1929 Near Miss: Victim and Victor by John R. Oliver

Plot Summary:

A doctor and a defrocked priest with a questionable past work together to aid the down and out and those suffering from psychiatric problems. They utilize the priest’s incredible empathy and understanding of the broken human condition, and the doctor’s authority and connections, working to improve the community and the lives of the patients coming out of the psychiatric hospital.

My thoughts:

This has been the most difficult book to get my hands on thus far in my Pulitzer project. The University of Texas Library did not have a copy available to check out. I could have used the interlibrary loan system to try to find a copy, but that usually takes a few weeks, and I discovered that the University of Texas did have a copy of Victim and Victor in the Harry Ransom Collection. This required my visiting the reading room at the Harry Ransom Library and reading the material on site, which inhibited my usual method of reading while sprawled on a sofa any time I felt like it, day or night. But the librarians at the Ransom Library were wonderful, and the copy of the book was in great condition (and signed by the author). Thus, I was able to read Victim and Victor without waiting for an interlibrary loan. And I’m so glad I was able to, because this book was fantastic.

The book is narrated by Claude, a doctor, as he tells the story of Father Michael through the priests own journals and letters, and through Claude’s personal experience and notes from their time working together. Michael is a defrocked priest, who spends some time in prison, and first meets Claude when the doctor helps treat him in a psychiatric hospital. After Michael helps Claude find a patient who has run off and stop him from committing suicide, Claude begins to enlist the help of Michael in treating his psychiatric patients, while attempting to treat Michael as well, by helping him get the one thing he desires: to be a priest again.

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1929: Scarlet Sister Mary by Julia Peterkin


From the Dust Jacket:

In her new novel the distinguished author of Black April portrays with the same invincible reality the life of the Gullah negroes on the great Blue Brook Plantation. It is the life story of Mary, who at fifteen is a “slender, darting, high-spirited girl,” married to July, the wildest young buck in the quarters, and who twenty years later, with the old tumultuous love for him shaking her heart, laughs in his face and says, “If you was to come home cold and stiff in a box, I would look at you same as a stranger and no a water wouldn’ drean out my eye.”

In the bitter interlude while July has been roving, Mary, never leaving the home of her childhood, has travelled that strange contradictory road that runs through sin that is “pure scarlet,” to end in a fundamental human integrity that is not short of heroic. And the body of this splendid black Diane is as remarkable as her spirit.

A story full of the earth’s richness and the sun’s warmth; a story that goes far behind the polite screen of civilization to life’s naked elements of birth, growth, and death.

My Thoughts:

I will admit, I know very little about African-American life on the old plantations at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. I’ve read several books set in African-American communities within larger cities in the same time period, but the rural perspective is on that I did not have until reading this book, and as such, I really don’t have anything to compare it to. I also don’t know, and won’t presume to comment upon, the accuracy of Julia Peterkin’s description of plantation life.

Scarlet Sister Mary follows Mary, an orphan raised on an old cotton plantation by Maum Hannah, one of the pillars of the small plantation church. The community, which survives by continuing to grow cotton on the plantation for profit, revolves around the church, with a few exceptions, and so Mary gains the title ‘Sister’ when she becomes a member of the church. However, Mary’s life soon comes into conflict with the church beginning on the night of her wedding to July, the most popular, and most restless, young man in the community.

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The 1929 Novel Decision

With the new terms for the prize, the same three member jury from the year before convened, and unanimously recommended John R. Oliver’s Victim and Victor for the award, stating that it “is of fine quality as a piece of literary work, deals with important elements in the native life, and has most unusual spiritual elevation and significance.” They went on to call it a “sound piece of literature and a noble interpretation of the human character.” The report went on to add that Julia Peterkin’s Scarlet Sister Mary “came close in our estimation to the winning book.”

