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Book Titles of the Twentieth Century. How They Work.

book titles fiction book titles how to write a book title Jan 12, 2020

In the last blog, we saw the dominant form for the novel title prior to the Twentieth Century was the eponym - or the name of the main character of the story. To an extent, this is reflective of the tacit understanding of the novel's purpose as form versus a play or a short story or a poem - as one person's moral or literal journey. 

It's all change in the Twentieth Century!

In this first of two, we're going to look at the first half of the century, and in the next the end of the Twentieth Century as there's a sea change from the 1980's.

In the Twentieth Century the eponym is old news and almost gone.

Yes, there's a slightly broader range of 'statements of literary intention' but not so much as you might think.

In fact, the title form from 1900-2000 is dominated by one form.

The Reference. (The Deferential Doffing of the Author's Cap.)

The citation or quotation. A referential, deferential, preferential doffing of the hat either to the Bard, the poets, or to the Bible. (Plus one or two apparently surreal titles which hail from common parlance or slang.)

Among the commonly recognized top 100 novels of the century (I used a variety of sources - Time Magazine, The Guardian, The Modern Library and Goodreads) this is by far the most favoured form. 

It is all far less inventive than we might expect of the Century in which the world shrank thanks to air travel and man walked on the moon, and titles of apparently surreal invention are in fact also hidden references as I will show.

So why all this dissembling and forelock-tugging in titles which suggests that a novel's purpose is to afford the author an entrée into the literary set. Why?

  1. A grand canvas - the reference makes a universal timeless statement on the condition of the human spirit
  2. Living room - the author confers upon herself or himself the space to explore a changing theme or multiple themes beyond one character's journey and suggests the intention to do so with the title
  3. The title was given either post-operatively, and not always by the author but by the editor, a friend or spouse
  4. The desire to belong to the literary set in shifting social classes, mass migrations and uncertain times

As my writers know, we begin our work together by examining your intentions. I remind my writers that a novel is a moral journey, and I make it super-simple by asking you to imagine - not to fix - the ending. The ending I propose to you is a temporary sense of belonging in the world for your main character. 

So it is that in the Twentieth Century, we have evidence that many great authors saw the purpose of the novel as conferring upon author and subject 'a sense of belonging'. (There is of course, a costuming about it, a necessary fictional overcoating, a protective and defensive self-concealment.)

When we look at the range of novel title forms for the Twentieth Century, we will see that the 'morality' set-piece has gone. Gone is Crime and Punishment, Pride and Prejudice and Vanity Fair and instead we see the rise of 'psychological states' of awareness first seen with Kate Chopin's 'The Awakening' in the late 1890's, whereby the novel's purpose is a moral journey in the sense not so much of the reform of outer deeds (think Scrooge) as the awakening of new spiritual awareness, the place of the individual within the new societies and nature.

Gone are the 'Group Adventures' and many of the titles are haunted by a sense of lovely individuals in estranged psychological settings, states and situations.


In addition to the place settings of the novel present as a form previously, we see a growth in the number of titles which posit a situation that places the main character in a tight spot. From a broad regional canvas such as American Pastoral or American Tragedy the titles become more specific in terms of location - A High Wind in Jamaica, Tobacco Road, Revolutionary Road, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, A Bend in the River, Hotel du Lac... A Room with a View.

There are more 'curiosities from the novel' afoot in novel titling. To Kill a Mockingbird was the second choice title after Go Set a Watchman (which is a Biblical reference from Isaiah 21:6) and is a reference to the loss of innocence in the novel. In fact my cluster dubbed 'Numbers' are curiosities from within those novels, but I clustered them apart as I find titles with numbers in them have an interesting an eye-catching authority and appeal.

The social commentary form I described in last week's blog, with its purpose to show the range between two elements in conflict is still here, but harder to find. 

More apparently creative than many, Norman Mailer's title for the war story he wrote aged 25 'The Naked and the Dead' shows a small range of exquisite suffering. "The natural role of the twentieth-century man is anxiety," as he put it. Mailer described how his writing inspiration came from the great Russian novelists like Leo TolstoyHe said he'd "write twenty-five pages of first draft a week." He felt that this novel was the easiest for him to write, as he finished it quickly and passionately. “Part of me thought it was possibly the greatest book written since War and Peace.” While writing, Mailer read from Anna Karenina most mornings before he commenced work. (This is a technique I formalise with my writers via the Hero Book element of the Ninety Day Novel course.) Yet in Job 1: 21 the idea of entering the world naked and leaving it so is given.

