Reading the History of Popular Literature part 3: The Progressive Era and WWI (1900-1919)
This article is part of my series Reading the History of Popular Literature.
Books marked with a red asterix (*) are recommended reading. Books that were read previous to starting this project are marked "(previously read)". The country indicated in parentheses is the country of the author's origin (or citizenship), not necessarily the country in which the book was written. If the country of first publication is different then the author's country of origin, it is noted.
Books marked "(Not finished)" I did not finish reading.
What we call the Progressive Era in the United States coincides roughly with the Edwardian Era in the United Kingdom, the period after the turn of the century up until the first world war. It was a time of optimism and ideals mixed with chaos and social and political disruption; big ideas like woman's suffrage, alcohol prohibition, eugenics, occultism, Communism and Anarchism were all gaining traction, and major technological advances—the automobile, electricity, the telephone, the movie camera, the machine gun, etc.—were changing everyday life at an unprecedented rate. The rise of industry led to corporate power on a level no one had seen before, and American industrialists like Rockefeller, Morgan and Hearst ranked among the wealthiest people in the world. All this went hand-in-hand with plenty of violence, in the form of state-sanctioned genocide, revolutionary agitation, the assassination of major political figures and finally the bloodiest war Western history had seen to that point.
In popular literature, reaction to all this change generally manifested as yearning for a simpler time or a simpler world. This simpler world might be in the past, in the future, on another planet, over the rainbow or even just in the cops-and-robbers dramas of the newspaper, but one thing you could count on was that the characters would be larger-than-life, good and evil would be clearly demarcated and good would most certainly triumph in the end.
In America, and to a lesser extent Britain and Europe, there was also a massive influx of immigrants during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, as new technologies (like the steam and then the gasoline engine), and economic and political changes allowed population movement on an unprecedented scale. The racial and class anxiety this caused in the West manifested in popular literature as bald racism and stories where heroic whites battle against corrupt and evil foreigners or dark-skinned monsters.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (America - 1900) (Previously read)
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is doomed to always be overshadowed by the more famous and frankly superior 1939 film version. Baum was known for not wanting to scare or overburden children, and while his book and its many sequels have a certain charm, the characters are simple and talk mostly about themselves, and rarely engage in real dialog. We're a long way from comparatively sophisticated children's novels like the Harry Potter series or even books in what's called nowadays the "middlegrade" category. (Or, for that matter, almost any movie produced by Pixar, which are marvels of plot and character done in a way that satisfies both children or adults.)
Oz falls very solidly into the "nostalgia for a simpler time" camp, and its Victorianized Medieval world replaces locomotives and telegraphs with magic bubbles and flying monkeys, while still allowing for a tin man and, in the second book, a clockwork man, presaging the fusion of the Medieval and the industrial in fantasy to come.
The Gods of Pegāna by Edward Plunkett, Lord Dunsany (United Kingdom - 1905)
Lord Dunsany's influence on modern fantasy and horror can't be overstated. Dunsany took the orientalist and gothic tendencies of the 19th century and transformed them into whole pantheons of alien gods and invented mythologies.
This book is a collection of mythological tales of the imaginary gods of the land of Pegāna, and while it doesn't have much in the way of plot (it's rather encyclopedic), its deities inform the later ones of HP Lovecraft, JRR Tolkien and Dungeons and Dragons; in other words, the whole tradition of religion in fantasy owes much to Dunsany. I'll talk more about his influence on fantasy when we get to his novel The King of Elfland's Daughter (1924).
Arsène Lupin, Gentleman Burglar by Maurice Leblanc (France - 1907) (Previously read) *
Arsène Lupin may not be the first gentleman thief (see A. J. Raffles from the previous installment), but he is the archetypical one. In one story, after he gets caught by the authorities, he breaks out of prison just to show he can do it, walks back into the prison, and then at trial convinces the entire court that they have the wrong man. He will never pick a low-profile theft over a high-profile one, even if the low-profile one will make him more money. He is all about flair, theatrics, high society and honor, even to the point of returning everything he's stolen from a woman because he decides he likes her.
Leblanc also engages in some early fan-fiction that revels in his love of and debt to Arthur Conan Doyle— he brings Sherlock Holmes himself out of retirement to go head-to-head with Lupin in a battle of wits. When Doyle sued for copyright infringement, Leblanc, showing brass balls, changed the name of the character to "Herlock Sholmes". Yes, really.
