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.

The Harbor definitely has it’s place in the history of the labor movement and in the history of literature. Ernest Poole worked with Upton Sinclair and provided some eyewitness accounts for  his book, The Jungle, so it seems like Ernest Poole should have a bigger place in history, and The Harbor should be more well-known, but until Penguin Classics rereleased the book a few years ago, The Harbor had been out of print for years. Before I began looking into the Pulitzer Prize, I’d never even heard of Ernest Poole, despite the fact that The Harbor was one of the best-selling novels of 1915, and despite the fact that he won the first Pulitzer Prize in the novel category. While The Jungle has remained on high school reading lists to this day, The Harbor has been almost entirely forgotten.

Part of that may have to do with the book. While an interesting look at the labor movement, it ultimately feels like a journalistic endeavor into fiction. The characters are flat, and at times, uninteresting. The “growth” of the narrator through capitalism to socialism feels a little forced at times, and there is never any doubt, even when the narrator is at his most capitalistic, which side he will choose (spoiler alert: he chooses Socialism). Ernest Poole’s time as a journalist and correspondent in Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution shine through in the book, and it reads more like an extended newspaper article extolling the virtues of Socialism than a work of fiction.

Which isn’t to say it doesn’t have it’s redeeming qualities. The way that Poole focuses on the New York harbor, the shifting descriptions the narrator uses to describe the harbor, and the way those descriptions reflect the growth and change of the narrator throughout the book are skillfully and poetically written. The evolving harbor scene and the struggles of the labor movement, which ultimately lead to violence, are well documented and described, and drawn from real labor strikes that Ernest Poole witnessed first hand. But for me, the book struggled to rise out of the realm of journalism and into literature. It definitely has it’s merits as a detailed look at the struggle for labor reform in the 1910s, but  there was nothing outstanding or particularly noteworthy about the prose, in my opinion. It’s value seems to reside almost entirely in it’s historical context and importance. Which isn’t to say it shouldn’t be read, just that I think it works better approached from the historical labor movement standpoint than the literary standpoint.

Clearly readers in 1915 would disagree with me, because Ernest Poole became an almost overnight celebrity after he published The Harbor. But as a reader almost one hundred years later, it did not seem very relevant or impressive as a work of literature, despite being an interesting look back at the early days of the labor movement in the United States.

Currently reading: His Family by Ernest Poole

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