Books

50 best books of the 1920s

Published

It’s official: the world is in the grips of Great Gatsby hysteria. With Baz Luhrmann’s sumptuous 3D extravaganza set to hit the cinemas this weekend, the spotlight is back on Fitzgerald and the legendary literary circles he moved in.

Looking for something to rival the greatness of Gatsby? From prize-winners to controversy courters, Stylist lists our top 50 books published in the 1920s. It wasn’t known as the Golden Age of Literature for nothing, old sport…

Any we missed? Let us know below or on Twitter

Words: Jessica Whiteley

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1920)

    Fitzgerald’s first novel was an overnight success that rocketed the 23-year-old to stardom. The semiautobiographical tale of Princeton student Amory Blaine and his life among the fabulous and the disillusioned got rave reviews, establishing Fitzgerald as the literary starlet of the era – and helping him to win the hand of the southern belle who would go on to become his wife.

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    The Beautiful and the Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1922)

    Fitzgerald’s second novel, the tale of socialite Anthony Patch and his beautiful wife Gloria, is thought to be based on his relationship with wife Zelda. As the couple’s relationship becomes ravaged by alcohol and vice, the novel paints a devastating portrait of the New York nouveaux riches.

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927)

    The most autobiographical of all her works, To The Lighthouse was described by Woolf as “easily the best of my books”. Using stream-of-consciousness techniques and heavy doses of philosophical introspection, it muses on art, beauty and the differences between the genders.

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    A Passage to India by E.M. Forster (1924)

    Based on the English author’s experiences in India, A Passage to India is the story of the trial of Dr. Aziz, an Indian man accused of assaulting a British woman. Regarded as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, it also fared well on the silver screen, with the 1984 film version winning two Oscars.

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (1929)

    Inspired by Hemingway’s experiences working for the Italian ambulance service during World War I, A Farewell to Arms is an unforgettable account of fear, fraternity and courage on the Italian front line.

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    Cheri by Colette (1920)

    Controversy-courting Colette’s portrayal of the relationship between a hedonistic young man and a retired middle-aged courtesan is a beautifully written portrait of the end of a doomed love affair. When Colette died in 1954 she was the first woman in France to receive a state funeral, and today many still describe her as France’s greatest female writer.

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence (1920)

    Based on Lawrence’s marriage to German aristocrat Frieda von Richthofen, Women in Love is the sequel to The Rainbow (1915) and continues the tale of the Brangwen sisters and their relationships. Its honest and vivid depictions of sexuality riled feathers, but it was nothing compared to Lawrence’s next release…

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence (1928)

    England had to wait until 1960 and a particularly brave decision by the Board of Penguin Books to read legal copies of the unexpurgated version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which had been banned for 42 years. The erotically charged story of a woman’s passionate affair with a gamekeeper, it sold a staggering two million copies in its first year of British release.

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    Big Blonde and Other Stories by Dorothy Parker (1929)

    Renowned for her caustic wit and quickfire humour, Parker was one of the few female members of the Algonquin Round Table, a group of writers and performers who met over bootleg cocktails in the 20s. Big Blonde, a sad and acerbic view of life through the eyes of an aging blonde, won Parker the prestigious O. Henry award.

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (1929)

    Remarque’s World War I army experiences inspired him to write what is now hailed as the best war novel ever. A heartbreaking story about the irreversible damage that war brings, it reveals the gruesome realities of trench warfare and the bewildering alienation felt after finally coming home from war.

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos (1924)

    Marilyn Monroe brought her to life on the silver screen in 1953 but diamond-loving Lorelei Lee of Little Rock first stepped out onto the literary scene back in 1924. In these her diaries, showgirl Lorelei and her best friend Dorothy, rocket around Europe in a whirlwind of fine champagne, exotic orchids and dazzling diamonds.

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    Nadja by Andre Breton (1928)

    Andre Breton’s dreamlike account of a man falling in love with a woman amongst the beauty of 1920s Paris was the first Surrealist romance ever written. The narrative is combined with 44 photographs capturing people, events and places that the couple encounter along the way.

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    Just William by Richmal Crompton (1922)

    Crompton wrote magazine stories while she was a teacher, but it wasn’t until she was struck by Polio that she concentrated on writing as a career. 11-year-old hero William Brown was first brought to life in a story called Rice Mould in 1919’s Home Magazine. When Crompton died in 1969, she had sold over 8 million Just William books.

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    Beyond the Pleasure Principle by Sigmund Freud (1920)

    Having previously suggested that most human behaviour is driven by sexual instinct, Freud’s 1920 essay marked a turning point by developing his theories on other drivers, including the death instinct. Freud’s thoughts on the human desire for self-destruction remain a highly controversial theory for many psychoanalysts today.

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein (1925)

    Stein was a cult literary figure in the 20s, holding legendary salons in her Paris home with the likes of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Joyce and Picasso. In this, a history two wealthy families spanning three generations and an in-depth look at the nature of relationships, she puts her unique spin on the traditional family saga novel.

