Discover the best turn of the century classic books with these stories written during the first two decades of the 20th century.
When you think about the start of the 20th century, you think of a world that doesn’t realize how much life is about to change. As the first two decades pass, the fascination with new technology and development turns into a monstrous world war that tears the world apart.
As part of my Read Through the Decades series, I wanted to take a deeper look at early 20th century literature. To make my life easier, I decided to combine the two decades from 1900-1919 together.
It’s astounding to think of the staying power of novels written over a hundred years ago. If you are interested in classics, you’ll want to try one of these classic books from the 1900s and 1910s.
The Best 1900s Books
L. M. Montgomery
Every child should be required to read the adventures of orphan Anne Shirley. When Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert decide to adopt a boy to help on their farm, they end up with a talkative wildfire of a girl who hates her red hair and has the biggest imagination possible. Using all her imagination and spark, Anne wins the hearts of everyone in town and becomes a joy in Green Gables and Avonlea.
E. M. Forster
Lucy has her whole life planned out. She’ll marry her perfectly respectable fiance Cecil and live a quiet peaceful life in England. However, when she visits Italy with her cousin Charlotte, Lucy’s life is turned upside down as she meets an explosion of colorful characters, including the passionate George. Can she accept the chaos of this new life or go back to her old ways in England? If you tend toward the romantic, this is the perfect choice for you.
W. E. B. DuBois
One of the founders of the NAACP, W. E. B. DuBois’s book is considered one of the cornerstones of African-American literature and an influencing work of sociology. In his fourteen essays, DuBois makes the case that Blacks should not have to plead for their human rights and introduces the concept of “double consciousness,” where Black people must always be conscious of how they view themselves against how the world sees them.
Jack London’s short classic tells the story of a dog named Buck. Stolen from his home on a Californian ranch, Buck is sold as a sled dog in Alaska. As Buck progresses through a series of cruel owners, he becomes more and more feral. Can one last kind owner save him or will he give in to the call of the wild?
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
In one of the most famous Sherlock Holmes mysteries, the brilliant detective investigates the death of Sir Charles Baskerville at his estate in the wild country of Dartmoor. Since the English Civil War, the Baskerville family has been cursed by a demonic hound that haunts the moors, and a large footprint was found by Charles Baskerville’s body. Holmes and Watson take the case to prove that something less than supernatural occurred before the next in line in the family is killed.
The Best 1910s Books
Nothing quite conveys the sweeping prairie like Willa Cather’s noted work, My Ántonia. Near the end of the 19th century, 10-year-old orphan Jim Burden moves to Nebraska to live with his grandparents. There he meets Ántonia, the daughter of Bohemian immigrants. The novel follows their lives as each starts to reach for the American Dream – to build a home in a new land.
George Bernard Shaw
Anyone who has seen a teenage rom-com is familiar with the transformation love story, so why not read the play that helped inspire them? Based on the Greek myth of Pygmalion, who fell in love with one of his sculptures, Shaw’s play describes English linguist Henry Higgins who takes poor flower girl Eliza Doolittle and transforms her speech and manners into that of a high-class lady. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the basis of the musical My Fair Lady.
In this haunting turn of the century classic, an unnamed narrator becomes intensely curious about Ethan Frome, a quiet old man with a limp. Eventually, the narrator learns about Ethan’s history. Twenty-four years earlier, Ethan felt trapped in his marriage to his hypochondriac wife Zeena. When Zeena’s lively cousin moves in with them, Ethan suddenly falls in love with Mattie and dreams of a different future but their relationship ends in a “smash-up” that changes all of their lives.
W. Somerset Maugham
In his semi-autobiographical masterpiece, W. Somerset Maugham tells the life of Philip Carey, an orphaned British boy with a club foot. Always looking for more experiences, Philip studies art in Paris before studying to become a doctor in London. Along the way, Philip’s romantic entanglements continually influence his choices.
In his debut novel, James Joyce uses Stephen Dedalus, his protagonist and alter ego, to decry the conventions of his Irish upbringing. Alive with Joyce’s trademark play on words, the novel follows Stephen through his childhood with the language evolving as Stephen grows. Bouncing from religiosity to hedonism, Stephen eventually settles on his own philosophy and learns to express himself as an artist.
Popular 1900s Classic Books
I’m not sure there is a more dramatic memoir than that of Helen Keller. As a toddler, an illness left Helen Keller without her hearing or her sight. Until age seven, Keller could only communicate through her own system of homemade signs until she met Anne Sullivan. Sullivan patiently taught Helen about language and how to read and write and eventually Helen went on to attend Harvard University and become a disability rights activist.
With a mirrored theme to his best-known book, The Call of the Wild, Jack London writes about the domestication of a wolfdog in White Fang. In the Yukon Territory, a she-wolf and her mate, One Eye, have only one surviving puppy from their litter. After a feud with a lynx leaves One Eye dead and the she-wolf injured, the pup is adopted by a Native Tribe. Named White Fang, the pup struggles to fit in with the other dogs in the camp or with the other wolfdogs in the wild.
“I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach,” said Upton Sinclair about his famous classic novel. Although Sinclair aimed to write a novel about the plight of poor immigrants, he actually managed to create an exposé on the meat-packing industry and is directly responsible for the creation of the Food and Drug Administration.
At the start of the French Revolution, one man, known only as The Scarlet Pimpernel, risks it all to save innocent men, women, and children from the Guillotine. Stuck in an estranged marriage to a dull British aristocrat, Marguerite is entranced by the Pimpernel’s daring deeds. Yet, when her brother is threatened, she agrees to help a ruthless French agent discover the Pimpernel’s true identity.
Popular 1910s Classic Books
Best known as the inspiration for the famous musical adaptation, Gaston Leroux’s Gothic novel transports you to the Paris Opera House in 1880, where a phantom is rumored to haunt the opera. When the star soprano is ill, her understudy Christine Daaé sings to lavish applause. Now the phantom is demanding Christine be cast as the lead, and mysterious accidents keep occurring to force the new owners to bow to his demands.
When Gertrude falls passionately in love with a rugged miner, her whirlwind romance quickly leads to a disillusioned marriage. Instead, Gertrude channels her love to her sons, especially her oldest son William. When William dies and her younger son Paul becomes ill, Gertrude transfers her affections to Paul. Conflicted by his mother’s attention, Paul finds himself struggling with his own relationships with women.
Forster’s turn-of-the-century classic book interweaves the lives of three families: the wealthy Wilcoxes, the intelligent Schlegel sisters, and the impoverished Basts. Margaret and Helen Schlegel briefly befriend the Wilcox family in Germany. Even after Helen breaks off an engagement with the younger Wilcox son, Margaret still befriends the matriarch, Ruth. When, on her deathbed, Ruth bequeaths her beloved country home to Margaret, the Wilcox family burns the note. Yet, the family still feels threatened by the Schlegel sisters, whose friendship with the Basts results in long-hidden secrets being exposed.
When her father dies, Alexandra Bergson inherits her father’s farm in Hanover, Nebraska. As other immigrant families are giving up on their farms, Alexandra is determined to make her land successful. But after turning the farm around, Alexandra’s older brothers now disapprove of her falling in love, worried about losing her portion of the inheritance, even as their youngest brother falls into his own illicit romantic affair.
One morning, salesman Gregor Samsa wakes up to find himself transformed into a gigantic insect. Kafka’s short allegorical novel describes Gregor’s struggle to adapt to his new form and literary critics love to make comparisons to religion or psychology. You’ll have to read this bizarre tale for yourself to see how you interpret Kafka’s allegory.
At the turn of the century, the Ambersons are Indianapolis’s most prominent family. Yet, over the next three generations, the fates of the Ambersons wane as industrial progress leads to the growing wealth and power of new money tycoons. When the spoiled grandson George Amberson Minafer falls in love with the sensible debutante Lucy Morgan, he has no idea his mother and Lucy’s father have a long history. When George sabotages his mother’s renewed affection for Lucy’s father, George’s life comes crashing down.
1900s Classics May Not Know
In the late 19th century, Kim O’Hara is an orphaned Irish boy living as a vagabond in British-controlled India, though few realize that he is even a white child. Occasionally Kim runs errands for a Pashtun horse trader who is secretly a British spy. When Kim befriends a Tibetan lama, he accompanies him on a quest to find a legendary river, all while carrying a secret message for the head of British intelligence.