The Magician by W. Somerset Maugham (United Kingdom - 1908)
The Magician is Maugham's send-up of the then-infamous figure of Aleister Crowley, who Maugham had met in Paris. Crowley was the most visible member in the popular Occultism movement, which sought to unlock the mysteries of the unknown through hidden ("occult") knowledge of the ancients, like magic(k) and alchemy. He was popularly called the "most evil man alive" and was known to have changed his name from Alexander because in his study of numerology he found that Aleister translated in the numbers "666", the number of the beast.
Maugham transforms him into Oliver Haddo, a figure not too dissimilar from Svengali or Polidori's Lord Ruthven. Haddo is a wily aristocrat who seduces people with both emotional manipulation and magic that functions much like hypnosis. He spirits away the hero's fiance and uses her virgin blood to create a gallery of monsters, in a Frankensteinian quest to produce life. One can draw a pretty straight line from this book to the mad alchemists of HP Lovecraft a couple decades later.
The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson (United Kingdom - 1908)
A much clearer and more direct influence on Lovecraft, Hodgeson, in The House on the Borderland, takes the spooky and monstrous aspects of Gothic fiction and firmly roots them in unfathomable, other-dimensional alien beings and happenings on a cosmic scale. This is a significant shift not just because it influenced Lovecraft, but because it thoroughly fuses the mystical with the science fictional. Monsters and magic are no longer quaint vestiges of a by-gone era to be playfully harkened back to as in Walpole, or easily rationalized and made mundane, as in Radcliffe. No, they are things that may be real, lurking under the fabric of the known all this time. The book is also oddly hallucinogenic, and there are long passages where the main character goes into a sort of trance and seems travel across space and time, eventually witnessing the death of the solar system and the eruption of stars from another dimension into our space. This is probably part and parcel with the same turn-of-the-century interest in mysticism and the Occult that gave rise to Crowley; it was a popular notion of the time that seances, transcendental trances and telepathy were real and had a scientific basis not yet discovered. While skeptics like Harry Houdini would go to great lengths to debunk such claims this trend of thought, as we shall see, never went away and continued to influence popular fiction.
Ralph 124C 41+ by Hugo Gernsback (America - 1911)
This book is sometimes referred to, notably by Samuel R. Delany, as the first ever Science Fiction novel. But wait, you may say, what about HG Wells and Jules Verne and all the other science fiction-esque books I've covered in this series? What about Frankenstein, which is also often referred to as the first science fiction novel? To answer that question you have to separate science fiction--or scientific romance--the mode of writing, from Science Fiction, the genre category. While traces of the former can be found all the way back to Greek mythology (think of Hephaestus’ artificial servants), the latter begins firmly with Hugo Gernsback. Gernsback was an inventor and businessman, and his first and only novel, Ralph 124C 41+ was published not in a fiction magazine but in an electronics magazine which he himself edited. The story was a hit, and led ultimately to him creating a publication just for this sort of fiction, Amazing Stories (launched 1926), the first periodical to definitively separate tales of scientific speculation from other sorts of stories. Eventually, this led to the publishing category called "Science Fiction", and, because Gernsback published the addresses of correspondents in his letters column, and those people then wrote to each other, this also led to the Science Fiction fandom community, and this, more than anything else, helped to define the new genre as an entity distinct from the rest of literature.
Ralph 124C 41+ is as much a story as a manifesto for a type of writing, a writing that is based firmly on existing scientific theory and extrapolates from that theory a wondrous world to come. There are characters, but they are simple and larger-than-life. There is a plot, but it exists mainly as way to get from one amazing invention to the next. No, the true main characters of the book are its gizmos. Some of the gizmos do indeed anticipate the future; for instance, Gernsback here describes what's essentially radar decades before it was actually invented. He describes 3D television (and channel-surfing), as well as space ships, microfilm, electric cars, picture phones, and many, many other things. Some inventions are based on outdated scientific ideas, notably a device that removes the ether from the air which was thought (at the time) to be the substance that light moved through.
In short, as a novel it's pretty terrible and as a work of future-predicting it's interesting and quaint from a modern perspective. But, most importantly, as an emblem for a certain kind of fiction, Ralph 124C 41+ set the stage for SF in the pulp era and represents the transition from the scientific romance of the 19th century into the Science Fiction of the 20th.
Fantômas by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre (France - 1911) (Not finished)
I had high hopes for Fantômas. Here's the description of the book from Wikipedia:
Fantômas was introduced a few years after Arsène Lupin, another well-known thief. But whereas Lupin draws the line at murder, Fantômas has no such qualms and is shown as a sociopath who enjoys killing in a sadistic fashion.
He is totally ruthless, gives no mercy, and is loyal to none, not even his own children. He is a master of disguise, always appearing under an assumed identity, often that of a person whom he has murdered. Fantômas makes use of bizarre and improbable techniques in his crimes, such as plague-infested rats, giant snakes, and rooms that fill with sand.
