Friday, January 01, 2010

UK vs. US bestsellers, a century ago.

Annabel Wynne on the Guardian books blog, in the inevitable summing-up that occurs at the end of a decade, looks back at the popular UK writers of a century ago: Beatrix Potter, E. M. Forster, and, most of all, H. G. Wells.

I was curious about their U.S. equivalents, so I looked at the Publishers Weekly bestseller lists for 1909 and 1910, and found mostly names that are not prominent on today's literary landscape. The possible exception, and the only mystery writer to appear on these lists—Mary Roberts Rinehart, for The Man in Lower Ten (1909) and for The Window at the White Cat and When a Man Marries (both 1910). Irish novelist Katherine Cecil Thurston does appear on the 1910 list for Max, but she's best known for the thriller John Chilcote (1904), which was the basis for The Masquerader (1933) starring Ronald Colman.

Modern readers might be bemused to see A Modern Chronicle by one Winston Churchill on the 1910 list, but this is the American novelist Churchill, not the budding politician. The Canadian retired clergyman Basil King shows up both in 1909 (for The Inner Shrine) and 1910 (for The Wild Olive). The sentimental The Trail of the Lonesome Pine by Theodore Roosevelt friend John Fox Jr. appears on both the 1908 and 1909 PW lists. Hoosier George Barr McCutcheon appears on the PW lists from 1904 to 1909 (the latter for Truxton King), but he is perhaps best known for Brewster's Millions (1902) and also wrote Anderson Crow, Detective (1920). Britons Charles Norris Williamson and Alice Muriel Williamson appear on the 1910 list for Lord Loveland Discovers America; Alice wrote the mystery A Woman in Grey (1898).

So does this somewhat depressing litany beg the questions: What names will still be known a century from now? Whose books will still be read?

About the images: Mary Roberts Rinehart, ca. 1920, LOC; John Fox Jr., NYPL

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