We are going to step away from postcards for a passing moment, and think back to when I wrote a book blog. In those days, one of the chief services I provided the public around the New Year was to let it know about what anniversaries are coming up to celebrate, if you feel the impulse. (Everybody’s favorite book is somebody else’s hated classic they were forced to read by an eighth grade teacher or Aunt Prudence.)
Checking centennials found me in a world of creative ferment: 1922 was a real landmark in the world of the eventual classic. F. Scott Fitzgerald was having one of his best years. His book The Beautiful and the Amend came out in March, and the first movie version was available in time for Christmas. (He also published a story called the Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which would take 86 years to become an award-winning film.)
At the same time, he was doodling around some notes and possible plot points doe a book he would eventually, after an absurd amount of dithering, decide to call The Great Gatsby. AND his famous story “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” was published, a story I remember mainly because it was turned into a story for Mickey Mouse comics by Twilight Zone writer Charles F. Beaumont. (Literature can make REALLY strange bedfellows.)
Meanwhile, in Paris, someone is going to steal a small but significant valise in which Ernest Hemingway has the only manuscripts of every short story he has written. This valise is never seen again. The value of the lost valise has expanded as time has gone on, and is now worth any amount you’d care to imagine, if you have your time machine warmed up. (Mind you, if you’re the thief, that was a nasty thing to do to a writer just trying to make his way into the world of classic lit.)
Probably the wo most anthologized and high school-assigned poets in America have also been busy. In one night, Robert Frost writes two major poems: New Hampshire, and Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening. (A night in early summer, by the by.) Carl Sandburg, for his part, has produced Rootabaga Pigeons, one of the best unsung children’s books of its era. It was his attempt to produce a book on uniquely American fairy tales, and it was certainly uniquely something. Sandburg’s words are at full romop in this. (He went on writing Rootabaga Stories for years, and some have never yet been published. One was published only as one side of a record reads by Sandburg himself, and it’s nice to listen to his voice playing with his own words.)
There will doubtless be plenty of tributes to the hundredth anniversary of the publications of such books as Babbitt or Ulysses, but let us not forget The Worm Ouroboros (convoluted but rewarding fantasy novel),. The first book about Miss Mapp, and A.A. Milne’s Red House Mystery, with its controversial ending. (I have my own theory about that: the professional detective simply lied to his partner to get the partner off his back.)
The Cat and the Canary, a melodramatic mystery which would become campy fun for hundreds of high school drama classes, made its first appearance, as did Einstein’s The Meaning of Relativity, a relatively important book. Frank Harris began to publish My Life and Loves, a massive collection of history, sex, lies, and self-aggrandizement (Harris was the literary editor who asked Robert Browning if he had learn3d everything he knew about sex from Elizabeth Barrett. When Browning turned away without answering, Harris decided he was hiding something. So Harris was also a great tabloid reporter, before the tabloid was even invented.) Oh, and James George Frazer began publishing the Golden Bough, a massive tome which explained anthropology and all folklore for all nhuamanity (the book is still honored as a landmark, though most anthropologists admit his basic principles were completely wrong-headed. C.S. Lewis really did a number on him in Narnia.)
There are numerous highlights of later literature who were born in 1922, and who will turn 100 this year. As usual, it’s a confusing mix: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Jack Kerouac, Stan lee, Alastair MacLean, Hal Clement, and Charles M. Schulz.
How on earth can you pick among such events (and there are plenty more) to choose the most earthshaking literary event of a hundred years ago? If I had to choose, though, I will just mention that a hundred years ago this year, Margery Williams moved herself from the list of Okay Authors to that of Immortals with the publication of The Velveten Rabbit, a toy book that turned out to be real. Happy New year!