My 1920s Reading List

This is a guest post from Monte Schulz, who published his first novel, Down by the River, in 1990, and spent the next twelve years writing a novel of the Jazz Age,which is now available in three parts: This Side of Jordan, The Last Rose of Summer, and The Big Town. He wrote it for his father, the late cartoonist, Charles M. Schulz.

In writing my opus, Crossing Eden, set in the 1920s, I wanted to make the book as authentic to that era as I possibly could. So, rather than relying on current histories or novels written about the Jazz Age, I wanted to study books written during the period. I delved into the catalogues, the films, the clothing of the era, but the novels and histories written in the 20s provided the best insight into the world that I hoped to capture.

Crossing Eden is divided into three distinct stories, which we’ve published as separate novels: This Side of Jordan, The Last Rose of Summer, and The Big Town, which is out this month. The novels take place in three separate and distinct locations with the characters’ lives taking wildly different courses.  Because of that, my reading was vast:

Manhattan Transfer – John Dos Passos
U.S.A. – John Dos Passos
This Side of Paradise – F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
Tender Is The Night – F. Scott Fitzgerald
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? – Horace McCoy
Look Homeward, Angel – Thomas Wolfe
Of Time And The River – Thomas Wolfe
In Our Time – Ernest Hemingway
The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway
Our Times: The United States, 1900-1925 – Mark Sullivan
Only Yesterday – Frederick Lewis Allen
The Twenties – Edmund Wilson
Temperance Or Prohibition – Francis J. Teitsort ed.
Does Prohibition Work? – Martha Bensley Bruere
The People, Yes – Carl Sandburg
Smoke And Steel – Carl Sandburg
Cornhuskers – Carl Sandburg
They Came Like Swallows – William Maxwell
The Big Town – Ring Lardner
The Ring Lardner Reader – Ring Lardner
Babbitt – Sinclair Lewis
Main Street – Sinclair Lewis
Winesburg, Ohio – Sherwood Anderson
Spoon River Anthology – Edgar Lee Masters
Elmer Gantry – Sinclair Lewis
Thirty Years Among The Dead – Carl Wickland M.D.
Miracles And Modern Spiritualism –Alfred Russel Wallace
Tobacco Road – Erskine Caldwell
The Middle Border – Hamlin Garland
Call It Sleep – Henry Roth
The Weary Blues – Langston Hughes
Living Well Is the Best Revenge – Calvin Tomkins
Everybody Was So Young – Amanda Vaill
Asylum – William Seabrook

Certainly the greatest novel of the twenties in encompassing the largest portrait of the nation has to be John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy. The story is vast and political and humane in its treatment of those Americans who missed the fortune and gala of the Roaring Twenties. It’s a long read, but so detailed that it makes Gatsby seem like a small slice of life.

On the other hand, Fitzgerald’s novels are so lovely, so beautifully rendered and heart-rending, that it is also no surprise that his works are the most clearly remembered, most often quoted, literary works of the Jazz Age.

And just the same, Thomas Wolfe’s great novels, Look Homeward, Angel, and Of Time And The River, easily the most highly regarded literary novels of the period, at least by his writing contemporaries, still hold up as expressions of a time of youth’s passion and the search for the very essence of what it means to be alive in the world.

This reading list on the twenties would be incomplete without Edmund Wilson’s The Twenties and Frederick Lewis Allen’s famous study of the decade, Only Yesterday. Both are basically primers on the time and serve as great companion pieces to historian Mark Sullivan, whose “Our Times” series also reveals the period from the inside. In the same way, two studies on Prohibition published during the twenties, “Temperance or Prohibition” and “Does Prohibition Work?” allow a view of the issue as described while it was still occurring.

The Jazz Age was also a time of fad and folly, so I’m including here a few books that illuminated that era in another way. Horace McCoy’s novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is a famous description of the dance marathon craze, while Thirty Years Among The Dead and Miracles And Modern Spiritualism reveal the passion for séances and meaning beyond this world.

There is also the glamour of art and wealth and travel in the twenties, a time of great hotels and ocean liners and Americans abroad, well offered with Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and In Our Time, and two books on Gerald and Sara Murphy: Living Well Is the Best Revenge and Everybody Was So Young. Fitzgerald drew on his time with them in Antibes in the south of France for Tender Is The Night.

Naturally, the twenties weren’t all sunlight and frolic. William Maxwell writes about the Spanish Flu epidemic in They Came Like Swallows and William Seabrook recounts an alcoholic’s recovery in Asylum. Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep describes an immigrant city and Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt remarks on a metropolis obsessed with material success.

Likewise, poets Carl Sandburg and Langston Hughes speak about a society that has forgotten its lesser citizenry. And looking back into the American heartland, we see portraits of rural America on the cusp of a metropolitan world with Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, Sherwood Anderson’s famous Winesburg, Ohio, Hamlin Garland’s small towns in the Middle Border, and Erskine Caldwell’s arid south on Tobacco Road.

These are just a handful of the more than one hundred books I read about the twenties in researching and writing my own big novel of the Jazz Age. I used a Montgomery Ward catalogue from 1922 and a couple of medical encyclopedias and Gately’s Universal Educator, plus books on fashion and automobiles, movies, vaudeville, radio, business, trains, trolleys, art, architecture, religion, and philosophy. To create a true tapestry of an era requires both broad strokes and detailed observations. The more one reads, the more one realizes how little he knows. And on it goes.

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