Really Harsh Early Reviews of 20 Classic 20th-Century Novels

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In 1998, the Modern Library polled its editorial board to determine the 100 best novels published that century. While these classics are adored with the benefit of time and hindsight, they weren't universally loved when they were first published. Here are 20 harsh reviews of some of the best novels of the 20th century.

1. Ulysses – James Joyce

Joyce’s magnum opus redefined literature and was a major event upon its release in 1922. Some bought into its radical structure, but others didn’t—including fellow modernist Virginia Woolf. In her diary she called Ulysses “an illiterate, underbred book it seems to me: the book of a self-taught working man, and we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, and ultimately nauseating ... never did any book so bore me.”

2. The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby (1925) Dust Jacket Illustration by Francis Cugat, fair use, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Cited by many as the Great American Novel, Fitzgerald’s inimitable The Great Gatsby remains a staple in classrooms and on bookshelves the world over. Critic and journalist H.L. Mencken, however, called it “no more than a glorified anecdote,” and that “it is certainly not to be put on the same shelf, with, say, This Side of Paradise [Fitzgerald’s debut novel].” In her review for the New York Evening World, critic Ruth Snyder said, “We are quite convinced after reading The Great Gatsby that Mr. Fitzgerald is not one of the great American writers of to-day.”

3. Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov

First edition of Lolita cover, public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Nabokov’s novel about a literature professor who becomes obsessed with a 12-year-old girl wasn’t without controversy when it was published in 1958. Orville Prescott’s review in the New York Times listed two reasons why Lolita “isn't worth any adult reader's attention.” “The first,” he said, “is that it is dull, dull, dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion. The second is that it is repulsive.” Later in the same review, he called Nabokov’s writing “highbrow pornography.”

4. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

Cover art for the book Brave New World by Leslie Holland, fair use, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The ritualistic and drug-filled dystopian world created by writer Aldous Huxley may have been too much for some when it was first published in 1931, but the New York Herald Tribune may have missed the point of the book altogether when their review called Brave New World “A lugubrious and heavy-handed piece of propaganda.”

5. Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

Catch-22 original cover, fair use, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Heller’s satirical novel about World War II is so popular that the phrase “Catch-22” has become a ubiquitous modern idiom meaning a type of no-win situation. Heller was in a no-win situation, according to critic Richard Stern, whose New York Times review called the book “an emotional hodgepodge.” He added, “No mood is sustained long enough to register for more than a chapter.”

6. Under the Volcano — Malcolm Lowry

Under the Volcano first edition cover, fair use, courtesy of WIkimedia Commons

Lowry’s novel—about an alcoholic British consul in Mexico during the Day of the Dead celebration on the eve of World War II—has both dazzled and frustrated readers since its debut in 1947. The New Yorker only reviewed it in its “Briefly Noted” section, saying, “for all [Lowry’s] earnestness he has succeeded only in writing a rather good imitation of an important novel.”

7. To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf

To the Lighthouse first edition cover, fair use, courtesy of WIkimedia Commons

The New York Evening Post’s cleverly snide review of Woolf’s highly abstract Modernist masterpiece managed to praise her and shoot her down all in the same sentence: “Her work is poetry; it must be judged as poetry, and all the weaknesses of poetry are inherent in it.”

8. An American Tragedy – Theodore Dreiser

Dust jacket for Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, by Boni & Liveright. Courtesy of the New York Public LIbrary Digital Collection

This sprawling tale of love and deceit's influence has been made into an opera, a musical, a radio program, and more. When the novel was first published in 1925, the Boston Evening Telegraph called its main character, Clyde Griffiths, “one of the most despicable creations of humanity that ever emerged from a novelist’s brain,” and called Dreiser “a fearsome manipulator of the English language” with a style that “is offensively colloquial, commonplace and vulgar.”

9. Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison

Invisible Man published by Random House, fair use, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons 

Invisible Man won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1953, cementing its reputation as one of the most important books about race and identity ever written. In its 1952 review, however, the Atlantic Monthly thought it suffered from “occasional overwriting, stretches of fuzzy thinking, and a tendency to waver, confusingly, between realism and surrealism.”

10. Native Son – Richard Wright

First edition cover for Native Son, fair use, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Richard Wright’s Native Son is another classic American novel about the African American experience, but the New Statesman and The Nation found the book to be “unimpressive and silly, not even as much fun as a thriller.”

11. Henderson the Rain King – Saul Bellow

First edition cover of Henderson the Rain King, fair use, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Bellow’s uniquely comic and philosophical novel about an American millionaire who unwittingly becomes the king of an African tribe was the author's personal favorite. But it wasn’t a favorite for critic Reed Whittemore. In his review for the New Republic, Whittemore posed this question to himself: “The reviewer looks at the evidence and wonders if he should damn the author and praise the book, or praise the author and damn the book. And is it possible, somehow or other to praise or damn, both? He isn’t sure.”

