Terry Castle, professor of English at Stanford and author of Noel Coward & Radclyffe Hall: Kindred Spirits (Columbia, 1996).
"The extraordinary Irish novelist Kate O'Brien is virtually unread today," laments Castle, "but her sometimes sentimental-sounding titles-Pray for the Wanderer, As Music and Splendour-conceal works of great beauty, intellectual precision, and moral candor. The pellucid Mary Lavelle (1936; out of print)-about an Irish governess's sensual and emotional awakening in Spain-is perhaps her most subtle, ardent, and delighting fiction. And I continue to be amazed by the (relative) neglect of Elizabeth Bowen-a novelist, in my view, far superior to Virginia Woolf. Her early novel The Hotel (1927; currently available from Penguin), in which a young woman staying with friends in an Italian pensione falls painfully in love with a Madame Merle-like older woman, is at once heartrending, fierce, and almost achingly well written."
Michael Bérubé, professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and author of Life As We Know It: A Father, a Family, and an Exceptional Child (Pantheon, 1996).
Bérubé describes The Life and Times of Captain N., by the Canadian writer Douglas Glover (Knopf, 1993), as "a searing and hallucinatory historical novel. Set on the Niagara frontier during the American Revolutionary War, the narrative interweaves the voices of three major characters: Captain Hendrick Nellis, a Tory fighting for the British by redeeming white captives of the local Messessagey Indians; Mary Hunsacker, an adolescent German immigrant who winds up as one of the captives after her family is slaughtered; and Oskar Nellis, the captain's son and bitter enemy, who pens absurd, desperate letters to General Washington. Vivid and visceral, devoted to minutely re-created historical detail, but also distinctly eerie and contemporary, it's sort of the Anglo-Canadian precursor to Madison Smartt Bell's All Souls' Rising. Definitely worth the price of admission."
Wendy Lesser, editor of The Threepenny Review and author of Pictures at an Execution (Harvard, 1993).
"Two neglected books that I am always recommending are Rebecca West's The Fountain Overflows (1956; out of print) and Ford Madox Ford's tetralogy about the World War I, Parade's End (1924-1928; currently available from Knopf or from Everyman's Library). Ford's portrait of a society dealing with a despised war and its returning veterans will remind my generation of our own Vietnam era; and for readers who love great characters, none can beat Christopher Tietjens and his malicious wife, Sylvia."If Ford is underappreciated, however, West is ignored: The Fountain Overflows is a book that nobody I know has read without my recommending it, yet it is one of the great turn-of-the-century novels. It is about sibling rivalry, musical families, genteel poverty, unreliable fathers, the death penalty, the newspaper business, the market for old master paintings-and it is also, despite all this plot, an invitingly autobiographical, intimate book."
Douglas Brinkley, professor of history at the University of New Orleans and author of The Majic Bus: An American Odyssey (Harcourt Brace, 1993).
"Jack Kerouac's novel Visions of Cody, written in 1951 and 1952 but not published in its entirety until 1972 (and currently available from Penguin), is one of postwar America's authentic masterworks. Abandoning the traditional narrative of On the Road, Kerouac took to experimental 'sketching,' a style derived from the confessionals of the Roman Catholic Church, where it is a sin not to reveal all to God. Using the super-exuberant Neal Cassady (Cody Pomeray in the novel) as his Dionysian hero, Kerouac captures the neon nightlife of a consumer-crazed America whose denizens chain-smoke in hazy all-night diners listening to Charlie Parker blow his feverish horn. To some early critics, the book seemed disjointed, more an ambitious journal with changed names than a pioneering work of modernist fiction. They were wrong. Today, Visions of Cody rivals Edward Hopper's paintings and Billie Holiday's jazz as an honorable and accurate expression of the heart-wrenching loneliness found in Midnight America."
Richard Rorty, Kenan Professor of Humanities at the University of Virginia and author of Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge, 1989).
