I thought that I saw somewhere that The Disenchanted was a #1 bestseller, but I wanted to take a quick look and confirm the fact. The search led to a lengthy perusal of the bestseller lists from 1950 and 1951, and it was a fascinating exercise, in the broader sense well worthy of any student’s or classroom’s time. There are plenty of forgotten or vaguely mentioned, unread books, not just towards the bottom but also at the top of the list. There’s a certain thrill when a well-known book appears and makes its rise, and it’s almost as if you can feel it rippling through American culture. These lists are a good window through which to watch post-war American culture defining itself.
My notes for the first part of this jaunt are a bit sketchy, but it appears that the big popular books in the fall of 1950 by known authors were The Wall by John Hersey, World Enough and Time by Robert Penn Warren, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone by Tennessee Williams (made into a 1961 film, but a novel, not a play–who knew?) and Son of a Hundred Kings by the lesser-known Thomas B. Costain. But the biggest book, with the most staying power on the list, was Henry Morton Robinson’s The Cardinal, which became an Academy Award-nominated Otto Preminger film in 1963. Can’t say I ever heard of it before.
On September 24 Ernest Hemingway’s Across the River and into the Trees debuts on the list, and it goes to #1 on October 15. This is one of Hemingway’s lesser works, certainly (and that’s being kind), but its popularity shows the reach of his fame at the time. His prior book was For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), and it set the stage for The Old Man and the Sea (1952). Hemingway’s position atop the bestseller list towards the end of 1950 marks a sharp contrast to the standing of F. Scott Fitzgerald, eight years dead and the subject of Budd Shulberg’s new novel. The Disenchanted appears on the list three weeks later on November 5, at #16. Hemingway hangs on to the top spot through November, as Schulberg climbs to #4 for the last two weeks (Thanksgiving). On December 3 The Disenchanted goes to #1, supplanting Hemingway, and it stays at the top through Christmas and into January. Schulberg gets some strong competition from Frances Parkinson Keyes’ novel Joy Street, and they trade the top spot a couple of times in January and February. The Disenchanted’s last week at #1 is March 11–the same week that the next major book, James Jones’ From Here to Eternity, debuts at #12. The Disenchanted was still at #6 on May 27, after 30 weeks on the chart, and it dropped off after going to #16 on June 17. Reading a veiled version of Schulberg and Fitzgerald boozing their way through the Dartmouth Winter Carnival would have been great fun during the holidays and through the winter, but it’s wasn’t a summery beach book.
The Caine Mutiny, by Herman Wouk, comes on the list on April 22 at #12, and it would rise to do battle with From Here to Eternity throughout the year. The other book competing with these two, which are much better known, was The Cruel Sea, by Nicholas Montserrat, which started at #14 on August 19. Norman Mailer’s Barbary Shore appears on June 17 at #11, but doesn’t stick. The Catcher in the Rye shows up at #14 on July 29, and it sells well, moving into the top 5 briefly and staying on the list for a good while. William Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness arrives on September 30 at #9. Truman Capote’s The Grass Harp appears on November 11, followed a week later by Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. John P. Marquand’s Melville Goodwin USA arrives on October 21, and it stays high on the list through the end of the year.
The Pulitzer for 1952 was given to The Caine Mutiny. A look at the Pulitzer list provides some background to the above 1950-51 bestsellers. John Hersey’s The Wall was a follow-up to A Bell for Adano, which won the Pulitzer in 1945, and his better-known and lasting Hiroshima was published in 1946, after appearing in The New Yorker. All the King’s Men won in 1947, setting up Robert Penn Warren’s World Enough and Time as a 1950 bestseller. James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific won the 1948 prize, and his book Return to Paradise appeared briefly on the list in 1950. The 1949 winner was James Gould Cozzens’ Guard of Honor, preceding the Eternity/Caine Mutiny/Cruel Sea group. It gets a bit strange from there, as A.B. Guthrie wins in 1950 for The Way West–it would be interesting to look at the books that were snubbed by this western saga. And Conrad Richter beat out Schulberg and the others in 1951 to win with The Town, the last book in his trilogy about an Ohio Valley settlement.