World's End, Sinclair Lewis, The Literary Guild of America, 1940, 740 pp
I really liked this book! Despite its length, it tells a good story and puts forward a politcal view. The hero is Lanny Budd, born out of wedlock to Beauty (an American girl working as an artist's model in Paris) and Robbie Budd, son of a wealthy New England family of munitions makers. Lanny is raised by his mother on the French Riviera. Since Robbie could have never admitted an illegitimate child to his family, he comes up with some other story, marries an "acceptable" woman, but supports Beauty and Lanny. It is the early 1900s and Lanny grows up amid the wealthy leisure class but is also influenced by frequent visits from his father.
At heart, Lanny is an artist; a dancer and a musician. He is well read, highly intelligent and tries to obey his parents. In his teens he lives through WW I, spends time in New England with his father's family and works in Paris as a secretary to an American man involved in drafting the Treaty of Versailles and in forming the League of Nations.
Out of all this, Lanny becomes aware of the financial and political machinations that brought about the war. He begins to acquire a world view of his own and to have sympathies with socialism. All of these views are of course, Upton Sinclair's but the story is well told and gripping and made personal through Lanny. For me, it was a history lesson which was not taught to me in school. I could probably have learned it earlier but I was oblivious to politics in my younger years. World's End is the first of a series of 9 books and by the end of reading the entire 1940s decade I had read them all. What was interesting to me while reading this volume is that it is basically a book against war and was published just as the United States is deciding whether or not to become involved in WW II.
The Once and Future King, T H White, GP Putnam's Sons,
The Once and Future King is actually a composite of four shorter books written between 1939 and 1942. The first book is The Sword and the Stone, which we all know because of the Disney film. It was published in 1939 so I started there. It is the story of King Arthur's childhood which ends when he pulls the sword from the stone and is made King.
Arthur is portrayed here as a good lad who does what is right and has a sense of honor. Merlin is his tutor and sends him on adventures, sometimes even turning Arthur into different animals, as part of his education. White gets in various digs at the current culture. It is not an easy read, though it is only 209 pages long. I suspect that I did not get all the British innuendos and before I realized that it was somewhat satirical, I thought it was just silly. But I was glad to have finally read the book that spawned the Disney movie as well as the play Camelot.
The second book is called The Queen of Air and Darkness, published in 1940. Arthur fights his first battles, defeating Lot and the Orkneys, who are the Celts. Merlin then leaves forgetting to tell Arthur who his real mother is. Morgause, Lot's wife, brings her four sons to join Arthur's knights and sleeps with Arthur, using magic. From this fateful encounter issues Mordred, who will be the source of Arthur's downfall since Morgause was his half sister.
Arthur has now dreamed up his Knights of the Round Table and his plan to bring peace to England by transmuting warfare into chivalry in order to right wrongs. This section was not any easier to read but I had gotten used to the style. And what do you know? It is another book against war. The final two sections will be written up in 1941 and 1942. I've read many versions of the King Arthur legend and each one is from such a different point of view. By the time I finished The Once and Future King, I developed a theory about why that is so.
Finally, Native Son, by Richard Wright, Harper & Row, 1940, 392 pp. I actually read this about a year before I started the Big Fat Reading Project. It is one of the most intense books I have ever read. Bigger Thomas is a black youth in the slums of Chicago. Every attempt he makes to better his life (and he makes attempts because he rebels against his condition) ends up in violence committed by him.
The power of the novel comes from Wright's ability to convey the emotions and confusions in Bigger's mind so well that the reader comes to understand what it would be like to be black and living in poverty and under racism, even if like myself, one has never experienced those conditions oneself. I will come across more novels in the 1940s dealing with racism and prejudice and its effects on American life. If there were novels dealing with this area before 1940, I would be glad to be informed of them. I suspect this was a new development in American fiction.
Coming soon will be the second chapter of my book (with the working title, Reading For My Life). Hopefully within the next few days.