Before the Committee met and made a final decision, Richard Burton, the chairman of the novel jury, gave a lecture in which he called Oliver’s Victim and Victor “a book not just for a year, but for many years,” and despite the supposed secrecy of the members of the novel jury, it became known that Burton was a member, and the public suspected Oliver would win the Pulitzer that year. Burton, at the request of Frank Fackenthal (the current secretary of Columbia University, and the recipient of all the jury reports), submitted a clarification of the jury report, in which he stated that he would have selected Scarlet Sister Mary for the prize, “had not Victim and Victor appeared.” Burton went on the request his removal from the novel jury in the future “in view of the undesirable publicity concerning the award” and “the fact that I always am open to misinterpretation in connection with my lecture work.”

When the Advisory Board did meet, they could not decide between Victim and Victor and Scarlet Sister Mary based on the jury report, and so the members read both books and submitted their selections for the prize by mail. Scarlet Sister Mary won out in this selection and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Novel in 1929.

John R. Oliver, after the Prize was announced, wrote complaining about the premature publicity and embarrassment he received as a result of Burton’s remarks, and asked that the university endeavor to keep the proceedings secret until the prize was announced to prevent a similar situation from occurring again. Oliver received an apology from the university, and efforts were made (with limited success) to keep the proceedings secret until the Advisory Board had made a final decision.

Currently reading: Victim and Victor by John R. Oliver


1928: The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder


From the Back Cover:

The novel opens in the aftermath of an inexplicable tragedy–a tiny footbridge in Peru breaks, and five people hurtle to their deaths. For Brother Juniper, a humble monk who witnesses the catastrophe, the question is inescapable: Why those five? Suddenly, Brother Juniper is committed to discover what manner of lives they led–and whether it was divine intervention that took their lives, or a capricious fate.

My Thoughts:

I was intrigued by the concept of the novel from the beginning: is it possible to reconstruct the lives of those destroyed by tragedy and discover a reason for their deaths? It’s the sort of question that plagues anyone who has lost a loved one. Why did it happen? Was there some sort of reason or purpose? Because death is something that feels so senseless when you’re faced with it. It’s a question that people have sought answers for though religion and philosophy for thousands of years.

But Brother Juniper goes about the question in an entirely different way. He is meticulously scientific for a monk, preferring mathematics and statistics, and obsessed with tragedy. He holds within himself what many people today would call conflicting interests: science and religion, but they fit hand in hand for Brother Juniper. He believes that he can objectively prove and explain God and tragedy, creating a formula of sorts to describe the indescribable.

This is only the setup of the novel, though. Where the story really takes off is when it begins to describe the lives of the five victims of the bridge collapse. They are each nuanced and distinct characters, each with their own flaws and desires, sorrows and joys, and each with their own story. Wilder conveys an approachable humanity through each of the characters. While I wouldn’t necessarily call all of the characters relatable, they are all recognizable. Their lives are filled of the same mixed up confusion of emotions and events and actions that we have all experienced. There is nothing neat or tidy about the lives or deaths of any of the characters. And even the deaths themselves seem senseless and confusing. Some characters have just turned a page and are trying to change for the better. Some are continuing down a path of brokenness and sorrow.

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The 1928 Novel Decision

In 1928, the same jury from the year before convened and unanimously nominated Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey for the Pulitzer Prize. It was, however, a novel set in Peru, about the people of Peru several centuries before, and one of the jury members even stated that “it is a mere subterfuge to say that it has anything to do with the highest standards of American manners or manhood.” The Pulitzer Prize Committee, however, perhaps encouraged by the popular public opinion of Wilder’s novel, awarded him the Pulitzer Prize for Novel in 1928. Thornton Wilder was, at the time, still a prep school teacher, who had published only one other book. But after his success with The Bridge of San Luis Rey, he would begin writing full time, and go on to win the Pulitzer Prize two times in the Drama category, for his plays Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth. In the aftermath of the 1928 Novel decision, the wording of the award’s terms were once again changed, this time to something that might actually have pleased Sinclair Lewis. The phrase “highest standards of American manners and manhood” was dropped, and the subsequent prizes were to be awarded for “the American novel, published during the year, preferably one which shall best present the whole atmosphere of American life.”

Currently reading: Scarlet Sister Mary by Julia Peterkin