Library Blog

Mary Borden, author of Forbidden Zone.
Mary Borden, author of Forbidden Zone.

Lost in the Stacks: The Overlooked, Underrated, Neglected, and Forgotten

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Several months ago, I began posting on the Library’s Twitter account about authors who once enjoyed popularity and/or critical acclaim but may be currently neglected, underrated, forgotten, or overlooked by even the most voracious 21st-century readers. The series of tweets is called “Lost in the Stacks,” and below you will find a selection of edited and expanded posts. We hope that you find an author here that piques your interest and that the article encourages you to explore our unique stacks. You never know what you might find. 

The nature of these authors’ obscurity varies: Some take up significant real estate on our shelves, testifying to their former glory, while others were less prolific. The works of a few authors are kept alive today by small but devoted cult followings, occasional republication, and through strategic name-drops by the literary cognoscenti. Some have a well-known title or two in their bibliography, but many more books that are now virtually ignored. Some are known only to film buffs who pay close, careful attention to screenwriting credits.   

If you want to read more about neglected books, check out our previous posts, “Forgotten But Not Gone,” “Forgotten But Not Gone Part II: A Library Member Responds,” and this post highlighting staff members' favorite overlooked gems.  Be sure to regularly check the Neglected Books website, a rich, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic resource, and Lucy Scholes’ fascinating “Re-Coveredcolumns in The Paris Review. Support heroic publishers like New York Review Books, McNally Editions, Wakefield Press, Stark House, Persephone, and the many others who are fighting the good fight by curating lists that rescue good books from oblivion.  

To see future posts—there is certainly no shortage of material—and keep up-to-date with goings-on around the Library, follow us on Twitter (@nysoclib).  

Thanks to Bibliographic Assistant Cullen Gallagher for his help with Lost in the Stacks.  

Mary Borden (1886-1968) was a prolific writer: we have 19 of her books in the stacks. She also ran field hospitals close to the front during WWI and WWII. Her book Forbidden Zone (1929) has been called “the great forgotten voice of the war,” a "taut masterpiece,” and is ranked by some among the best WWI literature—a crowded field, that. Interestingly, Borden served in the same field hospital as another author/nurse, Ellen La Motte, who wrote her own acclaimed but relatively obscure WWI account called The Backwash of War.  

And speaking of war memoirs... Virginia Cowles (1910-1983) was an American war journalist, biographer, and travel writer best known for Looking for Trouble, a pioneering 1941 account of her experience as a combat journalist during the Spanish Civil War. Her life and work were featured in Judith Mackrell’s popular 2021 book The Correspondents: Six Women Writers on the Front Lines of World War II and in a recent installment of Lucy Scholes’s “Re-Covered“ series in The Paris Review.  “Her story makes one of the most engrossing and most illuminatingly effective books that the war has produced,” a New York Times reviewer wrote in 1941. We have 13 books by Cowles in our stacks. Our copy of Looking for Trouble was added to the collection on July 30, 1941still serving members after 80+ years. 

Sisters in Crime calls Eleanor Taylor Bland (1944–2010) a “pioneer in crime fiction” and named their Crime Fiction Writers of Color Award in her honor. Bland published her first crime novel, Dead Time, in 1992, and it established Marti MacAlister, an African American female police detective in a Midwestern American town, as a running character. On the website CrimeReads, Valerie Wilson Wesley praised the way Bland “defied stereotypical depictions of Black women in mystery fiction and opened up a new way of writing about law enforcement.” We have eight novels by Bland in our stacks, as well as a collection she edited, Shades of Black: Crime and Mystery Stories by African-American Authors.   

