1919: The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington

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Plot Summary:

The Magnificent Ambersons is the epic story of an American family’s traumatic tumble from the dizzying heights of fame and fortune. A dynasty spanning three generations, the Ambersons’ pre-eminence as society’s elite is threatened–not only by a hungry new breed of industrial entrepreneurs–but from its own arrogance and greed. At the center of the story is George Amberson Minafer, the pampered but pitiful, scion of the clan upon whose shoulders the fate of the family fortune will be won…or lost.
At once an exciting chronicle of a family’s rise to fortune and its tortured downfall, it is also a fascinating portrait of the forces that shaped American society.

My thoughts:

I wasn’t very interested in this book at the beginning. Though it follows three generations of the Amberson family, after a short setup explaining the history of the Amberson family in town, it jumps right into the story of George Amberson Minafer, grandson of Major Amberson, spoiled rotten to the core, doted on by his mother, and with endless wealth and family influence in the town. I wasn’t terribly interested in reading a whole book about a spoiled wealthy kid running amok in town, but what kept me interested from the beginning, was the continued mention that the townspeople were just waiting for George Amberson Minafer to “get his come-uppance,” and I have to admit, I wanted to stick it out and see it happen myself.

But the story soon grew into something more than that. It charts the introduction of the automobile and industry into the town, and the rapid and dirty growth of the city because of it, a growth that threatens the fame and fortune the Amberson family once held in town. At the center of this growth is Eugene Morgan, automobile entrepreneur, and his daughter Lucy. Eugene was once a suitor of Minafer’s mother, Isabelle, and Minafer soon becomes suitor to Lucy. But what follows isn’t merely a love story; it’s an inspection and commentary on the changing face of industrial America.

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The 1919 Novel Decision

In 1919, the same jury convened to judge the merits of the novel applicants from the previous year, and after consideration, sent in their initial report on April 22, stating, “the Committee, after careful consideration, has reluctantly reached the conclusion, that no one of the novels of 1918 merits this distinction.” However, a few weeks later, just before the awards were to be announced, one of the jury members wrote to the Advisory Board, asking, “Is it too late to give the novel prize to Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons?”

At this point, there follow a number of telegraphs from the jury members, all agreeing that The Magnificent Ambersons should be awarded the prize (although one jury member’s telegraph called it by mistake “Tarkington’s “The Magnificent Anderson’”). The Novel Jury decided that it would be better to give an award for the book, than to not give a prize at all, and so the second Pulitzer Prize was awarded in the Novel Category, Booth Tarkington won the first of two Pulitzer Prizes he would eventually be awarded.

Currently Reading: Bromley Neighborhood by Alice Brown

1918: His Family by Ernest Poole

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Plot Summary:

In this 1918 Pulitzer Prize winning story, widower Roger Gale struggles to deal with the way his children and grandchildren respond to the changing society. His Family is the story of a sixty-year-old New York man who reflects on his life and the lives of his three daughters. The women represent three separate types – one maternal, the second devoted to social movements, and the third living a happy and carefree existence – and the father sees something of himself in each.

My thoughts:

I’m not sure that I was expecting much from His Family, having read that many believe the Pulitzer Prize was rewarded as much in recognition for his previous novel, The Harbor, but I found a much more personal, compelling, and literary story in His Family. The propaganda and social reform that is set out in The Harbor is here, but in the person of the narrator’s daughter Deborah, one of three daughters, and one of three aspects of the narrator’s character.

The conceit is set up early on, as Roger Gale remembers what his wife asked of him before she died: to live on in their children after her death. In each of his three daughters, Roger sees something of himself, and over the course of a few years, Roger finds himself connecting with each of his daughters in different ways, though more often than not straining his relationship with each of them through it all, because not all of the characteristics of himself that Roger sees in his daughter are positive, in his mind.

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The 1918 Novel Desicion

There is little in the way of controversy when it comes to the 1918 decision to award the Pulitzer Prize for Novel to Ernest Poole for His Family. There is no mention of how many applicants there were this year, as opposed to the five legitimate applicants the year before. The Novel jury (comprised of the same members as the year before), recommended that His Family, by Ernest Poole, be awarded the prize in 1918, as well as suggesting that Bromley Neighborhood, by Alice Brown, be given honorable mention, though the Advisory Board did not officially honor Bromley Neighborhood in any way. It was not until 1980 that they began making regular mention of, or recording, finalists in the Fiction category.

