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.
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.
The characters and the social reform in His Family felt so much more real and personal than those in The Harbor. Instead of a journalist, looking in at the labor movement from the outside, Deborah, and at times Roger, work within the tenements and in the midst of social reform. They hold meetings in their house, invite an orphan to live with them, and become involved in every aspect of the lives of the poor tenement families. The prose, as well, seems to flow more easily in this novel. Though The Harbor had its moments, His Family comes across more like a novel than a journalistic account.
Additionally, it’s filled with much more interesting moments from the history of New York in the years before, and during the First World War. Roger Gale runs a business in which people pay him to find newspaper clippings about themselves, which is clearly not a sustainable business today, but is still hard to imagine such a large profit in sending people newspaper clippings of themselves that there are multiple firms specializing in exactly that. There is talk of the newfangled suburbs popping up outside the city, and of the mechanization of farming. Most surprising to me, though, was the daughter with more of an attitude of “sexual freedom” than I would have expected from the time period or the literature, even if Roger disapproves of her behavior. And one of my favorites was the prediction one character makes, when explaining that the city runs on speed, and clamors to go faster, that New York would install a pneumatic air tube transit system sometime in the future, “shooting people home at night at a couple of hundred miles an hour!” An innovation that still hasn’t happened, but comes up from time to time as a futuristic idea to this day.
I have a difficult time imagining World War I without the lens of World War II, find it difficult to understand the character’s hope for a swift resolution and a peaceful future ahead when I know that in another 20 years, war will be back on again. But that’s one of the fascinating things about books from the 1910s, giving us a window into a very different mindset. His Family gives us a window, not only into the life of a family in the 1910s, but into the life of New York itself at the time, as each of the characters seems to explore and embody a different aspect of city life in the time period, and overall, I quite enjoyed it.
I wonder if it won’t be the same with the children as it has been with us. No matter how long each one of them lives, won’t their lives feel to them unfinished like ours, only just beginning? I wonder how far they will go. And then their children will grow up and it will be the same with them. Unfinished lives. Oh dearie, what children all of us are.
Why you should read it:
If you’re interested in New York and social reform in the 1910s, and if you’d like to read a story about the relationships within families, and across generations.
Currently reading: The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington