Modern First Editions 1930-1939
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
Perhaps the most famous detective novel written, The Maltese Falcon by author Dashiell Hammett is without a doubt one of the most important books published in the 1930's. Like many soon-to-be novels of the time, The Maltese Falcon was first serialized in Black Mask, a pulp magazine that focused on crime fiction. The book was later published by Alfred A. Knopf of New York City in 1930.
The Maltese Falcon is credited with popularizing the "hard boiled detective" motif in modern literature. The shadowy characters, stern and slang language, and turn-on-a-dime plot twists are emblematic of all of Hammett's writings, and they are all certainly present in The Maltese Falcon. The protagonist of The Maltese Falcon, detective Sam Spade, is harsh and observant, often having to work against the bureaucratic nonsense that roadblocks him, even the local police force. The character of Spade is largely representative of most of Hammett's "heroes", and his wise-cracking, womanizing ways are just as important to the significance of The Maltese Falcon as the ever twisting plot.
The influence of The Maltese Falcon cannot be overstated. Further, the dialogue and narrative style of Hammett has been emulated by many authors, and Hammett is considered to be one of the fathers of modern mystery literature. The book has been adapted into several films, and one of The Maltese Falcons used as props in the original movie has been, quite ironically, stolen.
The Good Earth by Pearl Buck
The first in a trilogy of novels by Pearl Buck, The Good Earth became a best-selling novel in 1931 and 1932 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932. Its stark yet compassionate portrayal of Chinese peasant life had a deep effect on how Americans perceived the East. The Good Earth was also largely responsible for Buck winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1938. The book has maintained its popularity through the years, even becoming one of novels chosen to be in Oprah's Book Club in 2004, which caused it to catapult back to the best-sellers list.
Historians and literary academics have argued about the political significance of The Good Earth. Published just a few years before the onset of World War Two, some think that the sensitive descriptions of the Chinese softened America's edge towards Asia and perhaps influenced public policy towards the Eastern Theatre in the Second World War. Of course, other historians argue that even though Buck introduced many Americans to China and Chinese history, the course of the war with Japan or trade policies with the Chinese remained unaffected by the novel.
Even though Buck was a white woman born in West Virginia, she spent much of the first half of her life in China with her missionary parents. It can be said that The Good Earth was the start of a trend in literature focusing on Asian and Asian-American cultures and families. For many Americans, it was the first interaction they had with Asian culture, and Buck will forever be remembered as one of the foremost ambassadors between the Western and Eastern worlds.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Aldous Huxley was a well established and highly regarded author by the time Brave New World was published in 1932. Huxley's new novel was highly anticipated after the popular success of Point Counterpoint 4 years earlier. The book was generally applauded by critics, but critical reception was somewhat mixed, and criticism was often focused on the book's subject matter more than it's literary merits. Sales, while healthy, didn't predict the novel's long term success.
In England, Huxley's home country and where the book was first published, Brave New World sold 13,000 copies in the first year, around half the number of copies Point Counterpoint sold in its first year. Doubleday Doran in the US reported 15,000 copies sold between 1932-33, which apparently wasn't quite enough for the publisher to keep the author on after his initial contract expired. Huxley moved to the publisher Harper for his next US releases.
This dystopian, futuristic cautionary tale has become Huxley's best selling and best known novel, although some of its noteriety is for its frequent choice by censors. Brave New World ranked #52 of the 100 most banned books of 1990-2001, and both Australia and Ireland were well ahead of the curve by banning it the same year it was published.
God's Little Acre by Erskine Caldwell
Any discussion of great Southern Gothic literature must include Erskine Caldwell's novel, God's Little Acre. Published in 1933 by The Viking Press, the sexual themes in God's Little Acre made the novel instantly controversial and Caldwell a literary lightning rod.
A story of a tumultuous family living on the border between South Carolina and Georgia, God's Little Acre is a stark depiction of poverty, sexual abuse, and violence. While the book was received too much critical appeal, many Southerners were unhappy that Caldwell portrayed the region so negatively. The book was so notorious that the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice requested that the state of New York censor God's Little Acre before it was made available for sale.However, the initial uproar was only temporary, and the novel was adapted into a movie in 1958.