It should not come as a surprise that the first Pulitzer Prize winner in the Novel category was a journalist himself, but as I mentioned in my last post, many believe that Poole won the award as a recognition for the work he did with The Harbor, and not for any merit of His Family in and of itself. The Harbor was a bestseller in 1915, and one of first successful novels to paint socialism and the labor movement in a positive light. But for the public, he had won for what they considered a lesser novel, and it seems His Family has been forgotten for any merits it might have, and is relegated almost entirely to a footnote in the history of the Pulitzer Prize system.

Currently Reading: His Family by Ernest Poole

Prelude to Pulitzer: The Harbor by Ernest Poole

Perhaps I am merely a glutton for punishment (though I don’t find reading very punishing), or perhaps I just want to make sure I approach this experiment thoroughly, so I’ve decided to read a few more books than are necessary, in order to understand the Pulitzer Prize selections and controversies. And the first of these is The Harbor by Ernest Poole. Poole would later win the first Pulitzer Prize in the Novel category for His Family a few years later, but it is widely suggested that the 1915 novel The Harbor was instrumental in his winning the prize, and many would say that winning the Pulitzer for His Family was really a recognition for the work he did in The Harbor. So I decided to read them both.

Influenced by a number of workers strikes and the rising labor movement of the 1910s, The Harbor follows a middle class writer from his childhood days, living with the New York harbor visible from his backyard, through a period of time in which he entertained and celebrated the wealthy and powerful, before being drawn into, and sympathizing with, the labor movement and the mistreated harbor workers. The Harbor is propaganda, pure and simple, but that isn’t enough to discount it altogether. After all, the film Casablanca is pure propaganda, and it’s still well worth watching.

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The Origins of the Pulitzer Prize and the 1917 Novel Decision

The Pulitzer Prize was set up through stipulations in the will of Joseph Pulitzer, a newspaper publisher, to be overseen by Columbia University. Primarily a prize for journalism, Pulitzer wanted to encourage writers outside of journalism, and stipulated that awards be given for the best novel, play, biography, and history book of the year, as well. In the years since, prize categories have been added, subtracted, changed, and rewritten to become what it is today. The Novel category has undergone as many changes and revisions as any of the other categories, sometimes causing controversy, and sometimes by reason of controversy.

Joseph Pulitzer’s initial will stipulated that the prize be given, “Annually, for the American novel published during the year which shall best represent the whole atmosphere of American life, and the highest standards of American manners and manhood.” Before the first year of the awards however, the word “whole” was eventually changed to “wholesome” at the behest of Nicholas Murray Butler, then the president of Columbia University. This would lead to a whole slew of problems over the next few years.

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1972: Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

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 From the back cover:

A deeply moving novel that, through the prism of on family, illuminates the American present against the fascinating background of our past.

Angle of Repose tells the story of Lyman Ward, a retired professor of history and author of books about the Western frontier, who returns to his ancestral home of Grass Valley, California, in the Sierra Nevada. Wheelchair-bound with a crippling bone disease and dependent on others for his every need, Ward is nonetheless embarking on a search of monumental proportions–to rediscover his grandmother, now long dead, who made her own journey to Grass Valley nearly a hundred years earlier. Like other great quests in literature, Lyman Ward’s investigation leads him deep into the dark shadows of his own life.

My thoughts:

Lyman Ward is an amputee, unable to move his neck, plagued by the pains and limitations of bone disease, who has retired to his grandparents cabin, holding out against his son’s attempts to move him to a nursing home, and writing the story of his grandmother’s life. Based upon the life and letters of Mary Hallock Foote, a little known writer and illustrator of life in the American West, with the permission of the Foote family, Angle of Repose has been the subject of criticism because of it. While Stegner was allowed to draw from the letters and life of Mary Foote by her family, they asked that he disguise the source of his material, and has been criticized for using some of Foote’s letters verbatim as correspondence of the fictional Susan Ward, claiming plagiarism, while some of the Foote family objected that he took too many liberties with Mary Foote’s life in his novel.

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2010: Tinkers by Paul Harding

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From the dust jacket:

An old man lies dying. Confined to bed in his living room, he sees the walls around him begin to collapse, the windows come loose from their sashes, and the ceiling plaster fall off in great chunks, showering him with a lifetime of debris: newspaper clippings, old photographs, wool jackets, rusty tools, and the mangled brass works of antique clocks. Soon, the clouds from the sky above plummet down on top of him, followed by the stars, until the black night covers him like a shroud. He is hallucinating, in death throes from cancer and kidney failure.

