Friday, December 09, 2005

Remembering James Hilton ...

James Hilton was a very popular novelist in the '30s and '40s. He wrote Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Lost Horizon, and Random Harvest, all made into successful films (two with the great Ronald Colman). He even won an Oscar -- for the screenplay for Mrs. Miniver. I don't know whether anyone reads his books today -- though they are certainly worth reading. Ron Hogan, at Beatrice, recently posted some interesting remarks by Carolly Erickson about Hilton's Lost Horizon.


  1. Frank, you have provided for me the 'Amazing Coincidence of the Day!' For I have just finished reading "Paradise Lost" this week, and had thought of writing you about it, this weekend, and asking your opinion of 'Where is Jams Hilton in today's reading consciousness?' or something to that effect.

    I came across the book by accident. I was perusing the 'Classics' section of the bookstore maintained by our local 'Friends of the Public Library,' looking for a copy of Homer's "Odyssey" for one of my boys, and - it being organized alphabetically-by-author - there was Hilton's "Paradise Lost," close by.

    So, I got both.

    I think many people out there may be like me ... saw and enjoyed the movie adapted from the book ... but never read the book itself. I get the feeling, from reading Ms. Erickson's comments, that she may not have read the book, either.

  2. Hi Jeff,
    I'll be interested to see what you think of the book. I read it back in the '50s, not long after Hilton's death, because we had a copy of his three most popular books -- the three I mentioned -- in one volume. I loved it. And I loved the movie, too. Interesting observation about Erickson's comments. I understand that a region of China has renamed itself Shangri-La, on the presumption that it was the model for the place Hilton describes.

  3. Frank, you sure know how to trip a guy's trigger. James Hilton is a vastly underrated writer, and "Lost Horizon" is a wondrous novel, one that rides that indefinite boundary between artistic greatness and popular crowd-pleaser. (It also happens to have resulted in that extreme rarity, a movie version that is nearly as good as the book.) There are sooooo many novelists of roughly his generation who produced books of that artistic/popular ilk -- Franz Werfel, for one, with "The Song of Bernadette" and "The Forty Days of Musa Dagh" (a magnificent novel that, for me, is the definitive word on the genocide perpetrated on the Armenians). Somerset Maugham may also be in there -- in fact, what he said of himself may be true of all of them: They are in the front rank of the second-raters (or something like that; I may have the quote inexact).
    Willis Wayde

  4. Hi Willis:
    Yes, Maugham said that his literary position would be in the very front row of the second-rate. He wasn't being modest. The first-rate were protean figures like Shakespeare and Dante amd Homer.
    Everything you say about Hilton is correct. Also what you say about Werfel -- and The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. We should try to put together a list of such authors. Actually, during the first half of the last century there were lots of different writers around who were both popular and learned and artful. What about Thorton Wilder? Or Stephen Vincent Benet -- who had a best-selling poem, for God's sake! Then there was John Erskine and the philosopher Erwin Edman. And Will Durant. All very good writers, scorned by academics, I am sure -- though Edman and Erskine were academics. Some novelists I can think of who may not be remembered, but deserve to be: MacKinley Kantor, Conrad Richter, Sloan Wilson.

  5. Hi, Frank:

    Yes, I have completed the book. It was a wonderful old paperback, with an image of Gertrude the Kangaroo in the corner, assuring me that this was a quality edition, with EVERY word from Mr. Hilton's original. The artwork on the cover was quite dated - an image of Conway looking off into some distant point over the reader's left shoulder, behind him is "the little Manchu," regarding him with what might once have been called an "inscrutable" look. Behind them both is part of the Valley of of the Blue Moon, the mountains, the green fields, the llamasary.

    I think Hilton is a wonderful writer, especially when it comes to presenting characters ... their way of speaking and relating to one another, their strengths and their shortcomings, and the strange, sometimes unpredictable course those characters may choose to follow.

