Tuesday, May 3, 2016

A Tour Through the Best-Selling Novels of the 1950s

The books that sell and the books that last through the ages are only rarely the same. Out of curiosity, I sought out a list of the best-selling novels of the 1950s, a decade I chose because it was long enough ago that the authors would no longer be writing and thus, I could assess the impact of their entire body of work and whatever cultural presence or cachet they might have today. There were several notable commonalities among the books on this list: many were made into major Hollywood films, the vast majority were written by Americans and set in America, and the majority of the best-selling authors were male - out of ten best-sellers per year, the highest number of women writers in any year of the decade is five. I was also very much surprised by the number of best-selling novels with Catholic themes.

Of the best-sellers of 1950, I have read only one - The Parasites by Daphne du Maurier, one of my favorite of her novels, and one of her strangest. It tells the weirdly fascinating story of three siblings, whose insular lives and interdependence make for a scandalously titillating read, and it's no wonder it was a best-seller. Also on the list are Ernest Hemingway's Across the River and into the Trees, a novel about the Warsaw Ghetto under the Nazis by John Hersey, two novels with Catholic themes (the top sellers), two historical fiction doorstoppers set in medieval Europe and nineteenth century California respectively, two semi-(auto)biographical novels about writers, and a historical novel by Frank Yerby, who I had never heard of, but who was the first African-American writer to have a book optioned by a Hollywood studio.

In 1951, the top seller was From Here to Eternity by James Jones, which I have never read, though I have seen the Hollywood film, with its iconic scene of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr kissing passionately in the Hawaiian surf, numerous times. Also on the list were two adventure novels about sailors in peril (including The Caine Mutiny, made into a film starring Humphrey Bogart), a short story collection by James Michener, the sequel to the aforementioned historical fiction tome set in medieval Europe, two books with Catholic themes one of which was written by Cardinal Spellman who was the ostensible lightly fictionalized subject of the other, a religious novel by the well-regarded Yiddish writer Sholem Asch, another novel by Frank Yerby, and a novel by John P. Marquand about publicists covering up a general's philandering. Marquand is largely forgotten today, but he is a fine writer, if not especially ground-breaking in either technical or topical approach and I would compare him at a slight disadvantage to John O'Hara. This was an especially bad year for women writers; nine of the ten writers were male.

In 1952, a larger number of well-regarded and remembered classics appear, including East of Eden by John Steinbeck, The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, and The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. Edna Ferber's Giant, the basis for the epic Hollywood film starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean, one of the best of the decade, made the list as well, as did yet another novel by Frank Yerby, The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk, two more religious novels - one about the Holy Grail and the other about a Pennsylvanian Calvinist congregation, a historical novel by Howard Spring that views English history through a child's eyes, and lastly a gothic romance by Daphne du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel, of all the best-sellers of the decade the one I'm most anxious to read. Most of these books were developed into films.

Religious novels were again prominent in 1953, with Lloyd C. Douglas's The Robe, about the crucifixion, topping the list, followed by The Silver Chalice. The other novels of that year range from a historical novel about a Swedish queen, another set in the post-bellum South, a third about a Venetian ne'er-do-well, two semi-autobiographical novels set in the macho realms of war and aviation, a book about a man reconnecting with his imprisoned father, and the last novel of James Hilton, famous for his rosy portraits of uppercrusty English life and his novels Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Lost Horizon. Though stereotypically manly fare of the sort that Hemingway pioneered held its own this year, that particular style was overtaken by historical works with a more romantic sensibility.

1954 was a year for historical romance, though one comedic book made the list as well. Lesser known novels by Daphne du Maurier, Mary Anne, and John Steinbeck, Sweet Thursday, made the list, as did a pulpy melodrama about ambitious doctors, another pulpy historical novel set during Andrew Jackson's presidency, a romantic novel about Abraham Lincoln's marriage by Irving Stone (best known for Lust for Life), a comedic and much-adapted novel about a yokel in the army, a mystery, and most interestingly a novel based on the life of ancient Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten, by Mika Waltari. Akhenaten, considered by some to be a proponent of monotheism, fascinated many writers and made appearances in novels by writers as diverse in approach as Thomas Mann, Philip K. Dick, and Dmitri Merezhkovsky.

I've read two of the best-sellers of 1955. Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis is a purely delicious novel, about a boy's decidedly unconventional upbringing in the home of his eccentric, spectacularly theatrical aunt, which I highly recommend, along with the film adaptation starring Rosalind Russell, who was born to play the role. The other I've read is Ten North Frederick by John O'Hara; though it's not one of his absolute best, the saga of a politically ambitious Pennsylvania family is engrossing and well worth a read. Other books that made the list include several holdouts from the previous year, the salacious megahit Bonjour, Tristesse written by then-nineteen-year-old Françoise Sagan, a romantic historical novel, some hard-hitting war fiction set in a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp and the Kenyan Mau Mau Uprising, and two novels about ambitious Americans, one an actress and the other a businessman.

