only one. The story of a middle-class Boston girl who is sent to stay with her grandmother in Alabama, it turned out to be not just a fascinating historical artifact but a great read, full of adventure and friendship and adversity and humor and all the things a children’s book should have. I wrote about Hazel here.
3. February 27: The Education of Henry Adams, by Henry Adams (1918) (audiobook). In this posthumously published memoir, Henry Adams recounts his life as the grandson and great-grandson of presidents (as a child, he assumed that he would live in the White House when he grew up) and a student of life . Some parts are fascinating, like when Adams is living in DC, working as a journalist, and gets an offer from President Eliot of Harvard to be a professor of medieval history. When he points out that he doesn’t know anything about the subject, President Eliot says, “If you will point out to me any one who knows more, Mr. Adams, I will appoint him.” Professor of medieval history it is! Other parts are less compelling, like Adams’ looooong account of a naval dispute between the United States and Great Britain during the civil war. Strangely, Adams makes no mention of his wife, Clover, who committed suicide thirteen years after they married. (In addition to listening to the audiobook, I bought this edition of the book.)
4. May 15: Marion: The Story of an Artist’s Model, by Winnifred Eaton (1916). Eaton, who was born in Canada to a British man and his Chinese wife, was perhaps the first Asian-American novelist. (Her sister Edith, AKA Sui Sin Far, was the author of the short story collection Mrs. Spring Fragrance, which I read last year.) Marion is the fictionalized story of Winnifred’s sister Sarah, who moved to Boston and then New York to work as an artist and artist’s model. I wrote about this entertaining book here.
5. June 29: The Circular Staircase, by Mary Roberts Rinehart (1908). Rachel, a wealthy spinster, is moving to the country for the summer while her New York home is being renovated. Where to go? Bar Harbor? The Adirondacks? A way-too-big house where the servants refuse to stay overnight? No prizes for guessing. Spooky goings-on ensue: a mysterious figure at the window, strange noises, and soon a murder. The narrator has an entertaining voice, and Rinehart subtly skewers the American class system. (Did I imagine the homoerotic subtext in Rachel’s relationship with her maid?) There’s too much rattling around on the stairs and too little psychological development for my taste, though; I enjoyed Rinehart’s 1917 comic novel Bab: A Sub-Deb a lot more. Nevertheless, this book, which sold a spectacular 1.25 million copies and pioneered the “had I but known” school of mysteries, is worth a read. (I wrote about Rinehart here.)
6. September 22: The Girl from the Marsh Croft, by Selma Lagerlöf (1908; translated 1910). Reading my post about Lagerlöf, the Swedish writer who was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature, you could be excused for thinking that I paid more attention to her eventful love life than to her literary output. I did read her novella “The Girl from the Marsh Croft,” though, and I even watched the Swedish silent movie version, Tösen från Stormyrtorpet. It’s the story of Helga, a servant from a poor family of tenant farmers (a croft is a tenant farm), who goes to court to sue her former employer for child support. He’s about to swear on the Bible that the child is not his when, to save him from eternal damnation, she knocks his hand away and withdraws the charge. Fellow residents of the village are impressed, none more so than handsome young Gudrun. Helga goes to work for Gudrun’s mother, and romantic complications ensue. It’s a gripping and, for its time, non-judgmental story.
7. November 20: Understood Betsy, by Dorothy Canfield Fisher (1916). I read this book under what I can only describe as a kind of a spell. I adored everything about it, and I’m not usually someone who adores books. “She’s pouring maple syrup onto snow!” I would cry out to my poor husband as he tried to watch a soccer game. “She’s starting a sewing circle!” I can only surmise that I read the story of Betsy–an orphan who, until she’s sent to live on a New England farm, is so un-plucky that she doesn’t get up in the morning until someone tells her to–when I was very young and was tapping into my inner seven-year-old, who did adore books.
8. December 16: Pictures of the Floating World, by Amy Lowell (1919). Of all the century-old books that I’ve read, this is the one whose existence amazes me the most. Along with the East Asian-inspired poems that give the collection its title is a series of what are, to the modern reader, unmistakably erotic lesbian love poems. Except that no one took love between women seriously, so no one was paying attention. It’s an uneven collection, but the best poems (like “Madonna of the Evening Flowers”) demonstrate that Lowell deserves the critical respect that her work is very belatedly receiving.
Finding decent-quality editions of 100-year-old books, especially the more obscure ones, can be tricky. If the edition I read is reasonably readable (including downloaded versions), I’ve included a hyperlink. Hyperlinks for audiobooks are also included. Most of these books can also be found on Kindle (often for free), Project Gutenberg, and/or Google’s Hathitrust.