Fading into Obscurity

Writers hope their work will live on after them (I do, at least). In some ways our books are like our children. We don’t like to think they’ll just dry up and vanish.

I’d like to mention two novelists who were very successful in their day but who are now fading into undeserved obscurity: Edison Marshall (American) and Arthur Upfield (Australian).

Marshall wrote, among other things, historical novels. His most productive decade was the 1950s. Among his most successful books was The Viking (1951), which was made into one of my favorite movies as a kid, The Vikings, in 1958, starring Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, and Ernest Borgnine. All the kids in my neighborhood played “Vikings” for weeks afterward.

Upfield wrote mysteries set in the Australian Outback featuring “the half-caste detective,” Napoleon Bonaparte, Bony to his friends. My wife and I are crazy about these books, we have dozens of them, and we’d like to have them all. But that’s getting harder and harder to do, because reprints have not been forthcoming: Arthur Upfield, it seems, is going out of print.

After wondering about it for years, I finally tracked down a copy of The Viking and have just finished reading it. I was amazed. Marshall not only created a dramatic story, and brought vividly to life a long-ago and faraway period of history. Without resorting to archaism, he even made his characters talk like people in Old Norse sagas and poetry! I consider that a tremendous artistic accomplishment.

I don’t have the sales figures for Marshall’s books, but he must have sold millions of copies, all told. Several of his titles made it into the Book-of-the-Month Club. As for Upfield, New Zealand TV produced a series of “Boney” episodes (don’t ask me why they changed the spelling!) which were well received. Marshall was a very good writer, but Upfield was a genius. The natural marvels of the Outbook loom large in his books; and the sociology and psychology of the various characters looms even larger.

Why have Edison Marshall’s books nearly passed into sheer oblivion? Another generation, maybe less, and they’ll be gone. The copy of The Viking that I got from the state library had been mended and rebound several times; obviously they aren’t able to replace it. If you can get the paperback edition via amazon.com, you will be flabbergasted at the price.

Why is no one reprinting Arthur Upfield’s mysteries? They’re not just great detective novels. They’re unique works of art. You’d think someone in Australia would want to keep them in print, but apparently not.

What is it that makes an author’s work sink into the shadows? I don’t know enough about the personal lives of either of these two authors to make a judgment about their religious faith, so I try to make an educated guess, based on the novels themselves. Marshall’s characters don’t have much use for Christianity, and Bony himself is not a Christian, although he does have some Christian friends whom he respects.

I’m not saying an author’s Christian faith guarantees immortality to his work, or that his non-Christianity prevents it. It’s always good to be a Christian, regardless of how well you do by worldly standards. On the other hand, it’s hard to think of anything worthwhile and lasting that has been produced by atheists.

Meanwhile, it’s not for lack of artistic merit that both Marshall and Upfield are on their way out.  They both wrote fine books, and Upfield wrote some great ones.  While the authors were alive, readers gobbled up their books. There seems to be no reason why these books should not endure… and yet they’re fading into obscurity.

I can’t figure it. Can you?

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