Following on from the depression-era doldrums of the 1930s, we move on to the 1940s, a decade shaped by Total War... and an abundance of unforgettable literature.
Following on from the depression-era doldrums of the 1930s, we move on to the 1940s, a decade shaped by Total War... and an abundance of unforgettable literature.
Next in our series on era-defining novels, we're travelling back to the 1940s. No decade – bar perhaps the 1910s – was more profoundly shaped by a single event, if you can reduce the Second World War to that. The first half of the decade was dominated by the bloodshed of total war; the second by the trauma left in its place.
Despite wartime paper rationing, manpower shortages and censorship, the demand for books never let up. People at home wanted to imagine what it was like on the frontlines, and soldiers on the frontlines wanted to be reminded of home (in fact, demand for battlefield reading material among soldiers was so great, that publishers in the US gave away almost 123 million books to soldiers between 1943 and 1946).
Also, just because there was a war on it didn't mean the social issues of the time – from racial conflict to class division – were put on hold. Far from it. As long as there was paper, ink and a functioning society, writers turned up to chronicle it.
So, without further ado, here are 20 books that helped shape the 1940s, from Richard Wright to Evelyn Waugh, Ayn Rand to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
"The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever,” the heavyweight literary critic Irving Howe famously wrote in 1963. “[It] brought out into the open, as no one ever had before, the hatred, fear, and violence that have crippled and may yet destroy our culture."
Native Son was a sensation from the moment it was published, selling 215,000 copies in two weeks and shooting Wright to everlasting fame.
It tells the story of a young black man, so angry at the weight white society places on black lives that he murders a white woman and burns her body. Such is his exhilaration at what he's done that he then tries to extort money from her relatives, fails, and kills his black girlfriend instead. He goes to the electric chair without a shred of remorse.
“Nobody in America had ever before told a story like this,” wrote the critic Louis Menand 1991. In other words, as black writers such as Wright emerged into mainstream culture, America could no longer pretend it could gloss over its racist past. The anger was real; scars don't just disappear.
“This is the best book Ernest Hemingway has written, the fullest, the deepest, the truest,” wrote a review of Hemingway's fifth novel in The New York Times in 1940. “It will, I think, be one of the major novels in American literature.”
It follows Robert Jordan, a young American dynamiter during the Spanish Civil War, whose lust for adventure is soon drowned in blood. Like the whole flood of international volunteers who travelled to Spain to fight Franco's fascist horde (George Orwell and Laurie Lee included), Jordan is a driven by both a desire for excitement and a moral calling to defend humanity from evil.
Across 72 hours in Segovia, Spain, he befriends guerilla fighters, falls in love, and does his fair share of killing. He quickly grows a deep hatred of violence.
Published a year before America joined the Second World War, the novel came as a timely reminder of the futility of conflict.
Few books had more influence on America's war effort than this. Which seems ironic given that it has absolutely nothing to do with war. Instead, it was one of those aforementioned titles sent to the front line to improve morale.
A coming-of-age story about a young immigrant girl whose family scrapes towards a brighter future in turn-of-the-century Brooklyn, the impact A Tree Grows in Brooklyn had on soliders was palpable and Smith fast became a wartime celebrity, receiving more fan mail than most Hollywood stars.
“I can’t explain the emotional reaction that took place in this dead heart of mine,” one Marine wrote to Smith after reading it on the battlefield. “A surge of confidence has swept through me and I feel that maybe a fellow has a fighting chance in this world after all.”
The book gave such a vivid account of childhood in urban America during the 1910s and 1920s that, in the words of one wounded soldier who wrote to Smith from hospital, “[It was like] living my life over again.”
The Fountainhead may be Donald Trump's favourite book, but don't let that put you off – it's not clear if he has actually read it. “It relates to business [and] beauty [and] life and inner emotions,” the soon-to-be-president said in 2016. “That book relates to... everything.”
Rand's first major literary success is about an individualistic architect called Howard Roark who designs skyscrapers, rails against the establishment, hates bureaucrats and blows up one of his own buildings for not being perfect enough. The book is about money, power and one man's struggle to succeed on his terms while surrounded by rivals who want to bring him down.
Rand's belief in rugged individualism (“man exists for his own sake, that the pursuit of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose”) may be polarising, but her influence on modern thought cannot be denied.
Having sold an estimated 140 million copies worldwide, the French aristocrat's fable of a planet-hopping prince in search of happiness remains one of the best-selling and the most-translated books ever published.
Saint-Exupéry wrote the children's book in New York, where he had fled from his Nazi-occupied homeland. It tells the story of an aviator, downed in the desert, who comes across a young prince from a distant asteroid who's been travelling the galaxy in order to cure his loneliness and gain a better understanding of adult behaviour. He is not impressed by what he finds.
While certainly influenced by the atmosphere of the Second World War, the book's themes of loneliness, friendship, love and childhood nostalgia turn the story more towards an allegory for the frailty of human nature and narrow-mindedness of the adult world.
As Saint-Exupéry wrote in 1943: “For centuries, humanity has been descending an immense staircase whose top is hidden in the clouds and whose lowest steps are lost in a dark abyss. We could have ascended the staircase; instead we chose to descend it.”
“Most people like reading about what they already know,” once wrote Nancy Mitford. “There is even a public for yesterday’s weather.” And with the world already at the sharp end of the Second World War, people didn't want to read about more death and destruction. They wanted to read about love.
And so, in The Pursuit of Love, she gave them one of the most wickedly funny novels about love and growing up ever written. The story – based winkingly on Mitford's own notorious family – follows Linda, her sisters and cousin Fanny who dream only of love as a means to escape their world of cold snobbery, fox hunts and rural dances.
Cue a conspiracy of ill-advised dalliances, marriages and nape-tingling affairs as The Second World War turns the screw on their ever-shrinking world (“Her conversation, her point of view, the very slang she used, belonged to the late Twenties, that period now deader than the dodo”).
It was a huge bestseller that proved, as the writer and critic Olivia Laing wrote, “relentlessly uplifting even as the Blitz began to smash all the hopes of that pre-war arcadia.”
The publication of Stuart Little marked the emergence of a titan of children's literature (E. B. White would publish Charlotte's Web seven years later). Stuart Little follows the adventures of an anthropomorphic boy-mouse, born into a human family. But when his best friend, literally a bird, disappears from her nest, he must venture out into New York City to find her.
Upon publication, it proved a highly controversial idea that offended certain conservative values of the time – that a human family could give birth to a mouse.
Children, however, lapped it up, revelling in the idea that if a tiny talking mouse can survive in the big, wide world, then anyone can, whatever the obstacles. It has since sold more than 4 million copies as it continues to be read by children and taught in schools.
And it all started with a dream, when White dozed off on a train and “dreamed of a small character who had the features of a mouse, was nicely dressed, courageous, and questing .. the only fictional figure ever to have honoured and disturbed my sleep.”
A prolific author already, Waugh's 10th novel was by far his most popular. And boy, was it popular. It proved such a hit in 1945 that he once said, with evident discomfort, that it “led me into an unfamiliar world of fan-mail and press photographers.”
A novel of nostalgia, aristocracy and Catholicism, Brideshead Revisited charts the life and loves of Charles Ryder, particularly through his friendship with a family of wealthy English Catholics who live in a palatial mansion called Brideshead Castle.
It transported war-weary readers back to a golden age before the bombs fell – a world of money and privilege. It was, as Christopher Hitchens wrote in 2008, “an elegy for a dying class, and also a warning against the disillusionments that would accompany 'the century of the common man'.”
At 8.15am on 6 August 1945, Little Boy was dropped over Hiroshima, Japan. Forty-three seconds later – at 1,890 feet above ground zero – it exploded, unleashing a single blinding inferno of pure energy that would leave more than 100,000 people dead. The lucky ones were pulverised instantly (in some cases, only their shadows remained, seared onto pavements where they stood). For others, death took longer, from days to decades.
But there were also survivors. John Hersey’s trailblazing account of the attack intertwined the stories of six of them: a young surgeon; a pastor; a tailor’s widow with three children; a prosperous doctor; a female clerk at a tin factory; and a German priest.
The 30,000-word result (first published in the New Yorker) was the biggest publishing sensation of its time, culminating in a Pulitzer Prize and international renown. Hersey’s documentary eye captured a full spectrum of feeling – panic, grief, disgust, resilience, hope – often all on the same page. Hailed as one of the greatest pieces of journalism ever written, it laid bare the true horror of nuclear weapons to the post-war generation.
The Street by Ann Petry (1946)
Sadly, few people read Ann Petry's work these days. But when The Street burst onto the market in 1946 it proved a literary sensation. Greeted as a female answer to Richard Wright's Native Son (above), and lauded for its acute social realism, it became the first book by a black woman ever to sell more than a million copies.
Set in war-era Harlem, it follows Lutie Johnson, a single mother who thought marriage would be the route to a happy and respectable life. Not so, when your husband is a good-for-nothing cheat. Soon alone with an eight-year-old son, she is forced to win at life the hard way, convinced that “anybody could be rich if he wanted to and worked hard enough and figured it out carefully enough”.
But first she must navigate a world of seedy characters, vice, violence, racism and classism in her hunt for the American dream in this dark, tragic, yet somehow uplifting tale. “Petry laces through the story shrewd social commentary about the relentless nature of poverty and its effect on black women in particular,” wrote An American Marriage author Tayari Jones in 2019. “She addresses stereotypes one by one and crushes them underfoot.”
Published a full eight years before The Fellowship of the Ring emerged, Titus Groan follows the first two years of baby Titus, 77th Earl of Groan, “heir to a crumbling summit: to a sea of nettles: to an empire of red rust: to rituals’ footprints ankle-deep in stone”.
Gormenghast (said to be based on post-war London or Dresden) is a labyrinthine castle of crumbling towers and winding passages; madmen locked in dungeons, forgotten wings, hordes of “Death Owls” and burning libraries. But the Groan dynasty is under threat, as a scheming kitchen boy with big ambitions sparks a power struggle that will shake the castle to its core.
Chronicles of Narnia author C.S. Lewis once called Peake’s books “actual additions to life; they give, like certain rare dreams, sensations we never had before, and enlarge our conception of the range of possible experience”. Anthony Burgess called the trilogy “one of the most important works to come out of [that] age.” It seeded the soil for what would decades later give rise to fantasy as a literary genre in its own right.
Sadly, this is not fiction. But Anne Frank's diary of her time hiding from the Nazis in occupied Amsterdam is far too important a book to be frozen by any label of genre – it is a diary but also a memoir; a narrative but also an argument; a coming-of-age confession but also a historical text. And it's much more than just a classic.
Frank began writing it on June 14 1942, shortly after her 13th birthday, from behind a bookcase in a concealed attic space in her father's office building. There, she and her family hid for more than two years before their capture.
Written in the form of letters to several imaginary friends, the diary was far from just a record of a life in hiding (“We still love life, we haven’t yet forgotten the voice of nature, and we keep hoping”). It was also an unfolding psychological drama of adolescence – the challenges of sexuality, battles with her mum, her maturing worldview – by a girl whose wisdom and creative power well outweighed her years.
Published in 1947, hers became the defining voice of the Holocaust – a voice that, as Soviet writer Ilya Ehrenburg wrote at the time, “[spoke] for six million—the voice not of a sage or a poet but of an ordinary little girl."
“[The Plague] may be of such importance for our time that to dismiss it in the name of artistic criticism would be to blaspheme against the human spirit.” Like all poets, Stephen Spender – the poet and critic who wrote those words in 1948 – enjoyed a bit of drama. But there was nothing melodramatic about his review of Camus' era-less study of alienation, narcissism, fear and death.
The Plague was a powerhouse of intellectual vigour. It is both an allegory for the Nazi “plague” in occupied France, and a story of human courage and determination in the face of a fragile existence.
It is also a story about a plague. In the Algerian town of Oran, a plague begins with a series of ominous signs. But soon it takes hold on the human population, driving townsfolk to the extremities of suffering, madness and compassion.
How each protagonist copes with the epidemic is up to them, in what becomes a story of human survival, and the eternal battle between humanity and inhumanity. And it has one of the most lingering final lines of any book.
Under the Volcano chronicles the final hours of an alcoholic British consul, Geoffrey Firmin, in the small Mexican town of Quauhnahuac, on the Day of the Dead. As the town wakes up ready for the fiesta, his estranged wife returns to town.
But Firmin has fallen too far down the bottle to win her back as he swings from bar to bar, drinking and deliberating until, by nightfall, he is dead in a ditch, murdered.
But the book is about much more than the destructive power of alcoholism. Considered a masterpiece of English modernism, it is stuffed with literary allusions, from Christopher Marlowe to James Joyce.
Beyond that, it is dark. So dark, in fact, that the poet and critic Michael Hoffman was moved to write that it “eats light like a black hole ... It is absolute mass, agglomeration of consciousness and experience and terrific personal grace. It has planetary swagger.”
"I write this sitting in the kitchen sink" is how this enchanting coming-of-age story famously opens, before climbing into the mind of Cassandra, a bored 17-year-old girl living in a crumbling castle with her ravishing husband-hunting sister, an ex-art model stepmother, and a father with writer's block.
But when two exceptionally eligible American brothers come to stay, Cassandra begins to grapple with her evolving passions and she experiences the flutter of first love.
Meanwhile, her sister, obsessed with a Jane Austen-style happy-ever-after, pursues one of the brothers like a deranged Bennett sister. Of course, she gets her man, but not before a series of hilarious incidents and undoings that end with everyone realising they in fact love someone else.
It is, as the author Evie Wyld wrote, “the story that every romantic comedy Hollywood has ever made has been trying to tell,” and set the stage for Smith's next great work, The Hundred and One Dalmations.
The Living is Easy by Dorothy West (1948)
This was one of very few novels published by black women in the 1940s. “[I was] the best-known unknown writer of the time,” Dorothy West once quipped – that time being the Harlem Renaissance and its aftermath.
But it struggled not because it portrayed the lives of black Americans, but because it covered the lives of rich black Americans. “She wrote 'posh black' at a time when 'broke black' was in vogue,” wrote Ordinary People author Diana Evans last August, “and this sits at the heart of her flickering obscurity, a myopia in mainstream culture that struggled to perceive blackness as anything more than one-dimensional.”
It tells the story of Cleo Judson, the patriarchy-busting daughter of Southern sharecroppers, determined to break into Boston's black elite. After marrying the “Black Banana King”, she manipulates her sisters into moving in with her to recreate her old family set up, while bringing up her daughter as a paragon of Boston's black bourgeoisie.
It is a fabulously witty, wise and nuanced satire of class elitism and the bitter legacy of slavery, as well as a feminist masterpiece that – really for the first time in commercial literature – acknowledged the emergence of an African-American middle class.
“Yeah, fighting a war to fix something works about as good as going to a whorehouse to get rid of a clap.” That's the kind of guts-on-the-table wisdom that made Norman Mailer's first novel such a literary hot potato.
The Naked and the Dead is a graphic and intimate portrait of the brutal realities of jungle warfare about a platoon fighting in the Philippines Campaign in the Second World War, shaped partially by his experiences as a cook with the 112th Cavalry Regiment. Angry, obscene and chest-thumpingly political, it parachuted the 25-year-old author onto the postwar literary scene like a surprise invasion. British attorney general Hartley Shawcross told the House of Commons it was "foul, lewd and revolting", while George Orwell called "the best book of the last war yet."
Still, no one was better at praising Mailer better than Mailer, who called it “possibly the greatest book written since War and Peace". Whether he was right or not, The Nake and the Dead was gut-punchingly good, shocking in its unflinching portrayal of ordinary men in the viscera of battle. And it launched a career that would make Mailer one of the great chroniclers of America's post-war era.
Graham Greene was, as the New York Times wrote in his obituary, the “novelist of the soul”. And none of his books plumbed the depths of human morality quite like The Heart of the Matter.
Set in Sierra Leone during the Second World War, where Greene himself had served, it follows Henry Scobie, a British police officer hamstrung by a personal crisis.
He is a good man and a devout Catholic, plagued by a seeping melancholia. His wife is miserable and he wants to make her happy, even though he doesn't love her. Soon, though, he meets another woman and falls in love.
What follows is a gripping tale of war, espionage, adultery and betrayal – a story of moral dilemmas – as Scobie is dragged deeper towards his own destruction in a desperate battle between conscience and desire. It is considered to be one of Greene's best books – in a packed field – and certainly one of his most memorable.
Annie Allen by Gwendolyn Brooks (1949)
This profound and moving collection of poems won Gwendolyn Brooks the Pulitzer Prize in 1950, making her the first African American ever to win the award. And it makes this list because, while it is poetry, it is also a gripping narrative.
Split into three parts, the epic masterpiece portrays the life of Annie, an African-American girl growing up in Chicago, as she seeks self-awareness and spiritual fulfilment against the backdrop of the Second World War. It proved a convention-busting work of verse, including one of the most elegant evocations of carpe diem in poetry:
“Exhaust the little moment. Soon it dies.
And be it gash or gold it will not come
Again in this identical disguise.”
Among Brooks' biggest fans of the time was Richard Wright (see above), who admired her ability to conjure "the pathos of petty destinies, the whimper of the wounded, the tiny incidents that plague the lives of the desperately poor, and the problems of common prejudice."
Orwell was dying when he wrote 1984. In the grip of terminal tuberculosis, he had squirrelled himself away in a remote Scottish farmhouse to rush out what would become the definitive novel of the 20th century (he once said it, “wouldn’t have been so gloomy if I had not been so ill”). He died before he could ever know the impact it would have on the world.
Originally entitled The Last Man in Europe, his dystopic vision of a totalitarian future in which the population is constantly monitored and manipulated was, in the words of the New York Herald Tribune, as 'timely as a label on a poison bottle.' Others described it as an earthquake and a bundle of dynamite.
Emerging from the ravaged landscape of total war, in a nation weary, hungry and grey, 1984 has never lost its relevance, a fact demonstrated by the extent to which its concepts and terminology – Big Brother, Newspeak, Double Think, Room 101 – have bled into our language like antibodies for a totalitarian infection.
To this day, it remains impossible to talk about propaganda, surveillance and paranoid politics without dropping a reference to Orwell's masterpiece.
Orwell spent the last years of his life writing his most famous novel in a remote house on Jura. The reasons why have sparked debate ever since.
Do you need to know about an author’s life or a book’s context before you read it, or is everything you need to know on the page? Two Penguin.co.uk writers hash it out.