January 2017 | Nate Pedersen

1916 Bestsellers: A Conversation with Linda Aragoni

Last year we checked in with consumate reader Linda Aragoni of the Great Penformances blog for her appraisal of the bestseller list from a century ago. This year, we continue the tradition, finding out about the books that topped the list in 1916.  For reference, here are the 1916 bestsellers according to Publishers Weekly:

  1. Seventeen by Booth Tarkington
  2. When a Man's a Man by Harold Bell Wright
  3. Just David by Eleanor H. Porter
  4. Mr. Britling Sees It Through by H. G. Wells
  5. Life and Gabriella by Ellen Glasgow
  6. The Real Adventure by Henry Kitchell Webster
  7. Bars of Iron by Ethel M. Dell
  8. Nan of Music Mountain by Frank H. Spearman
  9. Dear Enemy by Jean Webster
  10. The Heart of Rachael by Kathleen Norris
And now onto our conversation with Linda:
What was your favorite book from 1916?
My favorite novel of the 1916 bestsellers is The Real Adventure by Henry Kitchell Webster, a prolific author of the first third of the 20th century whose name is virtually unknown today. 

Part of the pleasure of the novel is the engaging line drawings by R(aymond) M(oreau) Crosby that illustrated the original text.

The novel is the story of young working class woman whose suffragette mother taught her to want to be more than just a housewife, but who never saw to it that Rose had any training to do anything else. 

Rose bumps into a millionaire lawyer on a tram and within weeks is married into Chicago's social elite. 

Rose wants to be more than just Roddy's sex partner and hostess. She wants to have his respect and friendship. 

When her ludicrous efforts to be Roddy's pal fail, Rose runs away--only a few blocks but to the wrong side of Chicago--and takes the only job open to girls with morals but no skills: She becomes a chorus girl. 

Rose eventually comes home, but her life and Roddy's change a great deal before then.

Do you think modern audiences would enjoy any of the 1916 bestsellers?

Certainly. Good writing endures.

For readers who are at least equally interested in how ideas are expressed as the ideas themselves, I would recommend Life and Gabriella by Ellen Glasgow. It is better written than The Real Adventure, but its plot is less original. 

For readers interested in 20th century history and human psychology, I'd recommend Mr. Britling Sees It Through by H. G. Wells. 

The novel is about a writer who prior to the autumn of 1914 couldn't believe the German people wanted war. Mr. Britling (a inadequately disguised representative of Wells himself) changes his opinions when the war affects him personally. 

Dear Enemy by Daddy Long-Legs author Jean Webster is a light, comfy, romantic novel that I'm sure many people other than myself would enjoy reading while recovering from a bad cold.

Would you add any of the 1916 bestsellers to your permanent library? 

I definitely will add The Real Adventure. It's readily available in paperback, including in a Scholar's Choice Edition.

Any other comments about the 1916 bestsellers?

Today most of the 1916 bestselling novels are interesting as historical odd bits rather than as literature. The fact that eight of the 10 authors on the list are Americans is itself an historical oddity. The Brits were busy fighting a war: The English publishing industry nearly stopped because of the lack of men to run the presses.  

Anything you're looking forward to for the 1917 list?

If you'd asked what I was most looking forward to in 2017, I'd have said finishing my self-appointed project of reading and reviewing the bestsellers of 1900 to 1969.

However, since your question is about the 1917 bestseller list, I'll be coy. 

I've read and reviewed all the 1917 novels already. Those reviews will start appearing at GreatPenformances in late February.