Roaring Books: The Must-Read Literature of the 1920s

F. Scott Fitzgerald at writing desk
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In just a few years, the 1920s will be a hundred years in the past. This is significant, because that decade, while superficially celebrated in pop culture and fashion, is largely misunderstood. While most people can picture Flappers and gangsters, rum-runners and stock brokers, what many miss is that the 1920s were in many ways the first recognizably “modern” period in American history.

Coming on the heels of a world war that forever changed warfare itself and the world map, the 1920s were the first discrete decade to have all the basic, fundamental aspects of modern life. There was a focus on urban living as people moved from more rural areas and mechanized industry supplanted agriculture as the economic focus. Technologies such as radio, telephones, automobiles, airplanes, and film were in place, and even fashions remain recognizable to the modern eye.

What this means in the realm of literature is that the books written and published in the 1920s remain current in many senses. The limitations and possibilities of technology are recognizable in these books, as are the economic and social scenarios presented, by and large. Much of the vocabulary of the modern age was coined in the 1920s. There are stark differences in the way people lived a century ago, of course, but there’s enough overlap with our own modern experience to make the literature of that decade resonate powerfully with today’s reader. This is one reason so many novels written in the 1920s remain on the “best ever” lists, another being the extraordinary explosion of experimentation and boundary-pushing that writers engaged in, a sense of limitless potential that goes hand-in-hand with the manic energy associated with the decade.

This is why it’s essential that every serious student of literature be familiar with the literature of the 1920s. Here are 10 books published in the 1920s that everyone should read.

01
of 10

The Great Gatsby

'The Great Gatsby' by F. Scott Fitzgerald
'The Great Gatsby' - Courtesy Simon & Schuster.

Whether or not it truly is his "best" novel, there’s a reason F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" remains his most popular work today and a reason it's so frequently adapted and cribbed from. The themes in the novel reflect the sudden change in the character of America itself, and in some ways it’s among the first major modern novels produced in this country — a country that had become industrialized and a world power, a country suddenly and impossibly prosperous.

Income inequality isn’t a major theme of the novel, but it’s often the first thing modern readers identify with. In the 1920s, people could amass tremendous wealth without engaging actively in, well, anything. The way Gatsby so loosely spends his his ill-gotten money to throw pointless, lavish parties strikes a nerve with readers today, and many readers still identify with Gatsby’s discomfort with and exclusion from the upper class — new money, the novel seems to say, will always be new money.

The novel also crystallizes something that was a new and powerful concept at the time: The American Dream, the idea that self-made men and women could make themselves into anything in this country. Fitzgerald rejects the idea, however, and in Gatsby presents its ultimate corruption into material greed, exhausting leisure, and hopeless, empty desire.

02
of 10

Ulysses

Ulysses by James Joyce
Ulysses by James Joyce.

When people make lists of the most difficult novels, "Ulysses" is almost certainly on them. Considered pornographic when originally published (James Joyce regarded the biological functions of the human body as inspiration, instead of things to be hidden and obscured) the novel is a thrillingly complex braid of themes, allusions, and jokes — jokes that are often ribald and scatological, once you see them.

The one thing almost everyone knows about "Ulysses" is that it employs “stream of consciousness,” a literary technique that seeks to replicate the often rambling and intuitive inner monologue of a person. Joyce wasn’t the first writer to utilize this technique (Dostoevsky was using it in the 19th century) but he was the first writer to attempt it on the scale that he did, and to attempt it with the verisimilitude that he achieved. Joyce understood that in the privacy of our own minds, our thoughts are rarely complete sentences, usually supplemented with sensory information and fragmentary urges, and often impenetrable even to ourselves.

But "Ulysses" is more than a gimmick. It’s set over the course of a single day in Dublin, and it recreates a tiny slice of the universe in extreme detail. If you’ve ever seen the film "Being John Malkovich," this novel is a lot like that: You enter a small door and emerge inside the head of a character. You see through their eyes for a bit, and then you’re expelled to repeat the experience. And don’t worry — even contemporary readers would have required a few trips to the library to get all of Joyce’s references and allusions.

03
of 10

The Sound and the Fury

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner.

William Faulkner’s greatest work is another novel that’s usually considered one of the most challenging ever written. The good news is, the truly difficult portion is the first section, which is told from the point of view of a mentally challenged man who perceives the world much differently than most other people. The bad news, though, is that the information conveyed in this first section is crucial to the rest of the story, so you can’t just skim it or skip it.

The story of a tragic family in decline, the book is a bit of a riddle, with some parts offered up plainly while other aspects are hidden and obfuscated. For much of the novel, the point-of-view is an extremely intimate first-person from several members of the Compson family, while the final section suddenly introduces distance with a switch to the third-person, bringing the decline and dissolution of a once-great family into sharp relief with the added objectivity. Techniques like that, which are usually considered a bad idea in the hands of lesser writers (who sometimes struggle with consistent points-of-view) are what make this book remarkable: Faulkner was a writer who truly understood language, so he could break the rules with impunity.

04
of 10

Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf.

Often compared to "Ulysses," Virginia Woolf’s best-known novel has a superficial resemblance to Joyce’s novel. It takes place on a single day in the life of its titular character, it employs a dense and tricky stream-of-consciousness technique, roaming around quite a bit to other characters and points-of-view as it does so. But where "Ulysses" is concerned with the environment — the time and place — of its setting, "Mrs. Dalloway" is more concerned with using these techniques to nail down the characters. Woolf’s use of stream-of-consciousness is deliberately disorienting in the way it skips through time; the book and its characters are all obsessed with mortality, the passage of time, and that beautiful thing that awaits us all, death.

The fact that all of these heavy concepts are laid out over the planning and preparation for an inconsequential party — a party that goes off largely without a hitch and is pretty much a pleasant if unremarkable evening — is part of the genius of the novel, and partly why it still feels so modern and fresh. Anyone who has ever planned a party knows that odd mix of dread and excitement, that strange energy that envelops you. It’s the ideal moment to contemplate your past — especially if many of the players from that past are coming to your party.

05
of 10

Red Harvest

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett
Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett.

This classic hard-boiled noir from Dashiell Hammett codified the genre and remains incredibly influential for both its tone, language, and the brutality of its worldview. A private detective in the employ of the Continental Detective Agency (based on the Pinkertons, which Hammett worked for in real life) is hired to clean up a thoroughly corrupt town in America, the sort of place where the police are just one more gang. He does so, leaving behind a ruined city where almost all the major players are dead, and the National Guard has arrived to pick up the pieces.

If that basic plot outline sounds familiar, it’s because so many books, films, and TV shows from such a wide variety of genres have stolen the basic plot and style of "Red Harvest" on numerous occasions. The fact that such a violent and blackly funny novel was published in 1929 may surprise readers who assume that the past was a more genteel and sophisticated place.

06
of 10

Whose Body?

Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers
Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers.

Although overshadowed by Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers deserves plenty of credit for perfecting, if not inventing, the modern mystery genre. "Whose Body?", which introduces her durable character Lord Peter Wimsey, was a sensation upon publication for its meticulous approach and willingness to dig into the intimate and the physical as part of an investigation; the modern "CSI"-style mystery owes a debt of gratitude to a book published in 1923.

That alone would make the book interesting, but what makes it a must-read is the simple cleverness of the mystery. Another writer who played fair with her readers, the mystery here is spiked with greed, jealousy, and racism, and the ultimate solution simultaneously surprises and makes perfect sense once explained. That the scenario and its investigation and solution feel very modern even today is a testament to just how thoroughly the world had changed just a few years after the war.

07
of 10

Death Comes for the Archbishop

Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather
Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather.

Willa Cather’s novel isn’t an easy read; it lacks what literary scientists call a “plot” and is soaked in religious concerns that can be a bit of a turn-off for anyone not already invested in them. But the novel is exemplary and well-worth reading, because its themes dig down beneath the religious tone. In telling the story of a Catholic priest and bishop who work to establish a diocese in New Mexico (before it became a state), Cather transcends religion and explores how tradition breaks down, ultimately arguing that the key to preserving order and ensuring our future lies not with innovation, but with the preservation of that which links us to our ancestors.

