Reading lists

20 books that defined the 1930s

After our romp through the roaring 20s, we jump forward to perhaps the hardest-to-define decade of the 20th century - and the novels that shaped it.

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Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

Next up in our series looking at decade-defining novels, we're going back to the 1930s, probably the 20th century's most slippery decade to define. The cocktail-fuelled Spend-O-Rama of the 1920s was over. The Great Depression was in full sting. Poverty was rife. Capitalism seemed dead. The British Empire was declining, and the Nazis held an Olympics. Sandwiched between the worst economic crash the world had ever seen and the joint-worst war the world had ever seen, it was a difficult decade in many ways. But of course, writers still wrote.

Some sought to tackle the troubles of the time head-on, writing about race and poverty, sexuality or institutional control. Others, meanwhile, worked on ways to forget, creating new worlds through which to escape, worlds of mystery, wonder and hope.

With that in mind, here are 20 books, each of which played some part in defining the 1930s.

'The Good Earth spent two years at the top of Publisher Weekly's bestseller lists and won Buck a Pulitzer Prize'

The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck (1931) 

Published in 1931, Pearl S Buck's drama of family life in rural China spent two years at the top of Publisher Weekly's bestseller lists and won her a Pulitzer Prize. Eight years later, Buck, who spent much of her childhood in China, became the first American woman to win a Nobel for literature.

The novel tells the story of a Chinese farming family as they struggle to survive in a fast-modernising world and rise above their low-born past. It was successful as much for its elegant style as for its poignant themes, from women's rights to the importance of family, morality to class conflict.

For many Western readers of the time it was their first insight into a country as far-flung as China, painting such a sympathetic portrait of the farmer Wang Lung and his wife O-lan that it has been hailed as a key factor in preparing Americans of the 1930s to consider China as an ally in the forthcoming Pacific War with Japan.

'Before there was Dick van Dyke, Julie Andrews, and the spoon-fulls of sugar, Mary Poppins lived in the mind of English author PL Travers'

Mary Poppins by PL Travers (1934)

Before there was Dick van Dyke, Julie Andrews, and the spoon-fulls of sugar, Mary Poppins lived in the mind of English author PL Travers. And yet, quite unfairly, Disney's version of the eccentric nanny who can slide up bannisters and pull entire armchairs from her carpet bag did a proper number on her literary counterpart.

In fact, literary Mary Poppins was quite different. For a start, she's a real cockney. She's strict and rather vane, always admiring herself in the mirror. Pretty, however, she is not.

Published in 1934, the book was an immediate success and made P. L. Travers a household name, even though she was said to be angry over the decision to market it as a children's book. As for the film, creative differences ended in her allegedly being frozen out of the project, her name appearing only in minute type in a copyright footnote after the credits.

Mary Poppins' legacy, however, is unquestionable – a social satire for the ages, that gently poked fun at the way middle-class families brought up their children, and a children's classic that's hard to beat.

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20 books that defined the 1920s

20 books that defined the 1940s

 

'One of mainstream literature's earliest explicitly lesbian novels, Nightwood proved a sensation upon publication in 1936 and a milestone for gay literature'

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes (1936) 

One of mainstream literature's earliest explicitly lesbian novels, Nightwood proved a sensation upon publication in 1936 and a milestone for gay literature in general. It was - is! - an exotic, bleak, and utterly involving tale of expats, drifters, love and pain in decadent Paris of the 1920s. The story centres on Robin Vote, an American expat who marries the son of a self-styled baron before floating from lover to lover leaving all manner of destruction in her wake.

It is a novel whizzing with feeling and lyricism. 'We are but skin about a wind, with muscles clenched against mortality,' she writes in a typically bleak but poetic passage. 'Life, the pastures in which the night feeds and prunes the cud that nourishes us to despair. Life, the permission to know death.'

In his introduction to the novel when it was first published, T.S. Eliot called Barnes' language 'astonishing'. As for Barnes, she once told a friend that she wrote it with her own blood 'while it was still running'.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)

Staging protagonist Janie Crawford's 'ripening from a vibrant, but voiceless, teenage girl into a woman with her finger on the trigger of her own destiny', Hurston's most famous work has become an icon of early intersectional feminist literature and celebration of female sexuality. It did not, however, go down well at the time. Not, at least, with her African-American contemporaries who accused her of dumbing down her black heritage, and not confronting directly issues of race. 'Her novel is not addressed to the Negro,' wrote civil rights superstar Richard Wright, 'but to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy.'

Her books went out of print, and she became a literary ghost, and was buried in an unmarked grave. It was not until the 1970s that The Colour Purple author Alice Walker stepped in to reanimate the forgotten author and cheerlead for her greatness. In an essay entitled 'Looking for Zora', she declared: 'We love Zora Neale Hurston for her work, first, and then again … we love her for herself.'

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