As the year winds down I thought I’d take a look at some well-known books from a century ago: 1916. This list examines some works by important Midwestern writers, both fiction and nonfiction, and includes works by other authors from both the U.S. and overseas. I’ll start out here with a little background on the year itself, and then we’ll take a look at some important and enduring titles from 1916.
1916 was a chaotic year. The unrelenting savagery of a new kind of technological warfare continued in Europe as the United States maneuvered to stay out of World War I. Woodrow Wilson was reelected, defeating Republican challenger Charles Evans Hughes. In 1912 Wilson had run against President William Howard Taft of Cincinnati and former President Theodore Roosevelt, who was running as a third party candidate in the “Bull Moose Party.” Roosevelt was disappointed in the performance of his handpicked successor Taft. Once the U.S. entered the war in 1917 Roosevelt was trying to get back into military service, but was rejected. He son Quentin, an Army pilot, was killed in 1918 when his plane was shot down, and TR himself died in 1919.
Some of the most brutal fighting of “The Great War” occurred in 1916. One of the most heartrending episodes was the disastrous first Battle of the Somme in July. The British forces had more than 50,000 casualties on July 1, the first day of the offensive. The English short story writer “Saki” (H.H. Munro) was killed on the Western Front in November, 1916. The American poet Alan Seeger, a volunteer in the French Foreign Legion and relative of prominent folksinger Pete Seeger, was also killed in France that year. Alan Seeger is best known for his poem “I Have a Rendezvous With Death” which, disconcertingly enough, was one of the favorite poems of President John Kennedy.
Although the U.S. didn’t enter the First World War until April of 1917, the U.S. had its own international conflict to deal with—one right on its own border. Revolutionary Mexican General Pancho Villa had crossed the border and raided the town of Columbus, New Mexico, killing several citizens, all of this part of an effort to embarrass the ruling government in Mexico. Wilson dispatched a punitive expedition under the command of General John “Black Jack” Pershing, who would go on to greater fame as commander of U.S. forces in World War One.
The expedition failed to capture Villa. The future novelist John Marquand, famous for his short stories about the Japanese spy Mr. Moto as well as his more serious works, such as The Late George Apley and H.M. Pulham, Esquire, served with the U.S. Army during the 1916 expedition and also served in WWI. Marquand would later do a stint as a war correspondent in World War II covering the landings on Iwo Jima.
The Easter Rising occurred in Ireland from April 24-29. A small army of Irish rebels, calling themselves the Irish Republican Brotherhood and numbering among their leaders the Irish poet, teacher, and man of letters Padraig Pearse, revolted against the colonial authority of Great Britain. The rebels, numbering about 2,000 men, seized Dublin’s General Post Office and a number of other sites in the city. They proclaimed an Irish Republic and battled British forces for six days before surrender.
The Irish were initially appalled by the uprising and the death and chaos that resulted, but resentment against the rebels became outrage against the English when Pearse and other leaders were swiftly executed at Kilmainham Jail.
A movement had begun that would result in the creation of the Irish Free State by the early 1920s. The Rising also inspired Yeats’s famous poem “Easter, 1916,” and dramatist Sean O’Casey examined the event in his play The Plough and the Stars (1926).
There were some notable deaths as well that year. Henry James, who had become a British citizen just one year before in 1915, died at the age of seventy-two on February 28.
Jack London died at the age of forty on November 22, and beloved Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley died on July 22 at the age of sixty-six.
The Dada movement began in Europe. Dada, which means “hobbyhorse,” was a radical movement in the arts that was a forerunner of Surrealism. Dada emphasized meaninglessness, anti-rationalism and chaos, and was in part a reaction to the madness of WWI. It sprang from earlier radical developments in the arts dating back to 1912-13.
One family experienced a personal tragedy in the spring of 1916 that would be the subject of a famous mid-twentieth century autobiographical novel.
Hugh James Agee, father of writer James Agee, was killed on May 18, 1916 in an automobile accident while returning to his family in Knoxville, Tennessee. Years later his son would write a powerful book about this event and its impact on his family called A Death In The Family.
The novel wasn’t quite finished at the time of his death and his editors put together a text that was published and earned wide acclaim. It was published in 1957 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1958. In 2007, the University of Tennessee Press released an edition of A Death In The Family under the editorial direction of Agee scholar Michael Lofaro that was more in keeping with Agee’s original vision. This version has a different opening, includes much additional material and is broken into more chapters. The famous opening sequence from the 1957 edition–“Knoxville: Summer, 1915”–has been omitted. The cover of the restored text is pictured below.
One noteworthy aspect of 1916 is the publication of Sherwood Anderson’s first book, Windy McPherson’s Son. Several years would pass before the appearance of Winesburg, Ohio in 1919, but Anderson earned some positive notices for this autobiographical first novel. The action of the story takes place in the town of Caxton, Iowa, but it’s not much of a stretch to say that his fictional town is Anderson’s hometown of Clyde merely transported further west. Anderson was well on his way. He published his next novel, Marching Men, one year later.
