Photos: Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, Edmund bridge, following the murder Jimmie Lee Jackson (Courtesy of Taschen, from 'The Fire Next Time'); Black Lives Matter protest following the murder of George Floyd, New York, 2020. (Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images)
For Bibliophiles … Right Now the Past Is Present
Anniversaries of classic books are offering a chance to revisit and reassess timeless works of fiction / BY Nathalie Atkinson / August 10th, 2023
Canadians are apparently reading more these days, thanks to the prevalence of BookTok, although according to Nielsen’s latest report, YouTube remains more popular with younger readers looking for book recommendations. However, that doesn’t apply to this Canadian, who still prefers reading words about books as opposed to watching videos about books, and therefore eschews both platforms — especially when it comes to bygone and forgotten books. (For more on this year’s best nostalgic reads and re-issues, click here.)
Personally, I prefer recommendations that are random and organic. Often, I get them straight from the source. For instance, on her Instagram, British novelist Claire Fuller (@writerclairefuller) regularly highlights both newly published and lesser-known bygone novels by established writers (like Margaret Drabble) or others that have fallen out of fashion (if they ever were), but that have a fresh resonance with the current moment.
For me, it’s more interesting to learn about a favourite author’s obscure book enthusiasms, as well as the anatomy of their influences; the literary equivalent of a Letterboxd watchlist (like the one that filmmaker Greta Gerwig provided for Barbie). That process of reaching onto the shelves of the past not only informs the present, it also encourages a kind of cultural literacy.
When talking about his latest suspense thriller, The Eden Test, for example, Adam Sternbergh cited James Salter’s 1975 novel Light Years as a touchstone. Because it’s a portrait of a marriage, that book in turn led me to Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Long View. Lesser-known than her bestselling Cazalet Chronicles series, the 1956 novel is the gut-wrenching story of an unhappily married woman that is told in reverse. (Reading it, one can see why Howard is the novelist Hilary Mantel tells everyone to read and that stepson Martin Amis credited with inspiring his literary career.)
“As a reader, there’s something to be said for the thrill of reading a hype-free book, an experience of discovery often missing in our current culture,” is how one editor put it in my Zed Books feature on the process behind reviving older titles like these, with fresh introductions that contextualize their relevance for a new generation. It’s similar to the approach that TCM takes with presenting classic movies in a way that makes them relevant to a new audience.
Milestone anniversaries are natural opportunities for publication and re-appraisal of unjustly neglected books. Take Montreal-born Winnifred Eaton (1875-1954), a Chinese Albertan writing in the era of exclusion. As a screenwriter for MGM and Universal (where she ran the scriptwriting department during the 1920s, Eaton contributed to productions like Lon Chaney’s The Phantom of the Opera. Eaton’s work and life has recently been the subject of renewed interest and discussion and for its centenary, her 1923 novel Cattle has just been brought out by the Throwback line of Invisible Publishing, a small Canadian independent. (Read an excerpt here.)
Prior to Cattle, the Canadian author and screenwriter of Chinese-British ancestry did not hide her mixed-race identity but published under a number of pseudonyms. One of those was Onoto Watanna, a persona she adopted at the height of anti-Chinese sentiment and under which she wrote Japanese romances. Thanks to the craze for Japonisme of the time, it’s how she first achieved literary fame. (This, while under the pen name Sin Sin Far her older journalist sister Edith Eaton was likewise among the first writers of Asian descent to be published in North America.)
Hers is a complicated legacy to untangle. Coinciding with last month’s publication anniversary, a conference held in Calgary used Eaton as the lens with which to consider representations of race against the backdrop of more than a century of anti-Asian racism and within a history of the Chinese diaspora. This year also marks the centenary of the passage of Canada’s prohibitive Chinese Immigration Act (sometimes referred to as the Chinese Exclusion Act), that excluded virtually all Chinese immigration to Canada between 1923 and 1947 (a time that has recently been designated a national historic event).
Cattle is the story of the rise to power of a rancher who bullies his community and his eventual fall from grace, with the influenza pandemic as an inciting factor to the story. Think: a Yellowstone prequel meets The Power of the Dog set in Alberta.