For three-quarters of the Twentieth Century the reference has hegemony. The Great Gatsby, as we have seen in an earlier blog, had a precursor title which referenced a  poem by Thomas Parke D'Invilliers.

Broadly the referential novel title form falls into two categories - Biblical or Poetic (But there's a surprise third - and as you will see this explains many of the titles apparently belonging to other categories.)


So many! The Sun Also Rises, The Song of Solomon, The Power and the Glory... Lord of the Flies (William Golding) is a literal translation of Beelzebub, from 2 Kings 1:2–3, 6, 16The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler The title is a common misquotation of a Biblical Hebrew expression, to "go the way of all the earth", meaning "to die" (1 Kings 2:2.)

The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck's wife, Carol Henning, suggested the title to Steinbeck. The phrase ''grapes of wrath'' is from the Book of Revelation, passage 14:19-20, which reads, ''So the angel swung his sickle to the earth and gathered the clusters from the vine of the earth, and threw them into the great wine press of the wrath of God.'' But here is a second source that the title is a reference to, and this one is the famous song ''The Battle Hymn of the Republic'' (1861). Because the song was written in the context of American history and politics, it connects to The Grapes of Wrathpredicting the end of evil and coming of justice. The opening stanza references the biblical passage, but this time it uses the actual phrase ''the grapes of wrath,'' which gives it a more obvious connection to the novel's title. It reads:

''Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword;
His truth is marching on.''

House of Mirth. Edith Wharton considered several titles for the novel about Lily Bart; two were germane to her purpose. A Moment's Ornament appears in the first stanza of William Wordsworth's (1770–1850) poem, "She was a Phantom of Delight" (1804) that describes an ideal of feminine beauty. But the  title Edith Wharton chose for the novel was The House of Mirth (1905), taken from the Old Testament:

The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.

— Ecclesiastes 7:4

"Mirth" contrasted with "mourning" also bespeaks a moral purpose as it underscores the frivolity of a social set that not only worships money, but also uses it ostentatiously solely for its own amusement and aggrandizement. Wharton revealed in her introduction to the 1936 reprint of The House of Mirth her choice of subject and her major theme:

"When I wrote House of Mirth I held, without knowing it, two trumps in my hand. One was the fact that New York society in the nineties was a field as yet unexploited by a novelist who had grown up in that little hot-house of tradition and conventions; and the other, that as yet these traditions and conventions were unassailed, and tacitly regarded as unassailable."

The Day of the Locust by Nathaneal West. The original title of the novel was The Cheated. Susan Sanderson writes "The most famous literary or historical reference to locusts is in the Book of Exodus in the Bible, in which God sends a plague of locusts to the pharaoh of Egypt as retribution for refusing to free the enslaved Jews. Millions of locusts swarm over the lush fields of Egypt, destroying its food supplies. Destructive locusts appear in the New Testament in the symbolic and apocalyptic book of Revelation." West's use of "locust" in his title evokes images of destruction and a land stripped bare of anything green and living. The novel is filled with images of destruction.

Go Tell It On the Mountain, the title of James Baldwin’s book, is a reference to the gospel song a popular Christmas carol because its lyrics refer to Jesus Christ's birth. 

Poems. From the Sublime to the Ridiculous.

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh comes from "The Waste Land" by T.S. Eliot:

I will show you something different from either Your shadow at morning striding behind you Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you; I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe is from "The Second Coming" by William Butler Yeats.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre, The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald comes from "Ode to a Nightingale" by John Keats.

Already with thee! tender is the night, And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne, Cluster'd around by all her starry Fays But here there is no light, Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.

A Passage to India by E.M. Forster is not so much a location-based title after all! It comes from Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman.

Passage to India! Struggles of many a captain-tales of many a sailor dead! Over my mood, stealing and spreading they come, Like clouds and cloudlets in the unreach'd sky.

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner comes from Homer’s Odyssey, Book XI. Odysseus has travelled to the Underworld, essentially to get directions. Once there, however, he’s bombarded by the ghosts of all his dead comrades, Agamemnon tells the story of his own death. 