Arèsene Lupin without the moral scruples, fond of death traps and disguise! Sounds like just my cup of tea! Unfortunately, the book turned out to be incredibly slow and meandering, which was shocking in something that's ostensibly a crime thriller. There are long passages that describe the inside of a train car, or two people walking through a field, or workers in a train yard, none of which has terribly much bearing on the plot. In fact, the instigation of the plot, the murder of a minor character, doesn't even happen until some 50 pages into the book, and there isn't much resembling a plot (or character development, or anything) up until then to keep one reading. What a terrible disappointment.
The Magic World by E. Nesbit (United Kingdom - 1912) *
The Magic World is an adorable book of children's stories, well-known not least because in one of the stories a boy passes through a wardrobe into another world, which is thought to have inspired C. S. Lewis. It's of its time in many ways, as when the children dress up as characters in an Arabian story (showing the continued influence of Orientalism and The Arabian Nights). But overall it's pretty charming stuff and I would easily give it to a child (or adult) to read today. Mari Ness, over at Tor.com, has written some fairly intersting articles about Edith Nesbit's life and work including about how she was a committed socialist, polyamorist and bisexual at a time when that was very scandalous indeed, and worked subtle (and not-so-subtle) social criticism into her books.
Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey (America - 1912) *
There were Western novels before Riders of the Purple Sage, going back to when the wild West was actually wild, but this book helped solidify the uniquely American mythology of the West, and was one of the most popular and influential works in the genre.
Given that this genre is never something that I had any particular yen for, I was surprised by how much I liked this book. It still holds up, more or less: the characters are gritty and compelling, the plot, while melodramatic, is always entertaining, and the Old West with its rolling hills of sage is described in such loving detail that it becomes a character unto itself. Other things that surprised me: the book's about Mormons, and the primary tensions in it are between the Mormons and the "gentiles", as Mormon's call those not of their faith. Also this is the first book I've read for this series that has something resembling a fully formed and powerful woman who is an agent in her own life. Jane Withersteen is a very wealthy and powerful Mormon, thanks to the inheritance from her father, who befriends and falls in love with a gentile—an outlaw and a stranger. She then refuses to bow down the will of the Church and the arranged marriage with a man who just wants access to her land and money. The book is not kind to the LDS Church, and apparently the original edition was censored in the terms it used to describe it (the edition I read is "restored"). The Church is portrayed not only as sexist, closed-minded, bigoted and domineering, but downright murderous. There's also a fascinating subplot with another man who shoots and almost kills a legendary masked rider only to discover that the rider is a woman, and then nurses her back to health and (naturally) falls in love with her.
Strangely, while there are certainly gunfights in the book, most of them happen off-stage and are then related second-hand, as if this were a play, while the main action is given over to the romantic entanglements of the characters and their feelings of oppression by the Church. However, we know we're still in badass territory when the outlaw Venters snarls, "Where would anyone be on this frontier without his guns?"
It's also interesting to note that this is the last generation where a writer could presume the audience had a general familiarity with horses, and so some of the horse care and riding is described in terms that I had to look up.
This is also very much still in the time where one could not even hint at the idea of sex before marriage, even when the man and his masked rider are holed up together in a cave for months all alone. For comparison, Ulysses would not begin serialization in The Little Review until 1918 and wouldn't be published in its full form in the US until after a censorship trial in 1933. Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer was published in 1934 but banned in the US until 1961. Those are the most famous examples of books with sexual content being banned, but we'll see in this series how the treatment of sex evolved over time.
A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (America - serialized 1912, collected 1917) (previously read)
When news broke that there was going to be yet another movie of John Carter of Mars, some of my comrades on Twitter said that this time they wanted a film that was true to the original book. I responded that this was impossible, because the book was incredibly racist and sexist. A faithful adaptation of the Burroughs Mars material would be as impossible now as a faithful remake of The Birth of a Nation. (Admittedly an exaggeration; A Princess of Mars in nowhere near as racist as The Birth of a Nation, or even The Mystery of Fu Manchu (see below), but the point stands.)
A Princess of Mars is the story of John Carter, a Confederate officer and gold prospector in the late 19th century American West. While hiding from Apaches, he is mysteriously transported to the planet Mars, where the lesser gravity makes him incredibly strong and able to leap far distances. He finds societies of several different aliens, most hostile to each other, the best of which is a species exactly identical to [caucasian] humans (though without Carter's superior strength). Oh, and everyone on Mars goes around buck naked, especially the beautiful titular princess, Dejah Thoris. She naturally falls in love with John Carter, and he, in turn, uses his courage and manly manliness to fight off aliens and monsters and ultimately save the whole planet.
The non-human aliens here are basically shorthand for various Earth races, with ape-like African and conniving Asian stereotypes. The influence of these novels on George Lucas possibly explains the similar alien stereotypes in the Star Wars prequels. How all these species, including humans, evolved on Mars is never really addressed, though the notion of aliens who conveniently look and more-or-less behave exactly like us is one that will come back again and again.
But whatever else is to be said about the book, it was definitely influential. Even more, perhaps, than Burroughs’ most famous creation, Tarzan; there are whole lineages of interplanetary adventure stories that can trace their way back directly to John Carter. And while Burroughs is not a great stylist by any measure of the term, and his plots are contrived almost as a rule, his way of constructing adventure stories was always readable, thrilling and reliably action packed. His work is a huge and clear influence on the pulp era of the 20s and 30s, and it's hard to imagine that era without him.
The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu by Sax Rohmer (United Kingdom - 1913)
Published as The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu in America, The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu may be the single most racist and sexist book I've ever read. Just how racist and sexist is it? Here's an excerpt:
"You don't know the oriental mind as I do; but I quite understand the girl's position. She fears the English authorities, but would submit to capture by you! If you would only seize her by the hair, drag her to some cellar, hurl her down and stand over her with a whip, she would tell you everything she knows, and salve her strange Eastern conscience with the reflection that speech was forced from her. I am not joking, it is so, I assure you. And she would adore you for your savagery, deeming you forceful and strong!"
Ah, yes, Oriental women will only respect you if you throw them down and beat them. Good to know! And keep in mind that the "Oriental" girl being referred to here is blonde, without even the explanation of whiteness that Monte Cristo had for its oriental femme (she was Greek, which was part of the Ottoman Empire at the time). Perhaps the author simply couldn't bare the idea of his characters being sexually attracted to someone who was actually Asiatic. Fu Manchu himself, who is described as "the living embodiment of the yellow peril", has green eyes, again without explanation. I'm not sure what exactly we're supposed to conclude from that.
Fu Manchu has no mustache, which was as shocking to me as the discovery that Dracula has one. In the movie serials of this series, Fu Manchu is always portrayed (by a white man in yellowface) with a long, thin mustache, to the point where that style is even known as the "Fu Manchu mustache". Like Fantômas, Fu Manchu prefers elaborate means of executing his enemies, like death traps and exotic animals. However, unlike Fantomas, The Mystery of Fu Manchu is the first book in this series that I've felt is actually paced like a modern thriller: the action starts and never lets up from beginning to end, with practically a cliff-hanger on every page. Like Mars, this book neatly leads into the stories of the pulp era of the 20s and 30s.
"The Metamorphosis" by Franz Kafka (Austria-Hungary - 1915) (Previously read) *
As with Hucklebury Finn, this is another work where there's not much more to say but which I couldn't ignore. "The Metamorphosis" has had books written about it, and it's important and interesting and good for dozens of reasons. In terms of the literary lineages we're tracking for the project, the term "magical realism" was invented in the German-speaking world to talk about writers like Kafka and Robert Walser, and so this style of writing (and Kafka's work in general) would become incredibly influential when the mode moved to Latin America. Kafka liked his magic unexplained and unexplainable, a magic that is also surreal, a surrealism that is also magic. Kafka, of course, wouldn't be translated into English until the 40s, long after his death, and so his direct influence on the Anglophone world wouldn't happen until then.
Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs (America - 1912)
As mentioned, Tarzan of the Apes is without a doubt Burroughs most well-known and popular book. Serialized around the same time as A Princess of Mars (clearly a fertile period for Burroughs), Tarzan was a mega-hit, and Burroughs continued writing the ape-man's adventures into the 1940s. It has been made into films 8 times, and to my knowledge has never been out of print. It influenced not just stories of wild men in the modern world, but stories of barbarian heroes like Conan the Cimmerian.
That all said, I didn't bother reading it. I feel like I've read enough Burroughs to get an idea of what he was on about, and I just don't like him enough to read more.
The Weird edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer (2011)
The VanderMeers have assembled this massive book (800 pages) that traces the lineage of Weird fiction, that strain of fiction typified by Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith and co, from the beginning of the 20th century to today. At first, I thought I would cover the stories in the book in the articles in the series, but once I started reading it I realized that the VanderMeers’ project and this one were trying to do two different things. The Weird seeks to find and root out the obscure and unknown influences and instances of weird fiction and put them alongside the more famous ones to present a continuous chronology. This series, on the other hand, seeks to look specifically at popular works and see how they evolved over time. That said, The Weird is a fascinating book and well worth getting and reading and loving.