Modern First Editions 1950-1959
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
It is not an overstatement to call C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe the most influential children's novel of the 20th century. The book was the first volume of the seven novel series ofThe Chronicles of Narnia, and it is by far the most well-known. It has sold approximately 85 million copies worldwide, and it has been adapted several times into movies, plays, and radio broadcasts.
Even though the book is much beloved by readers of all ages now, there was a bit of concern when it was first published, as fantasy books written for children was strongly discouraged. Even though science fiction and fantasy are popular genres for young readers now, people were afraid it distract and poison the youth of the mid-century against reality. Despite the concerns, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe went on to become a best-seller and catapulted Lewis into literary fame.
The book is also significant for its clear allegory regarding Christianity. Lewis' struggle and journey with his faith is well documented, and the sacrifice and resurrection of one of the main characters in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a clear metaphor for the struggle of Christ. Critics were also worried about the social impact of such a religious message on the minds of children, and fellow author Philip Pullman considered Lewis responsible for further mainstreaming a religion he considered to be misogynistic and harmful.
Regardless of the deeper social and religious implications of the novel, it is undeniable that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was a highly significant piece of literature that went on to inspire and influence millions of readers and writers alike.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Holden Caulfield is the ultimate angsty teenager, and boy does he act like it. Narcissistic, grandiose, and extremely temperamental, the protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye captured the imagination and outrage of readers when it was published in 1951. Author J.D. Salinger introduced a whole new set of slang with The Catcher in the Rye, including "that killed me", "shooting the bull", and of course, "phony". Even though he word "phony" is not used anymore in everyday lexicon, the word is now often associated with the book.
Many have argued whether The Catcher in the Rye can be considered a bildungsroman, or "coming of age story". In coming of age novels, the adolescent character usually shows some kind of growth or maturation, but Caulfield is steadfast in his beliefs, actions, and behaviors throughout the entire novel. In fact, it is often argued if Caulfield ever learned anything at all from his adventures around New York City. Intriguingly, while Caulfield is often romanticized, some claim him to be a static and deeply unlikeable character.
Even though The Catcher in the Rye is largely considered to be one of the best American novels ever written, it also holds the honor as being one of the most banned and censored books in history. Beyond the "typical" reasons of vulgar language and sexual passages, the book has also been banned because it encourages rebellion, undermines family values, and depicts low moral character. Of course, banning such books only encourages more young people to read it, and the mystique built by Salinger adds even more allure to the book.
Regardless of your personal opinion on the book, The Catcher in the Rye has definitely sparked some conversations.
One of our staff members has very strong feelings about The Catcher in the Rye. Check out Bibliology and let us know if you agree!
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
When Invisible Man was published in 1952, it joined a small but elite group of novels written by African Americans to be accepted by white mainstream readers. The novel is significant for many reasons, including the unforgiving passages describing the hardships and injustice many African Americans face in everyday American life, and both were written with heavy political social themes. Despite the difficult subject matter, Invisible Man went on to win the 1953 National Book Award for Fiction, which resulted in the novel enjoying a firm place in modern American canon.
Like many, if not most, of the best modern first editions featured on our lists, Invisible Man was also met with quite a bit of controversy and has remained a staple on the frequently banned books lists for its language and sexual content. The book's supporters have long maintained that the book's rough edges only serve to more deeply illustrate the anger, frustration, and alienation felt by so many African Americans of the time.
There is no question Invisible Man helped introduce white readers to a world with which they were completely unfamiliar, and it helped bolster the social standing and legitimacy of other African American writers and artist
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
There are many elements of Fahrenheit 451 that have become staples in American culture, and few books have inspired such debate and ire. Published in 1953 at the height of Cold War paranoia, the well-known story of a fireman in a futuristic society burning books profoundly struck a chord in the American consciousness. Ray Bradbury said explicitly that he feared the trend of government interference and control of public culture, and he desperately wanted to prevent a future where the American government could start burning books-a trend that was continued in the 20th Century by Stalin and the Nazis.
The book was an instant best seller and has won several prestigious literary awards, including the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1954. Fahrenheit 451's relevance was immediately recognized, and the novel became a protest symbol of its own, a rallyi ng cry against censorship and unjust government control.
The book has been adapted into films, radio dramatizations, and even computer games. Its wide appeal resulted in the book never going out-of-print, and there are several deluxe editions of the book available.
Interestingly, although Bradbury never liked to call himself a predictor of the future, there are several elements of Fahrenheit 451 that seem quite predictive. In the book, there is mention of tiny headphones that can fit in your ear, as well as large televisions that take up entire walls. We can only hope that while the technology in the book certainly was predictive, the greater political and cultural problems can be avoided.
However, in perhaps the greatest irony of all, schools and libraries were quick to censor Fahrenheit 451. Claiming offense to vulgar language, the portrayal of Christians, and the depiction of less-than-honorable firemen, many school administrators tried to ban the book completely. Of course, this act only confirms the unjust censorship and paranoia written in the book itself, yet there continues to be controversy year after year.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
I don't think we're being controversial when say that Lord of the Flies is a supremely creepy book. For many people, Lord of the Flies is one of the first pieces of high quality literature they are exposed to, and it's fantastic that so many schools continue to have this book on their reading lists. Lord of the Flies is challenging, provocative, and even though it's a story about children, it is a rather mature book for students to read.
Author William Golding did not mince words when writing Lord of the Flies. The well-known plot of a bunch of British schoolboys stranded on a deserted island is a harsh tale of survival, brutality, and basic human morality. With its stark and unforgiving violence, it's no surprise that Lord of the Flies is one of the most frequently challenged and banned books in America. Interestingly, even though it would later become a best seller, the book only sold an initial 3,000 copies in the United States and would temporarily go out of print. However, once it was rediscovered, it became a classic novel and is now considered one of the best books ever written.
There are many important themes raised in Lord of the Flies, but perhaps the most profound is the question of civilized society versus violent anarchy. Golding has some clear messages concerning this, and they are important messages for adolescent children to consider. After all, most who remember middle school and high school can probably relate to the harsh reality of a sometimes chaotic social environment.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Published in 1955, Lolita simultaneously inspired immediate controversy and resulted in many people considering author Vladimir Nabokov as one of the best authors of the modern era. Due to the torrid nature of its content, Lolita has enjoyed a high level of infamy in the decades since its publication, and the book has had a undeniable influence on Western culture and the ever-evolving discussion of love and sex.
There has always been a great debate over whether or not to call Lolita a "love story", as the plot describes the tumultuous relationship between the narrator, Humbert Humbert, and his young charge, Dolores Haze, his beloved Lolita. While some regard their relationship a tragic affair of the heart, others decry it as nothing more than obsessive abuse between a pedophile and his victim. The term "Lolita" has even become part of Western lexicon, casually used to describe a sexually precocious underage girl.
Even though the plot receives most of the cultural and historical attention, the writing of Lolita is also important to literary history and style. Humbert Humbert is one of the best modern examples of the "unreliable narrator",, and his stream-of-consciousness prose is both challenging and wholly appropriate for the context. The reader is forced to question the veracity of the narrator's thoughts and memories, and the reader often has to read through euphemisms that may just mask abuse in romanticized and flowery language.
Not many novels have the social and cultural impact of Lolita, but Nabokov's work will definitely stand the test of time and forever be regarded as one of the most important works of art of the 20th Century.
The Sweet Flypaper of Life by Langston Hughes
The Sweet Flypaper of Life is considered one of the “most successful collaborations between a great writer and a great photographer ever published" (Roth, 138). Langston Hughes's story, an extended poem evoking Harlem life in the 1940s and 1950s, is illustrated by 141 photographs by Roy DeCarava. DeCarava was a Harlem photographer who was the first African American photographer to win a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1952. The fellowship allowed DeCarava to spend a year taking photographs documenting life in Harlem, which were later part of MoMa’s 1955 landmark exhibition The Family of Man. That same year The Sweet Flypaper of Life was published. The book sold out of its first edition and was reprinted many times. It won multiple awards and received critical acclaim in The New York Times Book Review.
The first edition of The Sweet Flypaper of Life was published by Simon and Schuster, New York, in 1955. A reissue of the book by First Print Press was released in 2018.
Peyton Place by Grace Metalious
If Lolita was high brow smut for the more discerning reader, then Peyton Place was accessible smut that all the masses could enjoy. Written by author Grace Metalious, Peyton Place was a novel devoted to the scandals and torrid affairs experienced by the citizens of a small town in New England. The setting of the book is very important, as it illustrates that sexual escapades can occur outside the literary Sodom and Gomorrah of New York City and Los Angeles. Because the characters in Peyton Place seemed so familiar to readers, it reached quite a large audience. Metalious did not mince words in her dialogue, which both titillated and enraged readers alike. Peyton Place struck a deep chord with Americans, and the book was adapted into a hit movie and the first prime-time soap opera on television.