Sexy novels about misbehaving women are conspicuous on the list for 1956: Peyton Place by Grace Metalious and another teenage romance with an older man by Françoise Sagan (its heroine is apparently described as "young, thin, and cynical") made it onto the list, and Auntie Mame, with its more comic take on a sexually liberated woman, held its own. The four other novels written by men deal with a prisoner-of-war camp, a shipwreck in 1710, diplomats in colonial Africa, the American navy (apparently with instances of parody), and a mayoral election in an era of changing technologies. Far more interesting are two books by women, both of which I've read and the presence of which proved a gratifying surprise. One is The Mandarins by Simone de Beauvoir, coming out in the United States just one year after the English translation of The Second Sex came out; the novel is a brilliant reimagining of the author's life immediately after World War II, and grapples not only with existentialism and feminism, but also with survivor's guilt, political disillusionment, and parenthood. The second is Eloise by Kay Thompson, the superb picture book about the fabulous six-year-old who lives at the Plaza with her nanny, her pug, and her turtle. I think it's quite remarkable that a picture book, even such a great one, made the best-seller list.

Small town America dominates many of the best-selling novels of 1957, including Peyton Place, a novel about an ambivalent attorney, a comic novel about the misery of a husband whose wife goes to civic meetings (not a joke - this is a strong contender for the least promising best-seller of the decade), and a historical novel set in Louisiana as it transitions from undeveloped swamp to rice farms. In addition, the list includes Kay Thompson's second Eloise book, a novel about a senator who travels back in time to England during the period of the writing of the Magna Carta, a torn-from-the-headlines thriller based on the Leopold-Loeb case by Meyer Levin who had covered the case as a journalist, and most interestingly, a rare science fiction novel, about the aftermath of nuclear apocalypse. Daphne du Maurier made the list once again, this time with The Scapegoat, an especially good mystery with supernatural overtones about a man who meets his perfect double. Lastly, Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged squeezed into the tenth spot, grotesquely popular from the year of its publication.

1958 is a year of familiar names. Boris Pasternak's romantic epic, Doctor Zhivago, smuggled out of Soviet Russia, was number one, followed by Anatomy of Murder by Robert Traver (adapted by Otto Preminger with Jimmy Stewart starring as the lawyer caught up in a sensational trial), Nabokov's still-controversial Lolita, Patrick Dennis's sequel to Auntie Mame, another family saga by John O'Hara called From the Terrace, and a third Eloise book. Two romantic historical fiction novels, set in colonial Massachusetts and the dance halls of New Orleans, awash with distressed damsels, a novel set in Alaska by Edna Ferber, and an autobiographical novel about the anti-semitism faced by a Jewish man married to a Christian woman finish out the list.

In 1959, both Doctor Zhivago and Lolita stayed on the list, but the most popular novel was Exodus, Leon Uris's controversial novel about Jewish immigration to Palestine and the beginning of Israel. The novel both bolstered American support for Israel and attracted criticism for its racist depictions of Arabs. Political novels, in fact, dominated the list, with James Michener's Hawaii, which traces the islands' history from the first human inhabitants to its designation as a state, an inflammatory anti-communist novel about a "red" politician, and a deeply critical semi-autobiographical novel about the failures of American diplomats. After a brief respite, a religious novel, this one about the life of Saint Luke, made the list, as did what sounds like a bitter story about the rise and downfall of a tycoon and a comic novel by Paul Gallico, a wonderful writer who deserves to remembered more often (I'm very fond of his novel Jennie, narrated from the perspective of a little boy transformed into a cat). The most interesting book on the list for 1959 is D.H. Lawrence's 1928 novel, Lady Chatterly's Lover, which was banned on charges of obscenity until that year, along with Fanny Hill (originally published in 1748) and Tropic of Cancer.

A number of prominent and beloved novels of the 1950s did not make the best-seller list, some of them quite surprising, such as The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, Charlotte's Web by E.B. White, Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith, and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. The books that did become best-sellers tell us the genres that were popular in that era, strikingly in contrast to the best-sellers of today. While historical fiction and political novels, explicitly religious novels, and two especially gendered genres, the romantic melodrama and the military/naval/aviation adventure novel, dominated the cultural landscape in the 50s, today post-apocalyptic science fiction, mystery and horror, legal thrillers, and soft erotica dominate. The preoccupations of the reading public are made manifest in the most popular novels: colonialism, whether viewed positively or negatively, whether in the United States and its territories or abroad, the election process and the integrity of politicians, sexualized teen girls and young women in relationships with older men, and Christianity, ancient and modern, were some of the most salient principal themes. If this exercise demonstrates any one fact, however, it is that the books that have the greatest cultural impact in the moment of their publication are hardly guaranteed to stand the test of time, or even be remembered as products of their respective eras. I had read only ten of the best-selling novels of the 1950s; I had heard of less than half of the rest. Thus, while we may moan about the state of literature when Fifty Shades of Gray and junky conspiracy theory-driven pseudo-historical books by Bill O'Reilly make the best-seller list, it's worth remembering that Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys! - the comic novel about committee meetings  - was the fourth best-selling novel in 1957, the same year that Elsa Morante's Arturo's Island, Vladimir Nabokov's Pnin, Naguib Mahfouz's Sugar Street, and Iris Murdoch's The Sandcastle, none of which were best-sellers, were published. The great writers are still writing - it just takes us time to give them their due.

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