Still, while everyone knows T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and James Joyce’s “Ulysses” appeared in 1922, the outstanding books of 1923 may not leap readily to mind. So, after consulting various online sites and reference guides, I made a list of some of my own favorites, restricting myself to British and American literature. Feel free to add your own choices to mine, which are briefly annotated below.
“A Lost Lady,” by Willa Cather. One of the heartbreaking masterpieces of arguably the finest American novelist of the 20th century. No one ever forgets the opening scene in which the awful Ivy Peters slits the eyes of a woodpecker, then laughs as the unfortunate creature blindly collides again and again with tree branches. In essence, the grown-up Ivy will do the same thing to the beautiful and noble Marian Forrester.
“Antic Hay,” by Aldous Huxley and “The Flower Beneath the Foot,”
by Ronald Firbank. Two high-spirited works of wit and satire, the first by the now rather neglected Huxley, whose early novels about disillusioned British intellectuals established an entire subgenre (see Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell, David Lodge), and the second a delightfully camp life of the imaginary Saint Laura De Nazianzi: “Oh! help me, heaven,” she prayed, “to be decorative and to do right!”
“Tarzan and the Golden Lion,” by Edgar Rice Burroughs. In this adventure, Lord Greystoke befriends an orphaned lion cub whom he names Jad-bal-ja. Later, this fiercely loyal and powerful companion will assist his master in more than one tight spot, most thrillingly at the conclusion of 1932’s “Tarzan and the City of Gold.”
“Harmonium,” by Wallace Stevens. If one sets aside the work of expatriate T.S. Eliot, this is probably the greatest single volume of poetry published in the 20th century by an American. It includes “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” “Sunday Morning” and “The Emperor of Ice-Cream”: “Let be be finale of seem./ The only emperor is the emperor of ice- cream.”
“New Hampshire,” by Robert Frost. If poetry were a horse race, then this collection would finish just a nose behind “Harmonium.” It includes Frost’s two most frequently memorized poems, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and the apocalyptic “Fire and Ice”: “From what I’ve tasted of desire/ I hold with those who favor fire.”
“Men Like Gods,” by H.G.
Wells and “The Clockwork Man,” by E.V. Odle. All modern science fiction consists of a series of footnotes to H.G. Wells. In this middle-period novel his endlessly fertile imagination outlines a possible world-Utopia. Odle’s underappreciated book presents a steampunk version of “The Terminator” or “RoboCop”: a cyborg from the future finds himself stranded in the early 20th century when his clockwork goes awry.
“Cane,” by Jean Toomer. Over the past 95 years this Harlem Renaissance “experiment” — a mosaic of poems, vignettes and short stories, many of these last being shocking studies of loneliness and the longing for love — has risen from relative obscurity to become what it always was, a groundbreaking work of 20th-century American literature.
“The Shadowy Third and Other Stories,” by Ellen Glasgow and “Uncanny Stories,” by May Sinclair. Two cornerstone collections of eerie short fiction. Glasgow’s title story is almost a variation on Henry James’s “Turn of the Screw,” as the narrator — a nurse half in love with her dashing employer — keeps glimpsing a spectral little girl with a jump rope. Sinclair proffers devastating dissections of sexual desire, most famously (and pathetically) in “Where Their Fire Is Not Quenched.”
“Whose Body?” By Dorothy L. Sayers. Rest easy: Lord Peter Wimsey (and Bunter) are on the case. In this first criminal investigation by the dandyish nobleman, a key clue turns on the ethnic identity of the murder victim.
“Studies in Classic American Literature,” by D.H. Lawrence. These spiky, impassioned essays are themselves classics of criticism in which the iconoclastic English novelist examines the work of Hawthorne, Poe and Melville: “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.”
“The Green Archer,” by Edgar Wallace. Astonishingly prolific, Wallace created those international vigilantes, “The Four Just Men,” and died while working on the screenplay for “King Kong.” This cliffhanger-packed mystery features a ghoulish killer, the eerie Green Archer, and is Wallace’s criminous chef d’oeuvre, enthusiastically praised by both the Sherlockian Vincent Starrett and the polymath Martin Gardner.
“Horses and Men,” by Sherwood Anderson. While everyone reveres “Winesburg, Ohio,” this collection features some even better work from the generally underestimated Anderson, especially “I’m a Fool” — which William Faulkner deemed the best short story he had ever read except for Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” — and “The Man Who Became a Woman,” a breathtaking examination of race relations and sexual identity.
“Episodes Before Thirty,” by Algernon Blackwood. This superb memoir of a roustabout youth spent in England, America and Canada is by the mystical and pantheistic author of “The Willows,” perhaps the single finest weird tale ever written, unless that honor belongs to Blackwood’s other, more visceral masterpiece, “The Wendigo.”
“Jeeves” (a.k.a. “The Inimitable Jeeves”), by P.G. Wodehouse. These linked stories introduce the immortal comic duo of ditsy Bertram Wooster and his unflappable valet Reginald Jeeves, possessor of a brain so gigantic it reaches the Spinoza category. Included are those tours de force “The Great Sermon Handicap,” and “The Purity of the Turf.” What ho! What ho!
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.