Not long ago I wrote a little about sucky books written by otherwise excellent authors. Here's a handful more I'd add to the list:
- Mark Twain: Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, 1896. I forced myself to read this recently--only because I wanted to make sure I'd read all of Twain's novels. It's narrated by a childhood friend of Joan's, who finds himself exactly where he needs to be for all the key events in her life. Not much evident here of the Twain we love and enjoy and learn from. Sadly, most of Twain's later work really is pretty dreadful.
- Robert Frost: For the Inauguration of JFK (1961), the aging Frost wrote a poem called "Dedication." But as many of you know, the bright sunlight had other plans (a gift from God?), and he could not read what he'd written--and so he instead recited from memory "The Gift Outright," a much better poem. "Dedication" is doggerel--and here's a link if you don't believe me: "Dedication"
- William Shakespeare: Trying reading King John, just for fun. Even some of the great plays have "duh" moments--like the pirates in Hamlet, the bear in Winter's Tale, some real unintentional silliness in Cymbeline.
- Jack London: Two of the worst novels ever written by a human being--Jerry of the Islands and its dazzling (?) sequel, Michael, Brother of Jerry (what a title!), racist South Pacific tales, both featuring dogs that I wish Buck had killed.
- Ernest Hemingway: Across the River and into the Trees. I'd always heard this novel was terrible but decided to read it for myself. Just to see. It's a terrible novel. But it does have a scathing portrait of Sinclair Lewis. Hemingway was not, uh, gracious about his competitors. He savaged even Fitzgerald, who'd helped launch Papa's career.
- Edgar Allan Poe: Poe tried two novels (he thought they'd bring him more money than stories and poems--they didn't), finishing one (Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, which has some unintentionally hilarious and ludicrous moments), abandoning another (The Journal of Julius Rodman, Being an Account of the First Passage across the Rocky Mountains of North America Ever Achieved by Civilized Man, 1840, a sort of Western with Indians and bears and ... forget it).
- Edna St. Vincent Millay: Her patriotic doggerel during World War II severely damaged her reputation in academic circles, where poets must thrive if their works are to live. As a result, she fell off the cultural radar for decades (she was not in anthologies when I was in school), and it took two biographies of her, published one right after the other in 2001, to restore her to a prominent (and rightful) place in American verse.
Of course, sometimes sucky books are not really sucky. Moby-Dick enjoyed no popularity whatsoever during Melville's life, sold horribly. And today, I would guess, more copies of Moby-Dick sell every hour than sold in his lifetime.
And some "great" or otherwise celebrated books end up looking sucky with some historical hindsight. I wonder how future generations will look at, oh, For Whom the Bell Tolls, which I read not too long ago and didn't think much of. And more recently--the Oprah selection, the well-reviewed The Story of Edgar Sawtelle? I kind of liked it--but enduring?
Time is usually the most reliable, consistent critic, so we will see ...