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Contemporary novels from the past

Posted in Setting

The novel is an excellent way of absorbing the feel of another culture, whether from another place or from another time. We read many an historical novel set in a past distant from the author (Walter Scott, Dumas, etc.) with great pleasure, without thinking too much about the author's subtle translation for us from the usages of his chosen period for our modern interpretation (and when that author is himself at some distance in time or place from us, this takes on almost a meta flavor).

I myself am very fond of the ancient versions of this — Homer and the much older Trojan War, the monk who transcribed Beowulf, the Icelandic sagas. Still, I don't lose sight of the fact that the forms in which these things survive are written down long after the actual events or invention and, if not explicitly interpreted for the envisioned audience, are nonetheless necessarily viewed through the assumptions of those who have preserved them or retold them.

Writers of adult contemporary fiction? Well, not so much. Unless they are set in an exotic location or exotic demographic, they expect their audience to understand the culture that they share with the author. And, so, they often waste no breath on explaining the things that everyone knows. They just get on with the story.

Still, time does pass, and the settings of such books do grow distant and unknown from their latest readers. Part of the appeal of these works for modern readers lies in their matter-of-fact portrayal of a different time in the ancestry of the current culture.

The picture above shows a camping trip in 1920. There was quite a fashion for these in the early years of the family automobile. Farmers from the mid-West could now take their families safely and conveniently on a multi-week vacation, participating in one of the luxuries that was previously unaffordable for them, educating the mind by seeing other places, and glorying in the exercise and fresh air that are everyone's right.

How do I, specifically, know this? Why, I read about it, in Gene Stratton-Porter's 1925 novel: The Keeper of the Bees.

The same exact vehicle is featured in some of the early scenes (our desperate hero is given a ride by a kind family on vacation). She describes its numerous conveniences as we would the latest high-tech camping gear. Even the fashionable pageboy haircut sported by the young girl on the left is part of the persona of another major character who could be the very same child.

Stratton-Porter‘s best known work is Freckles (ignore the execrable & worthless movies), and she has several others. They were aimed at an adult audience, of course, but have survived in popularity as part of that cultural-core of wholesome books suitable for an adolescent readership in my own childhood, like the dog-focused novels of Albert Payson Terhune.

What you may not know is that she was as popular in her day as J. K. Rowling is today.

Only 55 books published between 1895 and 1945 sold upwards of one million copies. Gene Stratton-Porter wrote five of those books—far more than any other author of her time.

The causes and issues of her day are prominent in some of the books, and while some of those still reverberate (educating the children of immigrants to become American citizens) and some are now vanished (the Chatauqua movement), others are less…um… mentionable at the moment (the Yellow Peril).

And that's a shame. The past is the past, and the expectations and concerns of the past are part of our own history. The views of the past are no threat to the present, and censoring them is pointless.

I'm glad I read these sorts of books growing up, a generation or two later. It's revolting that so much whitewashing hypocrisy has removed the accuracy of the past from present eyes.

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3 Comments

  1. You may not understand certain things about novels written in earlier times, but at least you can stop worrying about anachronisms. If you find something you thought was more modern, you realize that no, it isn’t. It was contemporaneous – with the author.

    I hope some day to find the word our homeschool remembers reading in Silas Marner – which, when we looked it up, was defined in the dictionary – by its use IN Silas Marner. My kids were surprised I knew it.

    November 24, 2021
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  2. Recommended reading order for the best of her fiction:

    Freckles
    The Keeper of the Bees
    The Girl of the Limberlost
    Her Father’s Daughter
    Michael O’Halloran
    The Harvester

    Gene Stratton-Porter was a semi-professional naturalist, and her alter-ego in these books is a character called “The Bird Woman” who collects and photographs natural objects and animals.

    March 19, 2022
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