They Might Have Been Giants
Three lost classics that should have made it into the literary canonThe snow is ascending up the wall, threatening to hit my kitchen windowsill. Cleveland, where I live, recorded the second snowiest January ever, and I awoke this morning to six more fluffy inches.What better companion for the snowbound than a smart, accessible, breezy novel? Even better, a novel that could have been deemed a masterpiece of American literature but, for various reasons political or cultural-or just plain bad luck-never made the cut when the Deciders of the American Literary Canon met to compile their list of greats?You may never have heard of the three novels below, but you should have. And since we all need to sweeten our wares these days, all three contain some contemporary resonance too boot.Charles Brockden Brown, WielandTwilight fans take note. The gothic goes way back in America, and America's greatest gothic writer may be Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810), the first professional American author. His novel, Wieland or the Transformation, is arguably the first American novel. It is a strange, creepy tale set in pre-Revolutionary times.Clara Wieland narrates this gothic story. Her father-I kid you not-dies by spontaneous combustion. Clara and her brother Theodore create an alternative universe (big surprise!) on their estate in the Pennsylvania colony. Then, they begin to hear voices around the estate, and a brilliant stranger, Carwin, shows up… cue suspenseful twists and turns.The novel's disjointed style and gothic form influenced Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and was admired by Percy and Mary Shelley. There is something oddly modern about the story, though mainly you will read it with mouth open, unbelieving.
Susan Warner, The Wide, Wide WorldThe Wide, Wide World was America's first blockbuster. Published in 1850, it sold better than had any novel in the nation's history, going through fourteen editions in two years. Wide Wide World offers insight into mores and everyday life of women in the nineteenth-century. And it is a page-turner.First, a warning: the novel is a coming-of-age bildungsroman with a strong Christian flavor. This is not a book about you-go-girl self-determination. Self-sacrifice and filial duty get all the props.Young Ellen Montgomery loves her parents, but when her mother becomes ill, her father sends her live with her cruel aunt in a rural town. Her aunt refuses Ellen an education, and hides the letters Ellen's mother writes to Ellen. Ellen's misfortunes are grave and unrelenting: her best friend falls ill and she nurses her until she dies; she is sent to Scotland to live with even crueler relatives; nefarious people prevent her from communicating with her mother. But she does meet a boy!The book is love story, an allegory of Christian humility, a textbook example of the subjugation of women, and a historical documentation of domesticity in 19th century America. It will likely cause you to question our culture's individualistic assumptions, which may be salutary during these "it is a time for sacrifice" days.
Abraham Cahan, The Rise of David LevinskyThe year 1917 saw the publication Abraham Cahan's The Rise of David Levinsky. For Cahan, to publish this book the year of the Bolshevik Revolution is ironic and appropriate. Abraham Cahan (1860-1951), the founder of the enormously influential Yiddish newspaper, Jewish Daily Forward (Forverts), was a leading labor socialist in New York City. Born in Lithuania as an Orthodox Jew, he was forced to flee Lithuania due to his leftist politics. In New York City he quickly learned English and started the most successful Yiddish-language publication in the United States.Cahana' first novel, Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto was turned into the 1975 movie, Hester Street. But The Rise of David Levinsky is even better.David Levinsky is a Talmudic scholar who emigrates from Lithuania to streets-paved-with-gold New York City. Levinsky secularizes, shaving his bear and earlocks, and Americanizes in the best and worst ways. He becomes a captain of industry, but he loses his morals along the way: "The metamorphosis I have gone through strikes me as nothing short of a miracle.... I arrived in America…with four cents in my pocket. I am now worth more than two million dollars…. And yet… [m]y present station, power, the amount of happiness at my command, and the rest of it, seem to be devoid of significance."The contemporary resonance of this cautionary financial tale is obvious. But Cahan serves up his critique of capitalism in a stunningly breezy, accessible novel.Eager for even more lost classics? Check out neglectedbooks.com.