Ring Lardner scored a hit with the public with a refreshing addition to the canon of epistolary fiction: You Know Me, Al: A Busher’s Letters. This book consists of a series of letters by a conceited and clueless baseball player named Jack Keefe to his friend Al back home. We never hear from Al—we just get a hilarious series of letters in which the writer reveals himself to be not only self-centered but also oblivious to the sarcastic comments and insults that come his way.
The stories first appeared in serial publication form in 1915 but were released in book form one year later. Lardner wrote the stories while working as a sports columnist for the Chicago Tribune. A couple more volumes of stories about Keefe followed, one of which tracks his adventures while serving with the American forces in World War I. A short-lived comic strip based on the character appeared in the early 1920s.
The Leatherwood God, one of the last novels from William Dean Howells, prominent novelist and man of letters from Martins Ferry, Ohio, was published in 1916. Some critics believe this is one of Howells’s better novels: the critic Edwin Cady, a long time student of Howells, called it “Howells’ great unknown novel.” The book is based on the true story of a frontier evangelist who declared himself God and traveled into Ohio in 1828. The story centers around a backwoods messiah named Joseph Dylks, who establishes himself as a prophet and attracts followers. Dylks creates chaos in the community, especially when he goes so far as to say that he is God.
Indiana novelist Booth Tarkington had a banner year in 1916. Two of his best works—Alice Adams (1921) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1918)–were still ahead of him, but Tarkington followed up the success of his novel Penrod in 1914 with a volume called Penrod and Sam in 1916. Penrod told the story of a mischievous Tom Sawyeresque boy of twelve and his adventures.
The adventures continue in Penrod and Sam, and a third volume appeared much later, in 1929, called Penrod Jashber. All three novels were collected in a volume called Penrod: His Complete Story in 1931.
Tarkington had a huge success in 1916 with his novel Seventeen. Seventeen concerns another boy, only this time Tarkington turns his attention to a teenager in love. Seventeen is the story of a youngster named William Sylvanus Baxter who is in love with a girl named Lola Pratt, an aspiring actress of eighteen who often speaks in baby talk, annoying plenty of people around her, but intoxicating young William. The novel was popular and was adapted for the stage in 1918. Hollywood filmed the story a number of times, and a musical based on the book appeared in 1951.
Carl Sandburg’s Chicago Poems was published in 1916. This volume contains the famous poem “Chicago:” “Hog Butcher For The World,/Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat/Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;/Story, husky, brawling,/City of the Big Shoulders”…..
Six years after his death in 1910, one of Mark Twain’s most famous short stories appeared: “The Mysterious Stranger.” The story is about the appearance of Satan in a small town in Austria in the 1500s and reflects the bitterness and pessimism Twain felt about “the damned human race” in the last years of his life. The world was getting its first glimpse of a darker Twain, a view that was further complicated when a collection of similar pieces by Twain appeared in 1962 under the title Letters From Earth.
1916 was the year when an important study of one of America’s most progressive school systems appeared. The mention of Gary, Indiana may conjure up images of a decayed Midwestern factory town not far from Chicago, but in the nineteen-tens the Gary schools were noted for their progressive curriculum and organization. Randolph Bourne, a fascinating figure in American progressivism of that time, made a study of the schools entitled The Gary Schools. Bourne, a radical philosopher and journalist who suffered from a spinal deformity that left him hunchbacked, offered stringent criticism of American society in his work. His promising career as a penetrating critic of American society was cut short when he died in the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918.
Philosopher and educational theorist John Dewey’s Democracy And Education appeared in 1916. Dewey was interested in the role of education in a democratic society and wanted students to have both scholastic and vocational training. He was interested in making education relevant: connecting education to the worlds students inhabited and often providing some kind of direct, hands-on kinds of experiences for them.
One of the first American road books was published in 1916: Theodore Dreiser’s A Hoosier Holiday. I would argue that this has some significance not only because it’s a work by the great novelist Dreiser, but also because it is arguably one of the first in-depth books about auto travel and hitting the road to discover (or rediscover) America. The impetus for the trip was the suggestion of Dreiser’s artist friend Franklin Booth to drive in Booth’s car back to their home state of Indiana and visit old haunts. Dreiser, who hadn’t visited Indiana in years, agreed.
Keep in mind that this was in the early days of the automobile when most long distance travel across the U.S. was by train. The nation’s roads were primitive. There was no national network of highways. Gas stations and restaurants were both hard to come by. Early auto travelers often had to cope with mechanical failures—which they usually had to deal with themselves–rural roads that became quagmires after heavy rain, and a lack of hotels or other accommodations.
Dreiser’s journey begins in New York City and ends in Carmel, Indiana. Along the way he comments on a range of subjects and offers his dry assessments of American summer travelers and rural accommodations. It’s a fascinating look at the America of 1916 and a reminder of how close the country still was to the rustic Victorianism of the nineteenth century. A particularly poignant moment occurs when Dreiser peers through the window of his old home and sees a boy asleep on a bed in the same room he lived in as a child.
