According to The Best Books of Our Time: 1901 - 1925, A clue in the literary labyrinth for home library builders, booksellers and librarians, consisting of a list of 1,000 best books selected by the best authorities accompanies by critical descriptions written and compiled by Asa Don Dickinson, Librarian of the University of Pennsylvania, Author of 1,000 Best Books.
There's always something enjoyable about last century's listicles.
I first stumbled on Dickinson's 1,000 Best when I was doing the research for Lost Souls, and was delighted to find his penchant for creating literary league tables. I think my favourite part of that description is the idea of 'home library builders' - the idea that if you don't have the Dickinson Certified Best Books™, well, your parlour simply isn't up to snuff.
Dickinson had a strict process for inclusion. He surveyed his notable peers, and any book that received four or more nominations was included.
This book specifically covers 1901-1925, and Dickinson notes that many notable authors simply didn't make the cut because of this restriction. There's no restriction on language, but Dickinson notes that only 69 of the 378 authors in the volume produced books 'in foreign tongues', which he concludes is simply the result of preparing a guide for (stated) 'English-speaking readers'.
Dickinson's top ten authors:
|G. Bernard Shaw||123|
Hergesheimer is totally new to me, but I'm not the only one. The top Hergesheimer novel (Java Head, see below) has been downloaded 13 14 times. Booth Tarkington is one of three novelists to win the Pulitzer Prize more than once, but, seems to be largely forgotten. According to Gutenberg, his most downloaded book is Lords of the Housetops: 13 Tales of Cats. Which, I'm not ashamed to say, I already had on my Kindle.
We also have a league table for the top 25 titles:
|Old Wives' Tale||Arnold Bennett||25|
|Forsyte Saga||John Galsworthy||23|
|Narrative Poems||John Masefield||23|
|House of Mirth||Edith Wharton||23|
|Java Head||Joseph Hergesheimer||20|
|Spoon River Anthology||Edgar Lee Masters||20|
|Call of the Wild||Jack London||19|
|Outline of History||H.G. Wells||19|
|Ethan Frome||Edith Wharton||19|
|The Virginian||Owen Wister||19|
|Joseph Vance||William De Morgan||18|
|Selected Poems||Robert Frost||18|
|Son of the Middle Border||Hamlin Garland||18|
|Growth of the Soil||Knut Hamsun||18|
|Mr Britling Sees It Through||H.G. Wells||18|
|My Antonia||Willa Cather||17|
|The Dynasts||Thomas Hardy||17|
|Four Million||O. Henry||17|
|Green Mansions||W.H. Hudson||17|
|Collected Poems||Edwin Arlington Robinson||17|
|Riders to the Sea||John Millington Synge||17|
|The Age of Innocence||Edith Wharton||17|
Dickinson, like any good proto-blogger, has much more extensive lists, as well as lots of subcategories as well. If there were Amazon Affiliate links in 1925, he would've been a very happy man.
As to fantasy entries, there are a few inclusions of interest. All quotes are from Dickinson.
