Notable Books of the Twenties: Mrs. Dalloway – Virginia Woolf (1925)

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925)

“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.”

Notable Books of the Twenties: The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

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.

Algonquin Round Table

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.”

~ Robert Sherwood

Sources: PBS American Masters

Notable Books of the Twenties: A Passage to India – EM Forster (1924)

A Passage to India by EM Forster (1924)

This has proved the ultimate decline-of-empire classic, backdropped by the British Raj and the Indian independence movement in the 1920s. When Adela Quested and her ageing travelling companion Mrs Moore arrive in the Indian town of Chandrapore, they are put out by its repressed and prejudice atmosphere. So they set out to find the ‘real India’. They engage the charming and respectable Dr Aziz as their guide, but after a mysterious incident at the Marabar caves, he is thrust into the eye of a scandal that grips both British and Indian sides of the imperial coin.

It was, said celebrated Indian novelist Anita Desai, Forster’s ‘great book… masterly in its prescience and its lucidity.’

Notable Books of the Twenties: So Big – Edna Ferber (1924)

So Big by Edna Ferber (1924)

This was the biggest selling novel in 1924 and won its author a Pulitzer Prize a year later. Set in Chicago, So Big tells the story of the life of gambler’s daughter Selina as she navigates the many huge challenges life throws in her face – challenges to her dignity, to her family, and to her mental health.

But what truly makes her one of the 20th century’s great literary characters is her inextinguishable ability to find joy in the most unlikely of places. She is a flawed delight. But more than just a larger-than-life story of a go-getting ‘modern woman’, what makes it stand out as a timeless work of literature is the vivid snapshot it provides of a vanished time in history, through the high life and low life of 1920s Chicago society. ‘Critics of the 1920s and 1930s,’ wrote the New York Times, ‘did not hesitate to call [Ferber] the greatest American woman novelist of her day.’ This was her masterpiece.

Robert Benchley (1889-1945)

A graduate of Harvard University (1912), Benchley held a variety of jobs in New York City before becoming managing editor of Vanity Fair in 1919. There he worked with Robert Sherwood and Dorothy Parker until January 1920, when both Sherwood and Benchley resigned to protest the firing of Parker. About this time Benchley, Parker, and other wits of the Algonquin Round Table—which its members referred to as the Vicious Circle—began their celebrated lunchtime meetings at Manhattan’s Algonquin Hotel. In April 1920 Benchley joined the staff of Life magazine as drama critic (1920–29). During this period he published his first collection of essays, Of All Things! (1921), and became a regular contributor to The New Yorker (1925). He was drama critic for The New Yorker from 1929 to 1940 and wrote its “The Wayward Press” column (under the pseudonym Guy Fawkes).

His monologue “The Treasurer’s Report,” initially delivered as a skit in an amateur revue for the Algonquin group in 1922, was the basis for one of the first all-talking cinema short subjects. He subsequently acted in and sometimes wrote motion-picture short subjects—The Sex Life of a Polyp (1928), Stewed, Fried, and Boiled (1929), How to Sleep (1935; Academy Award for best live-action short film), The Romance of Digestion (1937), and The Courtship of the Newt (1938)—among them. In all, he made more than 40 short subjects and appeared in minor roles and a few supporting roles in some 50 feature films. He often played a confused, annoyed, and mildly sarcastic drunk. It was a role that suited him. He once said, “I know I’m drinking myself to a slow death, but then I’m in no hurry”; he died of cirrhosis of the liver.

Benchley, Robert

Although films and radio brought Benchley wide public acclaim, his writings constitute his most lasting achievement. His essays are collected in 15 books and illustrated with Gluyas Williams’s superb caricatures; the books include Pluck and Luck (1925), The Early Worm (1927), My Ten Years in a Quandary, and How They Grew (1936), and Benchley Beside Himself (1943). As he grew older, however, his whimsical, even absurd humor became increasingly at odds with his darker vision of the world. Many critics consider his early writing his best, and he himself said in 1943:

It took me fifteen years to discover I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous.

~ Robert Benchley

The Ten Year Lunch (Movie)

The Ten-Year Lunch: The Wit and Legend of the Algonquin Round Table

A 1987 American documentary film about the Algonquin Round Table, a floating group of writers and actors during the Jazz Age in New York City, which included great names such as Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, George S. Kaufman, Edna Ferber, Marc Connelly, Harold Ross and Harpo Marx. It was produced and directed by Aviva Slesin and narrated by Heywood Hale Broun.

The title refers to how the members of the Round Table met over lunch at the Algonquin Hotel from 1919 until roughly 1929. The film shows how the group drifted apart once the 1920’s ended, as Hollywood beckoned for some and as they grew older.

The film premiered on the PBS series American Masters on September 28, 1987. On April 11, 1988, it won the 1987 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

Notable Books of the Twenties: The Enchanted April – Elizabeth von Arnim (1923)

A sun-drenched ode to the transformative power of travel, The Enchanting April is enchanting. Published at a time when international travel was beginning to take off, it was a huge bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic and set off a tourism boom to Portofino, on the Italian Riviera, where it is set.

It follows four very different women who respond to an ad in the paper appealing ‘to Those who Appreciate Wisteria and Sunshine’ and want to live in an Italian castle for a month. The only thing they have in common is a shared dissatisfaction with their respective home lives.

As they get to know each other, their unhappinesses are washed clean by the sun and they find new joys (and loves) in places they never knew existed. In many ways it is a pioneering example of the classic friendship psychodrama you can buy in any airport bookshop today.

Robert Benchley on Bohemians

“Like the measles, which are so delightful in retrospect because we remember only the period of convalescence and its accompanying chicken and jellies, Bohemia seems to be a state which grows dearer the farther away you get from it.

The only trouble with this pitiless exposé of Bohemia is that I know practically nothing about the subject at all. I have only taken the most superficial glances into New York’s Bohemia and for all I know it may be one of the most delightful and beneficial existences imaginable. It merely seemed to me like a good thing to write about, because the editor might, while reading it, think of a dashing illustration that could be made for it.

And, if I have been entirely in error in my estimate of Bohemia, maybe some real, genuine Bohemian will conduct me, some night, where the lights and good-fellowship are mellow and rich and where we may sit about a table and sing songs of Youth and Freedom, and Love, and Girls, like so many Francois Villons.”

~ Robert Benchley, 1919 from “Vanity Fair Magazine: The Art of Being a Bohemian.”

Pictured Above: Cartoon of Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker.