THE Post-Dispatch wasn't around in 1851 to review Herman Melville's masterpiece, but a hundred years later we did declare Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea" a "Junior `Moby Dick.' " It was not a compliment.
Our reviewer compared the famous tale of the Cuban fisherman to a "sermon - the kind of sermon Hemingway would preach if he got into a pulpit." Hemingway won the Pulitzer for that sermon. That doesn't make it the Great American Novel, but it is something you probably read in a high school English class.
This is the 50th year that the Post-Dispatch has reviewed books on a regular weekly basis.
As a kind of celebration, we are excerpting some reviews of notable books we've published in the past. Our diligent reference researchers journ eyed deep into our microfilm files and turned up a few surprises.
The newspaper's reviewers were, well, not always enthusiastic about works that later would be required reading for millions of students, keeping the books in print and the descendants of T.S. Eliot, Hemingway, John Steinbeck and others in pocket change.
Besides our snide headline for "The Old Man and the Sea," we sneered at John Steinbeck's "Travels With Charley" ("almost any literate person could have written it.") We said Betty Friedan "goes off the deep end" in "The Feminine Mystique."
Under the headline "Hispanic Happenings," we did commend Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude" as having "a unique quality of its own, a brand of humor which is so markedly original that one cannot avoid being caught in its festive spell."
The headline for Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" declared it a "Masterpiece of Reporting." ("This book has been hailed as a new literary form, but it is nothing of the kind. It simply happens to be the best of its kind that has ever been done.")
We couldn't track down reviews of Virginia Woolf's "To the Lighthouse," George Orwell's "1984" or Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind." Among black authors, we praised Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man," but apparently we didn't review Richard Wright's "Native Son" or Malcolm X's "The Autobiography of Malcolm X." We did find Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," reviewed by a white woman.
What we turned up gives little hints of social history and newspaper style. Compare the dense writing in the 1923 review of "The Waste Land" to the simpler styles that came later. Don't miss the last paragraph of the "Caged Bird" review.
But our excerpts are not meant to show that the reviewers were foolish or prophetic. This is simply for your reading pleasure.
"THE WASTE LAND"
By T.S. Eliot. Reviewed by Otto Heller on Feb. 24, 1923.
Burton Rascoe's characterization of "The Waste Land" as, perhaps, the finest poem of this generation smokes our dissent from the current estimate of that "thing of bitterness and beauty" out of its privacy into the open. . . . One feels "The Waste Land" rankly overgrown with an intricately patterned symbolism, but its immersion in the "Bersonian flux" - the name of teacup philosophy for chaos - saves its meaning from the necessity of cleancut explanations. Some critics deny emotion to Mr. Eliot, others point out confusion in his thinking. The present writer disagrees, and finds the young poet altogether admirably equipped for his office. Only he's got into bad company for the time being, as young poets will. To say that "The Waste Land" is not a poem is far from saying that Mr. Eliot is not a poet. His work is both spiritual and concrete, only the two elements are not in fusion, but confusion.
By Ralph Ellison. Reviewed by John Barkham on April 11, 1952.
Here's a first novel by a young Negro that will hit you like a thunderclap. Our society being the imperfect thing it is, Negro novels of social protest are, unhappily, a familiar part of our literature. …