A life with Lanny

In the New York Times, Julie Salamon writes about her love for Upton Sinclair’s Lanny Budd books, international bestsellers in the 1940s — the third won a Pulitzer Prize — that are now largely forgotten and out of print, except in on-demand editions.

My mother first read the series in the early 1950’s, about the time it was completed. She found Lanny Budd by accident. She was a recent immigrant, and went to the library hoping to find another book by Sinclair Lewis, whose writing she had enjoyed in Hungarian translation back in Europe. Perhaps flummoxed by her accent, the librarian sent her home with “Dragon’s Teeth” by Upton Sinclair.

That case of mistaken literary identity evolved into a literary infatuation. Sinclair’s Lanny Budd – worldly, dashing, but possessed of a social conscience – meshed perfectly with my mother’s own romantic, political and historic yearnings. She has always been a persistent optimist, despite her own grim World War II experiences as a European Jew and concentration-camp survivor. Lanny was a bon vivant who had the means to avoid engagement with the world’s misery, but instead became a behind-the-scenes player, often at great risk but always escaping to face the next chapter’s conundrum.

My mother had the first nine books in the series, a gift from a friend of her father who was a Budd fan. Like Salamon, I read them all in my early teens, then went to the library for the final volumes. I liked Lanny best as a boy growing up on the Riviera, illegitimate son of an American arms dealer and his beautiful mistress. It had little in common with my upbringing. As he grows up, Lanny experiences virtually every significant event in the mid-20th century, becoming an agent for FDR. The books declined steadily in quality — Lanny grows into a well-meaning bore in the final postwar book — but I couldn’t stop reading.

There’s a blog called the Lanny Budd Project.

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  1. Walter E. Wallis says:

    I empathized more with his brother Billy.