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Literature that transports you to the Golden Era

poetman

A-List Customer
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357
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Vintage State of Mind
I have been thinking a lot lately about the more basic, daily aspects of Golden Era living that are gone: daily print newspapers, etiquette and manners, a sense of occasion when dressing, letter writing, train travel, analog living, etc. Can any of you recommend texts--essays, memoirs, novels, short stories--that really depict these aspects of Golden Era living? Either contemporary or texts of the period?
 
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Who?

Practically Family
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642
Location
South Windsor, CT
Some of the books I have read which purport to be set in the 30s and 40s contain a grossly exaggerated version of the language spoken then. The authors try to use every single example of jargon, slang, and idioms of the era.

It was an absolute caricature, and a total turnoff.

Maybe I just didn’t travel with the “right” crowd, but no one I knew talked like that, neither contemporaries nor elders.
 
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Bushman

I'll Lock Up
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4,138
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Joliet
Anything Hemingway does it for me. The way the man wrote was just both descriptive and evocative of the times he lived in.
 

LizzieMaine

Bartender
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Where The Tourists Meet The Sea
Any novel of the period is remote enough now that it'll create a sense of disconnect with the present, some more so than others. I've always found Ellery Queen mysteries, especially the early ones, to be completely of their era, for better or worse, especially since the character of Ellery himself is such an insufferable blowhard that, if he had actually been rampant in 1930, he wouldn't have gone four pages before Sgt. Velie and the boys hauled him into the back room to work him over with a rubber hose.

Philo Vance, incidentally, is even worse -- a supercilious, self-satisfied prig. Ah, the twenties.

I've never in my life read a "period book" written after the fact that was true to the actual period in which it was set, which is perfectly understandable. Books are written for the people who will buy them, who generally tend to be very much of the present.
 

Julian Shellhammer

Practically Family
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860
Lizzie, you have expressed my thoughts exactly. Rather than read contemporary literature set in the Golden Era, read Golden Era literature. And, yes, we must be very aware of character types and social conventions that were a part of that era: not endorse them, but realize what we are reading is rooted in a world of nearly a century ago.
 

LizzieMaine

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Where The Tourists Meet The Sea
"The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there." And if you really want to get to know the period, read its newspapers -- not one or two, but in bulk, on a daily basis, as we do in the "Era Day By Day" thread. The world of eighty years ago is revealed there with all its warts intact, sans any "nostalgic" filtration.
 

Tiki Tom

My Mail is Forwarded Here
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3,172
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Oahu, North Polynesia
One of my favorite books is “A Time of Gifts” by Patrick Leigh Fermor. The book is a narrative of the time, in 1933 at the age of 18, when he set out to WALK from the Netherlands to Constantinople. He beautifully captures the cities, countryside, and —most of all— the people he meets. His particular skill in life was that he’d strike up conversations and end up being invited to spend the night at the persons house. He stays in everything from humble farms to elegant estates and befriends the occupants. It is a lovely portrait of a now vanished prewar world. Additionally, Fermor’s literary style is the opposite of the modernists… He writes in a complex old school manner that is, in a word, beautiful.

BTW, Mr Fermor went on to become a highly decorated WWII hero. His bio is also worth reading.
 

LizzieMaine

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"Of Time and the River" contains a description of what it meant to be an American in the 1930s that ought to be engraved on a tablet somewhere, except it goes on for six pages. "For America has a thousand lights and weathers, and we walk the streets forever, we walk the streets of life alone...."

Also recommended, his New Yorker piece, "Only The Dead Know Brooklyn," an outstanding short vignette written entirely in dialect.
 

FOXTROT LAMONT

One Too Many
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1,525
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St John's Wood, London UK
My favorite novelist of all time is Thomas Wolfe. All of his works were written 1926-1938, and represent the time, though being mostly autobiographical also a specific place during that time. He can be overwhelming at times, not everyone’s tastes, but much of his writing is pure magic for those who love words.

Wolfe owns me. A kindred soul, his pull inexorable.
 
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10,600
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My mother's basement
I recently reread a holiday favorite, Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory,” a semi-autobiographical account of a Christmas season when Capote was seven years old.

Capote was born in 1924, so his short story is set in 1931. He wrote it in 1956, so he was looking back 25 years.

It’s a lovely tale, and a glimpse into life among regular folk of that era in small-town Alabama.
 

FOXTROT LAMONT

One Too Many
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1,525
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St John's Wood, London UK
I've never in my life read a "period book" written after the fact that was true to the actual period in which it was set, which is perfectly understandable. Books are written for the people who will buy them, who generally tend to be very much of the present.

After France I watched Chatterley's Lover then a day or two past stopped at Waterstones for some late
shopping. I fully intended to find Lawrence (haven't read Lady Chatterley) and any Wolfe for myself. The past so intrigues. Superb writ. Wine ages. Too wearied to wander much, found Sean Flynn's Economics for Dummies. Recent, just for a game student of the Keynesian school disproved. So I guess you're spot on to the present moment.
 
