1920 Near Miss: Java Head by Joseph Hergesheimer

As I explained in my last post, Joseph Hergesheimer’s Java Head missed it’s chance for the Pulitzer Prize by four letters: the difference between “whole” and “wholesome.” So what is it about Java Head that’s unwholesome? The illegitimate child? The opium addiction? The characters who contemplate murder? The suicide? I suppose any of these things could have qualified as “unwholesome” in 1920, but the combination of them all is probably what convinced the 1920 Novel Jury that this novel did not meet the criteria to be considered for the Pulitzer Prize. But as a novel, it is a fantastic construction.

From the back cover:

Java Head is a novel of the American merchant marine at the beginning of the great clipper ship era. It is laid in Salem, when that city was still a port rich with the traffic of the East Indies; a story of choleric ship masters, charming girls, and an aristocratic Manchu woman in carmine and jades and crusted gold. There is a drama as secret and poisonous as opium, lovely old gardens with lilac trees and green lattices, and elm-shaded streets ending at the harbor with the brigs unloading ivory from Africa and the ships crowding on their topsails for Canton. It is a romantic novel-and yet true-rather than a study of drab manners; there is no purpose in it other than the pleasure to be found in the spectacle of life supported by high courage and made beautiful by women in peacock shawls.

My thoughts:

First of all, book descriptions from 1919 are awesome. Especially when they have to clarify that this romantic story is about truth instead of drab manners. Secondly, the description doesn’t really do the book justice, in my opinion. Yes, romance is at the heart of the story; it is the primary conflict for many of the characters. But this is a book about culture conflict: between East and West, young and old, Christian self-righteousness and Taoist resignation to fate. And none of them come out as a clear winner when all the cards are on the table.

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How Four Letters Kept an Author from Winning the Pulitzer: the 1920 Novel Decision

Unlike the drama that played out amongst telegraphs and hastily submitted letters the year before, which succeeded in granting the prize for Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons, the drama in the 1920 committee played out behind the scenes and behind the documents. The letter sent by the jury to the Pulitzer Advisory Board is quite succinct and seems to leave little room for doubt: “On behalf of the Jury designated by the American Academy of Arts and Letters to recommend for a Pulitzer Prize the best novel of 1919, I have the honor to report that we are of the opinion that no award should be made.”

The 1920 Jury had a new member, one that supposedly was the center of a brief confusion about the nature of the prizes. John Hohenberg, secretary-administer of the Pulitzer Prizes from 1953 to 1976, wrote in his history of the Pulitzer Prizes in 1974 that the new juror had at first considered Joseph Hergesheimer’s Java Head for the Pulitzer, but that a confusion of four little letters caused him to change his mind. Apparently, this new juror, Stuart P. Sherman, was working off Joseph Pulitzer’s original wording, asking that the prize be given to the novel that “shall best present the whole atmosphere of American life, and the highest standards of American manners and manhood,” not realizing, at first, that the wording had been changed to read “wholesome” instead of “whole.” Once presented with the official wording by the Pulitzer Prize committee, Sherman agreed that Java Head “doesn’t at all obviously conform” to the award criteria.

Which of course begs the question: what is it about Joseph Hergesheimer’s novel that presents the “whole atmosphere of American life” but not the “wholesome atmosphere of American life?” And so, out of curiosity, and my tendency to add more books to this project, I am currently reading Java Head with the hopes of being able to answer that very question.

Currently reading: Java Head by Joseph Hergesheimer

1918 Near Miss: Bromley Neighborhood by Alice Brown

Because the 1918 Pulitzer Prize winning novel His Family is thought by many to be an award to celebrate Ernest Poole’s previous novel, The Harbor, I decided to read the novel the jury recommended as a runner up, Alice Brown’s Bromley Neighborhood, and see for myself which I enjoyed better. Unfortunately, getting my hands on a copy of Bromley Neighborhood took a little longer than I hoped because I had to request it from library storage.

Bromley follows two families, primarily: the Neales and the Brocks. A few generations back, one of the Neales deeded a small parcel of their own land to the Brocks, and every Neale since has attempted to buy it back, with no success. The shadow of that plot of land has impacted the relationships of every generation of Neales and Brocks. The book moves from the patriarch, Thomas Neale, trying to get the land back, to the lives of his two sons, Hugh and Ben, and the Brock daughter, Ellen. It follows them as they mature and stumble through love and relationships and what World War I means for their small country community. And every so often a plot of land and it’s ownership comes back to make some sort of mischief.

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