1922: Alice Adams by Booth Tarkington

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Plot Summary:

In a small Midwestern town in the wake of World War I, Alice Adams delightedly finds herself being pursued by Arthur Russell, a gentleman of a higher social class in life. Desperate to keep her family’s lower-middle-class status a secret, she and her parents concoct various schemes to keep their family afloat. Though the realities of her situation eventually reveal themselves and her relationship with Arthur fizzles, Alice’s acceptance of this leads her to seek out work to support her family with an admirable resiliency. An enchanting and authentic tale of a family’s aspirations to seek more out of life, Alice Adams reveals the strength of the human spirit and its incredible ability to evolve.

My thoughts:

The second of the two Tarkington novels to win a Pulitzer, I enjoyed Alice Adams much more than The Magnificent Ambersons. First of all, the main character was not a stuck up, spoiled, rich brat. Second of all, Alice Adams is less racist. There are still some racial stereotypes in the book, but far fewer, and far less exaggerated than the ones found in his previous Pulitzer Prize winner. But mostly, I found the story more engrossing than The Magnificent Ambersons.

Alice Adams is slowly coming to the realization that the upper class girls who used to invite her to dances and dinners were never her friends. In her younger teenage years, she had been interesting enough to have all the popular boys in town over to her house, and thus found herself more popular among the girls, but while most of them went off to school, the Adams family did not have enough money to send Alice anywhere. And so she finds herself with increasingly fewer prospects, still hoping for some miracle to come along and sweep her off her feet.

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The 1922 Novel Decision

For the 1922 Novel jury, Stuart P. Sherman, who had been stirring up controversy in the Novel category for the past 2 years, was the only of the 3 jury members to return. He was asked by the Advisory Board to be chairman, and he agreed, under the stipulation that, if the jury reached a unanimous verdict in their recommendation, that it would not be overturned by the Advisory Board.

And things went much smoother this year. The jury report states that all three members agree “Booth Tarkington’s ‘Alice Adams’ is the best novel of 1921 which can be construed as coming under the terms of the Pulitzer competition.” The clarification that it fit “under the terms of” the Prize is clearly meant to be a reminder of the controversy from the year before. It seems to me, at least, that Stuart Sherman could not resist this one last barb, and it seems the Advisory Board thought similarly, because Sherman never again served on the Novel jury after 1922.

Thus Booth Tarkington won his second of two Pulitzer Prizes in the Novel Category, becoming the first of only three authors thus far who have won two Pulitzer Prizes in the Novel/Fiction category.

Currently reading: One of Ours by Willa Cather

1921 Near Miss: Main Street by Sinclair Lewis

Main Street was a widely popular and controversial book when it was published in 1920, selling over 250,000 copies in the first year and making Sinclair Lewis wealthy almost overnight. It was cited (along with his later Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Arrowsmith), to be one of the main contributing factors to his winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930, making him the first American author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Plot summary:

Main Street is the 1920 novel by Sinclair Lewis that tells the story of Carol Milford, a liberal, free-spirited young woman from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Carol meets and marries Will Kennicott, a doctor who convinces her to move back to his small hometown of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. While there, Carol finds the smug conservatism of the town objectionable and sets out to try and make the town a little more progressive, with little effectiveness. A satirical gem, Main Street is Sinclair Lewis’ classic portrait of small town Midwestern American life.

My thoughts:

Main Street is biting, sarcastic, and satirical in all the right ways. It is hilarious and at times oddly prescient. Unfortunately, it also feels very dated. Focused on small town Midwestern life in the 1910s, Lewis deconstructs the myth of “God’s Own Country” and doesn’t pull any punches. But it’s a way of life that’s a hundred years gone, and I found it difficult to read at times, especially when Lewis falls into lengthy descriptions of a Midwestern life that are hard to relate to anymore. But when he begins talking about the people, that’s when Lewis really shines through, and the reader is treated with some fantastic lines. “Mr. Blausser was known as a hustler. He liked to be called Honest Jim,” and “It has not yet been recorded that any human being has gained a very large or permanent contentment from meditation upon the fact that he is better off than others,” are two that particularly stand out, but the book is full of similar small gems.

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1921: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

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Plot Summary:

Winner of the 1921 Pulitzer Prize, The Age of Innocence is Edith Wharton’s masterful portrait of desire and betrayal during the sumptuous Golden Age of Old New York, a time when society people “dreaded scandal more than disease.”
This is Newland Archer’s world as he prepares to marry the beautiful but conventional May Welland. But when the mysterious Countess Ellen Olenska returns to New York after a disastrous marriage, Archer falls deeply in love with her. Torn between duty and passion, Archer struggles to make a decision that will either courageously define his life—or mercilessly destroy it.

My thoughts:

Set in high society New York in the 1870s, The Age of Innocence is a subtly sarcastic look at the conventions and attitudes of the upper crust in the late 19th Century. The family connections, the focus on public image, and the whole process of high society is laid out in almost pain-staking detail. Which makes it all the more relieving when Countess Olenska comes to town and turns it all on its head.

Our narrator for the novel is Newland Archer, soon to be engaged to Olenska’s cousin May Welland, and someone who has followed all the conventions and obeyed all the unwritten rules until now. But when the Countess returns from Europe, escaping a marriage that ended clouded in rumor and controversy, Archer is faced with an option he has never before realized existed: to laugh at the absurdity of all the posturing that exemplifies the society he lives in. Fueled in part by this new found freedom, and in part by his childhood friendship with the Countess, Archer is torn between his impending marriage to May, which would mean a life lived within the bounds of society, and his growing love for the Countess, which would mean disgrace in the eyes of his friends and family.

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The 1921 Novel Decision

The novel jury in 1921 was the first jury since the Pulitzer Prize began to not contain any of the original 3 jurors. Stuart P. Sherman, the new jury member from the year before, who had been the one to suggest Java Head before he understood the wording change from “whole” to “wholesome” had similar issues with the 1921 nominees, as well. Joined by two new jury members, they were faced with Sinclair Lewis’ controversial Main Street. Lewis’ novel attacked middle America, and painted a less than ideal picture of small town people in the heart of the country, and became one of the best selling and most talked about books that year. One of the new jurors, Hamlin Garland, called Main Street “vicious and vengeful,” but was convinced by the other two jury members to back their recommendation of Main Street to the Pulitzer Prize Board, while also mentioning favorably Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence in the jury report.

The Board had some trouble, and a fair bit of discussion over the recommendation of Main Street, and several of the Board members felt similarly to Hamlin Garland. Enough members, in fact, that the Board eventually decided to overturn the jury recommendation and by a split vote, awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Novel in 1921 to Edith Wharton. This was the first time, but by no means would it be the last, that the Prize Board would overturn or ignore the recommendation of the jury.

The jurors, wanting their side of the decision to be made clear, revealed their original recommendation in The New Republic, a newspaper at which one of the jury members worked, causing some amount of public debate and protest. Edith Wharton would go on to criticize the Pulitzer Prize, after the Novel Jury details became public, and, because of her public criticism, Sinclair Lewis would dedicate his next novel, Babbitt, to her. But the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for Novel, and the controversy made public by the jury members, would set in motion events that would come to a head in 1926, when Sinclair Lewis would once again become a part of the Pulitzer controversies and lead to the first of many changes in the official wording and judging of the Pulitzer Prize for Novel.

Currently reading: Main Street by Sinclair Lewis