A methodical repairer of clocks, he is now finally released from the usual constraints of time and memory to rejoin his father, an epileptic, itinerant peddler, whom he had lost seven decades before. In his return to the wonder and pain of his impoverished childhood in the backwoods of Maine, he recovers a natural world that is both indifferent to man and inseparable from him, menacing and awe-inspiring.

Tinkers is about the legacy of consciousness and the porousness of identity from one generation to the next. At once heartbreaking and life affirming, it is an elegiac meditation on love, loss, and the fierce beauty of nature.

My thoughts:

First of all, this is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. The prose sweeps back and forth across time, from father to son, tinker to clock repairer, epileptic to terminal cancer patient, like strokes of paint from an artist’s brush, pulling in this story of father and son onto one cohesive canvas. It’s phenomenal. For those of you who have read any Marilynne Robinson (winner of the Pulitzer in 2005 for Gilead, which I’ll be getting back to further down the line, and runner up for the Pulitzer in 1982 for Housekeeping), you would not be surprised, reading Tinkers, to find that Paul Harding studied under Robinson at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Their prose is poetic in very similar ways, and the relationship between father and son that is the basis of Robinson’s novel Gilead is also one of the larger themes in Tinkers, but in no way does Harding ever feel derivative of Robinson in this book. As his debut novel, he finds his voice, his region (New England) and fills them with terribly real characters.

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In Which I Attempt to Explain Why I Decided to Read the Pulitzer Prize Winners

Several years ago, a friend recommended to me Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner. Having a pile of books already waiting in line to be read at the time (and most times), I placed it in the back of my mind, and the back of my bookshelf, until recently. As I began reading Angle of Repose, I was floored by the prose, the characters, and the very environment that Stegner weaves through American and personal history, and was not surprised to find that the book had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1972. It also made me wonder what other pieces of American history and literature sat in the list of Pulitzer Prize winners, so I did a little digging.

Established by the will of Joseph Pulitzer, a newspaper publisher, administered by Colombia University, and first awarded in 1917, the Pulitzer Prizes are awarded for a variety of topics in journalism and the arts, and gives out one of the longest-running awards for fiction (The Nobel Prize for Literature began in 1901, but is awarded for the entirety of an author’s work, and not a specific book). A look down the list of Pulitzer Prize winning books shows a lot of well-known American authors, and a number of books often found on high school and college curriculums. But looking through the winners, I found a surprising number of authors unfamiliar to me, and a surprising number of absences from the list of winners.

I also found a lot of controversy. From the creation of the award, the original wording stated that the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel should be given “for the American novel published during the year which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood,” a phrase often debated by the juries nominating books for the award, famously criticized by Sinclair Lewis when he rejected the award in 1926, and revised and changed throughout the years for various reasons. Most recently, the decision to not give an award in 2012 made waves for the apparent slight given to David Foster Wallace’s posthumous The Pale King. And even more intrigue, arguments, and controversies fill the years between.

So I decided to make my way through the Pulitzer Prize winning books of the last 96 years, for the literature and the controversy, to find those pieces of prose that blow you away, and to read those books that make you wonder what the juries and committees were thinking. To see which books have held up over the years and proven the worth of the Pulitzer Prize, and which books were a product of their era, with lesser lasting power.

86 books have won the Pulitzer Prize for Novel (through 1947) or the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (since 1948, another one of those controversies). Of those, I have read almost 7 (as I am still finishing Angle of Repose at this moment). There are several books I somehow avoided in high school and college, and a number of Pulitzer Prize winning authors whose work I’ve read extensively, but have thus far avoided the book that won them the award. I’ll be proceeding in a roughly chronological fashion (hopefully), and plan to chronicle my progress through the books, as well as some of the history behind certain years and controversies. I hope to have made my way through the winners (and perhaps some of the notable losers), by 2017, in time for the hundredth anniversary of the Pulitzer Prize, because that feels like a fairly achievable and not entirely arbitrary date. With the exception of the 2010 winner Tinkers by Paul Harding, which I reread a month ago, and will be posting about shortly, I plan on rereading all the other Pulitzer Prize winning novels that I have already read, because it’s been years since I read most of them.

Currently reading: Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner