Saturday 13 January 2018

Van Loon and Cronin

Browsing in Nabokov's Pnin, I came across this passage describing the eponymous Professor's search for rooms to rent in a private house. These houses, while differing in many respects, 'had one generic characteristic in common: in their parlour or stair-landing bookcases Hendrik Willem van Loon and Dr Cronin were inevitably present .... exchanging looks of tender recognition, like two old friends at a crowded party.'
 Hendrik Willem van Loon was a name I knew, if only as the author of such ambitiously titled volumes as The Story of Mankind and Man the Miracle Maker – but who was his bookshelf buddy 'Dr Cronin'? The name of A.J. Cronin came to mind, but surely this Scottish writer of middle-brow fiction wasn't that popular in America, was he? Well, yes, as I now discover, he was. Several of his novels were adapted into Hollywood films: The Citadel, The Stars Look Down, Hatter's Castle, The Keys of the Kingdom, The Spanish Gardener, etc. Cronin and his family even went to live in various parts of America during the war years, which no doubt increased his Stateside fame. He was a hard-working (five thousand words a day!) and hugely successful writer, whose books sold in immense numbers and were indeed a fixture on bookshelves on both sides of the Atlantic.
 And now they languish, unsold and unread, on the shelves of charity shops, exchanging looks – or perhaps now something more like resigned shrugs – with the equally unwanted volumes of Hendrik van Loon. You can always rely on the bookshelves of the representative middle-brow readers of any time – including (oh very much including) ours – to furnish the charity shop and jumble sale stock of future decades.


  1. A look at the Second Story Books website shows a couple of copies of The Story of Mankind in stock, but nothing by A.J. Cronin. No doubt that is just the chances of the trade. But I wonder whether the middle-brow fiction market hasn't splintered a bit, meaning that the modern van Loon has a wide acquaintance on the shelves rather than one or two constant companions.

  2. I will not hear a word said against van Loon. Changed my life. For the worse but still....

  3. I wonder if Nabokov meant Vincent Cronin, the best-selling author of middlebrow biographies of Napoleon and histories of France?

  4. George - you're surely right about the middle-brow fiction market, and there are indeed many names at least as forgotten as A.J. Cronin's jostling for space on the unwanted shelves.
    Bryan - I know, I know...
    David - a nice theory, but I don't think Vincent (son of
    A.J.) was any kind of doctor, so 'Dr Cronin' must surely be A.J.

    1. You're probably right, although it wouldn't be unusual for Nabokov to twit Vincent for his inferior scholarship.