12. Winesburg, Ohio – Sherwood Anderson

Winesburg, Ohio First Edition Cover Published by B W Hubsch, Fair Use, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons 

The interlaced short stories that take place in the fictional Ohio town that gives this book its name were based off of author Sherwood Anderson’s recollections from his childhood hometown of Clyde, Ohio. The veracity of those memories and the town were called into question in The Nation’s review of the book: “We sympathize with Mr. Anderson and what he is trying to do. He tries to find honest mid-American gods. Yet either he never does quite find them or he can never precisely set forth what he has found. It seems probably that he caricatures even Winesburg, Ohio.”

13. Lord of the Flies – William Golding

Lord of the Flies first edition published by Faber & Faber, fair use, courtesy of WIkimedia Commons

Another book that will most likely be forever a part of high school and college literature class curriculum, Lord of the Flies is William Golding’s tale of the savage hearts of man told through the story of a group of British school children stranded on an uninhabited island. To some, it is a brutally honest portrayal of the depth of the human spirit, but to the New Yorker it was just “completely unpleasant.”

14.  The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway

The Sun Also Rises first edition, fair use, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Hemingway’s debut novel about masculinity and the Lost Generation typifies the sparse and powerful writing style that his subsequent work would become known for. Some critics still believe it is his most important work. His mother Grace, on the other hand, did not. In a letter she wrote that Hemingway kept all his life, his mother said, “What is the matter? Have you ceased to be interested in loyalty, nobility, honor and fineness in life … surely you have other words in your vocabulary besides ‘damn’ and ‘bitch’—Every page fills me with a sick loathing—if I should pick up a book by any other writer with such words in it, I should read no more—but pitch it in the fire.” It would seem that mother, in fact, may not know best.

15.  Tropic of Cancer – Henry Miller

First edition of Tropic of Cancer, fair use, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Miller’s Modernist touchstone is known mostly for its candid portrayal of sexuality and the obscenity trial it stirred up in the U.S. decades after its first publication in Paris in 1934. While writers like George Orwell praised Miller and his book, saying he’s “the only imaginative prose-writer of the slightest value who has appeared among the English-speaking races for some years,” Time magazine described Miller and the book’s autobiographical main character as “a gadfly with delusions of grandeur.”

16. The Naked and the Dead – Norman Mailer

First edition The Naked and the Dead, fair use, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Norman Mailer's debut novel, The Naked and the Dead, was based on his experiences with the 112th Cavalry Regiment in the Philippines during World War II. It made many readers feel like they were actually there, but other readers, like the the New Republic's critic, didn’t agree: “For the most part, the novel is a transcription of soldiers’ talk, lusterless griping and ironed-out obscenities, too detailed and monotonous to have been imaginatively conceived for any larger purpose but too exact and literal to have been merely guessed at … This doesn’t mean to deny Mailer his achievement. If he has a taste for transcribing banalities, he also has a talent for it.”

17. Portnoy’s Complaint — Philip Roth

Portnoy's Complaint Cover, Public Domain, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Ask someone for a list of the greatest living American writers and chances are you’re going to hear the name Philip Roth pop up. His 1969 novel Portnoy’s Complaint—comprised of one continuous sex-filled inner monologue told to a psychoanalyst by the book’s protagonist, Alexander Portnoy—really put him on the map. America magazine turned their noses up at it, though, saying, “…it is finally a definitive something or other. I regret that it is not a definitive something.”

18. On the Road – Jack Kerouac

First edition On the Road, fair use, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation have inspired countless writers since they galvanized American literature in the '50s and '60s. Many loved the hedonistic spontaneity of Kerouac's On the Road, but Ben Ray Redman of the Chicago Tribune chided the freewheeling hipster, saying, “He can slip from magniloquent hysteria into sentimental bathos, and at his worst he merely slobbers words. His best, however, makes it clear that he is a writer to watch. But if this watching is to be rewarded, he must begin to watch himself.”

19. Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger

First edition Catcher in the Rye, fair use, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Salinger tapped into just what it’s like to be a confused and volatile teenager with his protagonist Holden Caulfield, cementing his novel’s place in the pantheon of important American literature. But such honesty rubbed some people the wrong way, especially the prudish reviewers at the New York Herald Tribune Book Review, who said, “Recent war novels have accustomed us all to ugly words and images, but from the mouths of the very young and protected they sound peculiarly offensive … the ear refuses to believe.”

20. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

Front cover of To Kill a Mockingbird, fair use, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

To Kill a Mockingbird is author Harper Lee’s sole published book to date, and it is an undeniable classic. You think you'd be hard pressed to find negative comments about such a ubiquitous and beloved book, but oh how wrong you’d be. In a letter she sent to writer Caroline IveyFlannery O’Connor said of Lee’s Mockingbird, “It’s interesting that all the folks that are buying it don’t know they’re reading a child’s book. Somebody ought to say what it is.”

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March 17, 2014 - 2:00pm
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