Every so often, a Twitter thread or Facebook meme or “Top Ten Tuesday” type survey will come around, asking people to share “a book you think everyone should read” or an “under-rated author people should try.” And every time this happens, I almost always recommend the same writer, Irving Stone, and one of two of his books, which happen to be personal favorites, LUST FOR LIFE and THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY.
So, when a Twitter thread recently posed the question a bit differently (“which book/author have you stopped recommending?”) It gave me pause. I realized that, yes, I have slowly but surely begun to recommend Irving Stone less and less because, for some reason, people just refuse to read him.
To counteract my negligence, I have decided to put together a spotlight piece on Irving Stone. I hope that you will get to know him, a bit, and begin to understand why I think he’s worth reading. Maybe some of you will even give him a try!
Irving Stone was a California writer best known for his biographical novels, a genre which owes its contemporary form largely to Stone’s first novel of “bio-history,” Lust for Life (Evory, 642). In these works, Stone would “novelize accounts of real people, based on meticulous research” (NNDB). His first biographical novel, a great success, was followed by other notable works in the same genre, including Love is Eternal: A Novel of Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln (1954) and The Agony and the Ecstasy: A Biographical Novel of Michelangelo (1961).
Stone was born Irving Tennenbaum on July 14, 1903, in San Francisco, California. In 1934 he married his long-time editor, Jean Factor, and they had two children together. According to Stone, he began reading at a very early age, and onward through life, which caused him to be given the nickname “bookworm” (Sarkissian, 361). As a boy growing up in San Francisco in the early 1900s, Stone bore witness to many momentous events, including the great earthquake of 1906, the World’s Fair of 1914, and the implementation of Prohibition in 1919 (Sarkissian, 362-4). When Stone was not yet in high school, his mother (who was uneducated but who “craved books and knowledge”) brought him to the University of California at Berkeley and demanded with “a burning intensity” that he promise “that no matter what happens” he attend that school (364).
Stone kept that promise, thanks in large part to several fortuitous instances of luck (and evasion). For example, when he moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles, the registrar at his new school, Manual Arts High School, mistook “English and Composition” for two separate courses; this led to young Irving – a not great student in general—being awarded not eight units of As in “English and Composition” but sixteen units of As, eight each for the two separate subjects, which were not actually separate. The registrar asked Stone to confirm this, and he did. It was only much later in life that he admitted the deception (Sarkissian, 366).
Another fortunate event took place after his first semester at the University of Southern California (USC), where Stone enrolled because he had missed the deadline for Berkeley’s spring registration. Stone, quite sure of his inability to successfully complete courses in mathematics and the sciences, learned upon enrolling at Berkeley that they had enacted a new policy requiring two years of study in these very subjects (he had gotten through them in high school only because he had friends and classmates willing to do his work for him). Luckily for Stone, an exception was written into the rules whereby any incoming student with at least 14 credits of university coursework could waive the math and science requirements. Stone had completed exactly that many hours at USC, in anticipation of his eventual transfer to Berkeley (366).
So, Stone’s rise out of the lower classes and through academia is, by his own admission, largely due to certain circumstances of fortune, but also to his own abilities as a writer. Ultimately, honored his mother’s wishes by studying Economics at the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned his B.A. in 1923. He then earned his M.A. from the University of Southern California in 1924 (Evory, 641).
From boyhood and through his university years, Stone worked odd jobs, including as a vaudeville musician, a milk depot employee, a delivery boy, and an usher (Sarkissian, 364-5). According to Stone, even before his fifteenth birthday he was working up to thirty-five hours a week, while going to school (365). This would have been possible –even probable—considering Stone’s family’s lack of income as well as the fact that child labor laws in the United States were not yet in effect until 1938. It is possible that much of this early experience would feed his later academic and professional interests, including his search for “the wellsprings of human conduct” and his particular interest in “social economics” including “labor relations, poverty controls, slum clearance, and the like” (Sarkissian, 368). In college, Stone “supported himself by playing saxophone in a dance band” (Krebs) and was also granted teaching fellowships at USC and at Berkeley (Sarkissian, 368).
After finishing college and graduate studies, Stone “supported himself by writing detective stories” and a few plays. It was only after being rejected 17 times that Lust for Life, his first success, was finally accepted for publication (Britannica). Stone was particularly interested in representing, honestly, the overlooked or the misunderstood – the underdogs of history. As Albin Krebs puts it, “what aroused Mr. Stone’s curiosity was the suspicion that a character had been misunderstood or unfairly misrepresented by previous studies” (para. 15). For this reason, he often wrote about “totally unimportant figures” (Sarkissian, 370) such as Clarence Darrow, or misunderstood (particularly by the American audience) personalities, such as Vincent van Gogh and Michelangelo. In addition, Stone –again possibly due to the influence of his childhood, and especially the formative influence of his mother – “was also intrigued by how the women in the lives of men in the public eye influenced them” (Krebs, para. 15). This interest resulted in a tetralogy of popular novels, three of which, according to Stone, were about “women [who] had been traduced and vilified by history” (Sarkissian, 370).
In crafting his novels, what was most important to Stone was that the history informing his stories be as factually accurate and as detailed as possible, which takes a great amount of time and effort when one is writing about actual, historical figures. In his prologue to The Irving Stone Reader, he writes, “the biographical novelist must be the master of his material; the craftsman who is not in control of his tools will have his story run away with him” (19). Stone’s extensive and exhaustive research into his subjects led him and his wife to numerous countries, including a lengthy stay in Italy, where Stone spent years researching the life of Michelangelo. In addition to this, the pair spent two years living in Vienna, researching Sigmund Freud, and later moved to Greece to research the lives of Henry and Sophia Schliemann (Sarkissian 376).
Stone’s research did not simply lead to the completion of his novels, however; indeed, much of his work on these historical figures often resulted in other contributions to academia, such as bringing “much previously unpublished and important information into print,” including Freud’s papers and Michelangelo’s and Van Gogh’s letters (Evory, 643). Stone has also received numerous awards, including the Christopher Award and Silver Spur Award (1957), the Golden Lily of Florence, Rupert Hughes Award, Gold Medal from Council of American Artist Societies, Gold Trophy from American Women in Radio, Corpus Litterarum Award from Friends of the Libraries, University of California, Irvine (Evory, 641), and the John P. McGovern Award (NNDB). He also founded the Academy of American Poets in 1962 (Britannica).
Finally, although Stone withdrew from his Ph.D. program at Berkeley prior to completing his dissertation, he did eventually receive an honorary Doctorate of Laws from Berkeley, as well as honorary doctorates from A&H University, California State Colleges, Coe College, Hebrew Union College, and the University of Southern California (OAC).
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