Episodic and beautiful, it’s a novel that everyone should experience at least once. Cather includes many real-life historical figures in her story, fictionalizing them in a way that modern readers will instantly recognize, as the technique has become increasingly popular over time. In the end, this is a book you enjoy more for the writing and the subtlety of its themes than for the action or thrills.

08
of 10

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, by Agatha Christie
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, by Agatha Christie.

Agatha Christie remains incredibly popular, a brand name that just about everyone recognizes. Her bibliography of mysteries is impressive not just for the sheer number of titles she produced, but for their almost-uniform quality — Agatha Christie didn’t play. Her mysteries were often complex and her stories filled with red herrings, but they always scanned. You could go back and see the clues, you could mentally reconstruct the crimes and they made sense.

"The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" remains the most controversial of Christie’s novels because of the epic, awesome trick she played. If you don’t want to be spoiled, stop here and go read the book first; while the story is well worth re-reading after you know the secret, the first time you get to the reveal is a special moment in any reader’s life, and it’s another example of how the 1920s saw writers in every genre experimenting and pushing the limits of what was considered “good” writing — and fair play in a mystery.

Essentially, Christie perfects the concept of the “unreliable narrator” in this novel. While the technique was not new at all by the 1920s, no one had ever wielded it so powerfully, or so thoroughly. Spoiler Alert: The revelation that the murderer is the narrator of the book who has been assisting with the investigation and supplying the reader with all the information remains shocking today, and makes this book a prime example of the power that a writer holds over their readers.

09
of 10

A Farewell to Arms

A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway
A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway.

Based on Hemingway’s own experiences during World War I, this story of love amidst the horrors of war is what made Hemingway a permanent A-list writer. You could include just about any of Hemingway’s 1920s novel on this list, of course, but "A Farewell to Arms" is perhaps the most Hemingway novel Hemingway ever wrote, from its clipped, streamlined prose style to its grim and haunting ending that implies nothing we do matters to the universe.

Ultimately, the story is one of a love affair interrupted and dogged by events beyond the lovers’ control, and a central theme is the pointless struggle of life — that we spend so much energy and time on things that ultimately don’t matter. Hemingway masterfully combines a realistic and haunting description of war with some abstract literary techniques that would seem amateurish in less-skilled hands, which is one reason this book endures as a classic; not everyone can combine harsh realism with heavy pathetic fallacy and get away with it. But Ernest Hemingway at the height of his powers could.

10
of 10

All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque
All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque.

World War I’s influence on the world can’t be overstated. Today, the war has been reduced to a vague idea of trenches, gas attacks, and the collapse of ancient empires, but at the time the savagery, the loss of life, and the mechanization of death was profoundly shocking and horrifying. It seemed to people at the time that the world had existed in a certain stable balance for a very, very long time, with the rules of life and warfare more or less settled, and then World War I redrew the maps and changed everything.

Erich Maria Remarque served in the war, and his novel was a bombshell. Every war-themed novel written since owes a debt to this book, which was the first to truly examine war from a personal perspective, not a nationalist or heroic one. Remarque detailed the physical and mental stress suffered by soldiers who often had no idea of the bigger picture — who sometimes weren’t certain why they were fighting at all — as well as their difficulty in settling back into civilian life after coming home. One of the most revolutionary aspects of the book was its marked lack of glorification — war is presented as drudgery, as misery, with nothing heroic or glorious about it. It’s a window onto the past that feels incredibly modern.

Transcending Time

Books transcend their time and place; reading a book can put you firmly in the head of someone else, someone you might never otherwise meet, in a place you might otherwise never go. These ten books were written nearly a century ago, and yet they still chronicle the human experience in distinctly powerful ways.
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Somers, Jeffrey. "Roaring Books: The Must-Read Literature of the 1920s." ThoughtCo, Dec. 4, 2017, thoughtco.com/literature-of-twenties-4154491. Somers, Jeffrey. (2017, December 4). Roaring Books: The Must-Read Literature of the 1920s. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/literature-of-twenties-4154491 Somers, Jeffrey. "Roaring Books: The Must-Read Literature of the 1920s." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/literature-of-twenties-4154491 (accessed December 13, 2017).