The multiple political themes of God's Little Acre are particularly noteworthy. After protesting a wage cut at a local manufacturing plant that used to employ several of the main characters, the plant management shut the mill down and caused mass unemployment. Concerned not only for manufacturing workers, Caldwell also depicted his characters misusing and wasting the land and natural resources.
Notably, the court case surrounding the censorship and banning of God's Little Acre is still considered to be landmark cases in First Amendment and freedom of expression protection.
Despite the controversy and potentially alienating political overtones, God's Little Acre would go on to top best seller's lists, with approximately 14 million copies being sold since its initial publication.
The Postman Always Rings Twice by James Cain
Distinguished as one of Modern Library's 100 Great Novels of the 20th Century, The Postman Always Rings Twice by author James Cain paved the way for gritty noir fiction that became so popular in the 1940's and 1950's.
The Postman Always Rings Twice is a dark and twisted novel about the danger of combining lust and crime. Published in 1934 to wide critical acclaim, it has been adapted multiple times into films, plays, and even an opera. At only approximately 100 pages long, Cain's novel is chock full of sex and violence, which was still quite shocking at the time of publication.
Noteworthy for its captivating plot and structure, the lead female character of Cora is a standout achievement of the work. Defining the dangerous and seductive femme fatale, Cora is one of the best known devious and criminal female characters of the first half of the 20th Century literature. The remarkably tragic end for all characters leaves the reader with no note of hope or optimism, condemning most characters to death or imprisonment. While not universally banned like many other sexually provocative books at the time, The Postman Always Rings Twice was briefly banned in Boston.
The rise of The Postman Always Rings Twice and Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon were among the first stones in the avalanche of crime and noir fiction that became so popular. Unlike other detective books, noir fiction is typically written from the perspective of the victim or suspect, and has a very terse, tightly controlled writing style and narrative. The result is a haunting, tragic feeling to the book, with the reader deeply invested in the resolution and consequences of the characters.
Decades after its publication, The Postman Always Rings Twice continues to influence authors and popular culture, making it a classic work of American literature.
Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
Any book called by a member of a state Supreme Court as a "slimy gathering of all that is rotten in the debris of human depravity" has to be considered an impressive piece of writing. The subject of many obscenity lawsuits, Henry Miller's 1934 novel, Tropic of Cancer, is considered by many to be one of the finest books published in the 1930's.
Tropic of Cancer is part fiction, part autobiography of the author's time in Paris, France during the 1920's and 1930's. His vicious characters and graphic depictions of sex made the publication of the novel infamous for its brutality and honesty. The characters in the book, often based at least in part on some of Miller's friends at the time, are unflinching in their flaws and nasty exploits with one another, and Miller pulls no punches in their depictions.
Due to its frank descriptions of sex and a certain fondness for four letter words, Tropic of Cancer has a long history of being banned in many countries. It was only in 1964 that the Supreme Court overruled a previous decision that rendered the book "obscene".
Notably, Tropic of Cancer was adapted into a 1970 movie by Joseph Strick. Somewhat predictably, the movie eventually was saddled with a NC-17 rating by the MPAA.
Many credit Tropic of Cancer as being one of the primary influences on the Beatnik Generation, particularly Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs. Miller's use of stream of consciousness, non-linear plot structure, and autobiographical themes definitely seemed to influence many Beat novels, and many authors credit Miller as a literary influence.
The African Queen by C.S. Forester
Made into a popular 1951 film starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, The African Queen is the most well-known novel by author C.S. Forester. Set in 1914 Central Africa, the plot focuses on the contentious but growing relationship between the two protagonists as they attempt to blow up German forces in retribution for the German's attack on British missionaries. The movie focuses more on the romantic relationship between the two leads, but the book focuses more on the action-heavy plot.
The African Queen was well received by critics, called by the New York Times Book Review "a fast-moving tale and a very good yarn...Mr. Forester again and again proves himself a master of suspense." Forester was known for his action packed romps filled with romance and near-death experiences, and The African Queen was no exception. Forester provides a detailed description of the Central African landscape, including the trials and tribulations of malaria, intense heat, and the native inhabitants. In many ways, The African Queen was the first look many people in the West had of the African continent.
