1927: Early Autumn by Louis Bromfield

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Plot Summary:

Bromfield takes a close look at the Pentlands- a fictional rich family in New England- exposing the hypocrisy and ignorance behind their luxurious facade. Bromfield’s eloquence when describing both his characters and their surroundings is breathtaking, and his accuracy in describing the characters’ complicated emotions makes it apparent that he knows human nature very well. A fascinating study on the struggle of one woman to escape the stifling influence of her husband and in-laws.

My Thoughts:

First of all, I wasn’t crazy about Louis Bromfield’s writing. What annoyed me the most about it was his tendency to use an ambiguous pronoun and follow with the proper name it referred to in parentheticals immediately after. He probably only did this three or four times, but it was incredibly irritating to me and stuck out every time it happened. It felt lazy, because he could have just as easily used the proper noun without ever dragging the pronoun in to muddy things up. The other thing about his writing that frustrated me was its utter lack of subtlety, which I’ll get to shortly.

So here’s what I liked: the book was incredibly well structured, and the characters were all well constructed, with real struggles and failings and motivations. The characters were what struck me first. Olivia, who was a stranger to the Durham area when she married into the Pentland family years ago, now has a grown daughter, Sybil, and an ill and dying son, Jack. She’s married to Anson Pentland, who’s more interested in writing the family history of the Pentlands than his wife, and hasn’t so much as come into her room in 15 years. The patriarch, John Pentland, the Puritan in an age that has otherwise lost it’s belief, and his sister, Aunt Cassie, with a dead husband and no children of her own, who derives her only pleasure in life from gossip and her family manipulations. And thrown into the mix, the impetus for the conflict, is Sabine Callendar, the niece of John Pentland, who is divorced and the black sheep of the family, whose experiences growing up with the Pentland family have left her jaded and wanting to see the Pentland family get their comeuppance.

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The 1927 Novel Decision

After all the hullaballoo the year before, 1927 proved a rather quiet year for the Pulitzer Prize for Novel. Jefferson Fletcher, who had served on the 1925 jury, returned, as well as two of the jurists for the year before. They mention only one book in their jury report, stating that “their selection for the best novel for the year” was Louis Bromfield’s Early Autumn. They also stated that “in years to come, it would greatly expedite the matters if three copies of all the books in competition were sent by the publishers” so all the jury members could read the books simultaneously. The advisory board took their suggestion and awarded the prize to Louis Bromfield, but as John Hohenburg writes, it “did not set off any critical skyrockets when the prize was announced.”

Currently reading: The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

1926: Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis

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Plot Summary:

Arrowsmith tells the tale of Martin Arrowsmith fulfills a lifelong dream of becoming a physician with a passion for research. Combating the forces of ignorance and greed, he relentlessly pursues scientific truth, even in the face of his own personal tragedy.

My thoughts:

Martin Arrowsmith is an ambitious young medical student who rises through medical school, and works in just about every medical field available to him, mostly unhappily, until he is forced out by public opinion or personal dissatisfaction, and finally pursues research and must struggle with the conflict of pure medical research in the face of a devastating epidemic. Sinclair Lewis remains true to his sharp, satirical views of American populations, but instead of limiting it to small towns, like he did in Main Street, he fires his attacks almost indiscriminately, at small towns, larger towns, medical schools, country doctors, city doctors, public officials, and even scientific researchers. But the sarcasm seems tuned down throughout the novel (with a few almost outlandish characters being the exception), and the history of the medical profession in the early 20th century holds it all together in a cohesive whole.

Perhaps it is because I work in the medical field right now, and interact with a number of modern doctors, but this was a fascinating look at what medicine and doctors looked like in the 1910s and 1920s, and what microbiologic and bacteriologic research looked like through the 20s as doctors still struggled to find cures for many of the diseases that still ravaged populations in those days. In this regard, Sinclair Lewis was assisted in his descriptions of the scientific research, and at times even the scientists themselves, by Dr. Paul H. DeKruif, to whom the book is dedicated, and who received 25% of the royalties. DeKruif was a microbiologist and writer, who the next year would publish the bestseller Microbe Hunters, a non-fiction look at some of the most important figures in microbiology and their contributions.

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The 1926 Novel Decision

Sinclair Lewis was not a man to shy away from controversy. His 1920 novel Main Street, was controversial, and the subsequent rejection of it by the Pulitzer Prize advisory board began a controversy between the Pulitzer Prize board and Sinclair Lewis that came to a head in 1926.

After the past year’s controversy over the selection of Edna Ferber’s So Big, none of the novel jurors returned the next year. However, Robert M. Lovett, who had previously served on the 1921 jury recommending Main Street for the Pulitzer came back to serve on the 1926 jury, along with two new jurors, Richard Burton and Edwin Lefèvre. The jury unanimously recommended Sinclair Lewis’ Arrowsmith for the award, citing as other notable books from the year The Smiths by Janet Fairbanks and Porgy by Du Bose Heyward.

Sinclair Lewis was informed by his publisher before the prize announcement that he would be awarded the prize, which he stated, in a letter back, he meant to refuse on account of what he called the “Main Street burglary” in 1921. Thus, when he was officially notified of his being awarded the prize, he had already had time to craft and perfect a response to the Pulitzer Prize Committee.

His letter, which was made public after the prize announcement, is full of harsh and bitter accusations against the Pulitzer Prize for Novel. He calls the Prize “particularly objectionable” because it causes writers to “write this, or timorously to avoid writing that, in order to tickle the prejudices of a haphazard committee.” He complains especially about the prize criteria being for the “wholesome” novels dealing with the “highest standard of American manners and manhood,” stating that this causes the prize to be awarded “not according to their actual literary merit but in obedience to whatever code of Good Form may chance to be popular at the moment.”

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1925 Near Miss: Balisand by Joseph Hergesheimer

Plot Summary:

Richard Bale, last in the long lineage of Bales of Balisand, and hero of the Revolutionary War, finds his family inheritance of aggression and a short temper coming into conflict with the burgeoning and evolving American political scene.

My thoughts:

At its most basic, Baslisand is the story of a man trying to goad a man into a duel so he can kill him. Which does reflect the opinion of one of the novel jurors that it had an “unimportant thesis” and that the “hero is a cad.” Fortunately, the novel is much more than just a story of a man plotting to kill another man. It’s a novel of the early years of America. It’s a novel of one man who finds both the artistic nature of his mother, and the hotheaded, duel-centric nature of his father inside him, often at odds with each other.

Richard Bale, of Balisand, comes from a long lineage of antagonistic duelists in an age when duels are going out of style and duelists are viewed as little more than murderers. He is a hero of the American Revolution, and a Federalist, in an age when war heroes are going out of favor, and Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans are rising into power. Much like the aging patriarch of Hergesheimer’s Java Head, Richard Bale is a man from a different time, a man who is unable and unwilling to adjust to the changing social climate. According to Hergesheimer, Bale “had neither interest or patience with views which–idiotically–differed from his own.” He’s often contemptible, always argumentative, and does not shy from violence.

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