There’s an implicit belief that if something is forgotten then it’s not very good. Why else was it forgotten? Brad Bigelow begs to differ. Since 2006 his Neglected Books Web site has tracked down hundreds of out-of-print novels that sparkle just as brightly as better-known classics. Now this Indiana Jones of dusty spines is releasing some of his discoveries via Recovered Books, a new imprint of Boiler House Press, and giving these ignored works a second life.
Bigelow began his quest of literary resurrection as a student at the University of Washington in the late 1970s. Browsing through the library stacks, he happened upon a book called Other Ranks, by W. V. Tilsley. He’d never heard of it, but it turned out to be a rare memoir of the First World War written from the viewpoint of the common grunt. Published in 1931, it had been buried by an avalanche of war memoirs. Bigelow was shocked to find that its powerful prose easily rivaled that of more celebrated, upper-class war writers such as Siegfried Sassoon. Wondering if it was an outlier, Bigelow began sniffing out other forgotten books in old newspaper reviews. He soon found it wasn’t.
Among the lost books he’s since unearthed are the 1933 novel Appius and Virginia, by G. E. Trevelyan, in which a lonely spinster raises an ape as human. The concept sounds farcical, but Bigelow found that far from being a comic novel it is one of the most powerful stories about loneliness ever written. The two main characters are “utterly incapable of understanding each other,” but the book radically suggests that maybe understanding is secondary to companionship in any relationship.
Wodehouse Meets Beckett
Also from 1933 was Pull Devil, Pull Baker, by the writer Stella Benson, which purportedly recounts the life of the world-class sponger and scoundrel Count Nicolas de Toulouse Lautrec de Savine. Yet what begins as a memoir soon becomes a metafictional romp as Benson battles the count for the control of his story, using techniques that pre-dated the work of Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges.
And then there was Gentleman Overboard, written in 1937 by the blacklisted screenwriter Herbert Clyde Lewis, which tells the story of a debonair man-about-town who, struck by ennui, books a journey on a sea freighter, falls off it, and is left bobbing in the ocean. Equal parts P. G. Wodehouse and Samuel Beckett, the book is a remarkable tragedy of manners that is hilarious and terrifying in equal measure.
So why had these books been forgotten in the first place? “Bad fucking luck,” Bigelow says. Poor timing, sexism, lack of social connections, and the sui generis subject matter probably didn’t help the authors, “but the truth is that fame and neglect is a blind and ruthless monster.”
Bigelow is not alone in his quest. Publishers’ backlists have grown increasingly popular and currently make up 67 percent of all book sales, up from 50 percent in 2004, thanks in part to specialist reprint publishers like New York Review Books Classics and podcasts such as Backlisted. But there is still lingering prejudice against the kind of truly obscure novels Bigelow traffics in. “Academics are more than happy to be the second or third person to write about an author,” Bigelow says, “but not the first.”
Gentleman Overboard and Pull Devil, Pull Baker have already been reissued, and more overlooked masterpieces are to follow. Bigelow hopes to release half a dozen titles each year, starting in 2023. When he started Neglected Books, he thought it might take five years to exhaust the depths of literary oblivion. “Now I know it’ll never end,” he says, not unhappily.
George Pendle is an Editor at Large for AIR MAIL. His book Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons became a television series for CBS All Access. He is also the author of Death: A Life and Happy Failure, among other books