Probably Chekhov’s most famous play, The Cherry Orchard is intriguing for its mix of comedy and tragedy. In the story, an aristocrat living in France returns to Russia to find that the family estate, with its acclaimed cherry orchard, is to be auctioned to pay the family debts. Although they receive offers to save the estate if they turn the cherry orchard into holiday cottages, the family refuses, only to lose it all in the end.
While visiting Tuscany with her friend Caroline, widowed Lilia Herrington falls in love with Gino, a younger Italian man. Enraged, her dead husband’s brother Philip comes to Italy to stop the alliance, only to find Lilia has already married Gino and is expecting a child. When Lilia dies in childbirth, the family again sends Philip and his sister to Italy, determined to raise the child as British.
A criticism of the upper class, The House of Mirth follows impoverished socialite Lily Bart. At twenty-nine, Lily’s marriage prospects are dire. Refusing to marry the poor lawyer who loves her, Lily’s only options are a coarse financier or a dull aristocrat. Over two years, Wharton describes the slow fall of Lily from a life of privilege to living on the margins of society.
At first when Jim signs up to be the first mate of the steamer Patna, the journey taking 800 pilgrims to the Red Sea seems to be going perfectly. Until the Patna hits something in the water. Fearing the boat will quickly sink, the captain and two crewmen abandon the ship without the passengers. At the last moment, Jim jumps aboard the lifeboat, a decision he will spend the rest of his life attempting to atone for.
Lesser Known 1910s Books
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Although best known for his Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle also wrote a few adventure novels. Smarting from being turned down by a woman he loves for being too dull, journalist Edward Malone decides to join an expedition to the Amazon. For Professor George Challenge claims to have discovered a lost world where dinosaurs and other prehistoric monsters still exist.
T S Eliot
T. S. Eliot’s first published poem is heralded as one of the early examples of modernism. The titular narrator, J. Alfred Prufrock, spends most of the work musing on his frustrations with life, love, morality, and feelings of isolation. Eliot’s poem is considered as a perfect example of modern disillusionment.
P G Wodehouse
A collection of eight short stories, My Man Jeeves features Woodhouse’s most popular characters Jeeves and Bertie Wooster, along with some stories about the less popular Reggie Pepper. Jeeves, the utterly practical valet to the incompetent but amiable Bertie Wooster, always steals the show with his brilliant ability to save Wooster and his friends from awkward situations.
William Strunk Jr
When Stephen King recommends a book to improve your writing, you listen. Considered the Holy Grail of grammar, Strunk originally published the book in 1918, and then E. B. White revised and enlarged it in 1959. Yes, nowadays you can just use Grammarly to check your writing, but wouldn’t it be quicker if you could write better in the first draft?
Set in a pre-industrial small Ohio town, Winesburg, Ohio is a collection of short stories about the people in the town. The closest thing to a main protagonist is 18-year-old George Willard, who has a bit part in every story. The characters have to deal with love, loneliness, mental illness, and the desire to escape small-town life. In all, it’s a good representation of that time period though it’s not exactly a gripping read.
Children’s Classics From 1900s-1910s
J. M. Barrie
J. M. Barrie’s beloved children’s story is one of the must-read classic books of all time for children. Peter Pan, the boy who never grows up, convinces Wendy Darling and her two brothers to join him on adventures in Neverland. Flying from London, they discover a magical island full of pirates, fairies, mermaids, and Native Americans.
Kate Douglas Wiggin
Three years after her father’s death, Rebecca Rowena Randall is sent to live with her mother’s sisters to ease the strain on the family’s budget. In Maine, Rebecca often clashes with her strict Aunt Miranda but finds comfort with her kind Aunt Jane. Eventually, Rebecca’s zest for life brings new joy to the lonely sisters, transforming the lives of all three.
Frances Hodgson Burnett
Growing up in India to British parents who don’t want her, Mary Lennox has become an extremely rude and spoiled child at the age of ten. When her parents die in a cholera epidemic, Mary is sent back to England to live with her only living relative, her uncle Archibald Craven. Slowly, Mary begins to lose her haughty manners and discovers a secret garden hidden on the estate.
More 1910s Books for Children:
How Do You Feel About Turn of the Century Literature?
What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with my 1910s Books list? What books published in the 1900s and 1910s have I forgotten? As always, let me know in the comments!
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