The enduring controversy over Peyton Place is not just the result of the sexual and violent content. Metalious based much of the novel on the real life New Hampshire town of Gilmanton, and the small town erupted in anger when the book was published. Not only did the residents not appreciate the similarities in what was supposed to be a work of pure fiction, but Metalious was also accused of libel by Tomas Makris. Metalious forged his name on a release form, and Makris won $60,000 in an ensuing libel suit. Although this character's name was changed in later editions, the damage was done and the controversy plagued Metalious for the rest of her life.
The legacy of Peyton Place will undoubtedly be a mixed bag. While many praise the book as a positive step forward for women authors daring enough to write about sex in a plain yet specific fashion, the legal and personal problems it caused Gilmanton created a soap opera spectacle worthy of its own Peyton Place type novel.
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
On the Road by Jack Kerouac is the quintessential novel of the Beat Generation, and it went on to inspire a whole new generation of writers and thinkers. As with most Beat literature, readers and literary historians either adore On the Road or find it a bit tedious and maybe a tad obnoxious. The original New York Times review was certainly glowing, writing that On the Road "...is the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as 'beat,'...".
Written in the typical fashion for many of the Beat novels, On the Road was written as a roman a clef, which means that although the book is a work of fiction, Kerouac based many of the characters and circumstances on his own life with his other Beat friends and writers. Part of what makes On the Road so fascinating is that it attempts to illustrate a very real set of experiences that these influential writers shared together. It is equal parts fantasy and confession, which makes the book so riveting. In many ways, it continues the tradition of Hemingway and other writers of the Lost Generation by blurring the lines between fiction and nonfiction.
There has always been a certainly mythology around the Beats and around On the Road in particular, and many argue the book should be read by all young people for inspiration (and maybe a little caution) about all that life and exploration can bring. There has been a recent surge of interest in the novel, as it was the subject of a 2007 documentary and was adapted to film in 2012. No doubt the book will continue to be a cultural touchpoint for decades to come.
Of Note for This Year:
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand "There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs."--Quote by John Rogers
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Author Chinua Achebe is known as "The Father of Modern African Literature", and the title is in large part the result of his groundbreaking and revolutionary first novel, Things Fall Apart. Not only did the book illustrate some hard truths about the effects of colonization on the indigenous African populations, but it also introduced a style of narrative and language that had never before been used.
Even though Achebe's native language is Igbo, the predominant native language of his home country of Nigeria, Achebe chose to write Things Fall Apart in English with a heavy Igbo influence. Achebe argued that the colonizing effect on the language of Igbo transformed it from a musical, flowing speech formed of multiple dialects to a stiff and awkward language not well suited for the narrative form. While the combination of languages and dialects make Things Fall Apart challenging and complex, it performs the remarkable feat of not alienating or confusing readers. The narrative function and style of Things Fall Apart continues to fascinate and inspire readers and writers alike.
Of course, one of the biggest reasons Things Fall Apart is the most important book published in 1958 is its galvanizing effect on modern literature. Achebe illustrated the devastating effects of Western colonization on Africa while writing both his African and Western characters with empathy and compassion. As a result, Things Fall Apart has become a staple on high school and college reading lists, and Achebe will always be remembered for his significant contributions to the history of modern literature.
Psycho by Robert Bloch
Psycho marks the first horror novel on our list of the Best Modern First Editions, and it also is one of the first horror novels since Frankenstein and Dracula to be popular with mainstream audiences. The impact of the novel has been deeply felt in American culture ever since it was published in 1959, and it continues to set the gold standard for modern literary horror.
While most people may be more familiar with the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock film adaptation, Psycho was actually introduced to the public a year earlier by author Robert Bloch. The book is characterized by the mounting suspense, disturbing dialogue, and of course the stomach-turning violence. But what is perhaps most bothersome about Psycho is that Bloch got the idea for the plot by a real life crime committed two years earlier in 1957 by a man believed to be killing women in an attempt to create a "woman suit" of their skin. Needless to say, Psycho scared readers for a number of reasons.
Psycho has been adapted a few times into film and a television prequel debuted in 2013. There is no question that the titular mother and son duo created a cultural touchstone for America, and Bloch's influence has continued to be profound, even after more than 50 years since Psycho was first published.
Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Maybe it's evidence of Cold War fear in daily lives, or maybe it's just the start of a new literary trend, but 1959 was remarkable for producing two of the most significant books to ever disturb readers' sleep. The same year that introduced Norman Bates to the world also brought Jackson's brilliant Gothic novel The Haunting of Hill House. A finalist for the National Book Award that year, Jackson follows the traditions of great writers such as Edgar Allen Poe and Henry James in creating a scary story with literary merit, and paving the way for other genre transcenders like Stephen King and Richard Matheson.
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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.