Today is the last day of my spring break vacation and I am determined to make some headway. I just posted the chapter for 1943. I had wondered why it took me so long to get around to writing that one, but when I finally looked at my notes, I found the reason. There was hardly anything to write about. 1944 gets a little more exciting as you will see.
BESTSELLERS FOR 1944
Strange Fruit, Lillian Smith, Reynal & Hitchcock Publishers, 1944, 371 pp
The title echoes the famous Billie Holiday song. The image refers to the bodies of lynched Black men hanging from trees in the South. Lillian Smith was a White woman born and raised in the South, lived and worked there her whole life, loved it but despised the ever-present attitude of White supremacy. When her novel exposing and denouncing this appeared, it was banned in Detroit and Boston for her use of a word considered obscene, which catapulted the book to the #1 bestseller in 1944.
The story takes place in a Southern town. The disillusioned son of a White doctor begins a secret relationship with a college educated Black woman. Word gets out in the small town and inevitably tension builds until a lynching occurs. The plot twists, the complex attitudes of the townspeople, both Black and White, and the emotional depths of the characters add up to some very good writing. Surely this was the first bestseller about racism.
The Robe, Lloyd C Douglas
At #2 is this carry-over from 1943, when it was #1.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith
This one was #4 in 1943 and came in at #3 in 1944.
Forever Amber, Kathleen Winsor, The Macmillan Company, 1944, 735 pp
Another book to achieve bestseller status after being banned, Forever Amber is considered the first bodice-ripper and a precedent for Peyton Place and other "racy" bestsellers to follow. It was the #5 book this year and takes place in 17th century England during The Restoration, the time when Charles II was restored to the throne after the defeat of Cromwell. Charles is an inveterate ladies' man and his court is depraved with continuous political intrigue, not a little of which is carried out through the women who are, have been or are trying to be the King's lovers.
Amber is descended from nobility who lost their lands and status during the Cromwell years. She was given to country people to be raised when her parents were killed and never told of her origins. At sixteen, she runs away to London aided by a spirited Noble. She falls deeply in love with him, but he considers her a child and beneath him. So Amber becomes an actress in the theatre, mistress to many of the nobility and eventually rises to power at court and becomes a lover of King Charles. She has incredible health and energy, is a relentless schemer and possesses not a shred of moral sense.
It is a long book, but never dull. Winsor did her research and I learned quite a bit about England during those times, including the theatre, the plague, the fashions and the commerce. I know I have readers who disagree with me on this point, but aside from weapons of mass destruction and enough pollution to kill the planet, the world is no worse now than it ever was. Instead of Amber we have Paris Hilton.
The Razor's Edge, W Somerset Maugham, The Blakiston Company, 1944, 250 pp
Here is the #5 bestseller for this year and stands in complete opposition to Forever Amber. It is a coming of age story and quest for spiritual meaning in life. I can only suppose that such sentiments were of interest to a country immersed in the most horrid war known to man so far. I love Somerset Maugham's writing, so even though the story is a bit melodramatic, it is saved by the grace of his composition.
Larry, a semi-orphan from Chicago, returns from World War I in a state of disillusionment and mental anguish, as so many men did in those times. He goes on a spiritual search, finds enlightenment in India and though he returns to the west, continues to live his life by those principles. He is offered a career, money and the love of a woman, but calmly turns his back on what everyone else thinks he should do to pursue knowledge and peace of mind. Works for me.