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1917: A reading list

In order to fully understand key moments in history, it is important to review the culture that created them. As 2017 draws to a close, we have compiled a reading list to re-examine history from a century onward.

What was going on in the world at large? Fred Astaire was still dancing with his older sister, Adele. A young black man named Alain Locke from Philadelphia was discovering and encouraging fellow African American artists. Virginia and Leonard Woolf received the printing press with which they would found Hogarth Press. Poets like Siegfried Sassoon were writing anti-war verse while serving in the trenches of World War One. Transport yourself to a truly world-changing year in our shared history — 1917 — with any of the following titles.

The Russian Revolution

1917: War, Peace, and Revolution by David Stevenson

1917 was a year of calamitous events, and one of pivotal importance in the development of the First World War. In 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, leading historian of World War I David Stevenson examines this crucial year in context and illuminates the century that followed. He shows how, in this one year, the war was transformed, but also what drove the conflict onward and how it continued to escalate.

Russia in Flames: War, Revolution, Civil War, 1914 – 1921 by Laura Engelstein

Russia in Flames offers a compelling narrative of heroic effort and brutal disappointment, revealing that what happened during these seven years was both a landmark in the emancipation of Russia from past oppression and a world-shattering disaster. As regimes fall and rise, as civil wars erupt, as state violence targets civilian populations, it is a story that remains profoundly and enduringly relevant.

Red at Heart: How Chinese Communists Fell in Love with the Russian Revolution by Elizabeth McGuire

Red at Heart brings to life a cast of transnational characters who connected the two great communist revolutions in human terms. Weaving personal stories and cultural interactions into political history, McGuire movingly shows that the Sino-Soviet relationship was not a brotherhood or a friendship, but rather played out in phases like many lifelong love affairs. A century after 1917, this book offers a novel story about Chinese communism, the Russian Revolution’s most geopolitically significant legacy.

World War One

The Path to War: How the First World War Created Modern America by Michael S. Neiberg

Examining the social, political, and financial forces at work as well as the role of public opinion and popular culture, The Path to War offers both a compelling narrative and the inescapable conclusion that World War One was no parenthetical exception in the American story, but a moment of national self-determination.

Wounded: A New History of the Western Front in World War I  by Emily Mayhew

In Wounded, Emily Mayhew tells the history of the Western Front from a new perspective: the medical network that arose seemingly overnight to help sick and injured soldiers. These men and women pulled injured troops from the hellscape of trench, shell crater, and no man’s land, transported them to the rear, and treated them for everything from foot rot to poison gas, from venereal disease to traumatic amputation from exploding shells.

Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology Edited by Tim Kendall

The First World War produced an extraordinary flowering of poetic talent, from British poets whose words commemorate the conflict as enduringly as monuments in stone. Their poems have come to express the feelings of a nation about the horrors and aftermath of war.

Arts and culture of 1917

Balanchine & the Lost Muse: Revolution & the Making of a Choreographer by Elizabeth Kendall
Tracing the lives and friendship of these two dancers from years just before the 1917 Russian Revolution to Balanchine’s escape from Russia in 1924, Elizabeth Kendall’s Balanchine & the Lost Muse sheds new light on a crucial flash point in the history of ballet. Drawing upon extensive archival research, Kendall weaves a fascinating tale about this decisive period in the life of the man who would become the most influential choreographer in modern ballet.

The Astaires: Fred & Adele by Kathleen Riley

In this book, the first comprehensive study of their theatrical career together, Kathleen Riley traces the Astaires’ rise to fame from humble midwestern origins and early days as child performers on small-time vaudeville stages (where Fred, fatefully, first donned top hat and tails) to their 1917 debut on Broadway to star billings on both sides of the Atlantic.

The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke by Jeffrey C. Stewart

In The New Negro, Jeffrey C. Stewart offers the definitive biography of the father of the Harlem Renaissance. He narrates the education of Locke, including his becoming the first African American Rhodes Scholar and earning a PhD in philosophy at Harvard University. Locke also received a cosmopolitan, aesthetic education through his travels in continental Europe, and yet, he became most closely associated with the flowering of Black culture in Jazz Age America and his promotion of the literary and artistic work of African Americans as the quintessential creations of American modernism.

Literature of 1917

Summer by Edith Wharton

Published in 1917, Summer is often called the warm weather companion to Ethan Frome. They share many similarities but Wharton thought better of Summer than her earlier novel. The novel details the sexual awakening of its protagonist, Charity Royall, and her cruel treatment by the father of her child.

The Wild Swans at Coole by WB Yeats

First published in 1917, The Wild Swans at Coole was republished over two years later with an additional 17 poems which is the edition most widely acknowledged. The middle years of Yeats’ career found the poet grappling with Irish nationalism and with the creation of an Irish aesthetic.

The Mark on the Wall and Other Short Fiction by Virginia Woolf

When Leonard and Virginia first began Hogarth Press in 1917, the first book they printed was Two Stories. It contained a story by Leonard and a story by Virginia. That story by Virginia was The Mark on the Wall. She said of writing it, “’I shall never forget the day I wrote The Mark on the Wall – all in a flash, as if flying, after being kept stone breaking for months.”

Featured image credit: “time-alarm-clock-alarm-clock” by Monoar Rahman. CC0 via Pexels.

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