stack of bestsellers image
Rave Reviews: Bestselling Fiction in America
University of Virginia Library
stack of bestsellers image
Introduction to the Exhibit
The Taylor Collection of Popular American Fiction
Making the Bestseller List
Types of Bestsellers
Beyond the Book
Current Bestsellers
Readers Tell Their Stories
More on the Bestseller Phenomenon

Types of Bestsellers

Popular Fiction and Literature

The period from the 1920s to the 1960s saw a convergence of popular fiction and American literature. Novels which today have entered the literary canon dominated bestseller lists, meeting with broad popular success at the time of their publication. Adding to the tremendous sales figures in this "golden age" of popular literary fiction, many teachers included the books on reading lists across the nation. As required reading in classrooms, the books continue to garner sales. Among the familiar authors, we find John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Edna Ferber, Pearl Buck, Katherine Ann Porter, and Thornton Wilder.

Unlike some of the other books on display in this exhibition, these novels have outlasted their time on the lists. They will endure.



"Read it at Gloucester, Mass. --where every other person was reading it. My copy borrowed and read too much to keep."

Mrs. Taylor's notebook: v. 14 Ferber, Edna. So Big. 1924



At the age of twenty-one, Stephen Crane undertook to write a novel about the Civil War. It was 1893, and Crane had never witnessed or participated in battle. However, he did have a purpose for writing. As he, himself, explained, "I wonder that some of these fellows don't tell how they felt in those scraps! They spout eternally of what they did, but they are emotionless as rocks!" The resulting book, The Red Badge of Courage, brought Crane instant fame and success upon its publication in 1895. It stands as one of the finest examinations of a soldier's emotional experience in wartime.


Crane, Stephen. The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War. New York: Appleton, 1895.

From the Taylor Collection of American Bestsellers.
Gift of Mrs. R. C. Taylor.



Unlike the other books in this case, The Great Gatsby did not prove a bestseller immediately. Instead, it gathered momentum over the years, selling more and more copies as readers and critics recognized the book's perfect crystallization of the Jazz Age and timeless representation of innocence and experience.

Rumored to have inspired Fitzgerald to include the billboard showing Dr. Eckleburg's eyes in the novel, the extremely rare dust jacket commands a far higher price than the actual book. It is the first to use four-color printing and is displayed flat for the purposes of preservation. A corrected uppercase J on the back of the dust jacket distinguishes the first edition from later ones.


Fitzgerald, F[rancis] Scott. The Great Gatsby. First-edition dust jacket. New York: Scribner's, 1925.

From the Taylor Collection of American Bestsellers.
Gift of Mrs. R. C. Taylor.



A critical and financial success, The Bridge of San Luis Rey received the Pulitzer Prize in 1928. Although set in eighteenth-century Peru, the story speaks to the eternal parts at the core of every human being. Rising above time and setting, the book serves as a vehicle for Thornton Wilder's Christian humanism. As he himself has observed, "the differences between languages and cultures begin to grow less marked to one who is accustomed to contemplate the human spirit."


Wilder, Thornton. The Bridge of San Luis Rey. New York: Albert and Charles Boni, 1927.

From the Taylor Collection of American Bestsellers.
Gift of Mrs. R. C. Taylor.



Set in California's Salinas Valley, East of Eden traces the history of three generations and draws its inspiration from the story of Cain and Abel. The novel's title stems from Genesis, chapter four, verse sixteen and became a blend of autobiography and fiction for Steinbeck. In describing his book, Steinbeck called East of Eden "...the story of my country and the story of me."

East of Eden reached number three on the 1952 annual bestseller list. In 1955, Elia Kazan released the classic film version, starring James Dean. The movie starts in chapter thirty-seven in part four of the book.


Steinbeck, John. East of Eden. New York: Viking, 1952.

From the Taylor Collection of American Bestsellers.
Gift of Mrs. R. C. Taylor.



Since the publication of The Catcher in the Rye in 1951, Holden Caulfield has become the spokesperson for generations of disillusioned adolescents, overwhelmed with anxiety and frustration. From the book's opening lines, Holden tells us what to expect. He positions himself carefully, saying "If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."


Salinger, J. D. The Catcher in the Rye. Boston: Little, Brown, 1951.

From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library
of American Literature.



A Jewish-American writer, Philip Roth grappled with the changing social values of the mid-twentieth century, trying to make sense of it for himself as well as his readers. In addressing male sexual desires and guilt in Portnoy's Complaint, Roth encountered sharp censure; his critics accused him of having overstepped the boundaries of propriety.


Roth, Philip. Portnoy's Complaint. New York: Random, 1969.

From the Taylor Collection of American Bestsellers.
Purchased with the Robert Coleman Fund.



Edna Ferber wrote bestselling fiction for over forty years. The first of her twelve novels was published in 1911, and her last novel, Ice Palace, appeared in 1958. The immensely popular Giant presented an unflattering picture of Texas and the state's ranch culture.

Released in 1956, the film version of Giant starred Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean in his final movie appearance. A portion of the film was shot in Albemarle County


Ferber, Edna. Giant. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1952.

From the Taylor Collection of American Bestsellers.
Gift of Mrs. R. C. Taylor.


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