    I have read that his setting and characters in "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" were inspired by his own experiences as a schoolboy in Cambridge. I don't doubt that he became all-too-familiar, as well, with the men and shells-of-men who returned to England from World War I, many of who may have nodded, knowingly, at what happened to Conway in "Lost Horizon," and may have yearned, themselves, for the peace he found in the Valley of the Blue Moon.

    Yet, he leaves that peace behind, yielding to a sesnse of duty to the world he left behind, and to a young co-worker who remains determined to return to that world (in the film, the co-worker becomes Conway's kid brother, perhaps to better pursuade film audiences wondering why Conway would leave). This is one of the errors in Erickson's comments that makes me feel she has seen the film, but not yet read the book.

    I also enjoyed the setting, so exotic, so far-removed from the commonplace in England. But, then, I have always been a fan of adventures in faraway lands ... guess it comes from reading H. Rider Haggard when I was young.

    I am left wondering, as the narrator does in the book's closing line, whether or not Conway makes it back to Shangri-La, and I believe the narrator share my hope that he DOES. Still, though, we don't know. In the film, audiences are not left wondering, and the assurance that Erickson expresses, that Conway slowly makes his way back to the Valley of the Blue Moon, is another indicator to me that the film is the basis for her comments.

    Back to the book ... all in all, a very good read. In fact. I'm going back to that 'Friends' bookstore, to see if they have some of his other works. If not, well, there's always Amazon.

    A long post, I'm afraid, and I appreciate your patience. Thanks for the opportunity to share my thoughts with you.

  6. Hi Jeff:
    A great post! Your comment about Hilton knowing the men who returned broken from the Great War is quite perceptive. In fact, Random Harvest has as its protagonost a man who suffers amnesia in the war and walks away from an asylum. In the film he is played by Ronald Colman, who was so severely injured in the war that he was never sent back to the front and walked with a limp for the rest of his life. If you want to find some other Hilton books, and can't find any nearby, go to I'm curious myself to read his last book, Time and Time Again. Maybe we can spark a James Hilton revival.

  7. What an interesting thread this is becoming, not least through Jeff's contributions, including that insightful review/appreciation of Hilton's novel. Also, I have to echo Jeff's earlier comment about Frank's providing the "Amazing Coincidence of the Day." Or is it year? For this year I happened to have re-read two of the authors he mentions -- MacKinlay Kantor ("Andersonville") and Sloan Wilson ("The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit"). In reading Wilson I discovered that "Flannel" was not, as I had assumed, his first novel; that was a tyro effort in the late 1940s, "Voyage to Somewhere," based on his experiences as a Coast Guard officer in World War II. Of course, having learned of it, I had to read it. Finding an old paperback edition online, I did, and discovered that a writer has to sharpen his skills somewhere, and with Sloan Wilson it was with this so-so offering. But it was interesting for what it told about other people's lives (one of the guilty pleasures of novel-reading). Frank, I think you should definitely spin off a separate blog to remember writers who are being forgotten but, as you say, deserve to be remembered. To start it off I offer you a number of Germans (besides Franz Werfel) that I would post: Hans Fallada (never a big name in this country), Erich Kästner, Erich Maria Remarque, Lion Feuchtwanger. . . . And let us not forget the Americans, and the women -- Zona Gale, Ellen Glasgow, Ruth Suckow . . . .

  8. Hi Willis,
    A Zona Gale book is on the table in my book room at work. I was thinking I might have it reviewed. You've helped me make up my mind. I don't know Fallada and Kaestner, and Feuchtwanger only by reputation. Remarque defintiely deserves another look at. (I was also pleased at Jeff's mention of Rider Haggard, a joy of my youth.)
    Henry Miller had some interesting pet literary likes. Marie Corelli, for one. Has anybody read her? He was also big on George Sand and John Cowper Powys -- who is actually a great novelist, in my opinion.
    Let's keep the list growing. Something is likely to come out of it.

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