"A very funny novel that many people have never come across is Zuleika Dob son by Max Beerbohm (1911; currently available from Amereon). If you admire P.G. Wodehouse's way of combining class porn (the kind of writing that is to snobbery what ordinary pornography is to forbidden sex) with allusive wit and an appreciation of the human condition, you will like Beerbohm's book even better. Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here (1935; currently available from Dutton) is a novelistic treatment of how fascism might come to the United States, helped along by fundamentalist preachers and populist demagogues. Lewis's scenario could easily be played out in the course of the next decade."
Shelley Fisher Fishkin, professor of American studies and English at the University of Texas at Austin, author of Lighting Out for the Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture (Oxford, 1996), and editor of the twenty-nine-volume Oxford Mark Twain (1996).
"A neglected work by Mark Twain that I've always liked is the last book-length work of fiction published during his lifetime: Extract From Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven (1909; currently available from Oxford), an imaginative fantasy in which conventional ethnocentric images of heaven are overturned with energy and élan. (Stormfield, for example, expecting heaven to be populated by white folks, finds that whites are clearly in the minority.) Another neglected treasure is 1601 (1882; currently available from Oxford), in which Shakespeare, Sir Francis Bacon, and other luminaries sit around the Elizabethan fireside talking dirty. Written during the summer of 1876, this bawdy language experiment helped Twain get his creative juices flowing for another project-also a language experiment of sorts-that he began that same summer: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."
Gerald Graff, professor of English and Education at the University of Chicago and author of Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education (Norton, 1992).
Graff recommends George Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936; currently available from Harcourt Brace). "This grimly hilarious novel has become timely again in an age of downsizing and middle-class job insecurity," he observes. "Would-be poet and intellectual Gordon Comstock conducts a book-long rant against 'the money god' and the degradation of personal and social relations under capitalism. Aspidistra-the title refers to a houseplant symbolic of dreary British respectability-anticipates many of the themes and episodes of the more portentous Nineteen Eighty-Four. Like Nineteen Eighty-Four, it's a great book to teach; students will divide interestingly in their reactions to Gordon's selling out at the end to write ads warning against 'pedic perspiration.'"
Charles Johnson, professor of English at the University of Washington and author of the National Book Award-winning novel Middle Passage (Atheneum, 1990).
"First published in 1923, Jean Toomer's exquisitely poetic, expansive Cane (currently available from Norton, Modern Library, and Peter Smith) stands at the beginning of modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. His visionary adventure in form, his critique of American materialism, and his charting of spiritual experience all reach back to the Transcendentalists and anticipate our contemporary dismantling of racial and gender constructs. Yet this artistic triumph, this project of cultural openness, beside which today's multiculturalism pales, remains generally unknown to the public, despite Toomer's wide literary influence. A montage of short stories, sketches, poems, and a novella-play, Cane traverses a black South brimming with elemental mysteries and a craving for sensation and ends with a black intellectual returning to the South in search of wholeness. Throughout Cane-read it with his prophetic poem "Blue Meridian" (1936) and philosophical aphorisms in Essentials (1931)-Toomer's subject is that deepest of all mysteries: the self."
Sandra Gilbert, professor of English at UC-Davis, co-author with Susan Gubar of the three-volume No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century (Yale, 1988-1994), and author of Ghost Volcano: Poems (Norton, 1995).
"Because I am myself a poet as well as a critic," says Gilbert, "I have a special fondness for fiction produced by poets, a frequently overlooked genre. Karl Shapiro's novel Edsel is a case in point. Published in 1971 (and currently out of print), it's been virtually forgotten. Yet it's a scandalously funny account of the travels and travails of poet-professor Edsel Lazarow, marked by the same verbal pyrotechnics that give Shapiro's poem "The Bourgeois Poet" (1962) its satiric zing. And finally, I can't resist mentioning short fiction by someone closely related to a poet. Before her final breakdown, Vivien Haigh-Wood Eliot produced some incisive sketches that appeared in her husband's The Criterion. She also wrote a few even better stories that still languish in the Bodleian Library. I've been struggling for quite a while to persuade someone to get these pieces into print."
Sven Birkerts, author of The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (Faber and Faber, 1994).