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    The Gangs of New York by Herbert Asbury (1928)

    Asbury’s gritty revelations about the mean streets of 19th century New York make for a truly gripping work of non-fiction. Featuring grisly criminals like Bill the Butcher and the infamous Plug Uglies, it depicts a turbulent and destitute era of violence that was the inspiration for Scorsese’s 2002 film of the same name.

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie (1920)

    Christie’s first novel also launched one of her best-loved characters, the moustachioed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. Upon publication it received rave reviews, with The Times declaring: “The only fault this story has is that it is almost too ingenious.” It was the start of an impressive career; Christie is now the bestselling novelist of all time, with over 4 billion book sales under her belt.

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    Manhattan Transfer by Dos Passos (1925)

    Exploring the urbanisation of New York through a variety of characters and overlapping stories, Dos Passos' most important work examines the double-edged sword that is the American Dream. A chaotic, kaleidoscopic look at big city life, D.H. Lawrence dubbed it "the best modern book about New York."

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh (1928)

    Waugh’s first novel was a satiric comedy that poked fun at 1920s high society with riotous effect. The story of a young man expelled from Oxford only to find a job as a teacher at a public school in Wales, The Guardian’s first reviews described it as “a great lark”.

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    The Castle by Frank Kafka (1926)

    Left unfinished in 1922 and not published until two years after he died, Kafka’s story of a man’s endless struggle against bureaucracy as he tries to gain access to the Castle looks at the futility of an unattainable goal. Published posthumously and unfinished in 1926 by Kafka’s friend Max Brod, it ends mid-sentence.

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf (1929)

    Woolf’s extended essay is considered a landmark in twentieth-century feminist thought. Using the materials required to write fiction (free time, financial independence, a room of one’s own…) it explains the desperate need for a feminine discourse in literature.

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (1922)

    Four dissatisfied women escape rainy London for a month-long break in Italy after responding to a classified ad appealing to “those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine.” A bestseller in England and the US, The Enchanted April started a trend for tourism to the Italian village of Portofino.

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G Wodehouse (1923)

    Wodehouse’s infamous butler first appeared in print in 1919, but this collection of stories is considered as one of his best. It’s a classic case of Jeeves to the rescue as Wooster’s lovesick chum Bingo Little falls for a teashop waitress (amongst many other women…).

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    Les Enfants Terribles by Jean Cocteau (1929)

    This dark and twisted story of two siblings playing very dangerous power games was written in just one week whilst the author was trying to wean himself off of opium. Recognised as Cocteau’s best novel, it forms part of his impressive tome of works (including poetry, plays, art and films) that established him as a pioneer in the avant garde movement.

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925)

    Woolf’s portrait of a day in the life of Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway is widely acknowledged to be her greatest novel. Following high-society Dalloway as she makes final party preparations, it unravels big scope themes of feminism, homosexuality, mental illness and existentialism.

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    Point Counter Point by Aldous Huxley (1928)

    Huxley’s satirical view of life in the 20s features characters based on key figures of the time, including D.H. Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield and Nancy Cunard. The title makes reference to the musical technique and describes the way the novel unravels through interlinked stories and recurring themes.

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    The Story of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting (1920)

    Children’s fiction favourite Doctor Dolittle first came to light in illustrated letters that Lofting sent to his children from the trenches of World War I. In the first of 12 Dolittle books, Polynesia the parrot teaches the Doctor how to speak to animals.

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (1920)

    This burning tale of desire and betrayal in upper-class New York won Wharton the 1921 Pulitzer Prize, making her the first woman to ever receive the award. Set in the 1870s, it follows lawyer Newland Archer as he struggles between two women: his well-matched fiancée, or the mysterious – and divorced – Countess Ellen Olenska.

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    The Enormous Room by E.E.Cummings (1922)

    This autobiographical novel is based on Cummings’ experiences in a French concentration camp during World War I. Whilst expectedly grim in parts, the story is a surprising cheerful series of character portraits brought to life through Cummings’ eloquent language.

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    The Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov (1925)

    A famous Russian professor attempts to achieve a scientific first by genetically combining a man and a dog in this biting satire of Communism’s New Soviet Man. It was also around this time that Bulgakov started writing his masterpiece The Master and Margarita, which would eventually be published in 1966.

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    Romancero Gitano by Federico Garcia Lorca (1928)

    Lorca was a key member of Generation 27, a group of artists that included Dali and Bunuel. Machismo, honour, sex and betrayal take centre stage in this, his most celebrated collection of poetry. Drawing from countryside ballads and folklore, Romancero Gitano (Gypsy Ballads) shot Lorca to fame across the Hispanic world and was reprinted seven times during his lifetime.

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse (1922)

    Nobel Prize winning Hesse’s 9th novel explores the spiritual journey of Siddhartha, a young man who leaves everything he knows for a life of contemplation. But the journey to wisdom is a difficult one, and Siddhartha will have to overcome lust, greed and boredom if he is to succeed.

