The Globe and Mail, November 1933, featuring an article from Marjorie Grant, one of the authors highlighted. (Photo: Courtesy of, copyrighted and owned by the Globe and Mail); Insets from left: Book covers of Prologue to Love, Two Thousand Million Man-Power and Latchkey Ladies
Lost and Found: Excavating our Literary Past Gives Neglected Books a New Lease on Life
Small presses are combing back issues of periodicals, academic journals and newspapers to uncover and publish overlooked books that resonate today / BY Nathalie Atkinson / December 9th, 2022
When a culture journalist laments the fact there are too many books to read and too little time, they’re usually talking about new publications. When that culture journalist is me, I’m talking about the staggering number of revived and reprinted obscurities unearthed from decades past that are toppling my to-be-read pile.
The popularity of Hidden Gems, my annual roundup of notable titles re-issued and rescued from obscurity, inspires me to seek them out.
When it comes to reviving forgotten authors or putting neglected books back into print, many have heard of New York Review Books Classics, the literary journal’s publishing arm. Their 2006 revival of John Williams’ 1965 campus novel, Stoner, put them (and the practice) on the map.
In England, Nicola Beauman founded Persephone Books in 1998 and made a similar splash when their reprint of a 1938 Winifred Bowman novel was made into the very successful 2008 Frances McDormand movie, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day; the novel remains their bestseller. The British Library Women Writers series highlights the best “middlebrow” fiction from the 1910s to 1960s, and Crime Classic and other genre imprints challenge the established and accepted literary canon in other ways. Here in Canada, House of Anansi’s A List expands the CanLit landscape and Véhicule Press’s Ricochet Books revives vintage noir mysteries. And all of them generally come with a fresh appreciation, written by an admiring contemporary author, re-assessing their importance in the literary landscape or adding important context.
With the dizzying number of books published every year, what goes into identifying, securing the rights and publishing forgotten books? What makes them worthy of republishing? Curious about the mechanics of how great books get a second life, I sought out a few editors who specialize in rooting out these treasures.
The Past is Prologue
I’m always pleasantly surprised by the selections of Throwback, the ongoing revival imprint from Invisible Publishing, a small Canadian press. There are Victories, for example, is a scathing proto-feminist novel set in early 20th-century Montreal, with an introduction by Scotiabank Giller Prize winner Johanna Skibsrud. The Tangled Miracle by Bertram Brooker was another favourite discovery I highlighted in last year’s Hidden Gems list – a 1936 thriller about a manipulative, cult-like figure published under a pseudonym by Brooker, one of Canada’s first abstract artists. His more straightforward literary novel, Think of the Earth, won the country’s first Governor General’s Award for literature that same year. “There’s interest rising in Brooker again,” says series editor Bart Vautour, an associate professor in Dalhousie University’s English department. “The McMichael gallery [in Kleinburg, Ont.] is holding a retrospective of his artistic work in the coming years.”
Vautour views Throwback as a project that is as much about historical as current Canadian publishing and production. “That means we don’t have to necessarily try to strategize a bestseller. We can rest on the fact that people are interested in reading books that we curate for them. Or,” he adds, “that’s the hope!”
There are happy accidents, however, like stumbling into the zeitgeist with Prologue to Love, about early settler ranch life in B.C., a period that mirrors the prequel series to the streaming hit Yellowstone that’s so captured the imagination. “We sit down with a number of books an do old-fashioned books report – included in that is why it’s important now,” says Vautour. “They can’t be too distant. There’s always a direct relation to our own moment.” Douglas Durkin’s 1923 novel The Magpie, for example, is not only an early example of prairie realism, but provides a contemporary account of Winnipeg just after the war; its social commentary complements the current spate of new historical fiction about the First World War and its aftermath.
Throwback’s choices tend to stay in the early 20th century, “neither too far nor too close to our contemporary moment,” Vautour continues. “It’s a time when books and narratives and stories are still recognizable in a modern idiom, and not the terribly long sentences of the Victorian novel – which are great for what they are, but may not hold a current readership in the same way.” Unearthing one obscure author tends to lead to another – and another – but rights can be expensive. Realistically, prioritizing forgotten public domain titles in Canada also makes them more affordable to publish (recent changes to copyright rules align with those in the United States; as of Dec. 30, copyright expires 70 years after the death of the author). Editors also sift through back issues of periodicals like the Times Literary Supplement and New Statesman, as well as regional newspapers and scholarly journals, for ideas.
Excavated editions often include notes to explain archaic words, phrases and quotations, but tend to eschew forewords and favour appreciative afterwords. “We try not to have spoilers, and instead spend a little bit of time telling readers why they might actually read the books today and make a connection,” Vautour says. As a reader, there’s also something to be said for the thrill of reading a hype-free book, an experience of discovery often missing in our current culture.
For many aficionados, the website Neglected Books is ground zero for lost gems. The seemingly bottomless trove of thoroughly researched entries on unjustly forgotten books was detailed in a New Yorker profile, which called its founder, erudite American blogger Brad Bigelow, the “self-appointed custodian of obscurity.” Bigelow is a retired U.S. Air Force officer and out-of-print literature enthusiast who, after retiring from his career with NATO a few years ago, recently completed a creative non-fiction MA at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. That’s how he became the series editor of the burgeoning Recovered Books project with Boiler House Press, launched last November, as Bigelow explains from his home in Missoula, Mont.
I discovered the imprint through online buzz around its inaugural title: a long-awaited English re-edition of Herbert Clyde Lewis’ Gentleman Overboard, more than a decade after it was championed on Neglected Books and went on to become an international phenomenon. The tense 1937 novella consists mainly of the interior monologue of a man at sea, who is doomed after he has slipped and fallen from a ship, a fact that sadly goes unnoticed by others aboard. Bigelow persuasively argued that this work by Lewis, a journalist turned Oscar-nominated screenwriter (for 1947’s It Happened on Fifth Avenue), was timeless, “a very existential kind of abstract situation that I think a lot of people can relate to.”
Recovered Books offers a wider range than most, whether it’s the upcoming novel of toxic masculinity among teens called Quarry, first published in 1967, or 1955’s The Sanity Inspectors, which is “striking, because it’s very much about what madness is when you’re in a mad world,” says Bigelow. Their list isn’t confined to time period or genre, because “I really want to focus on individual books that have exceptional quality on their own.”
Among Recovered Books’ latest is Two Thousand Million Man-Power by Gertrude Trevelyan, a British writer he praises for taking daring new stylistic risks with each successive novel. Far from being nostalgic for England between the wars, the 1937 tale of an impoverished couple, dehumanized by capitalism, the rise of automation and grim unemployment prospects, is likened to John Dos Passos’ savage epic U.S.A. by way of Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road. “Her description of that whole experience and how it grinds you down is amazingly powerful stuff.”
Bigelow says Trevelyan “is kind of the model of how to guarantee you get forgotten.” He considers her the best female novelist from England, after Virginia Woolf. “That good! But she had health issues, she didn’t have a big social circle, she didn’t do [book] reviews. Woolf reviewed, was from, and married into, a literary family and partied with literary types. So it’s not surprising that in addition to being a great writer she’s a remembered as a great writer.”
Although even marrying and mixing with the right people doesn’t ensure literary longevity. Given the cottage industry around F. Scott Fitzgerald, it’s shocking there was no active edition of Zelda Fitzgerald’s Save Me the Waltz until 2019, when it came out of copyright and Handheld Press revived it. Now the important cultural rarity – a woman’s text from the Jazz Age – is accessible again.
Women’s Lives and Stories
Handheld Press, which has a special interest in recovering women’s history, LGBTQ+ lives, and lives lived with physical and intellectual impairments, is my current favourite purveyor. The founder and editorial director is literary historian Kate Macdonald, who has written extensively on 20th century British book history and publishing culture.
