The 2014 Winners

The 2014 winners of the Pulitzer Prize were announced today by Colombia University. Winning the prize for fiction this year is Donna Tartt for The Goldfinch, and the runners up are The Son by Philipp Meyer and The Woman Who Lost Her Soul by Bob Shacochis.

More information can be found on the Pulitzer website here: 2014 Fiction Prize

The full list of winners in all categories can be found here: 2014 Awards

1925: So Big by Edna Ferber

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Plot Summary:

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and widely considered to be Edna Ferber’s greatest achievement, So Big is a classic novel of turn-of-the-century Chicago. It is the unforgettable story of Selina Peake DeJong, a gambler’s daughter, and her struggles to stay afloat and maintain her dignity and her sanity in the face of marriage, widowhood, and single parenthood. A brilliant literary masterwork from one of the twentieth century’s most accomplished and admired writers, the remarkable So Big still resonates with its unflinching view of poverty, sexism, and the drive for success.

My thoughts:

So Big takes the concept of success and the new industrial aristocracy and the idea of the American Dream and promptly turns it all on its head. The novel follows Selina Peake, the daughter of a gambler, who lives a life of alternating poverty and wealth until her father dies and leaves her at age 18 to figure out a new life for herself without him. A country teaching position that she takes only so she can get enough experience to get a job back in the city, instead leads her to become a farmer’s wife with a son she adores and tries desperately to make understand the virtues of beauty and creativity and self-expression. Like any child, however, Dirk DeJong misses the point entirely, gives up his early and yet unprofitable career as an architect to sell bonds, quickly joining the new aristocracy until he finally comes to the devastating realization that he had missed the point entirely, that money is not the only, or even best, measure of success.

The novel jury member William White is correct when he says the novel appealed to his “devilish lust for propaganda,” for the book is indeed propaganda, propaganda for creativity and the arts in the face of a growing aristocracy focused on emotionless finance and business. Though Selina’s son Dirk is on display the most in the novel, the best example of Ferber’s ideas about the changing face of business and finance are best seen in the supporting characher of August Hempel, and his children and grandchildren. Hempel, who began as a butcher in Chicago, soon created a sprawling meat packaging empire, but still spends most of his time in the pens with the animals and the farmers and the people on the ground. He complains that his son-in-law’s “clothes never stink of the pen like mine do” because he sits all day in the office in the plant, never bothering to see the work going on in the ground, and he Hempel predicts that his grandson “won’t go within smelling distance of the yards” when he comes into the business.

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The 1925 Novel Decision

In 1925, the novel jury kept the chairman from the previous two years, but brought in two new members to complete the triumvirate. The three jurors could not come to any consensus on which novel should win the prize. William A. White, one of the new members, argued strongly for Edna Ferber’s So Big to be recommended for the prize, while the other newcomer, Oscar Firkins, wanted Joseph Hergesheimer’s Baslisand to be recommended (Hergesheimer had been denied the prize in 1920 for Java Head because his novel was not thought to fit the prize’s wording stipulating a novel that represented the “wholesome atmosphere of American life”). Both members were willing to call Laurence Stalling’s Plumes a second best, but the chairman, Jefferson Fletcher, objected to Plumes as the recommendation. In the jury report, Fletcher suggested that the prize be split equally between Balisand and So Big, to represent the split decision the jury came to, but added that he preferred Balisand for the prize himself.

In a supplemental letter included by Fletcher to the Pulitzer Prize Fund, William White explains in detail his thoughts on the novels. He says that Balisand, though artfully constructed, had an unimportant thesis and “besides, Balisand’s hero is a cad.” He states that his choice of So Big for the prize is possibly due to his “devilish lust for propaganda” and that he appreciated that the novel argued, “America needs creative spirit in something other than finance; that we should express ourselves in beautiful things, beautiful architecture, beautiful lines and that beauty is the sad and vital lack of America.”

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1924: The Able McLaughlins by Margaret Wilson

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From the first edition’s dust jacket:

The Able McLaughlins, Scotch Covenanters, devoted to one another, deeply pious, but humor-loving and full of the emotion and sentiment which exists under the craggy Scotch exterior, are leaders in a pioneer Iowa community, Isobel McLaughlin, mother of ten, and Wully, the oldest son, are characters in whom one feels the spirit and intelligence and dauntless courage that carved out our Western States. The story is Wully’s — his wooing, his bride, his home building and the fine triumphant victory to which the end of the book brings him.

My thoughts:

First of all, The Able McLaughlins has a very serious and dark primary plot: the main character comes home to find that the woman he loves and wanted to marry has been raped and is with child by someone else in the community, so he runs off the rapist, marries the girl, and takes the blame in the community for the scandalous birth. And maybe I was just reading it wrong, or maybe Margaret Wilson intentionally wrote it this way to keep it from being terribly depressing, but the book as a whole seems a little bit ridiculous, with a large number of lighthearted and comic moments, as though the reality of the plot isn’t really taken seriously by the author. There is plenty of murderous intention and depression and anxiety tied to the main plot, but I had a hard time really buying it. I have to assume that Margaret Wilson didn’t write those emotions well, because I have a hard time believing she was making light of those emotions.

The Able McLaughlins is set in the final year of the Civil War and through reconstruction, in a small farming community, made up almost entirely of Scottish immigrants who are all somewhat related to each other, the larger national issues of the war and reconstruction are merely footnotes in the story. Although, Margaret Wilson also makes World War One a footnote in the story as well, taking brief moments throughout the book to look 50 years into the future and make brief, seemingly inconsequential comments about World War One. It felt as though she was trying to make it seem more relevant to the current time, despite the setting, and it always felt strange to me when she took those digressions.

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The 1924 Novel Decision

In 1924, the same three members that had convened the year before and somewhat reluctantly recommended Willa Cather for the Pulitzer Prize once again deliberated over the novel category. And this year, they were even harder on the novels than they were the year before. They begin the jury report by stating, “there is no book outstanding enough to merit a prize this year.” However, after the Pulitzer Committee ignored their recommendation in 1921, and operating under the impression they had the year before that the Prize Committee would rather a prize be awarded, the jury adds, “if it is deemed that a prize should be awarded anyhow, the committee would name ‘Margaret Wilson’s’ The Able McLaughlins.” They followed up with a statement assuring that they would not make public their opinion that no book deserved the prize should a prize be awarded, to reassure the Pulitzer Committee that there would not be the same type of scandal that occurred in 1921 when Sinclair Lewis was denied the Pulitzer, and the novel jury took their frustration to the newspapers.

Currently reading: So Big by Edna Ferber

1923: One of Ours by Willa Cather

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From the back cover:

Claude Wheeler, the sensitive, aspiring protagonist of this beautifully modulated novel, resembles the youngest son of a peculiarly American fairy tale. His fortune is ready-made for him, but he refuses to settle for it. Alienated from his crass father and pious mother, all but rejected by a wife who reserves her ardor for missionary work, and dissatisfied with farming, Claude is an idealist without an ideal to cling to. It is only when his country enters the First World War that Claude finds what he has been searching for all his life.

In One of Ours Willa Cather explores the destiny of a grandchild of the pioneers, a yound Nebraskan whose yearnings impel him toward a frontier bloodier and more distant than the one that vanished before his birth. In doing so, she creates a canny and extraordinarily vital portrait of an American psyche at once skeptical and romantic, restless and heroic.

My thoughts:

My first introduction to Willa Cather was reading The Professor’s House in college, and the middle act of the book, set in the American southwest in a place evocative of Mesa Verde, entranced me, because she was writing a landscape I had grown up in and around, and so deftly it felt like I was back there. I immediately picked up Death Comes for the Archbishop, and sometime after read her prairie trilogy, but never made it around to One of Ours until I began this project.

The first half of the novel is much akin to many of her prairie novels: it follows the protagonist, Claude Wheeler, as he struggles against a sort of oppression from his father and brothers, and later, his wife. Interested in his studies and the friends that he is making at college, that joyous time of his life is cut short when his father purchases land in Colorado and places Claude in charge of the Nebraska farm, forcing him out of college and away from his new friends. Trying to make the best of it, and falling in love, Claude finds himself married to a woman he soon realizes is cold and emotionless to him, more interested in expending her passions in the work of prohibition and Christian missions.

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The 1923 Novel Decision

Stuart P. Sherman, the man who had first questioned the difference between “whole” and “wholesome” in the wording of the Pulitzer Prize for Novel, was replaced on the 1923 jury. Though Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt was published that year, and presumably submitted for the award, there is no mention of Lewis or his novel in the jury report for that year, which some have speculated is due to the controversy with Main Street two years earlier. The only novel mentioned, the novel recommended and approved by the Pulitzer Prize Committee, was Willa Cather’s One of Ours.

However, this recommendation is followed by the addendum, “I might perhaps add that this recommendation is made without enthusiasm. The Committee, as I understand its feeling, assumes that the Trustees of the Fund desire that award should be made each year. In that case, we are of the opinion that Miss Cather’s novel, imperfect as we think it in many respects, is yet the most worth while of any in the field.”

Though the report was not made public for some time, there seems to be little to no outcry, on the part of the public, or on the part of Willa Cather for the wording of the jury statement. Although, according to John Hohenburg, a journalist, secretary of the Pulitzer Board for several decades, and author of several books about the history of the Pulitzer Prizes, Sinclair Lewis said about not winning the Pulitzer for Babbitt that he didn’t “care a hang.”

Currently reading: The Able McLaughlins by Margaret Wilson