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot (1922)

    Eliot wrote his modernist masterpiece whilst taking time out from his job as a bank clerk to recover from a mental breakdown. Guided by mentor and editor Ezra Pound, he created a groundbreaking poem that captured the frailty of humanity and the ruin of modern culture in the wake of the ‘Great War’.

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle (1927)

    Detective fiction was a new genre when Conan Doyle first introduced super sleuth Sherlock Holmes back in the 1880s. By the time The Case-Book was released, containing Holmes’ final twelve cases, the stories had becoming decidedly darker, featuring mutilation, burning bones and a vampire.

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner (1929)

    The Sound and the Fury received immediate praise for its innovative narrative techniques (streams of consciousness, time shifts and unreliable narrators) but didn’t properly win audiences over until the late forties just before Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Set in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, it follows the Compson family as they lose their faith and finances.

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (1926)

    Regarded as the quintessential novel of the Lost Generation, The Sun Also Rises follows Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley as they journey from booze-fuelled Paris parties to the bloody brutality of Spanish bullfighting rings.

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    The Trial by Franz Kafka (1925)

    In one of Kafka’s most famous books, a bank clerk is suddenly arrested for a crime that is not revealed to him. What follows is a scathing social satire that reveals the excesses of modern bureaucracy and totalitarian regimes.

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams (1922)

    The delightful story of a toy rabbit and his quest to become real fast established itself as a classic piece of children’s literature that still charms readers young and old today. When it was first published in 1922 colour printing was relatively new, making the reading experience even more magical.

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    Tintin in the Land of the Soviets by Herge (1929)

    Originally commissioned by a conservative Belgian newspaper as anti-communist propaganda for children, Tintin was an instant hit with readers and the books soon followed. Tintin and Snowy’s first adventure sees them sent on a reporting job to the Soviet Union.

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    Twilight Sleep by Edith Wharton (1927)

    A critically acclaimed bestseller when it was published in the US in 1927, Wharton’s Twilight Sleep is back in the spotlight following a resurgence of interest in the author’s works. Money, sex and drugs are some of the modern themes tackled in this satirical tale of a high society family and its swift unravelling.

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1924)

    This sci-fi thriller set in a future governed by secret police is considered the granddaddy of dystopian literature, having inspired both Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. Set in One State, a nation constructed almost entirely of glass for maximum monitoring, it gives a chilling glimpse into a world where people wear identical clothing are referred to by number instead of name.

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    Ulysses by James Joyce (1920)

    Regarded as one of the most pivotal works of the Modernist movement, Ulysses is a whopping 265,000 words in length and uses a lexicon of 30,030 words. A complex story with dense prose and obscure allusions to Homer’s The Odyssey, it originally caused outrage for its graphic description of bodily functions and coarse language.

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda (1924)

    Nobel Prize winning Neruda was just 19 when the erotically charged Twenty Love Poems was published. Sensual, exuberant and passionate, the intimate revelations of love, desire and loss made him his name as a poet.

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    So Big by Edna Ferber (1924)

    American novelist and short-story writer Ferber won the Pulitzer Prize for So Big in 1925. The story of strong-willed widow Selina De Jong and her struggle to provide for herself and her son, it’s also a musing on the importance of art and beauty over material success.

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (1924)

    Mann’s big novel of ideas is set in a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps, a microcosm for a ‘sick’ Europe in the lead up to the First World War. It’s a complicated, multi-layered read with various possible interpretations that the author liked to refrain from explaining. Mann was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature five years after its publication.

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne (1926)

    Everyone’s favourite bear first appeared in a Christmas story commissioned by London paper The Evening News in 1925, and a book featuring Pooh’s fellow inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood followed the year after. The Pooh stories have since been translated into over 50 languages, including Latin.

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham (1925)

    When Kitty Garstin’s husband discovers she’s been unfaithful, he gives her an ultimatum – she can divorce him, or accompany him to cholera-ridden China. A beautifully told story of forgiveness and change, it’s a perfect example of why Maugham was one of the most popular English writers of the 20th century.

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    Bliss by Katherine Mansfield (1921)

    After moving from New Zealand to London at the age of 19, Mansfield became good friends with D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf. Bliss, her second collection of stories, established her as one of the most important Modernist writers of the time. Miss Brill is a mesmerising tale of a woman’s life of simple pleasures in Paris, whilst the title story focuses on a woman facing up to her husband’s infidelity.

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    Hugh Selwyn Mauberley by Ezra Pound (1920)

    Kicking off with a satirical look at the London literary scene before moving on to critique society and the economy, Pound’s game-changing poem (made up of 18 short poems) is considered to be heavily autobiographical. After leaving London for Paris, Pound inspired Ernest Hemingway and played a key role in James Joyce’s career, amongst many others.

  • 50 Best 1920s books

    Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis (1922)

    Wealthy and successful George Babbitt seems to have it all, but when a personal crisis forces him to re-examine his life he starts to question the consumerist, conformist nature of middle-class society. One of Lewis’ best-known novels, it helped him to become the first US writer to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1930.

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