|Peter Pan||J.M. Barrie||7||'This child's play' is one of nine inclusions by Barrie|
|Zuleika Dobson||Max Beerbohm||5||The 'comic fantasy' is one of five from Beerbohm|
|Episodes Before Thirty||Algernon Blackwood||4||Blackwood's 'absorbing autobiography' is the only inclusion from this author of 'mystical fiction'|
|A History of the Great War||John Buchan||8||Buchan's history is his only mention; notable, I suppose for the absence of Prester John (1910)|
|Messer Marco Polo||Donn Byrne||10||I've never heard of this, but is described as 'the story of Marco Polo as it should have been' (emphasis Dickinson's), and sounds fairly alt-history/fantasy-y|
|The Cream of the Jest||James Branch Cabell||11||Cabell has 54 endorsements across eight books, despite having his work described as 'slushy and disgusting'. This 'amazing fantasy' contains 'wistful beauty'|
|Jurgen||James Branch Cabell||8||More mixed summary of this 'yarn', which one critic noted was written with "phallic candour"|
|Cardigan||Robert W. Chambers||7||The 'Boudoir Balzac' is included only for this and The Fighting Chance (4)|
|The Valley of Silent Men||James Oliver Curwood||4||A romance of the Canadian Northwest, and the sole inclusion from the 'second most popular author in American during the post-war period' (see Grey, below)|
|The Return of Sherlock Holmes||Sir Arthur Conan Doyle||6||Sir Arthur also makes the list with Sir Nigel (6)|
|Plays of Gods and Men||Lord Dunsany||8||Dunsany fares well with the critics, despite being 'obsessed with themes uncanny'. Five Plays (4), A Dreamer's Tales (4) and The Book of Wonder (4) also make the cut.|
|Relativity||Albert Einstein||6||Included as a point of reference. Tough crowd. Keynes, Freud, Helen Keller and Booker T. Washington also appear, with a handful of votes each.|
|The Private Life of Helen of Troy||John Erskine||5||Also tangentially fantasy, I suppose.|
|The Wind in the Willows||Kenneth Grahame||9||'One of the small but interesting class of books which seem written for children, for adults'. (In which Dickinson foreshadows the booming YA industry of the early 21st century.)|
|Riders of the Purple Sage||Zane Grey||7||"In the years between 1914 and 1926 he has ranked as the most popular author of the American public"; if true, the (lacklustre) presence of just this one Grey demonstrates the discrepancy between commercial and critical opinion|
|The Mutineers||Charles Hawes||7||One of three 'swashbuckling' tales from the author, with The Great Quest (5) and The Dark Frigate (4). nb. The Mutineers has more 1925 endorsements than Gutenberg downloads, help Hawes out.|
|Puck of Pook's Hill||Rudyard Kipling||15||With 79 endorsements, Kipling does very well. The Jungle Books (1894, 1895) fall outside of the scope of Dickinson's collection but The Just So Stories (1902) do not... but do not appear on the list.|
|Babbitt||Sinclair Lewis||16||Dickinson notes that Lewis is the third best-selling author over this time period (behind Grey and James Curwood) but bends over backwards to note that Lewis writes 'a very different kind of book'. Lewis is having a bit of a resurgence with (the mediocre, but relevant) It Can't Happen Here (1935). Treat yourself; Babbitt is a far better book.|
|The Story of Doctor Doolittle||Hugh Lofting||7||Also Voyages of the same (4)|
|Graustark||George Barr McCutcheon||4||The sole entry from 'the most popular American fictionist 1900-1914', but his 'light romances' and adventures are not 'not often discussed by critics nor included by list-makers'|
|Hill of Dreams||Arthur Machen||5||'Machen belongs to the small company of genuine mystics'|
|A Maker of History||E. Phillips Oppenheim||4||Sure|
|The Circular Staircase||Mary Roberts Rinehart||4||One of two inclusions from the mystery novelist, who also created the first 'girl detective, Violet Strange|
|The Winning of Barbara Worth||Harold Bell Wright||4||Another Western, and the only inclusion from the most popular American 'fictionist' 1909-1921|
It is always fun to see how lists like these hold up over time, but it is hard to judge if this aggregation of critics did particularly well or badly. Certainly many of the top names have held up over time, whilst others (sorry, Tarkington) haven't. And there are some misfires as well: embarrassingly marginal inclusions (Proust and Beerbohm, for example).
The bias against non-fiction - given Dickinson surveyed literary critics - makes for an amusingly skewed scale as well. E. Phillips Oppenheim is pretty snazzy, but if we're approaching significance quantitatively, it is a little silly to have one of his adventures on par with the Theory of Relativity.
Dickinson's book allows us to look (and gently laugh at) contemporary criticism. But it does also help further the discussion of critics as curators, and, more importantly, the 'causality' of great literature. How many of these books wound up as 'great books' because the critics said they were, with the impact of a few voices lingering for generations? Who speaks for the masses - are Harold Bell Wright and James Curwood - bestsellers of their decades - justifiably forgotten? And, if so, does that mean the power of a few critics outweighs the voices of millions of readers? Or simply that the critics had impressive predictive power? Or, conversely, does the disappearance of Booth Tarkington show that there's not correlation at all - and despite collective, critical praise, the tide of cultural history is inexorable?
Perhaps, with the copyright expired, we'll be seeing a resurgence of some of these names. Or maybe not.
An early version of this article first appeared on Pornokitsch (June 2017).