Illustrated Book Spotlight: The Sixty-First Second, by Owen Johnson, illustrated by Albert Beck Wenzell

I haven't written an illustrated book spotlight in many months, but there's no time like the present to discuss another one of my favorite illustrated books, Owen Johnson's The Sixty-First Second.

To begin with, this book is one of several such books I have actually read, although I read it five years ago and there are some parts I don't remember. The gist of it, however, is this: an extremely valuable ruby ring is stolen at a fancy dinner party, and a dramatic whodunit ensues over the course of days after the party.

But why all this fuss about a ring? It depends on how valuable it is, but there's way more to the story than just the ring. It turns out that this is happening just as the stock market is crashing. (And it's a real historical event, too, by the way. This book is set during the Panic of 1907.) And aside from that, there are lots of other things going on to enrich the plot, including domestic violence and a suicide.

It's definitely one of the most interesting works of fiction I have ever read, (and I'm actually not too big on fiction, preferring non-fiction instead.) One of the things that really surprised me was how closely some of the vernacular of that time period matches how we speak today. (A couple of examples are "[noun] is sort of [adjective]," and the acronym PDQ, which stands for Pretty Damn Quickly.)

Another thing that I found fascinating about this book is how vividly it describes what life was like in New York City at the turn of the 20th century. It's important to note that this book was published in 1913, so this isn't a contemporary author of historical fiction giving a secondhand description based on research. He was actually living it, so if he describes something a certain way, then you'd better believe that that's the way it really was!

Besides all of the above, this book is ahead of its time in that pretty much all the characters are flawed in their own way, without there being a clearly delineated "hero" and "villain." Such an introspective and psychologically nuanced form of character development would not be widespread until the 1920s, when authors such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald spearheaded the movement away from moralistic "black-and-white" storytelling, and more towards a multi-dimensional look at characters' strengths and weaknesses. By then, morally binary forms of storytelling, (think handlebar-mustachioed, top hatted villain tying a beautiful girl to the train tracks in the hopes that she gets run over before her rugged, handsome hero can come to her rescue,) became laughably caricaturish, and the stuff of cheap nickelodeons and dime novels.

But now for the illustrations: there are six of them in total, drawn by prolific American illustrator Albert Beck Wenzell (1864-1917). I felt very gratified when, after a brief Google search, I discovered that he was inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame in 2005, 103 years after he himself was president of the SI. His specialty was depictions of high society, which is apropos for him considering that he was born to a wealthy family. Because of this intimate familiarity with wealth, he was often assigned to illustrate books about wealthy people, (such as this one,) and, as with Charles Dana Gibson's "Gibson Girls," his highly successful portrayals of wealthy women came to be known as "Wenzell Girls." (These weren't the only two, by the way. There were also Howard Chandler Christy's "Christy Girls," James Montgomery Flagg's "Flagg Girls," and Harrison Fisher's "Fisher Girls.") Wenzell, however, hated the fact that his creations were given this name, as he felt that it represented an oversimplified view of the intentions and creative process behind his feminine portrayals.

And now for the moment you've all been waiting for, here are the illustrations:



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