The name Calder Willingham (1922-1995) is known by few these days, but at his peak he was mentioned in the same breath as emerging postwar New York City novelists like Norman Mailer, James Jones, Truman Capote, and Gore Vidal. The New Yorker credited him as having "fathered modern black comedy” and Newsweek gushed that his work “deserves a place...if one is to speak of greatness in American fiction.” Millions are familiar with some of his work, even if they don’t realize it: Willingham wrote the screenplays for "Paths of Glory," "One-Eyed Jacks," "The Graduate," "Little Big Man," "The Bridge on the River Kwai," and Robert Altman’s excellent "Thieves Like Us." Not bad.  Nine of his novels have a home in stack 6. 

Paul Metcalf (1917–1999) was Herman Melville’s great grandson. Much of his work is innovative and brilliant, incorporating original fiction, fragments from historical and cultural texts, and primary source documents into fascinating literary collages that explore dark corners of American history. His impressive list of admirers and associates includes William H. Gass, Wendell Berry, Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, Guy Davenport, and others. Find his Collected Worksthree volumes, close to 1800 pages—and a collection of essays, on stack 9. Read this excellent appreciation from the fine folks at Neglected Books to find out more.  I recommend starting with "Mountaineers Are Always Free," available in volume 3 of his Collected Works

Acclaimed crime novelist Dorothy B. Hughes (1904-1993) is one of the better-known writers featured here. Two of her books, Ride the Pink Horse and In a Lonely Place, were adapted into film noir classics, the mighty New York Review Books Classics republished her 1963 novel The Expendable Man in 2012, and Library of America included her in their Women Crime Writer anthologies.  Megan Abbott called In a Lonely Place “...a dark, cold gem of a book, a gem without a flicker of heat or light. One that cuts to the touch.” When our Hughes post appeared on Twitter, one of our followers responded “read Hughes for the first time this year. In a Lonely Place one of the creepiest books ever.” You will find twelve of her crime novels on stack 5.  

Violet Paget (1856–1935) wrote with the pen name Vernon Lee. She was a prolific writer, openly lesbian, a feminist, and a transgressor of gender norms. The 26 books at NYSL roam across travel, psychology, aesthetics, history, drama, art history, and supernatural fiction; the quantity testifies to her former popularity.  Her friends and admirers included Edith Wharton, Isabella Stewart Gardner, Henry James, John Singer Sargent, Walter Pater, and George Bernard Shaw.  A recent review of her published correspondence in the TLS was subtitled, “a writer who deserves to be better known.” 

James Branch Cabell (1879-1958) was a prolific and acclaimed author of fantasy and satire, best known for his novel Jurgen (1919).  Among Cabell’s associates and admirers were Mark Twain, Sinclair Lewis, H.L. Mencken, Theodore Dreiser, and Edmund Wilson. More recently, Neil Gaiman has cited him as an inspiration. Jurgen was quickly banned by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, do-gooders run amok who seized the printing plates from the publisher on charges of obscenity. Undaunted, that other, better, “New York Society”—us—purchased the book in 1919 and that copy is still in our collection. We have over 40 books by Cabell. 

Peter Abrahams (1919-2017) was born in South Africa, moved to London at age 20, and moved again to Jamaica in 1956, where he lived much of his life. Most of his work was concerned—and set in—Africa, and he was one of the first writers to criticize the Apartheid government he knew growing up. Mine Boy is probably his best known novel. Nadine Gordimer: “Abrahams opened up in his natal country, South Africa, a path of exploration for us, the writers who have followed the trail he bravely blazed.” The Library's collection of Abrahams' work includes five novels on stack 5, along with a memoir on stack 7. 

Jim Tully (1886-1947) was a hobo, circus worker, boxer, tree surgeon, Hollywood journalist and Chaplin’s ghostwriter, bestselling novelist/memoirist, and self-proclaimed "library bum." A committed chronicler of the early 20th-century American margins and underworld in which he lived much of his life, his career was given a significant boost by influential fan H.L. Mencken. Tully’s works blur the lines between fiction and memoir, and his lean style has been credited by many as “The father of American hardboiled writing.” Popular and widely reviewed, he had many admirers in the 1920s-1930s, was largely forgotten by the mid-20th century, but now lives on with a small cult following in the 21st-century. We have ten books by Tully at the Society Library, all acquired upon publication.  I recommend starting with Beggars of Life, which established his style. 

