Seeking some novel recommendations
September 1, 2012 9:21 AM   Subscribe

Looking for recommendations for novels, short stories, or character-heavy nonfiction about life as an American adolescent boy or young man during the first half of the 20th century.

I'm looking for books that have either stood the test of time or been well-reviewed recently, and were not particularly written for a YA audience (although in recent years, they might have been). What I want is more insight about what it was like to be that kind of young man. Although I am particularly interested in the 1920s, I would certainly take it up about other years.

I'm a little embarrassed that I can't figure out how to research this myself. Right now, I can think of two examples: Catcher in the Rye and John Updike's "A&P." (And, yes, they were both assigned to me in high school, and I hated both of those boys. That's why this question is about boys, and not girls; I could answer it myself if it were.)
posted by Countess Elena to Writing & Language (29 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The name that immediately sprang to mind was Horatio Alger, who turns out to be a little early for your question. Still, I think that plenty of young American boys would have been reading his novels in the early 20th century. It might turn out to be useful to you as a comparison to later depictions of boyhood.

From the Horatio Alger Society: "Horatio Alger, Jr. (January 13, 1832 – July 18, 1899) was a prolific 19th-century American author, best known for his many formulaic juvenile novels about impoverished boys and their rise from humble backgrounds to lives of respectable middle-class security and comfort through hard work, determination, courage, and honesty. He wrote over 100 books, and his stories, poems, essays, and songs appeared in countless periodicals. His "rags-to-riches" stories have had a lasting impact on the American culture and many well-known authors were greatly influenced by his works."
posted by MonkeyToes at 9:33 AM on September 1, 2012

Try the Studs Lonigan trilogy, by James T. Farrell. It's about an Irish Catholic boy in Chicago in the very early decades of the 20th century. It's a masterpiece of the naturalist school of fiction.
posted by scratch at 9:39 AM on September 1, 2012

Also try Knock on Any Door, by Willard Motley, which takes place during the Depression.
posted by scratch at 9:41 AM on September 1, 2012

Have you read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay?
posted by Faint of Butt at 9:46 AM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

The group of stories collected in "The Red Pony," by John Steinbeck, are about a boy's journey into adolescence during the 1930s.

Although it is not primarily about ponies, and much more about the relationships between boys and men, growing up, and the relationships between people and animals in the context of ranch life in the 1930s, the linked stories also contain unsparing depictions of at-home animal health interventions of the era, and some vivid descriptions of animals in distress, if that is something you would find difficult reading.
posted by Uniformitarianism Now! at 9:50 AM on September 1, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks, guys -- these are great so far. I might add that I'm asking because I'm trying to develop some fictional characters who are 16-18 in the 1920s, and I feel I need more insight.
posted by Countess Elena at 9:53 AM on September 1, 2012

Try This Side of Paradise (F. Scott Fitzgerald's first huge hit, about WWI-era upper-class youth, considered totally zeitgeist-defining by his contemporaries) and Updike's Olinger Stories (very very different from A&P, this is about the only Updike I can stand).
posted by ostro at 9:54 AM on September 1, 2012

The Lacuna starts out in roughly that time period although it follows the main character throughout his life. It also goes back and forth between Mexico and the US with most of his youth spent in Mexico.
posted by willnot at 9:55 AM on September 1, 2012

Nonfiction - try Canoeing with the Cree, about a 1930 canoe trip by two high school boys, where they travelled from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay.
posted by Bourbonesque at 9:57 AM on September 1, 2012

You need Booth Tarkington. Try Seventeen.
posted by shibori at 10:08 AM on September 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

Call it Sleep, by Henry Roth.
posted by Decani at 10:19 AM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Related: Popular American boy names 1920s.

Also, this short piece from Ray Bradbury, on discovering science fiction, contains this marvelous passage (1931): "I memorized all of “John Carter” and “Tarzan,” and sat on my grandparents’ front lawn repeating the stories to anyone who would sit and listen. I would go out to that lawn on summer nights and reach up to the red light of Mars and say, “Take me home!” I yearned to fly away and land there in the strange dusts that blew over dead-sea bottoms toward the ancient cities."

