Best Sellers of 1921: A Conversation with Linda Aragoni
For the past six years, we’ve consulted consummate reader Linda Aragoni of the Great Penformances blog for her assessment of the bestseller list from a century ago. This year, we continue the tradition by discovering the bestsellers of 1921 and how they hold up today.
Here are the bestsellers of 1921 according to Weekly editors:
1. Main Street by Sinclair Lewis
2. The overflowing cup by Dorothy Canfield [Fisher]
3. The mysterious horseman by Zane Gray
4. The age of innocence by Edith Wharton
5. The Valley of the Silent Men by James Oliver Curwood
6. The Sheikh by Edith M. Hull
7. A poor sage by Mary Roberts Rinehart
8. Her father’s daughter by Gene Stratton-Porter
9. The sisters-in-law by Gertrude Atherton
ten. The Kingdom around the corner by Coningsby Dawson
NP: What was your favorite novel from 1921?
THE: The overflowing cut by Dorothy Canfield [Fisher] is my preferred. The overflowing cup It’s not great literature, but it’s an intriguing read. The novel cries out to be turned into a multi-part drama, something along the lines of Anthony Trollope’s UK TV production The Barchester Chronicles. Canfield and Trollope suggest far more than they say. People with little imagination would need to see the Canfield scenes played out to understand exactly what is going on.
The overflowing cut is about Marise Crittenden, a talented pianist living in a small town in Vermont. When she sends her youngest child to school, Marise feels her useful life is over. Within hours, she receives a visit from two men who have recently arrived in Ashley. Mr. Wells, recently retired, is her new neighbor next door. The much younger Vincent Marsh is a suave, self-absorbed man who seems never to have worked at all.
Since her husband is on a business trip, it’s up to Marise to make sure the new neighbor and his young companion are made Ashley’s home. Vincent hadn’t expected to find someone like Marise in Ashley, nor had she expected to find someone like him. By the time Neal returns home, Vincent has taken his first steps towards breaking up the Crittendens’ marriage.
Canfield works in side stories of two other Ashley married couples who have quite different marital problems, and shows that Mr. Wells, who had come to Ashley to put away his final years, suddenly finds a reason to give up retirement for social work. Mr. Wells’ reason for his sudden shift in focus seems very contemporary.
NP: Is there a title that today’s readers would like to read?
LA: My first choice, The overflowing cup is a novel thoughtful modern readers would find well worth reading. I’ll put A poor sage by Mary Roberts Rinehart as second choice. It’s an action-packed romance, but it makes post-war economic history understandable and highly relevant to today’s readers. I wouldn’t be surprised if the novel also turns out to predict future economic history.
NP: What value can today’s reader derive from reading the 1921 bestsellers?
LA: Reading the 1921 bestselling novels in 2021 yields some interesting comparisons due in part to the similarities of events a century apart in America. In 1921, the Great War was over and “our boys” had returned, and many of the survivors had arrived too late to witness the fighting, as America’s European allies still remind our diplomats. By 1921, the Great Flu (the so-called “Spanish Flu” that started in America and killed 50 million people worldwide) had also run its course. Americans who survived both the war and the flu were in the mood to party, but only the wealthy had the money to pay for the parties. The rest of the country was just trying to get by as best they could.
Today we have just brought our last troops back from Afghanistan after 20 years of a war that we have not won. By the time your readers see this, Covid-19 may have overtaken the Great Flu as the deadliest disease in American history, unless omicron or some other variant knocks it down from the top spot. And the people who survived the first year of Covid-19 are in the mood to party, but only the wealthy have the money to pay for the parties. The rest of the country is just trying to get by as best they can.
NP: What were your least favorite reads of 1921?
LA: The only novel on the 1921 bestseller list that most readers today have heard of Sinclair Lewis Main Street, is a book that I like less every time I read it. I read it for the last time. Never again. But aside from Canfield and Rinehart’s novels, the other seven 1921 bestsellers are less strident but equally boring and silly.
I envision Sinclair Lewis as a sort of literary Donald Trump, starting off showing he’s the world’s greatest author, getting bored with his story, and ending up paying a grad student $100 plus an honors afterward for write the last 300 pages. ProofreadWriting the novel this year, however, I couldn’t help but think that an enterprising English doctoral student might write a thesis on how Lewis Main Street foreshadows the America of Donald Trump.
NP: Would you add one of the 1921 bestsellers to your permanent library?
LA: If I could find a hardback from The Overflowing Cup in reasonable condition, I would buy it. None of the member libraries of the Four County Library System in my area of New York State had a copy. I bought a cheap paperback reprint with 8.5 x 11 inch pages and small print that is virtually impossible to read without a magnifying glass. The magnifying glass reveals typos that no self-respecting publisher in the 1920s would have let out of the building and no Fine Books & Collections reader today would allow in their home.
By the way, I would like to read some of the biographical material on Dorothy Canfield Fisher. Besides writing 15 novels, six collections of short stories, all or part of 22 non-fiction books, she has also brought Montessori method of raising children here, led the first adult education program in the United States, and served for a quarter of a century on the book club of the month selection committee. Eleanor Roosevelt called her one of the 10 most influential women in America.
NP: Are there any titles you’ve been looking forward to reading since 1922?
LA: I write about a series of non-fiction books about nursing home visits for different audiences. I guess I’ll be glad to read a book on any subject other than nursing homes by June 1922.
the The 1922 bestseller list includes some titles that I remember as original enough to be entertaining if I can find copies. A.M.S. Hutchinson If winter comes, the 1922 best-seller, is the one I have marked for re-reading. I could reread The Fall of the House of Coombe by Frances Hodgson Burnett, too. It’s a really strange novel.
Recaps from the previous year with Linda Aragoni: