Passing is not just about a black woman who lives her life ‘passing’ as a white woman. It’s also about secrecy and hypocrisy and the universally human fear of being ‘found out’. It was a very important book of the time, when conversations about race, class and gender were beginning to open up, despite prejudice still seeming, to many, a stone-set human right.
The story follows Irene and Clare, two mixed-race friends who reunite in a Chicago hotel after years of not seeing each other. Clare, Irene learns, has been living as a white woman with a racist husband who has no idea of his wife’s background. Clare, on the other hand, remained in the African-American community but refuses to acknowledge the racism that holds back her family’s happiness. They soon become consumed by the other’s chosen path – until events conspire to make them confront their lies.
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (1929)
All Quiet on the Western Front was a ground-breaking book that changed how the world saw the First World War. There is little glory to be found in it: war is hell, no matter what side you’re on. And Remarque’s remarkably humane account of life in the German trenches during the early days of the Western Front showed the English-speaking world, for the first time, what it was like for the soldiers who lived in the same mud but spilled different blood from the other side of the barbed wire.
Remarque became one of the most articulate spokesmen for his generation, one that, in his words, was ‘destroyed by war, even though it might have escaped its shells.’ It is widely thought to be one of the greatest books about the experiences of war ever written.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover was the book that shattered British squeamishness about sex into pieces (institutionally, at least). Telling the story of an affair between a young, married aristocrat and her also-married gamekeeper, it became notorious for its graphic descriptions of sex and seductive language, four-letter words and other forms of nighttime naughtiness (though it doesn’t always happen after dark, here).
It was first published privately in Florence, then in France, but was not released in Britain for a full 32 years after DH Lawrence wrote it, following a landmark obscenity trial that became one of the most important cases in British literary and social history. It has since been anointed a ‘sacred text’ for British democracy and freedom of expression.
The Weary Blues was the most important book by the Harlem Renaissance’s most famous author. Hughes rose to fame fast and furiously amid a cultural movement that marked the first time in US history that white America began to pay attention to African American literature. And with this collection of poems, he – alongside a handful of others – gave voice to a generation.
With his masterful use of language, tone and rhythms of jazz and blues music of the time, he spoke personally and powerfully to the experiences of Black Americans. While the titular The Weary Blues (included in poetry anthology Blues Poems) is his most famous poem, it is Our Land that contains one of the most memorable lines in 20th-century literature: “I, too, am America.”
Kafka wrote the trial between 1914 and 1915, but it wasn’t published until 1925, a year after he died (mainly because his chronic self-esteem issues led him to make his best friend promise to burn his manuscripts after his death. Fortunately for the world, the friend ignored his dying wish). The Trial is a dark, melancholy story of confusion and existential dread, about a man suddenly arrested for a crime that’s never revealed to him.
The novel was one among a small oeuvre that compelled the poet WH Auden to call Kafka “the Dante of the 20th century.” The book, in short, encapsulated the growing fears of the time surrounding totalitarian oppression, alienation and bureaucracy in the modern world. And it’s influence on contemporary thinking was profound. We’re all conflicted, torn between worlds, trapped in situations from which we can’t escape. The Trial embodies that modern malaise, and even spawned a word for it (we all know it): Kafkaesque.
On January 17th, 1920, when Prohibition became the law of the land, a new kind of woman was born; a woman who drank, smoked, and (gasp!) danced with members of the opposite sex in illegal watering holes known forever as “speakeasies.” No one, man or woman, described these dens in such delicious detail as The New Yorker magazine’s cabaret-reviewer and resident dancer til dawn, “Lipstick.” “Lipstick,” nom de plume of Connecticut-born Lois Long, was one of the original New Yorker contributors, along with such famous writers as Dorothy Parker, E. B. White, and Alexander Wollcott, and outlasted nearly all of them – her career at The New Yorker spanned nearly 45 years.
At age 23, Long began writing her column, “Tables for Two”,” reviewing nightclubs across the city (most of them situated between 42nd and 60th Streets), with the magazine footing the bill. The Tenement Museum does not cover such expenses for its employees, in case you were wondering. Long, taking over the column from a fellow who called himself “Top Hat,” chose to be known as “Lipstick.” Since her identity was hidden behind the page, she often had a bit of fun with her readers, describing herself as a plump middle-aged woman, or a distinguished gentleman. Long was a broad with a great sense of humor and adventure – perfect for 1920’s Manhattan.
Her nights were filled with jazz, gin, and jitterbugging, and all of it made it into her column, which became extremely popular. According to historian Joshua Zeitz, author of Flapper: Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern, Long’s exploits often found their way to the office: “She would come into the office at four in the morning, usually inebriated, still in an evening dress and she would, having forgotten the key to her cubicle, she would normally prop herself up on a chair and try to, you know, in stocking feet, jump over the cubicle usually in a dress that was too immodest for Harold Ross’ [the founder of the New Yorker] liking. She was in every sense of the word, both in public and private, the embodiment of the 1920s flapper.”
“We are trembling on the verge of one of the great ages of English literature,” Virginia Woolf told an audience a year before she published Mrs Dalloway, her fourth novel, to rapturous critical reception in 1925. She may not have been talking about her own work, but for the nearly one=hundred years since its publication, it has been near universally credited with changing the game of writing about the philosophy of life, high society, and most of all, the psychology of feminism.
Written in the same stream-of-consciousness style pioneered by Joyce in Ulysses, it follows Clarissa Dalloway, a high-society hostess in post-war England as she prepares to throw a lavish party, across a single day. “Mrs. Dalloway was the first novel to split the atom,” The Hours author Michael Cunningham famously wrote. “It is one of the most moving, revolutionary artworks of the twentieth century.”
More than once has Fitzgerald’s masterpiece about the delusion of decadence in the age of excess been branded ‘the greatest of great American novels’. Which says a lot for a book that can be read in a day. It’s brilliance, in part, lies in its brevity.
Echoing Noel Coward’s words in 1925, when he sang, ‘Cocktails and laughter, but what comes after?’ Fitzgerald used The Great Gatsby to call out the unbridled hedonism of the Jazz Age, which roared through the 1920s, and led to the devastating economic crash of the 1930s. ‘I was within and without,’ says protagonist Nick, ‘simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.’
Reviews upon its publication, however, were mixed. Influential critic HL Mencken said it was ‘in form no more than a glorified anecdote, and not too probable at that.’ And yet, history proved it a piece of prescient genius, a book woozy on its own foresight, not to mention its gorgeously taught, lyrical prose.
The period that followed the end of World War I was one of gaiety and optimism, and it sparked a new era of creativity in American culture. Surely one of the most profound — and outrageous — influences on the times was the group of a dozen or so tastemakers who lunched together at New York City’s Algonquin Hotel. For more than a decade they met daily and came to be known as the Algonquin Round Table. With members such as writers Dorothy Parker, Harold Ross (founder of The New Yorker) and Robert Benchley; columnists Franklin Pierce Adams and Heywood Broun, and Broun’s wife Ruth Hale; critic Alexander Woollcott; comedian Harpo Marx; and playwrights George S. Kaufman, Marc Connelly, Edna Ferber, and Robert Sherwood, the Round Table embodied an era and changed forever the face of American humor.
It all began with an afternoon roast of the New York Times drama critic, Alexander Wollcott. A number of writers met up at the Algonquin Hotel on 44th street and had such a good time that the event was repeated the next day, and the day after that, until the lunch table at the Algonquin was established as a ritual. The core group of friends was sometimes joined by others who attended for short periods or drifted about the periphery of the group, including such notables as actress Tallulah Bankhead and playwright Noel Coward. The Round Table was made up of people with a shared admiration for each other’s work. Outspoken and outrageous, they would often quote each other freely in their daily columns.
Round Tabler Edna Ferber, who called them “The Poison Squad,” wrote, “They were actually merciless if they disapproved. I have never encountered a more hard-bitten crew. But if they liked what you had done, they did say so publicly and whole-heartedly.” Their standards were high, their vocabulary fluent, fresh, astringent, and very, very tough. Both casual and incisive, they had a certain terrible integrity about their work and boundless ambition. Some of the most notable members of the Round Table came together to work on significant collaborative projects. George Kaufman teamed up with Edna Ferber and Marc Connelly on some of his best stage comedies, including Dulcy and The Royal Family. Harold Ross of The New Yorker hired both Dorothy Parker as a book reviewer and Robert Benchley as a drama critic.
By 1925, the Round Table was famous. What had started as a private clique became a public amusement. The country-at-large was now attentive to their every word—people often coming to stare at them during lunch. Some began to tire of the constant publicity. The time they spent entertaining and being entertained took its toll on several of the Algonquin members. Robert Sherwood and Robert Benchley moved out of the hotel in order to concentrate on and accomplish their work. In 1927, the controversial execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, whose case had divided the country and the Round Table for six years, seemed to cast a pall over the group’s unchecked antics. Dorothy Parker believed strongly in the pair’s innocence, and upon their deaths she remarked “I had heard someone say and so I said too, that ridicule is the most effective weapon. Well, now I know that there are things that never have been funny and never will be. And I know that ridicule may be a shield but it is not a weapon.”
As America entered the Depression and the more somber decade of the 1930s, the bonds that had held the group together loosened; many members moved to Hollywood or on to other interests. “It didn’t end, it just sort of faded,” recalled Marc Connelly. A decade after it began, the Algonquin Round Table was over. Not forgotten, the Round Table remains one of the great examples of an American artists’ community and the effects it can have on its time.
“That woman speaks eighteen languages and can’t say ‘no’ in any of them.”
~ Dorothy Parker
Once when asked by a press agent, “How do I get my leading lady’s name into your newspaper?” Kaufman replied, “Shoot her.”
~ George S. Kaufman
Reviewing cowboy hero Tom Mix: “They say he rides as if he’s part of the horse, but they don’t say which part.”
This is a timeless classic that nevertheless defined it’s time. Loos, then a Hollywood screenwriter, was inspired to write it during a trans-America train trip with the movie star Douglas Fairbanks and his leading lady. Watching the screen sire, she concluded her ‘strength had to be rooted (like that of Samson) in her hair: she was a natural blonde and I was a brunette.’
The result of these musings became a jazz-age classic that has endured all the decades since (not to mention a 1953 movie adaptation starring Marilyn Munroe). Her gold-digging protagonist is a witty, seductively ironic and superhumanly smart carve up of a society obsessed with looks.