Many of his works have a wistful nostalgia for his 1920s childhood in Waukegan, Ill. Wikipedia notes: "Perhaps the most definitive usage of the pseudonym for his hometown, in Summer Morning, Summer Night, a collection of short stories and vignettes exclusively about Green Town, Bradbury returns to the signature locale as a look back at the rapidly disappearing small-town world of the American heartland, which was the foundation of his roots." Slightly off your timeframe, but possibly useful.

Do you have a locale in mind?
posted by MonkeyToes at 11:15 AM on September 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

Adding a specific to MonkeyToes' piece: Dandelion Wine. Not science fiction (with the possible exception of the chapter about the Happiness Machine - great prescient criticism of American media messaging), it is a completely beautiful evocation of a 12-year-old boy's summer in 1928.
posted by likeso at 11:53 AM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

You might want to check out A Separate Peace. It's set in the 1940's, but it would be a good one to try if you're interested in an adult character looking back on his youth.
posted by anaximander at 12:00 PM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Cormac McCarthy's The Crossing might be of use.
posted by trip and a half at 12:11 PM on September 1, 2012

Also: yes, Tarkington! Good call, shibori.
posted by trip and a half at 12:14 PM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Mark Childress' V is for Victor is dripping with 40s-boy detail and lots of fun to boot.
posted by apparently at 12:15 PM on September 1, 2012

Chaim Potok? The Chosen is set in 1940s Brooklyn. My Name is Asher Lev is set slightly later. Beautifully written, both.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 12:51 PM on September 1, 2012

You really want some Stephen Meader. He wrote 44 wonderful books between 1920 and 1969, all with adolescent boy-protagonists -- once well-known, and found in every library's Juvenile-Young Adult section, now he's forgotten. Check your used bookstore (if you're lucky) -- otherwise, Southern Skies has now republished them all. (It's a small press which is mostly print-on-demand.) Many are nautical, and most are set in 19th and even 18th Century America but a few were up-to-date, those fitting your parameters are:
  • T-Model Tommy
  • Blueberry Mountain (and the sequel, Snow on Blueberry Mountain)
  • Shadow in the Pines
  • The Sea Snake
  • The Long Trains Roll
  • Behind the Ranges
  • Bulldozer
  • Sparkplug of the Hornets
  • The Buckboard Stranger, and
  • Stranger On Big Hickory
...and of these, I think The Buckboard Stranger would be best. (Fans of Bradbury's Dandlion Wine and Something Wicked... would also like that one, I think.)
posted by Rash at 1:16 PM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

What about Black Boy by Richard Wright? It's his autobiography, from his childhood through his very early 20s, and it covers exactly the time period you are interested in. I loved this book when I was a teenager, but I'm a woman ...
posted by stowaway at 1:19 PM on September 1, 2012

Winesburg, Ohio, possibly? It's set in the teens, rather than the nineteen twenties, but it might work.
posted by gudrun at 2:58 PM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

My apologies if this is not relevant, but in searching around for answers to your question, I stumbled upon Henry William Gibson's (wonderfully-titled) "Boyology, or Boy Analysis" (1922) and thought you might find it a useful look at what at least one adult thought boys were like/should have been.
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:56 PM on September 1, 2012

Paul's Case, by Willa Cather
posted by JimN2TAW at 5:34 PM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Stoner goes through the entirety of one man's life, and while and his adolescence was largely uneventful, it is difficult for me to describe how beautiful and incredible this novel was.
posted by taltalim at 9:02 PM on September 1, 2012

William Maxwell's So Long, See You Tomorrow and The Folded Leaf.

The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow.
posted by unsub at 9:46 PM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: This is terrific! I have some Fitzgerald and Farrell from the library to start with. Thanks again!
posted by Countess Elena at 6:58 AM on September 2, 2012

Dos Passos, USA Trilogy
posted by outlandishmarxist at 10:14 AM on September 2, 2012

This is a little late for your time frame, but I really enjoyed Growing Up by Russell Baker - this is a non-fiction memoir, and he was born in 1925. The descriptions of his childhood - especially the jobs he held as a child - were vivid and moving.
posted by kristi at 4:59 PM on September 2, 2012

Thought of another, more recent and "not written for the YA audience"-- ever heard of Ferrol Sams? He wrote an auto-biographical trilogy about a guy named Porter Osborne growing up in Georgia in the 'teens and 20s. The first two are Run with the Horsemen and The Whisper of the River, highly recommended.
posted by Rash at 6:09 PM on September 2, 2012

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