"As I lay dying, the woman with the dog's eyes would not close my eyes as I descended into Hades."

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck comes from Robert Burns "To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough".

But little Mouse, you are not alone, In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew, And leave us nothing but grief and pain, For promised joy

Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust comes from "Sonnet 30″ by William Shakespeare.

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought I summon up remembrance of things past, I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought, And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste

Endless Night by Agatha Christie is from "Auguries of Innocence" by William Blake.

Every night and every morn, Some to misery are born, Every morn and every night, Some are born to sweet delight. Some are born to sweet delight, Some are born to endless night.

From Here to Eternity by James Jones. The title was inspired by a line from Rudyard Kipling's poem "Gentleman Rankers"

Gentlemen-rankers out on a spree,
Damned from here to Eternity,
God ha' mercy on such as we,
Baa! Yah! Bah!

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway is from "Meditation XVII" by John Donne.

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers is from "The Lonely Hunter" by William Sharp.

O never a green leaf whispers, where the green-gold branches swing: O never a song I hear now, where one was wont to sing. Here in the heart of Summer, sweet is life to me still, But my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on a lonely hill.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou comes from "Sympathy" by Paul Laurence Dunbar.

It is not a carol of joy or glee, But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core, But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings -- I know why the caged bird sings!

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold comes from "I Knew a Woman" by Theodore Roethke.

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones, When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them; Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one: The shapes a bright container can contain!

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace derives its name from a line in Hamlet, in which Hamlet refers to the skull of Yorick, the court jester. (Wallace's working title for Infinite Jest had been A Failed Entertainment.)

"Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is!"

Do you see how much loftier his title sounds once it's garbed in the cloak of the Bard? Somerset Maugham borrowed the philosopher's gown...

Of Human Bondage was initially called The Artistic Temperament of Stephen Carey, then Beauty from the Ashes, a quotation from Isaiah. When Maugham discovered that this title had been used already, he borrowed his final title from one of the books in Spinoza's Ethics "Of Human Bondage, or the Strength of the Emotions".

More ridiculous perhaps than sublime, Robert Penn Warren took the title, All the King's Men from the famous nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty and this is the clue I will leave you with that will go some way to unlocking the more deceptively 'creative' innovative and surreal titles of the era and in the next blog, I will show you the rise of the supermodel of novel titles in the last quarter of the Twentieth century.

Most of the novel titles of the Twentieth Century thus far are out of the dressing up box; a way of belonging, and their purpose - explicit or implicit - to tell a story about how on earth we as individuals finds our sense of belonging in this changing world.



I will confess I have spent many happy hours browsing Hamlet, Keats' poems. Yeats and more in search of candidate titles for my current novel whose title changes daily, since it is hard for me to admit the theme as it would be rather offputting I think served on a plate without sauce. Presently I'm using a quote which doesn't sound like a quote!

As for my other novels:

Becoming Strangers - the two axes used in the social commentary form and a paradox. The title came after the writing of the novel. One reviewer for The Independent hated it. It's since been nabbed by another writer, I hope as a literary reference ;-)

This Human Season - I had the title early on. The only novel of mine where this was an early factor and by far the most agreeable and certain writing process. No coincidence. It's about the inclination of young men, in the springtime of their lives, to want to fight (infantry.) I use it in the book.

(Graham Greene uses 'The Heart of the Matter' in his novel. "If one knew, he wondered, the facts, would one have to feel pity even for the planets? If one reached what they called the heart of the matter?” DH Lawrence refers to The Rainbow at the end of the book, when having failed to find her fulfilment in Skrebensky, Anna has a vision of a rainbow towering over the Earth, promising a new dawn for humanity; "She saw in the rainbow the earth's new architecture, the old, brittle corruption of houses and factories swept away, the world built up in a living fabric of Truth, fitting to the over-arching heaven.”)

The Italian edition of This Human Season is La Primavera Dell'Odio which sounds like a nice pizza.

The Idea of Love. That the idea is not the reality. 

The Old Romantic. The title came after the writing. It's a nod to the sentimental old fool who is the focal point of the story and thus the title probably fits into the 'role' category.

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