What Was the Greatest Year for Literature?

atkins-bookshelf-literatureThere are many notable years in literary history, notes author, culture reporter and book critic Jane Ciabattari. 1862 saw the publication of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, and Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. 1899 saw the publication of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, Frank Norris’s McTeague, and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, Leo Tolstoy’s Resurrection, and Henry James’s The Awkward Age. 1950 saw the publication of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot; Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles; Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train; Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing; and C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

But 1925 stands out above all other years according to Ciabattari; she writes: ”The year 1925 was a golden moment in literary history.  Ernest Hemingway’s first book, In Our Time, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby were all published that year. As were Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, John Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer, Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy and Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith, among others… [1925] brought something unique – a vibrant cultural outpouring, multiple landmark books and a paradigm shift in prose style. Literary work that year reflected a world in the aftermath of tremendous upheaval [of World War I].”

The postwar era was a crucible of sweeping cultural, political, technological, and ideological changes. Amidst the shadow of the pervasive disillusionment of the great American Dream (what Hemingway and Stein called the “Lost Generation”) writers began exploring the themes of corruption and immorality as well as exploring innovative narrative styles to make sense what they were witnessing. At the epicenter of this explosion of artistic expression was one woman — Gertrude Stein. Although not well-known among modern readers (her most popular work was The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas published in 1933), her influence among expatriate writers was monumental and far-reaching. In 1925, Ciabattari believes, Stein was at the pinnacle of her career. At her stylish salon in Paris, Stein held court among artists and the intellectual elite, encouraging the work of Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, and Thornton Wilder, thereby ushering in a new school of fiction: Modernist literature. Ciabattari adds: [The novels of 1925] weren’t just original, even revolutionary, creations – they were helping to establish the very idea of modernity, to make sense of the times. Perhaps 1925 is literature’s most important year simply because no other 12-month span features such a dialogue between literature and real life. Certainly that’s the case in terms of how new technologies — the automobile, the cinema — shook up literary form in 1925. John Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer introduced the cinematic narrative form to the novel. New York, presented in fragments as if it were a movie montage on the page, is the novel’s collective protagonist, the inhuman industrialized city presented as a flow of images and characters passing at high speed.”

Whether 1925 was the greatest year in literature is certainly a topic for a spirited debate. However, the proof is in the literary pudding, so to speak; Ciabattari posits: “The ultimate proof, 90 years later, is the shape-shifting the novel has undergone, still based on these early inspirations — and the continuing resonance of Nick Adams, Jay Gatsby and Clarissa Dalloway. These characters from a transformative time are still enthralling generations of new readers.”

And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Read related posts:
The Meaning of the Great Gatsby Ending
Why Read Dickens?
The Power of Literature
The Benefits of Reading
50 Books That Will Change Your Life
The Books that Shaped America
Why Study Literature?

For further reading: www.bbc.com/culture/story/20150310-the-greatest-year-for-books-ever

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4 responses to “What Was the Greatest Year for Literature?

  • Jon Spangler

    I think I would vote for the year 1611, when the King James Version of the Bible was first published. The case can be made that the KJV Bible is THE most influential work ever published in English, which appears to be one of your criteria.

    • Alexander Atkins

      Excellent point, Jon; I think many would agree that the Bible, particularly the KJV Bible, is the most influential work in human history. But I think Ciabattari’s focus was on the one year that the most influential novels in literary history were published. As she readily admits, there are several years that could be considered (e.g., 1862, 1899). Agree or disagree with her conclusion, it is indeed a thought-provoking topic. Cheers, Alex.

  • Book Guy Reviews

    Love the words! Thanks so much for sharing. Super interesting, and I love the Gatsby references. If you’re ever interested in some awesome book reviews and musings, be sure to follow! Thanks!!!

    • Alexander Atkins

      James: Thanks for visiting and following Bookshelf which is dedicated to fans and teachers of literature. You might enjoy my analysis of the ending of the Great Gatsby. Look forward to reading your posts. Cheers. Alex

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