Because of the massive success of the film, The African Queen remains an American classic. Bogart even went on to win an Academy Award for Best Actor for the film. Readers should however, be prepared that there are significant differences between the movie and the novel, particularly several important details at the end.
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
In a 2008 poll, Americans listed Gone with the Wind as their second favorite book, just behind the Bible. Even though it was originally published during the Great Depression for a higher than normal price of $3.00, Gone with the Wind skyrocketed to the top of the best seller's list, setting a record by selling more than a million copies in just a few months.
Set in post-Civil War Georgia, Gone with the Wind is perhaps the most well known piece of literature set in the antebellum South. Not only was it an instant domestic hit in the United States, it also became an international phenomenon, quickly being translated into many different languages. The 1939 movie adaptation of the book was a huge success and was nominated for thirteen Academy Awards. Notably, actress Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Oscar for her portrayal of the character Mammy, the domestic servant for the protagonist's wealthy white family.
While some consider Gone with the Wind an honest interpretation of post-War Southern reconstruction, it is important to note the stark historical inaccuracies of the novel, including its handling of racial and class divisions. Ever since its publication, there has been controversy over the depictions of slaves and the use of racial slurs. Many historians and academics have debated the use of Gone in the Wind as a suitable book for students to read in high school, as it provides a biased and inaccurate view of an important part of American history.
The influence of Gone with the Wind is difficult to argue, even decades after it was published. Its iconic characters and melodramatic story lines are well known in American culture, and it continues to serve as a catalyst for discussions on the depictions of race, sex, and class issues in literature.
We the Living by Ayn Rand
While Ayn Rand is most well known for her later novel Atlas Shrugged, her earlier novel, We the Living, is quite important as well. While it was not particularly well received by publishers or critics and was originally only printed as a moveable type with a first printing of 3000 copies, it found later success when it was re-published following the widespread critical acclaim of Atlas Shrugged.
It is important to note that because the first edition had such a small initial printing, true first editions are quite rare and valuable. The revised second editions, however, are much more available and therefore tend to carry less value.
Based on Rand's personal experiences growing up in Communist Russia, Rand commented that We the Living is the closest thing to an autobiography as she would ever write. As expected from Rand's other works, the condemnation of the communist state is clear throughout the novel.
Perhaps most interestingly about We the Living are the revisions made to the second edition when it was re-published in 1959. Even though Rand explained in the foreword of the second edition that any changes made were simply editorial line changes, not changes to the meaning of the text, many scholars and historians have argued the opposite. One potentially meaningful change can be found in the dialogue between the anti-state protagonist to the pro-state Bolshevik member. The dialogue was originally written as "I loathe your ideals. I admire your methods." But in the second, revised edition, the line is changed to simply, "I loathe your ideals."
While certainly not nearly as well known or as influential as Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead, Rand's We the Living serves as an important piece of literature all the same. The novel's autobiographical nature provides an interesting look into the philosophies and experiences of Rand, and it becomes clear how and why she developed the staunchly pro-capitalist ideals that have influenced so many people.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
When Their Eyes Were Watching God was first published in September 1937, it arrived amid a slew of controversy, even among some of Zora Neale Hurston's contemporaries in the Harlem Renaissance movement. The immediate reception and long-term redemption of this work is noteworthy in itself, as are the striking parallels between the author and her main character.
Zora Neale Hurston was a groundbreaking author, and so was her main character in this novel. The story is about Janie Crawford - an independent black woman who refused to be limited by her race or her gender in a time when both things meant that she should be treated as a second-class citizen. Hurston's positive portrayal of sensuality offended those in the black community who supported the Racial Uplift movement, as they found the main character lascivious and not a positive reflection on the black community at large. Her use of folklore and southern American vernacular even caused a reviewer to decry the book as "a minstrel show for white audiences."
Their Eyes Were Watching God did receive some positive attention, but overall, it did not initially sell well and it fell into obscurity along with Hurston herself. The novel was not reprinted in Hurston's lifetime, and the author died in poverty in 1960.
