Friday, June 1, 2018

The Americans: B's (1 of 4)

A bit more progress on the new American Women Writers list. I've just posted the initial batch of B's here, comprised of 56 more authors, and will be sharing some of the details about them in these four posts.

This batch contains several relatively big names (as well as a couple of big-ish ones that you might recognize). Undoubtedly, the most recognizable name for readers of middlebrow fiction is PEARL S. BUCK, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her perennial bestseller, The Good Earth (1931). I confess I knew almost nothing about Buck beyond that novel, so I was surprised to find that she published more than 40 volumes of fiction in all. 

Buck was born in the U.S., but grew up in China, where her missionary parents spent their lives, and reportedly learned to speak Chinese before she learned English. Her knowledge of China and her love for the Chinese informed much of her fiction, most famously in The Good Earth, the first book of a trilogy about Chinese peasant farmers in the late 19th and early 20th century, which was followed by a well-received film version in 1937 (thoroughly "whitewashed", of course, with white actors playing all the main roles). Sons (1933) and A House Divided (1935) rounded out the trilogy.

Buck received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1938. Other novels include East Wind: West Wind (1930), This Proud Heart (1938), China Sky (1941), Portrait of a Marriage (1945), Pavilion of Women (1946), The Big Wave (1948), Imperial Woman (1956), The Living Reed (1963), The Time Is Noon (1966), and The Goddess Abides (1972). She published two volumes of memoirs, My Several Worlds: A Personal Record (1954) and A Bridge For Passing (1962). Among other humanitarian efforts, Buck co-founded the first international adoption agency to place Asian orphans with white and other non-Asian families. Her literary work has been praised for its sensitivity by Asian and Asian-American authors including Anchee Min, whose novel Pearl of China (2010) is about Buck.

Next comes the biggest name among more literary authors on my list. DJUNA BARNES is considered one of the major forces of American Modernism, particularly owing to her 1936 novel Nightwood. Inspired in part by Barnes's tormented love affair with American sculptor Thelma Wood, the novel combines autobiographical details of Barnes's time in Paris, formal experimentation, dark humor, and poetry. Most readers either love it or hate it—I'm one of the former, but wouldn't recommend it lightly unless you love a challenge!

Djuna Barnes passport photo

Several of her earlier one-act plays had been produced by Eugene O'Neill's Provincetown Players, and her first major publication was A Book (1923), a collection of short stories, poems, plays, and drawings (an expanded edition appeared as A Night Among the Horses and the stories alone were later reissued under the title Spillway). One of her most widely read works is Ladies Almanack (1928), a humorous roman à clef about the Paris salon of Natalie Barney (who will appear in one of my other B posts), consisting of numerous prominent lesbian artists and intellectuals. 

Barnes's first novel, Ryder, also appeared in 1928, and became a surprise bestseller because of its scandalous, "mock-Elizabethan" portrayal of Barnes's own unconventional family life. The New York Post Office insisted upon censoring some drawings and text from the novel, and Barnes demanded that asterisks be used in their place to make the gaps obvious (no doubt adding to the popular appeal of the book). After Nightwood in 1936, Barnes largely fell silent, focusing on poetry and producing only one more major work, a play, The Antiphon (1958), a highly poetic, difficult work that makes more explicit use of her family history. Although she has come to be seen as a prominent lesbian figure, she also had important relationships with men, and she herself intriguingly said, "I am not a lesbian. I just loved Thelma."

Jane Bowles

Also on the literary side, though not so difficult to engage with, is JANE BOWLES, who was the wife of prominent novelist Paul Bowles, author of The Sheltering Sky (1949). Bowles was the author of a single highly-praised novel, Two Serious Ladies (1943), which was a Virago reprint and remains in print today. I loved it when a read it years ago, but a re-read is clearly called for. Her output as an author was limited by mental health issues, alcohol and drug use, difficult personal relationships, and major health conditions. She wrote one major play, In the Summer House (1951), which received a lukewarm reception when it was produced in 1954, and a story collection, Plain Pleasures (1966). A "puppet play" called Quarreling Pair was written around 1945, but not published until its appearance in Mademoiselle in 1966. My Sister's Hand in Mine: The Collected Works of Jane Bowles (1978) collected the novel, play, and story collection. In 1989, Virago released Everything Is Nice, which brought together additional stories, plays, fragments of two additional novels, deleted passages from Two Serious Ladies, and several letters. Her selected letters appeared as In the World (1985).

GWENDOLYN BROOKS is also a big name, though not for the most part in the world of fiction. She was one of the major American poets of the 20th century, and the first African-American recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in 1950, for Annie Allen. She also published a single novel, Maud Martha (1953). At least partly autobiographical in content, Maud Martha, set in Brooks' native Chicago, uses short vignettes to tell of the title character's growth from childhood to adulthood, marriage, and motherhood, against a backdrop of racism and personal insecurity. 

