I have made my annual trek through the jungles of the Interwebs to check out what was happening in the world of books in 1920, so we can brace ourselves for any major centennials. I found a lot of rumblings which would rise into roars as the century went on, but you’ll have to pick out your own celebrations.
Eugene O’Neill’s second play, at the beginning of 1920, made him a hit, but his third, at the end of the year, made him a phenomenon. (He would go straight from there to icon.) F. Scott Fitzgerald published Tender is the Night and married Zelda, setting him up to become the poster boy for the Roaring twenties.
The Nobel Prize for literature went to Knut Hamsun, an author largely unread now in this country, though in his day he was an inspiration to young writers here and in Europe. Hamsun himself went on writing for years and years, with varying results, and went through a period of serious neglect for backing—very enthusiastically—the wrong side during World War II.
In the world of crime and detective literature, Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood gave us the eternal hit, The Bat, a comedy mystery which mocked the very clichés it was helping create. (It was so reliable on stage and screen that some experts feel Batman was named with it in mind.) The bastion of hard-boiled mysteries, Black Mask magazine, was founded by a couple of aesthetes who needed to keep their classier magazine, The Smart Set, solvent. Agatha Christie introduced the world to Hercule Poirot with The Mysterious Affair at Styles, while P.D.James and Mario Puzo, practitioners of quite different sorts of crime stories, were busy being born.
It was a good year for future science fiction writers. If you wanted to celebrate Isaac Asimov’s hundredth birthday, you missed it, even though no one is quite sure when it should have been. (He celebrated January 2, but he was born somewhere between October, 1919 and February, 1920.) 1920 was also the year Karel Capek invented the word “robot”. Coincidence? I think not. Fantasy and Science Fiction also benefited from the births of Frank Herbert (Dune), Richard Adams (Watership Down), and Ray Bradbury (who, with Asimov and Arthur Clarke, formed the ABC of science fiction back in the day.)
This year marks the hundredth birthday of Boris Vian (who wrote mysteries as mysterious American Vernon Sullivan), and Christopher Robin. Paul Scott, Charles Bukowski, and Amos Tutuola are marking their centennials as well. All of these folks have made their mark on the offerings at the Book Fair, particularly Agatha and Isaac. But there were two births which account for chunks of shelf space every year, over in HB Fiction.
Sloan Wilson wrote a lot of books, but in the 1950s, managed back-to-back bestsellers, tales of the angst of the middle class, the anguish of the suburbs: The Man In the Gray Flannel Suit and A Summer Place. We still get half a dozen copies of each every year, along with some of his less famous novels. He is not so widely read nowadays, and I don’t know that the Newberry has ever offered a seminar on his works, but his fame was revived in a dire way when the Unabomber used a copy of his Ice Brothers to mail a bomb to Lake Forest, Illinois. We at the Book fair do not endorse this reuse of second-hand books, even a grubby old bestseller.
Grubby old bestsellers, and plots like a bomb in a book, were the vocation of Arthur Hailey, who also turns one hundred this year. He was also very important in the simplification of fiction titles for a while, with Wheels, and Airport, and Hotel. He would spend three years on each book, absorbing as much as he could about the sorts of places he wrote about, and produced solid, heavy novels that one critic claimed were not so much impossible to put down as they were hard to pick up. Mr. Hailey was never nominated for a Nobel prize, nor did he expect to be, but I CAN tell you that when he autographed books, he always drew eyes and a mouth in the curlicue of the y in Hailey. That ought to count for something.
So those are SOME of the things we can celebrate this year. If you want to make trouble, you can mark the twenty-fifth birthday of the hundred year-old poet Howard Nemerov. (Yep, born on February 29, 1920.)