I was poking around on the Interwebs, wondering what we would be celebrating, in a literary way, in this new year of ours. The Newberry is going to have a number of events in commemoration of 1919, one of the most horrifying years in Chicago history (rotten summer: violence at the beach between men on the Whites Only section and swimmers across the line led to days of atrocity, paranoia about the Bolshevik menace caused persecution of Eastern European immigrants, the kidnapping and murder of a small child added to the panic, and Chicago saw one of the deadliest dirigible disasters in American history, as the Wingfoot Air Express crashed onto a bank at LaSalle and Jackson). What was going on in the literary world of 1919 while Chicago threatened to go up in flames again?
I see here that the Pulitzer Prize for fiction went to Booth Tarkington for The Magnificent Ambersons, which can still be found in HB Literature M-Z come July, while the Pulitzer for Poetry was split between Carl Sandburg (always at the Book Fair) and Margaret Widdemer (look around: I bet she’s there.) The Nobel Prize for Literature went to one Carl Spitteler, whose name I had not run into before this week. He was a poet whose work was of great importance to Carl Jung, which explains it all to me. (I am a lazy old poetry-skipper, myself, and a poem with Jungian importance is very likely to wind up in a sub-basement of my To Read List.)
Among the books which made their first appearance that year, and which certainly put in an appearancde at the Book Fair every year despite the lapse of a century are H.G. Wells’s Outline of History, William Strunk’s Elements of Style (in the later edition done by E.B. White), Mencken’s The American Language, Huizinga’s The Waning of the Middle Ages, Untermeyer’s Modern American Poetry, and classic omnipresent novels like The Moon and Sixpence, The Haunted Bookshop, Jurgen, The Young Visiters, Winesburg, Ohio, and Demian.
J.D. Salinger turned 100 on January 1, and other hundredth birthday honors go to reliable Book Fair authors like Edwin Newman (whose 1970s bestsellers Strictly Speaking and A Civil Tongue are still beloved by the same sort of people who wouldn’t be without their copy of Strunk and White), Doris Lessing, Frederik Pohl, Iris Murdoch, and…oh, my goodness!
The Catcher in the Rye takes up a lot of space every year, not far from those paperbacks of Demian, and Winesburg, Ohio, and the Golden Notebook. Copies of that Outline of History abound, in one and two volume editions. But for taking up space at the Book Fair every July. I’m not sure even H.G. Wells can compete with the man born March 24, 1919: Robert L. Heilbroner.
Mr. Heilbroner’s great work is a small, off-white battered paperback. Oh, I’m sure there was a hardcover edition, and maybe there are copies of the paperback which are not battered. But “The Worldly Philosophers”, his study of great economists (philosophers with worldly concerns) was thirty years old before we even started HAVING Book Fairs, and yet has shown up in multitudes every year. Says here that the book has sold over four million copies, and I bet I’ve priced half of ‘em by now. (I may be off in my math, but, then, I don’t get mentioned in his book.) It is the second best selling book of economics in history, after Economics by Paul Samuelson (of which I think I have thrown away at least four million copies. My apologies to Professor Samuelson—not for throwing away his stripey economics textnook–but for failing to note HIS centennial, in 2015.)
So if you gave away that copy of The Worldly Philosophers you had in college, celebrate the author’s hundredth birthday by coming in July to buy another copy. You don’t have to read it this time: just buy it in his memory. It’s a cheaper way to remember 1919 than buying a blimp.