31 August 2012

What did lunatics* read in 1928?


The circulating library in 1928. Shown here in 1905 when it was still called The Rest
and was used for a morgue and pathology lab.
While doing research today for work I came across a story about the patient circulating library at a large mental hospital in 1928. Among other things the author of the article describes some of the habits of the patrons. One is a former doctor who comes in each week in a morning coat and pocket watch about 30 years out of date and greets the librarian as if she were one of his former patients. Another refers to himself as "he" and whatever book he checks out comes back having turned every instance of  "the" and "she" turned into "he" by cutting out the offending preceeding letters "t" and "s". But my favorite is this guy:
There is one patient who will have no books but those of a dark red color. One by one he is reading all the books in the library of that shade—fiction, history, biography, everything. Since this is a fairly popular binding, he has a large field which he is cultivating methodically. No one knows why he should select this color and no other.
And what are the patients reading? Most popular is the Bible, followed by dictionaries, and then arithmetic books. No real surprises there. More interesting to me is the kind of fiction that the patients like to read. The reporter notes that they like the same kind of fiction as the general population: Dickens, Conan Doyle, and Dumas. Again no big surprise there. But then the reporter rattles off a list of more contemporary authors popular at the time. E. Phillips Oppenheim, George Barr McCutcheon, Robert W. Chambers, Harold Bell Wright, and Harold MacGrath


Hmm. I don't see any Virago or Persephone authors there. Perhaps these are authors who deserve a new audience.  Thank goodness for Google and Wikipedia.

First off, George Barr McCutcheon turns out to have written Brewster's Millions. Now I haven't read the book but I have seen the 1980s movie version with Richard Pryor. But McCutcheon also wrote a ton of other books including his Graustark series which is based on a made-up kingdom in Eastern Europe.

As for Robert W. Chambers, I don't recognize any of his books but he he seemed to be a jack of all trades. Best known for three collections of stories and most famously for The King in Yellow, which, incidentally is 24 thematically linked stories about people going insane because of the fictitious play The King in Yellow. (I wonder what the patients thought of that one?)  He dabbled a bit in science fiction writing in 1915 about a zoologist who encounters monsters. After WWI he wrote war and adventure stories and after 1924 he wrote only historical fiction.

E. Phillips Oppenheim: Primarily wrote romantic thrillers between 1887 and  1943. Over 100 novels and 37 collections of short stories. Wow. I wonder if any of them are any good? Interestingly was one of the earliest to write spy fiction and about the "rogue male" popularized later by folks like John Buchan. And Hayley, he was born in Leicester.

Harold Bell Wright: A preacher author who earned the animus of his fellow preachers when his third novel was about a preacher who had to resign his call in order to retain his integrity. Said to be the first American author to sell a million books. Noted author Owen Wister didn't think much of him: “stale, distorted, a sham, a puddle of words,” and “a mess of mildewed pap”.

Harold MacGrath: Another one to write a ton of books and many, perhaps most, were made into films. He also seemed to go for the mixed bag appoach. Love, adventure, mystery, and spies.

The majority of patrons would have been men during this period and these definitely seem slanted in that direction. I will say that I think each of them sound interesting enough to at least give them a go. Something to look out for the next time I am combing through secondhand bookshops.

*By 1928 the term "lunatic" was, at least in mental health professional circles, not used a whole lot, but the press and politicians still used it. And in DC at least, the mechanism for committing patients to the mental hospital was still known as a lunancy hearing--and was heard in an open criminal court with sanity being determined by a jury.


  1. Possibly the best headline for a blogpost I've seen in a long time! Thanks for sharing these now rather obscure authors, none of which I've heard of - I'm guessing they've not been picked up by Virago or Persephone as they are men?

  2. E. Phillips Oppenheim's book The Great Impersonation is a mystery classic. My records remind me that I read it in 1979 and loved it. I still have my copy - somewhere. I don't seem to have read any others of his, though, but now I'll check ManyBooks or Gutenberg for more.

    Loved the facts about who read what at the asylum library. Fascinating. I think I'm surprised that there were more men patients than women. I thought women in general were thought to be more 'hysterical' and prone to mental distress.

  3. The Great Impersonation is a rollicking adventure story set in the lead up to WWI, with an involving setup and memorable characters. Worth seeking out!

  4. Seems Oppenheim is worth searching out. Leicester is as far as I know oblivious to this particular famous son of the city.

  5. I rather like red books too - should I be worried, do you thunk?

  6. I'm reading Oppenheim's The Great Impersonation right now. Too early to tell but I have hopes it will be fun.

  7. What a fascinating job you must have. This was so interesting.

  8. This is why research rocks. (thumbs up)

  9. I love this post. A completely new subject to me.
    Have you ever written about your job, Thomas? If so, I must have missed it. But any job that enabled you to find something so very interesting is fantastic.

  10. Rebecka: You are probably right about the authors not fitting V or P's gender preference. Maybe I need to start an imprint for unsung/forgotten male authors.

    Joan: Well, this asylum was not just for the indigent insane in DC, but also for the insane of the Navy and Army, so it skewed male pretty significantly.

    A Devoted Reader: I like that it is rollicking. I will check it out indeed.

    Hayley: He seems to be the best known of the authors I mentioned. Sounds like he might be worth looking into.

    Geranium Cat: Only if you limit yourself to them...

    Stephen: Thanks.

    Mary: I noticed that on your blog after I posted this. Strange how one doesn't hear of something and then it pops up again.

    Diane: It is pretty fascinating right now. But I am to the writing stage, so also pretty frustrating.

    Amanda: It really does rock.

    Nan: I've written about it a few times but pretty obliquely. I will email you some links.

  11. Isn't it interesting that the most popular books are the ones destined to be forgotten? There'll be critics and academics (and bloggers) fighting hard to canonize the obscure and literary, but your average blockbuster will be read by everyone and then completely disappear, and future generations will never know what their ancestors actually liked to read. On the plus side, maybe our descendants will be convinced we were all reading Salman Rushdie instead of 50 shades.

  12. This is fascinating. Thank you for researching and sharing this little snippet of history. Great read! Pam

  13. This was a wonderful read. Interesting to me, of course, to see what was in their library...and how they were using it! I've only read Robert Chambers, of those on your list -- I enjoyed his Slayer of Souls,aside from its unfortunate casual racism.


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