Saturday, May 25, 2013

`The Author in His Descent to Posterity'

The bestselling work of fiction in the United States for the week of Oct. 26, 1952 – the date of my birth – was Thomas Costain’s The Silver Chalice, a volume I remember shelved on the bookcase my father built for my mother. Two years later, the novel was turned into a movie, Paul Newman’s first. Other names on that week’s New York Times fiction list remain familiar – Steinbeck, Ferber, Wouk, Hemingway – if not always honored. But who were Howard Spring, Agnes Sligh Turnbull and Barnaby Conrad? The nonfiction bestseller was Tallulah by Tallulah Bankhead. It’s tempting and easy to be smug about the tastes of our forebears. In 1952, you and I, of course, would have been reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Wallace Stevens’ Selected Poems, and waiting expectantly for The Adventures of Augie March. 

Look a little closer at the fiction list and you’ll notice other familiar names – Nevil Shute, Angus Wilson, Frank O’Connor. I’m also struck by the number of names made familiar by Hollywood. And look further down on the nonfiction list and you’ll find the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us, a book by a sitting U.S. Supreme Court justice (William O. Douglas’ Beyond the Himalayas), Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon (later adapted as a typically hysterical film by Ken Russell) and, best of all, in its twenty-second week on the list, Whitaker Chambers’ Witness, one of the great American autobiographies. My point is that inevitably such lists are mixed bags, not evidence of imbecility, and that there’s a plaintiveness built into them. Whatever happened to Consuelo Vanderbilt Balson, Elizabeth Gray Vining and Noel F. Busch? Someone, somewhere, I’m certain, remembers them with fondness. I remembered them after rereading Dr. Johnson’s The Adventurer #58, published on this date, May 25, in 1753: 

“It often happens that an author's reputation is endangered in succeeding times, by that which raised the loudest applause among his contemporaries: nothing is read with greater pleasure than allusions to recent facts, reigning opinions, or present controversies; but when facts are forgotten, and controversies extinguished, these favorite touches lose all their graces; and the author in his descent to posterity must be left to the mercy of chance, without any power of ascertaining the memory of those things, to which he owed his luckiest thoughts and his kindest reception."

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