A later work, In the Mecca (1968), reportedly began as a novel, before being revised into her extraordinary poetic portrayal of urban black life. Brooks also publised two volumes of autobiography—Report from Part One (1972) and Report from Part Two (1996).

Elizabeth Bishop

While on the topic of poetry, ELIZABETH BISHOP is likewise considered a major 20th century American poet. Her presence on my list is tenuous, since she never wrote a novel, but she did publish a few works of short fiction, as well as some short works that blend fiction and memoir. These were published in The Collected Prose (1984).

Dorothy Baker, 1929 UCLA yearbook photo

DOROTHY BAKER is hardly a household name, but the first of her four novels was a bestseller. Young Man with a Horn (1938) is about the lives of jazz musicians, and was made into a popular film in 1950, starring Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, and Doris Day. 

That novel and her final work, Cassandra at the Wedding (1962), have been reprinted by New York Review Books Classics. Her others are Trio (1943), which deals in part with lesbian themes, and Our Gifted Son (1948).

And finally, like Barnes KAY BOYLE lived for many years in France, working alongside many of the expatriate authors in Paris in the 1920s, as described in the memoir Being Geniuses Together, 1920-1930 (1968), co-written with Robert McAlmon. She published more than two dozen volumes of fiction, including 17 novels, several story collections, and three works for children. 

Considered a significant American modernist, Boyle also drew inspiration from her concern with social issues including woman's rights, racial equality, and gay rights. Boyle's novels include Plagued by the Nightingale (1931), Year Before Last (1932), Death of a Man (1936), Defeat (1941), Primer for Combat (1942), A Frenchman Must Die (1946), The Seagull on the Step (1955), The Underground Woman (1975), and Winter Night (1993). For much of the 1960s and 1970s, Boyle lived in San Francisco and was a faculty member at San Francisco State College.

On the borderline of being a "big-ish" name, MARY BORDEN is fairly well-known for one work in particular—The Forbidden Zone (1929), composed of sketches and poetry concerning her experiences running a mobile hospital in France during World War I. That book was called by the ODNB "one of the greatest of all wartime books by a woman." In World War II, Borden ran another hospital, this time in the Middle East, and she wrote about that experience in Journey Down a Blind Alley (1946). She also published more than 20 volumes of fiction. Borden was an aunt of Adlai Stevenson and, following her daughter's marriage in 1933, the mother-in-law of publisher Rupert Hart-Davis.

And definitely not a big name herself but married to one, MARGERIE BONNER was the wife of British novelist Malcolm Lowry, and played an important role in the editing of his manuscripts. Bonner had been an early film actress and also published three novels of her own. The first two—Shapes That Creep (1944) and The Last Twist of the Knife (1946)—were mysteries, while the third, Horse in the Sky (1947), published the same year as Lowry's most famous work, Under the Volcano, seems to have been more serious and ambitious. She reportedly wrote a fourth novel called The Castle of Malatesta, but it was never published. Bonner appeared in several films (using the more traditional "Marjorie" as a first name), including Cecil B. De Mille's The King of Kings, and her older sister, Priscilla Bonner, was also an actress.

I had been thinking that DOROTHEA BRANDE might be an interesting author to check out until I read of where she ended up after she stopped writing. She was a bestselling early self-help author and novelist, whose first publication was a guide to Becoming a Writer (1934), which has often been reprinted. That was followed by her biggest success, Wake Up and Live! (1936), an inspirational guide to self-fulfillment which has been reprinted in recent years. It was a major bestseller and was adapted into, of all things, a movie musical starring Walter Winchell. Brande tried her hand at writing a crime novel, The Most Beautiful Lady (1935), and her later novel, My Invincible Aunt (1938), was a humorous tale of what happens to an elderly woman when she is inspired by a book not unlike Wake Up and Live! An additional volume, Letters to Philippa (1937), appears to also be a novel, though I could locate no details. After that, Brande seems to have turned to politics, in which she strongly advocated for an American form of fascism. Um, yeah. Perhaps she'd be happy with the current state of the U.S.?

And finally, the B's contain three authors of romantic fiction. FAITH BALDWIN was the author of more than 70 romantic novels which could be worth a glance. They were summed up by Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers: "Baldwin's novels are less romances than comedies: ripe, full of sunlight, crowded with people making do with each other. Comedies in the classical sense, her books are pledges of our willingness to live life with others no better than they might be and certainly no better than ourselves." Titles include Mavis of Green Hill (1921), Thresholds (1925), Departing Wings (1927), Broadway Interlude (1929), Self-Made Woman (1932), American Family (1935), Rich Girl, Poor Girl (1938), Letty and the Law (1940), He Married a Doctor (1944), The Whole Armor (1951), The Velvet Hammer (1969), and Adam's Eden (1977). Several of her novels were made into films in the 1930s.

Information about the eight novels by PEARL DOLES BELL is sparse, but several of which were made into early films. Titles include Gloria Gray, Love Pirate (1914), His Harvest (1915), Her Elephant Man: A Story of the Sawdust Ring (1919), Sandra (1924), The Love Link (1925), and Slaves of Destiny (1926). She appears to have stopped writing after her second marriage in 1927.

And finally, WOODWARD BOYD (full name Margaret Woodward Boyd) published five novels, including two under the pseudonym Peggy Shane. The Love Legend (1922) deals with four Chicago sisters trying to overcome their mother's overly romantic views. The others are Lazy Laughter (1923), The Unpaid Piper (1927), Tangled Wives (1932), and Change Partners (1934). She also co-wrote, with Arthur Sheckman, a play called Mr Big (1941). Her first husband was Thomas Boyd, author of the acclaimed WWI novel Through the Wheat (1923).

And that's all for now. Next time, 14 more authors, including several authors I would subtitle "Big in Their Day"—you aren't likely to know most of their names now, but you surely would have 70 or 80 years ago—and also several authors best known for their historical fiction.


  1. Pearl S. Buck also wrote five novels under the pseudonym "John Sedges". They have an historical American theme.

    1. Thanks for sharing that. I had listed the pseudonym in the main list, but had neglected to mention any specifics. I've corrected Buck's entry now.

  2. Wonderful to see the initial batch of American B's. The inclusion of Margerie Bonner, who is so often overlooked, speaks to your good work. I recently read her debut, The Shapes That Creep, which I recommend to your British Columbia readers, if no one else.

    If I may, I thought I'd suggest a small correction - or is it a clarification? - on your Kay Boyle entry. The author didn't exactly co-write the 1968 Being Geniuses Together, 1920-1930 with Robert McAlmon, rather she inserted chapters into his existing memoir Being Geniuses Together (1938). McAlmon was long dead when Boyle wrote her chapters. What's more, she removed a fair portion of McAlmon's text, including veiled references to his bisexuality, and all chapters covering his years beyond 1930. I've never been a fan of the 1968 version, siding with Anthony Powell's review: "One absolutely gasps at Boyle's including her own life. That she was there surely does not include the right to chop up his book and superimpose her own."

    In the interest of full disclosure, my judgement of the book has much to do with my research on McAlmon and John Glassco (who features, and whose biography I wrote).

    1. Thanks, Brian. I shudder to imagine how many good authors are still missing!

      I've corrected my Boyle entry in the main list. Thanks for reminding me of this. I know I knew about the oddness of the memoir at one point, because I had a copy of the book, but it had slipped my mind. I have a feeling McAlmon's unexpurgated memoir might have been more interesting than Boyle's to begin with? He was an intriguing character, as I recall from reading some of his stories.

  3. I recently read, and blogged about, Kay Boyle's AVALANCHE. Edmund Wilson's vicious review of it (mostly unfair, in my opinion, but I'm not really a fan of Wilson) is sometimes credited with stunting her career after the War ... she was as you note highly praised in the '30s. (She was also, for a time, married to an actual Baron Frankenstein (OK, Franckenstein).)

    As for Faith Baldwin, I've never read her, though I think I should try at least one book. When I read the novel THAT GIRL FROM NEW YORK, by Allen Corliss, I found reviews that compared her to Faith Baldwin (in a positive but faintly condescending (to both writers) manner).

    1. I read one or two of Boyle's novels years ago and wasn't very excited, but I am intrigued to try her again. And let me know if Faith Baldwin turns out to be worthwhile.

  4. I had what I thought was a novel by Faith Baldwin on my shelves ("Face Toward the Spring") and thought I'd give her a try a few months ago. It turned out to be a memoir/essay collection, with an entry for each month of the year. I enjoyed her writing even though I am not a person of faith, as she was. I will be looking for her fiction at some point!

    1. Interesting, Carrie, I wasn't aware of that book, or of her particular religious interest. Thanks for letting me know.

  5. Whew! Quite a tour de force, Scott. Some of these look like books I'd love to get my hands on.

    Thanks for the latest instalment.

    1. Thanks, Susan. The cover art is my way of building a virtual library without having to buy more bookshelves.

  6. My class read The Good Earth in early high school. I don't think it was old enough/mature enough to appreciate it back then.

    1. I am sorry - another famous typo - I meant, that I was not old enough/mature enough!

    2. I'm surprised I never read it in all my literature classes, but am feeling a bit as though I should now.

  7. my favourite Pearl Buck novel is Letter from peking. So quiet and considered and thought provoking


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