Speaking of hardboiled writing...His name might not be well-known today, but W.R. Burnett (1899-1982) helped shape hardboiled crime fiction, gangster movies, and film noir style. His novels include classics like Asphalt Jungle, Little Caesar (possibly the first gangster novel), and High Sierra. NYSL Bibliographic Assistant Cullen Gallagher recently published this article on Burnett in the Los Angeles Review of Books; on Twitter, Cullen sent out a generous thank you to the Society Library stacks for “keeping so many of Burnett's out-of-print novels on the shelves and in circulation. This essay wouldn't have been possible without these books.” You will find nearly 20 of them on stack 5.

John A. Williams (1925-2015) is best known for his novel The Man Who Cried I Am, a big seller in 1967. (He is not to be confused with the formerly underrated John Williams, author of Stoner and Butcher’s Crossing, whose reputation has been thankfully saved from blog posts like this by NYRB Classics.)  Most of Williams’ work in our collection is on stack 6, a small portion of his prolific output. The New York Times obituary lamented that his "manifest gifts earned him a reputation for being chronically underrated." Walter Mosley has written that The Man Who Cried I Am stands up to modern masterpieces like Invisible Man and Native Son and if it “were a painting it would be done by Brueghel or Bosch.” Williams won the American Book Award three times, including a Lifetime Achievement Award.  

Charlotte Armstrong (1905-1969) is considered a pioneer of domestic suspense, and her crime novels often feature middle-class women whose seemingly contented lives are suddenly unsettled.  A Dram of Poison (1956) won the Edgar Award for best novel. Her novel Mischief was adapted into the classic noir "Don't Bother to Knock" (Marilyn Monroe, Richard Widmark and Anne Bancroft), and The Chocolate Cobweb was made into “Merci Pour La Chocolat,” directed by Claude Chabrol. Otto Penzler’s American Mystery Classics series has recently reprinted two of her novels. Armstrong wrote 29 novels, and we have 21 of them in our stacks.  

James Hanley (1897-1985) is known primarily as a master of stark realism, with war, life at sea, and the lives of proletarian characters as his subjects. Descriptions of his fiction usually place the brutality and harshness of his outlook and refusal to romanticize his characters front and center. But Hanley was also praised for the depth of his character studies and his insight into his protagonists’ minds. His work has had many influential admirers, including E.M. Forster, Alberto Manguel, Henry Green (“best writer of the sea and seafaring men since Conrad”), Irving Howe, C.P. Snow, Anthony Burgess (“geniuses who are neglected are usually the geniuses who disturb, and we do not like to be disturbed”), William Faulkner, and Doris Lessing. The London Timesobituary described him as a “neglected genius.” Eleven books, just a portion of his prolific output, are on stack 5.  

Theodore Weesner (1935-2015) is from a later period than most of the authors featured here and was not nearly as prolific as many of them. (Only five of his novels live on stack 6.) But I was so taken with his debut novel The Car Thief (1972) when I read it earlier this year that I felt compelled to post about him. The book sold well in the early '70s but is largely forgotten today, which is a shame. The New York Times called it "modestly precise, movingly inevitable;" the Boston Globe described it as "poignant & beautifully written," and Joyce Carol Oates considered the book "remarkable, gripping."  

Fredric Brown (1906-1972) was a prolific mystery and science fiction author known for clever plots, atmosphere, and sly wit. The Library has 16 novels on stack 5. Brown’s The Fabulous Clipjoint won The Edgar Award  for Best First Novel in 1948 and was the first of seven detective novels  to feature the nephew/uncle team of Ed and Am Hunter. Brown still enjoys a devoted following today, and  Lawrence Block wrote that "[He] never fails to be excellent company." In fact, when we posted about Brown on Twitter, Mr. Block replied with a picture of this latest book, The Burglar Who Met Fredric Brown, and the message “And he’s not through, either.”    