“Canada is a settler colonial nation and Cattle gives to readers some of the texture of the viciousness that is part and parcel of what it means to colonize a place when colonizers take land that is not theirs to take, operate businesses, start families, and build communities in a place that does not belong to them,” Lily Cho, a professor in the department of English and writing studies at Western who focuses on cultural studies and post-colonial literature, writes in the novel’s preface. Eaton’s dark story brings the reader into the visceral pain and violence of these wrongs, as Cho points out when she reminds us that the act of settlement (“a form of theft”) is always a violent one.
Milestone anniversaries also make an occasion of pausing to remember what made certain books classics in the first place. As I continued to seek out books that would speak to present-day issues around racial justice, sexual and reproductive freedom — I came across a slew of books published in 1963, a watershed year which saw both marches and speeches pivotal to the modern civil rights movement, and millions of American women are beginning to use the birth control pill.
“She decided she wanted a cool, starchy independent life, with ruffles of humor like window curtains,” American Mary McCarthy writes in her revelatory novel The Group, which follows the lives of eight female undergraduate friends as they begin their adult lives. It was published in August 1963 on the heels of Betty Friedan’s landmark sociological study The Feminine Mystique, about the dissatisfaction of women’s lives. The Group made the cover of the New York Review of Books that fall in a dismissive review by Norman Mailer, who called it “a trivial lady writer’s novel.” Many readers clearly disagreed: at a time when writers like Kurt Vonnegut, Madeleine L’Engle, John le Carré and John Fowles all had notable books, The Group perched atop the New York Times bestseller list and stayed there for nearly two years. The candour influenced generations of writers — like Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City, which was born of an editor recommending she write a modern-day version.
It can hardly be called obscure. Nor can sardonic British writer Muriel Spark, who published a similar novel around the same time. (No, not her best-known and celebrated work The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.) It’s Spark’s rueful look at the changing lives of a group of women at the end of the Second World War that has always captivated me, starting with the title: The Girls of Slender Means. These girls are in residence at the May of Teck Club, a women’s hostel that exists, “for the Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years who are obliged to reside apart from their Families in order to follow an Occupation in London.”
Released in September 1963, it begins in present day when news about the death of a regular visitor to the Club prompts former residents to look back at the summer “long ago in 1945” in Kensington Gardens, between V-E and V-J day.
Spark is an author I’ve always loved, but have had to grow into — not least with this short (but in no way slight) novel. The novel is about a remembered past, when under the same roof and in their various hierarchies the young women strain against the reality of war by sharing one glorious taffeta Schiaparelli evening gown, swapping the privilege for ration coupons or scraps of half-used soap. There’s virtuosity in Spark’s economical characterization (and many amusements) and the parade of romantic ideals and disillusionments, worries about weight, careers, suitors, and existential wonderings about what, exactly, they and their lives will become. With its chatter, juxtapositions of hopeful promise and dread — all lyrical snippets of elocution lessons given on an upper floor waft down the stairs. (It is sublime.)
In casting about for more reads capturing and energising the changing landscape, I notice that in their vacation books package “A Selection of 100 Outstanding Books for Summer Reading” that year, the New York Times nestled James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time among recommendations of A Clockwork Orange and Morley Callaghan’s jazz age memoir That Summer in Paris. They were in good company: Fire went on to become one of the most influential books of the decade, helping to galvanise and give voice to the civil rights movement for Black and white readers alike. In both structure and spirit, it inspired the 2015 Ta-Nehisi Coates bestseller Between the World and Me as well as Jesmyn Ward’s anthology The Fire This Time published the following year.
The slim 1963 original collects two Baldwin essays — “Down at the Cross” from the New Yorker and “My Dungeon Shook,” which appeared in The Progressive. The former tackles religion, oppressive institutions and Baldwin’s teenage self rejecting of his Harlem church. On the latter, using the form of a letter written to his nephew, Baldwin uses the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation to reflect on structural racism and white privilege in America. And urges allies not to be complacent in the face of racial injustice. “Many of them indeed know better, but as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know,” he writes. It’s also a plea for African American children to be taught their own history and deny the revisionism written by their oppressors. It is now among the classics pulled from circulation in Florida school districts, part of the ongoing state-wide ban.
There have been many editions: a powerful one by Taschen pairs Baldwin’s text with photographer’s Steve Schapiro’s stark images of historic civil rights moments. But Baldwin’s own words make for a demanding read all on their own.
“But renewal becomes impossible,” Baldwin warns in The Fire Next Time, “if one supposes things to be constant that are not — safety, for example, or money, or power.” Published 60 years ago, it is more resonates today more than ever.