"Neglected greats: a shifting category that at any one time comprises most of the truly daring or subversive works of literature. Let this momentary framing of Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano (1947; currently available from Dutton) honor them all. Volcano is many a writer's secret place of repair. Never mind the occasional creak of the turning plot wheel, and forget a certain thinness about Yvonne, Laruelle and Hugh, the novel's three subsidiary players. What is unforgettable is the lyric woundedness of the consul and his epochal collapse in Mexico. When his soul infiltrates your reading sensibility (and it does by the end of the second chapter), you must grow-and darken-to accommodate it. The whole process feels like a loss of innocence but an arrival, too. Dread and beauty-every iridescent sentence is shot through with both. The whole work is so clearly the salvage of Lowry's struggle with the bottle, which was a genuine spiritual contest and would be trivialized by the term 'alcoholism.'"
Timothy Brennan, professor of English and comparative literature at SUNY Stony Brook and author of At Home in the World: Cosmopolitanism Now (Harvard, forthcoming).
"Even among Caribbean writers, George Lamming is shamefully unheralded, while being in some ways the English Caribbean's last word," notes Brennan. Natives of My Person (1972; currently available from Michigan) is his (and my) favorite. Nothing like it has ever been written anywhere, with its weird mock seventeenth-century prose, its setting in a slave ship off the Guinea coast, and its fantastic allegory of women's oppression as the intimate result of the triangular trade." From the Caribbean, Brennan moves to the Caucasus. "No one thinks of reading Fyodor V. Gladkov's Cement (1925; currently available from Northwestern), because we all suppose Soviet socialist novels are junk, but it's among the shrewdest and most inspired treatments of the pathos of organizations and the sacrificial impulse of the makers of new worlds."
Frank Lentricchia, professor of Literature at Duke and author of the novellas Johnny Critelli and The Knifemen, published in one volume by Scribners (1996).
"I wonder what it's like to experience Thomas Bernhard in German? I assume that he's even more intense in the original, and if that's the case, it's a lucky thing that I'll be spared. Start with the consummately condensed expression of his style and vision, Wittgenstein 's Nephew (published in Germany in 1982; currently available in English from Chicago), an evening's reading: partly autobiographical fiction, partly record of a friendship of shared illness and genius, partly scorching destruction of the Viennese version of modern culture, always accessible, constantly hilarious and dark, in the end, unexpectedly moving. All of it is done in a mesmerizing first person mode full of maniacal insight about language, including the narrator's own. Then, move on to Correction published in Germany in 1975; currently available in English from Chicago), one of the four or five best novels I've read."
William Gass, director of the International Writers Center at Washington University, author of The Tunnel (Knopf, 1995), and winner of a 1996 National Book Critics Circle Award for Finding a Form: Essays (Knopf, 1996).
"Wyndham Lewis's greatest novel, Self Condemned (1954; currently available from Black Sparrow)-written after he had gone blind, in Canada and about Canada, in condemnation of Canada, in condemnation of himself for inexplicably abandoning England and coming to Canada, whose bleak unlit winters bore upon even a blind man-was received with some interest in Canada but with unopen arms, selling 7,000 copies during its first two years there. Not bad for Lewis, not bad for Canada, but even in Canada it failed to achieve the audience it ought to have had, an audience which, had it been there, would have condemned the book just as its protagonist, Harding, was condemned for writing the Secret History of World War Two, which didn't kowtow to the Allies enough and whose pacifist proclivities were interpreted as fascist leanings, dismaying Harding as Harding might have been dismayed had Harding been dismembered, and driving him out of England into exile in a cold Toronto hotel where his marriage comes apart, too, like seams held by rotten thread. The book's movement is glacial and grinding, the writing brilliant, the mood cold and sterile, but the hotel is set on fire (as Lewis's was) only to become a fire hose's frozen shell, like Harding himself, who, after his no-longer-loved wife is crushed under a car where she's rolled herself, is empty enough now, hollow enough now to become an American academic."
Are there any great books you think we missed? Let us know.