The Leatherwood God wasn’t the only book by the prolific William Dean Howells published in 1916. In his later years Howells looked back to his days in Ohio and published a number of autobiographical works about his time in the Buckeye State, one of which is Years Of My Youth. Here Howells recounts memories of boyhood days in Hamilton, Ohio, and also recalls his time in other parts of the state.
The radical journalist John Reed, who is most famous for his account of the revolutionary tumult in Russia called Ten Days That Shook The World, published The War In Eastern Europe in 1916. This book is a collection of his journalism covering the First World War for Metropolitan Magazine. Reed’s Insurgent Mexico, about the Mexican Revolution, had appeared two years earlier in 1914.
Reed helped found the Communist Party in the United States and later left for Russia. The United States denied Reed reentry into the U.S. and he died in Russia in 1920 from typhus and is buried in Moscow. Warren Beatty’s memorable 1981 film Reds was about John Reed and his circle, which included playwright Eugene O’Neill and other luminaries. A collection of Reed’s poetry—Tamburlaine and Other Poems—also appeared in 1916.
Playwright Eugene O’Neill was a friend of John Reed’s. On July 28, 1916, the Provincetown Players on Cape Cod performed one of O’Neill’s plays for the first time: Bound East For Cardiff. This one-act play is about a dying sailor sharing memories with a friend as his life ebbs away.
A new voice had emerged in American drama. O’Neill would go on to create many more masterpieces of the American theater, among them Long Day’s Journey Into Night, The Emperor Jones, Mourning Becomes Electra, and The Iceman Cometh.
A modernist masterpiece was published on December 29, 1916: James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. This is Joyce’s powerful autobiographical account of a young man growing up in Catholic Ireland and his development as a writer. Joyce had written an earlier, more conventional version of the story called Stephen Hero in the early 1900s. The use of stream of consciousness is one of the modernist hallmarks of the book.
H. G. Wells is best known to many readers for his science fiction classics such as The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds, and The Island of Dr. Moreau. But Wells wrote a number of novels about everyday middle class English life. Mr. Britling Sees It Through tells the story of an English writer named Britling and the effects of the First World War upon him and other people he knows.
The 1920s and beyond would see a flood of fiction and nonfiction books appear in various countries related to World War I. But one of the first powerful realistic novels about this modern conflict appeared in 1916: Le Feu: journal d’un escouade, translated as Under Fire: The Journal of a Squad. Its author was the French writer and soldier Henri Barbusse. Under Fire served notice that a more realistic, even harshly naturalistic way of writing about war had appeared. Barbusse had served through the first two years of the war before being invalided out of the service.
As 2016 comes to a close, I’d also like to include some acknowledgements. I first want to express to my thanks to the people in Clyde, Ohio who provided valuable assistance to me when I visited Clyde in early May of this year to research a post on Sherwood Anderson and Clyde, Ohio, which also ended up inspiring a separate post on WWII soldier Rodger Young. My special thanks to Beth Liebengood of the Clyde Public Library, local historian John Brewer and the owners of the two houses in Clyde where Sherwood Anderson and his family once resided.
I’d also like to thank Anne Schmidt of Blu Design Shop for her fantastic job converting this blog to a website-supported platform. Thank you, Anne! I am grateful for your excellent work.
I want to salute the Chicago Cubs for winning the World Series. Congratulations, Cubs! You finally shook the legacy of that old goat. It was great to see you play the Reds back in May at the Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati. The Cubs and the Cardinals have always been two of my favorite teams along with the Reds.
I want to express my gratitude to Hillary Clinton, an Illinois native who fought the good fight, handled herself well under unbelievable and inexcusable provocation and represented the best of our American political traditions during the contentious and tawdry election season of 2016. She has served our country well for decades. I firmly believe that when the great roll is counted, she will be recognized by future generations as a great American who will hold an honored and special place in our history.
I want to salute President Barack Obama of Illinois and Hawaii for his outstanding leadership, courage, and dignity during his eight years in office. He and his family hold a special place in the hearts of many both in the U.S. and around the world, and I believe he too will serve as an inspiration for decades to come. I am excited to see what he will do in his post-Presidential career.
I am grateful as well for the outstanding legacy of John Glenn, astronaut, Marine pilot and U.S. Senator who represented so well the best of our military and civil traditions. He was a great Ohioan and a great American.
Last but not least, I want to take a moment to remember my little buddy Omar. He lived to be nearly seventeen years old despite developing thyroid issues about five years ago. He was a sweet and wonderful little cat, my special pal for many years, and he was often curled up near me as I have written these posts during the past three years. God Bless You, buddy. I love you and miss you.
Annals of American Literature: 1602-1983, edited by Richard A. Ludwig and Clifford A. Nault, Jr. Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford, 1986.
Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature. Edited by George Perkins, Barbara Perkins, and Phillip Leininger. Harper Collins Publishers, New York, 1991.
Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia: Fourth Edition. Edited by Bruce Murphy. Harper Collins Publishers, New York, 1996.
Various editions of the works described here.