They had a birthday party for Alexander Hamilton at the Newberry last week. On January 11, he turned 260 (or 262: kind of fitting for an entertainment star that we shouldn’t be QUITE clear on his age). This made me wonder what other things we might be celebrating in this new year.
A LOT of things happened in 1917, of course: some of them good and some of them bad, to quote St. Gregory of Tours. But I tried to pick out the Book Fairish things of note. What were the literary highlights of that year, things we might throw a party to celebrate? (Don’t count on a HUGE shindig: my party budget might extend to a paper sign directing you to the vending machines on the first floor.)
Well, it’s the centennial of the first Pulitzer Prizes, but until they give me mine, they can forget about me throwing a whee in their honor. A Newberry Fellow, whom I met once, turns 100 this year: the late Gwendolyn Brooks was born in 1917. And of all the books published in 1917, I think I would single out Christopher Morley’s Parnassus On Wheels, although this is of interest only to those people who think it interesting to read about the adventures of someone who sells books.
If we want to talk bicentennials, both Thoreau and Tolstoy were born in 1817, but I don’t suppose their fame needs any help from me. Nor does Jane Austen, who died and became immortal in 1817, since not until she was safely dead did her family come out and admit she’d been writing all those books.
Among the books celebrating their sesquicentennial, having been published in 1867, we find three which are ALWAYS going to be at the Book Fair, and probably have been found at book fairs since 1867. Ouida’s Under Two Flags, one of the most popular adventure romances of all time, saw the light of day, as did Augusta Jane Evans’s St. Elmo, which has been called the best-selling romance of the 19th century. Pirated reprints of these can be purchased for a buck or two come July. So can copies of Das Kapital.
Just on a note of Book Fair history, I see that this is the fiftieth anniversary of Robert K. Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra, a book which caused me many troubles back in the day. As soon as I put a copy in Biography, some volunteer would take it away and put it into fiction. “It’s a NOVEL,” I was told, “They made a MOVIE out of it!”
We will celebrate the 75th anniversary of books and bookish events of 1942 as well. A number of authors you know were born then—Michael Crichton and Garrison Keillor among them, according to the list here—and a number of culturally important books—Donovan’s Brain, The Screwtape Letters, The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge…one could go on.
But if any of the anniversaries to be celebrated in 2017 deserve a party, I think I’d have to pick this one. Janette Sebring Lowrey, hardly a household name, saw one of her books hit store shelves in 1942. The bestselling American children’s book of all time, it has been on store shelves ever since. So hold a party some time this year in honor of The Poky Little Puppy.
Even though he WILL eat all the rice pudding.