1932: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

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From the Back Cover:

Though more than sixty years have passed since this remarkable novel won the Pulitzer Prize, it has retained its popularity and become one of the great modern classics. “I can only write what I know, and I know nothing but China, having always lived there,” writes Pearl Buck. In The Good Earth she presents a graphic view of a China when the last emperor reigned and the vast political and social upheavals of the twentieth century were but distant rumblings for the ordinary people. This moving, classic story of the honest farmer Wang Lung and his selfless wife O-Lan is must reading for those who would fully appreciate the sweeping changes that occurred in the lives of the Chinese people during the twentieth century.

My Thoughts:

The Good Earth was assigned reading for most of my friends somewhere in middle school or early high school, and I only ever heard them speak of it with dread, although that was all I heard them say about any of the books they had to read. For some reason or the other, though, I managed to avoid reading it during my grade school years. When it came time to approach this novel, though, I had some apprehensions stemming from the early negative feedback I heard about it, despite finding that I enjoyed many of the books I’d initially dismissed in grade school when I had the chance to go back and read them without the label “homework” or the pressure to finish them before I was tested over them. These initial apprehensions soon fell apart as I read the book and was caught up in the life of Wang Lung, the poor Chinese farmer.

The story itself follows and old clichéd pattern: the poor protagonist, through hard work and a little bit of luck, pulls himself up out of poverty to a life of wealth and luxury. But despite the use of an otherwise overused trope in storytelling, The Good Earth is still fresh and engrossing, and provides a look at a culture that was otherwise unknown to most Americans who read this book in the early 1930s.

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The 1932 Novel Decision

With the new terms for the novel prize, stating it is to be awarded “for the best novel published during the year by an American author,” the jury went to work with their recommendations for 1932. They recommended for their first choice Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth for “its epic sweep, its distinct and moving characterization, its sustained story-interest, its simple and yet richly-colored style.” They also mentioned Willa Cather’s Shadow on the Rock and R. E. Spencer’s The Lady Who Came to Stay. They went on to mention in the recommendation letter that “the Committee also took into account the fact that Miss Cather has already received the Pulitzer Prize. This fact was, however, not determining.”

The Advisory Board selected The Good Earth for the prize, and John Hohenberg writes, “for the time being, the critical uproar subsided to a continuing grumble. To a bewildered people mired in a terrible economic breakdown, the story of the hardships of Chinese peasants somehow was most appealing.”

Currently reading: The Store by T. S. Stribling

1931: Years of Grace by Margaret Ayer Barnes

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From the Dust Jacket:

Mrs. Barnes’ first long novel covers the better part of the life of Jane Ward, from her girlhood in Chicago in the 1890’s through a stormy and aspiring youth, her marriage with Stephen Carver, typical son of typical Bostonians, a passionate episode or two, the World War, and finally the full years of middle life and of dramatic adjustment with the new generation. The rich, humorous, poignant, dramatic narrative flows swiftly and absorbingly to a moving end.

The book is full of the very stuff of life itself, and no better picture of the American social scene in the last four decades has been painted. It definitely places Mrs. Barnes with that little group of American women writers who can be depended upon always to give us keen fictional entertainment and that tingling sense of recognition which is the reader’s deepest pleasure.

My Thoughts:

The dust jacket does a decent job of summarizing the plot of Years of Grace, as it follows Jane Ward through several decades of her life. It sees her go through school, attend a few years of college before dropping out, marrying, having children, and seeing her children grow up and begin to marry. The prose is simple, but well-written. It works in some ways to draw the reader into and through the narrative in an easy progression. The prose is never spectacular, eye-catching, complex, or searingly memorable, but it is also not clunky, distracting, or frustrating.

The hardest part I had with the book was being interested in Jane Ward’s life. I struggled with the first three parts of the book. First, each of the first three parts is named after the man Jane finds herself in love with through that section of the book, and I found it frustrating that she is defined primarily by the men in her life (This doesn’t get any better in the nomenclature of the fourth and final part, named after her children). Although, from Jane’s traditional and romantic point of view, there are many ways in which she does define her life by the men in it and the loves she feels, so perhaps my frustration isn’t with the book as much as with the character of Jane Ward. I had a difficult time connecting with her through much of the book.

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The 1931 Novel Decision

Before the 1931 judges began going over the novels, the secretary of Columbia, Frank D. Fackenthal, wrote a letter to Columbia’s president, Nicholas Butler, in which he brought up concerns from the novel jury over the wording of the terms of the award, and suggested that they amend it to award the prize “for the best novel published during the year by an American author.”

While the Pulitzer Prize Committee was still considering the wording change, the jury selected three novels for their recommendation: Margaret Ayer Barnes’ Years of Grace, Elizabeth Maddox Robert’s The Great Meadow, and Dorothy Canfield’s The Deepening Stream. The recommendation letter said they put Barnes’ Years of Grace in “first place because of its vivid and interesting presentation of the change in character and mores throughout three generations of an American family.” They went on to prod the advisory board into changing the wording of the terms of the prize by stating, “So long as the announced conditions of this award indicate a novel of social criticism, the Committee feel bound to give weight to this factor.”

The jury went on to praise The Great Meadow for “its distinction of substance and style” and The Deepening Stream for “the greatness of its theme and the intensity of the experience portrayed.” The Pulitzer Prize Committee went on to select their first choice of Years of Grace for the prize, and chose to change the wording of the terms to those laid out in Fackenthal’s letter. But John Hohenberg writes, “there were not too many critical cheers for the fiction choice.”

According to Hohenberg, President Butler was “too much the realist to believe that the mere juggling of words in the Plan of the Award would solve any problems [in the public opinion of the Novel Prize].” In a letter to Fackenthal, he considers “whether, in view of the sharp criticism of the Pulitzer literary awards in recent years, particularly this year, we ought not to make some altercations in our juries.” Butler apparently did not pursue this line of thought much further, though, because the novel jury remained unchanged until 1938.

Currently reading: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck