By Guest Blogger Nancy Down
The 1920s brings to mind authors like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the poetry of T.S. Eliot. Today we would call this decade part of the modernist movement. As a curator of a collection of popular literature, I find myself asking different questions. What were the average Americans reading in the 1920s? What novels were bestsellers? What types of stories were most popular? Publishers Weekly has listed the ten bestselling fiction books for each year of this decade so we do have some insight into the public’s reading tastes.
Many Americans were interested in adventure fiction. Zane Grey, the greatest storyteller of the American West, had a bestselling novels in every year of the decade. Born in Zanesville, Ohio in 1872 he began to fictionalized his family’s own stories and then create other stories of pioneer homesteaders, ranchers, cowhand, and buffalo hunters set in the mythical West. Other adventure stories popular in this decade were set in more exotic locales. Rafael Sabatini, an English novelist, published historical novels such as Scaramouche, The Hounds of Heaven, and The Carolinian set in the times of the Spanish Inquisition and the French Revolution. Another English author P.C. Wren, starting with Beau Geste, wrote action packed books about the French Foreign League in South Africa.
Another genre that was very popular in the 1920s we could call romance or women’s fiction. These novels cover a wide variety of plots and settings. Edna Ferber’s novel So Big won the Pulitzer in 1924 and tells the story about a widowed woman struggling to work her farm and raise her son on her own. The next year she had another bestseller with her new novel Show Boat. Edith Hull’s The Sheik became an international bestseller in 1921 as a “desert romance.” Set in the Moroccan desert, the book was considered “erotic” and “shocking.” A movie was later made of this story starring Rudolph Valentino. Other bestsellers reflect more contemporary history. Kathleen Norris’s Harriet and the Piper gives us a glimpse of life in the early twentieth century world on the Hudson in New York through the story of Miss Harriet Field secretary to the wealthy Mrs. Isabella Carter. Norris herself was involved in several causes of the time including women’s suffrage, Prohibition, and pacifism. Another interesting novel of the time was Grace Atherton’s The Sisters in Law. This novel begins in 1906 the day after the San Francisco earthquake and fire and ends in Paris with the armistice of World War One as he follow the lives of two women who are sisters in law. Another novel that was more of a comic treatment, but still a best seller of this decade was Anita Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. This novel tells the story of a young blonde flapper adventures in New York and Europe during the roaring twenties. The inspiration for the novel came from Loos’ observation that men are more likely to help blondes than brunettes as she was in a train with her luggage.
Another genre that was becoming popular in the 1920s was mystery fiction. Mary Roberts Rinehart, often called the American Agatha Christie, published mysteries such as A Poor Wise Man and The Breaking Point during this decade. Her novels were sometimes called “Had I but known” mysteries. S. S. Van Dine also wrote his widely popular Philo Vance mysteries at this time. These mysteries were well crafted puzzlers complete with footnotes and elaborate diagrams. E. Phillips Oppenheim’s spy fiction was also popular. His novel The Great Impersonator was on the bestseller list in 1920. This novel tells the story of an Englishman killed by his look alike double in Africa who then resumes the dead man’s identity back in England. Oppenheimer wrote over a hundred novels and appeared on the cover of Time in 1927.
Many of these novels may seem familiar to us today because a great number of them were made into movies. For instance Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was made into a movie starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell and directed by Howard Hawkes.
Two other developments that effected our reading tastes and habits during this decade are interesting to note. The Book of the Month Club started taking subscriptions in 1926. This Club was geared to a more middle class audience who could afford the subscription fees, but had lasting impact on shaping the reading publics tastes. The 1920s was also the start and more wide distribution of the American pulp magazines. Called “pulps” because of the cheap paper they were made from, these magazines could be sold for a nickel or dime and were geared more towards the working and lower middle classes. Such pulps as Weird Tales, Detective Fiction, Amazing Stories, and Black Mask all contained exciting stories of adventure. Stories in the pulps created the direction of American science fiction and the subgenre of the hardboiled detective in mysteries.
Altogether, the twenties were an exciting time for readers with almost any kind of story available that appealed to their tastes!
Nancy Down is the Head Librarian of the Browne Popular Culture Library at Bowling Green State University. She has a Ph. D. in English Literature from Drew University in NJ. She enjoys reading literature of all types and genres; and is especially a fan of detective and mystery stories.