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Talbot

One Too Many
Messages
1,855
Location
Melbourne Australia
One of my favorite books is “A Time of Gifts” by Patrick Leigh Fermor. The book is a narrative of the time, in 1933 at the age of 18, when he set out to WALK from the Netherlands to Constantinople. He beautifully captures the cities, countryside, and —most of all— the people he meets. His particular skill in life was that he’d strike up conversations and end up being invited to spend the night at the persons house. He stays in everything from humble farms to elegant estates and befriends the occupants. It is a lovely portrait of a now vanished prewar world. Additionally, Fermor’s literary style is the opposite of the modernists… He writes in a complex old school manner that is, in a word, beautiful.

BTW, Mr Fermor went on to become a highly decorated WWII hero. His bio is also worth reading.
I too, enjoy Patrick Leigh Fermor. For me, a good read takes me somewhere and to a point in time.

Very different but may I suggest: Perfume from Provence by Lady Fortescue, and The House Without a Key by Earl Derr Biggers (engrave on golden scroll of memory).
 

Inkstainedwretch

One Too Many
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1,037
Location
United States
I love the fever-dream novels of James Ellroy set in the '40s and '50s. Populated by psychos, wildly bent cops, movie stars and eccentrics of every stripe. The dialogue is extravagantly racist, sexist and homophobic and perfectly true to the period. What passes for police procedure is totally fascist and even the worst characters are striving for redemption. The character of Buzz Meeks in "The Big Nowhere" has to be the craziest example of a bad man redeemed by love ever committed to print. Ellroy also throws in the unreliable narrator - different characters serving as POV relate the same events with significant differences. Not exactly nostalgic for the period but atmospheric in the extreme.
 

docneg

One of the Regulars
Messages
191
Location
Pittsburgh PA
I read all the paperback reprints of The Shadow pulp novels that Bantam (and later Pyramid) were re-issuing back in the '70s. Even though they were just throwaway novelettes, and have none of the descriptive richness of Faulkner, Hemingway, and the rest of that league, they still capture that time and place well because it is impossible to imagine The Shadow in any other time period.
 
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10,600
Location
My mother's basement
I’ve been reading “The Grapes of Wrath.”

It may have been required reading back in junior high, but if it was I have no recollection of it. But I’m getting old and my memory bones are getting kinda weak.

As with “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” I question the wisdom of assigning this book to people that young. The average 14-year-old can comprehend these stories, but only on a superficial level.

There still existed scenes as described in TGOW in my early years. There were “trucks” made from decrepit sedans with the bodywork rear of the front doors cut away. There were families and their meager worldly possessions piled high thereon. I frequently witnessed such vehicles undergoing roadside repairs and radiators boiling over on those miles-long uphill stretches we get out here in the West. (I recall water in barrels marked “not potable” alongside those roads.) I witnessed boys near my age who had arrived with their family at a highway rest area marveling at flush toilets, depressing the lever over and over again.

But that’s been 60 years ago or so, so only 20-some years after TGOW was published.

Do I think the story is a tad heavy-handed in places? Sure I do. Do I think some of the characters and situations are bit too convenient? Yup.

Still, Steinbeck possessed great powers of description. And the story does take me to the world of my grandparents’ young adulthood, and my parents’ childhood. That keeps me turning the pages.
 

FOXTROT LAMONT

One Too Many
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1,525
Location
St John's Wood, London UK
I read Steinbeck and Twain in youth, continued both men at Cambridge, and once carried Huckleberry Finn
thru Brecon Beacons on a forced march while serving in the Army. Today, I occasionally converse with kids, usually
either a fast food eatery or public transport, and stress good literature whenever opportunity allows.

I especially favour Shakespeare, the Brontes, the Americans Hawthorne, Twain, Emily Dickinson, and Edith Wharton
for solid literary foundation.
 
Messages
10,600
Location
My mother's basement
In scanning my groaning bookshelves it occurs to me that perhaps there’s something more — I dunno, immersive(?) — in reading old stories in editions dating from their period. Reading “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” in an edition from 1943 and “Archy and Mehitabel” in a 1945 printing is much the same experience as what my parents and grandparents knew when they were young and those books were new. It’s not only on paper (as contrasted with an electronic screen), it’s on old paper in an old binding. The words may be the same, but the manner in which they are delivered has an effect on their effect.

My books have been acquired over the course of my lifetime to date, and more come my way at least several times per year. Among the reasons I hate moving is because moving books is such a PITA. The likelihood of my ever again rereading more than a mere few of those volumes is quite remote. But they tell my story — where I’ve been, how I got where I am. Seeing the titles on the spines transport me to when those stories and those ideas were new to me. And how I’ve changed since then.

Case in point …

I possess at least a dozen volumes by Henry Louis Mencken. I came upon his work in my late adolescence, and was captivated by his humor and his wit and his brilliant literary style. He was indeed all those things and more, and he as much as anyone sparked my desire to write for a living.

But I came to see that even the most elegant prose can’t entirely mask morally bankrupt thinking. Yes, Mencken was a delight when he skewered religious fundamentalists and “the booboisie.” But as with most social critics, his observations told us more about who he was than what he was observing. And what he was was a racist and an anti-Semite and a Nazi sympathizer. He was certainly no believer in democracy.

I won’t be burning my Mencken books, though. I expect that they, along with all those other books, will find their way to one of my book peddler friends, should I die before they do, which isn’t the unlikeliest prospect.
 
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