There was a shift in the 1970's, however, that changed all of that. A surge of progressive Black Studies and Women's Studies programs were spreading across universities in the United States, bringing attention and appreciation to Hurston. A young Alice Walker published an essay called "Looking for Zora" in Ms. magazine in 1975 and the subsequent flood of interest in Zora Neale Hurston caused a 1978 re-issue of Their Eyes Were Watching God. Over 75,000 copies of the paperback were sold in less than a month, and it is now frequently featured in high school reading lists all across the United States.
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
One of the best known books in children's literature, J.R.R. Tolkien's novel The Hobbit has long endured in popularity and Western culture since it was first published in 1937. It enjoyed a very successful reception by critics and casual readers alike, vaulting it to the top of best-sellers lists and was nominated for the Carnegie Medal, a British award that annually recognizes outstanding works in children's and young adult literature.
Adapted several times of the years into films, television movies, and even comic books, The Hobbit is no longer considered just a book for children, as adults continue to discover and re-read The Hobbit year after year. Fantastical plots, colorful characters, and stark attention to detail are well-known qualities of Tolkien's novels, and The Hobbit is no exception.One particular standout character of The Hobbit is the devious, deceptive, and pitiful creature of Gollum, the well-known foil to protagonist Bilbo and in Tolkien's later novel, Bilbo's nephew, Frodo.
Of course, one of the principle achievements of The Hobbit is how well it sets up Tolkien's sequel, The Lord of the Rings. The Lord of the Rings is the three-book epic set 60 years after The Hobbit, but maintains much of the same structure and characters as The Hobbit. Many editions of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings include detailed illustrations and appendices to provide further detail to what is already a rich and colorful fantasy world.
The Hobbit is now widely considered a classic in children's literature, and it spawned a wave of fantasy novels after it was received with so much critical acclaim.It certainly seems that The Hobbit is destined to be one of those beloved books that is passed along to each new generation of young readers.
Murphy by Samuel Beckett
A protégé of fellow Irish author James Joyce, Samuel Beckett is one of the foremost authors of the modernist literary movement, even though Murphy is said by many to be Beckett's most traditional novel. Featuring a protagonist who wishes avoid all action and enjoy various states of non-existence, Murphy is a complicated piece of fiction that not all find accessible. In fact, it took Beckett nearly three years to find a publisher willing to publish such a difficult and complex book.
In typical modernist fashion, Murphy has an interesting plot structure, with three chapters set in an asylum and one chapter set solely in the protagonist's mind. Although a definitive piece of narrative fiction, Murphy is a strikingly philosophical work as well. Beginning with a description of his protagonist in physical bondage so as to free his mental state, Beckett is unafraid to explore psychological and metaphysical questions in his book. Highly influenced by the trend of psychoanalysis and the presence of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, Beckett incorporates elements of both philosophy and psychology in Murphy, making it larger than just a straightforward novel. That type of experimentation inspired thousands of authors afterwards and made Beckett a particularly influential writer.
Even though critics were not confident in Murphy's long-term success because it was so non-traditional, it went to inspire and influence a whole generation of writers.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
John Steinbeck's seminal American novel, The Grapes of Wrath is widely considered one of the premiere works of literature of the 20th Century. Published in 1939 to wide critical acclaim, The Grapes of Wrath beautifully captures the pain and resolve of those who lived through the American Great Depression. The book catapulted Steinbeck to fame, who went on win the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. A staple of high school reading lists, the complex writing and social analysis has inspired thousands of debates and arguments, along with plenty of stage and film adaptations.
The Grapes of Wrath is one of the most collectible pieces of American literature. Originally sold for just $2.75, pristine first edition copies are valued anywhere from $25,000 to upwards of $75,000.
The novel has a clear message condemning unethical work and bank practices common in the 1920's. When he was preparing to write The Grapes of Wrath , Steinbeck famously wrote "I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this [the Great Depression and its effects]. I've done my damnedest to rip a reader's nerves to rags."
The Grapes of Wrath is not without criticism and controversy. With its focus on the impoverished and the plight of the working poor, the novel has been called an implicit indictment of capitalism and an argument in favor of socialism. However, even though there were plenty of early attempts to ban the book, it has become one of the quintessential American novels.
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Author Bio: Amy C. Manikowski is a writer, bookseller, trail-diverger, history buff, and pitbull lover. She graduated from Chatham University with an MFA a while ago, and after wandering aimlessly settled in Asheville NC.