Gayl Jones was recently called “The Best American Novelist Whose Name You May Not Know” by The Atlantic. Her debut novel, Corregidora  (1975), was edited by Toni Morrison and James Baldwin described it as “the most brutally honest and painful revelation of what has occurred, and is occurring, in the souls of Black men and women.” In 2021, she published Palmares, her first novel in 22 years and it was a finalist for the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The Library has eight titles by Jones—fiction, poetry, and her influential study Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature

The novels of Lionel White (1905-1985) were the basis for classic films like Kubrick’s “The Killing” (Clean Break) and Godard’s “Pierrot le Fou” (Obsession), and Quentin Tarantino included him among the dedicatees in “Reservoir Dogs.” Nail-biting plots detailing heists and big capers were his specialty. NYSL Bibliographic Assistant and resident noir expert Cullen Gallagher recommended Clean Break here, noting how White’s style “blends sober, chilling violence with sensationalist schemes," as well as the “obsessive practicality to the way he describes crimes.” Having read the novel recently, I will heartily second Cullen’s recommendation. You will find eleven of his novels on stack six.  

Crime novelist Margaret Millar (1915-1994) is still fairly well-known these days, mostly for Beast In View (1955), winner of the Edgar Award for Best Novel. The Society Library has 20+ novels by Millar on stack 6; less read than Beast in View, perhaps, but many have been praised by crime fiction aficionados as beautifully crafted with well-drawn characters and inventive plot twists.  An article in the Los Angeles Review of Books called her a “master of character, superb stylist” and The Wall Street Journal credits her as having “…more or less invented the mystery subgenre dubbed psychological suspense.” Among her many admirers were Agatha Christie, Truman Capote, Raymond Chandler, Ngaio Marsh and Evelyn Waugh. In 1938, she married Kenneth Millar, the crime writer better known as Ross Macdonald.   

In a 2019 New York Times article, author Peter Orner placed Wright Morris (1910-1998) “among the most innovative (and profound and funny) American writers of the last century."  Morris won the National Book Award for The Field of Vision in 1956, and Plains Song won the American Book Award in 1981. His admirers include Saul Bellow, Eudora Welty, Maxwell Perkins, Wallace Stegner, Charles Baxter, Ralph Ellison, and Larry McMurtry. Much of his work is set in Nebraska where he grew up. In addition to fiction, Morris wrote acclaimed memoirs and critical essays, and was a dedicated, talented photographer. We have 30 works by Morris in our stacks. A few years ago, his excellent photography (and use of “photo-texts") was featured on our website in this article on writer/photographers.  

Raymond Chandler once described Elisabeth Sanxay Holding (1889-1955) as "the top suspense writer of them all.”  We have 13 of her novels on stack 5. Her 1947 novel The Blank Wall was adapted into the film noir classic “Reckless Moment.” Her books have been reissued by Persephone and Stark House, and in the Library of America's collection, Women Crime Writers: Four Suspense Novels of the 1940s.

May Sinclair (1863-1946) was a very popular author in her prime; the fact that we have 29 of her books in the stacks testifies to high demand among our early 20th-century members. Her novels range from Edwardian “social problem” novels in the early years through modernist experiments later in her career. The Literary Encyclopedia entry on Sinclair by Leigh Wilson notes that although she died forgotten in 1946, "over the last twenty years or so, a number of critics have seen Sinclair's work both as a challenge to the critical categories of modernism and as a rich and interesting response to early twentieth-century conceptions of femininity.” Her social circle included Henry James, Thomas Hardy, Ford Madox Ford, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, HD, and Rebecca West. Sinclair’s works have been reissued by Virago and in the British Library Women Writers series. 


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