Sunday, February 17, 2008

One-Hit Literary Wonders


Just as in music, literature is replete with one-hit wonders, true cases of “that’s all she wrote.” Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, and Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak are only a few examples.

My favorite is Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters, a 1915 book-length collection of extremely short, interweaving prose poems allegedly spoken by 244 deceased inhabitants of the fictitious town of Spoon River. (I'm cheating a bit since Masters wrote other books, none of which achieved critical acclaim like Spoon River.) Hat makers, artists, judges, bankers, doctors, gamblers--people from all walks of life--tell stories of love, tragedy, and everyday existence while constantly alluding to the other characters. A larger story emerges by the end, so that Spoon River Anthology reads like a novel. Secrets are revealed—sexual indiscretions, crimes, addictions, murders—about this seemingly ordinary town. It is almost a genre unto itself. The characters have wonderful names like Yee Bow, Hod Putt, Ida Frickey, Griffy the Cooper, Cooney Potter, Knowlt Hoeheimer, Constance Hately, and Dippold the Optician.

Do you have a favorite one-hit literary wonder? If so, share the wealth, whether it’s well-known or off the beaten path, like Spoon River Anthology.

Picture: Public Domain

12 comments:

Sandy Carlson said...

I'd have to say Angela's Ashes because I don't think its successors come anywhere near it.

Billy, your post reminds me of a (remaindered) book I purchased from Daedalus a few years ago--Published and Perished. It was about just that. It's an excellent reminder that the inspiration must be intrinsic for all writers!

Scott from Oregon said...

I can't think of one offhand (The Horse's Mouth, perhaps, if you discount his other work?) but I used to share a bar with Norman Greenbaum...

Sarah Hina said...

I'd say Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things. I know she's written a lot of political/cultural non-fiction, but that novel came out in the late nineties, and she hasn't put forth another one yet.

I wish she would. It's one of my favorite books, and gorgeously written.

Great topic, Billy. :)

Billy said...

Sandy, that was a good one! Great choice.

Scott, bar room banter with an author is pretty good stuff. I guess the ultimate experience would have been to put away daquiris with Hemingway down in Key West.

Sarah, thanks. I'm going to make a list of whatever is posted in reply and track them down ... and put them in my bookcase to be discovered on Saturday afternoons :)

Bernita said...

I'll go with "To Kill a Mocking Bird"

Scott from Oregon said...

Norman Greenbaum is the quintessential one hit wonderer... but he was a songster, not a novelist...

"I want to go to the Spirit In The Sky... yaddy yaddy... when I die... yaddy yaddy... I want to go to the place that's the best..."

(yaddy yaddy)

Billy said...

Oh--*that* Norman Greenbaum LOL. For a one-hit wonder, that song shows up in more movies than one can shake a stick at. Why doesn't he have a reality show yet? -:)

Billy said...

Bernita, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is hard to beat. To leave such a literary legacy--we should all be so fortunate.

Lana Gramlich said...

"Winter's Tale" by Mark Helprin would be my one hit wonder. So nice I read it twice. :) The Spoon River Anthology sounds interesting...I'll have to see if we have it at our library.

jason evans said...

I'm bad at this sort of thing, but Spoon River Anthology sounds really intriguing. I think I may have to read that!

I wonder if literary one-hit-wonders have as heartbreaking an experience as music ones.

Charles Gramlich said...

Haven't read this one, although it sounds interesting. My favorite one hit wonder is "where the chill waits" by T. chris Martindale. a really atmospheric thriller and I don't know of anything else he's written.

Billy said...

Lana, thanks. I'm going to see if I can get to as many of these as possible, or at least obtain copies for when I get some free time.

Jason, considering the work on your blog, I think you might like it.

Charles, "atmospheric thrillers" work for me. Personally, I love horror, suspense, and thriller.