I was alerted to this small publisher, based in Bath, England, by a review in The Times of Marjorie Grant’s 1921 novel Latchkey Ladies. I was curious to learn how Grant, a little-known Canadian author and journalist who wrote for Maclean’s, and was a prolific reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement, made her way into their catalogue with a 100-year-old novel about the lives of single girls making their living in London.
Since setting up Handheld in 2017, Macdonald says growth has been steady; they’ve now published more than 30 titles, either anthologies of classic supernatural short stories or great novels and biographies that have been out of print for decades. That list includes several books by English writer Rose Macaulay, including What Not, her 1918 dystopian novel about eugenics and government programs of compulsory selective breeding, which influenced Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World; Handheld’s printing restores passages excised after the first edition because the editor felt the satire was too provocative. Macdonald has published Macaulay’s books because, “as well as being great novels, they’re historically, socially, culturally radically important.”
Through this spiky author, Macdonald followed a trail of crumbs to Macaulay’s close friend Grant, and her obscure 100-year-old novel. I sifted through some archives for Grant’s work myself, and got a taste of how satisfying the research into forgotten writers can be. But when works are still under copyright, working with – let alone identifying – rightful literary estates or descendants is another consideration. It’s not always simple: Grant’s literary estate is lost, in that her will left no instructions about who was to be her literary executor, and any heirs are unknown. (Macdonald is still looking for them, with help from Library and Archives Canada.) In the case of Recovered Books’ new edition of Time: The Present, by the Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Tess Slesinger (who wrote the script for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but died of cancer on the eve of its premiere), Bigelow happened to know her son through a previous project.
Since revival work is a modest endeavour, with no living author to put forward, success hinges on avid marketing. “Enthusing is what I’m quite good at!” Macdonald laughs. “If I cannot enthuse, I really feel worried about whether I can print and sell a book.” Paper prices in the last six month have more than doubled, she adds, and a typical Handheld print run (depending on unit cost) is between 1,000 and 1,500 copies: “it would be quite exciting if that sold out in a year.”
The Future of Literature
As a former academic, Macdonald felt strongly about putting authors like Zelda Fitzgerald back into general circulation so they could be studied. “In the past I have not been able to teach certain women writers, because there were no texts for the students to buy. It was aggravating!” she recalls. When Bigelow went back to college and was doing his own research, “it really struck me how the legacy of forgotten writers hinges upon academics, essentially, integrating them into their classes or writing about them in journals.”
In another instance, reviewing an anthology of retro science fiction of the usual suspects (H.P Lovecraft, et al.) made Macdonald realize how few female writers were represented, so she filled the gap in the market by publishing Weird Women. “There’s an awful lot of women studying the weird, fantasy, and gothic, but publishers didn’t seem to think those women want to buy book,” she marvels. That first collection of strange tales has since “gone bananas and been reprinted and reprinted,” with sequels and spinoffs like Strange Relics, a collection of archeology and supernatural stories, and has expanded to books like D.K. Broster’s From the Abyss, as a result.
Increasingly, there’s cross-generational appeal, as with Jane Oliver’s Business as Usual, a delightful and funny epistolary novel set in the world of 1930s retail, which has struck an unexpected chord and found an audience among millennials. “I knew it would appeal to my mother’s generation, but to my amazement millennial women love it because it’s the story of a young woman going to London for the first time to get a job.” Oliver’s husband John Llewelyn Rhys, who died in an RAF training flight, was an award-winning writer in his own right, and Handheld has just re-published his two vivid, but long-neglected, books of aviation fiction.
“There are tons of books that got great reviews and people were very enthusiastic about, yet they just died,” Bigelow observes, quoting the late American publisher Alfred Knopf’s axiom: “most novels fail on the day that they’re published.”