1941 Near Miss: The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark

Plot Summary:

Set in 1885, The Ox-Bow Incident is a searing and realistic portrait of frontier life and mob violence in the American West. First published in 1940, it focuses on the lynching of three men and the tragedy that ensues when law and order are abandoned. The result is an emotionally powerful, vivid, and unforgettable re-creation of the Western novel, which Clark transmuted into a universal story about good and evil, individual and community, justice and human nature. As Wallace Stegner writes, “[Clark’s] theme was civilization, and he recorded, indelibly, its first steps in a new country.”

My Thoughts:

I’m unashamed of my love of the western genre, especially in film, but it is the more difficult, complex, and at times morally ambiguous westerns that interest me more than the formulaic genre westerns. John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the western-inspired samurai films by Akira Kurosawa such as Yojimbo and Seven Samurai, the more modern Unforgiven or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. And those are the sorts of western novels I enjoy, as well, instead of the serialized or pulp genre offerings. And The Ox-Bow Incident falls neatly into this category. The moral predecessor of later westerns like Oakley Hall’s Warlock and John William’s Butcher’s Crossing, which are themselves predecessors for Cormac McCarthy’s work, especially his challengingly brilliant Blood Meridian, which look at some of the darker, rawer elements of human nature, that question justice and morality and law. These are the books in which there are no easy answers, and sometimes the heroes and villains are the same people. Continue reading

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1941 Near Miss: The Trees by Conrad Richter

Plot Summary:

The Trees is a moving novel of the beginning of the American trek to the west. Toward the close of the eighteenth century, the land west of the Alleghenies and north of the Ohio River was an unbroken sea of trees. Beneath them the forest trails were dark, silent, and lonely, brightened only by a few lost beams of sunlight. Here, in the first novel of Conrad Richter’s Awakening Land trilogy, the Lucketts, a wild, woods-faring family, lived their roaming life, pushing ever westward as the frontier advanced and as new settlements threatened their isolation. This novel gives an excellent feel for America’s lost woods culture, which was created when most of the eastern midwest was a vast hardwood forest—virtually a jungle. The Trees conveys settler life, including conflicts with Native Americans, illness, hunting, family dynamics, and marriage.

My Thoughts:

My first, and until now, only, interaction with the works of Conrad Richter was in my 7th grade English class, in which Mr. Vardeman took us through his later novel, The Light in the Forest, a class that I find hard to forget, even 16 years later. While The Light in the Forest focused on the clash of cultures between Native Americans and European settlers in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, his novel The Trees follows a family who moves deeper into the uninhabited woods of Ohio, searching out game and a way of life, and watching settlement and society slowly grow around them over the years. The Trees forms the first part of what it called “The Awakening Trilogy” and is followed by The Fields and The Town, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1951. Continue reading

The 1941 Novel Decision

In 1941, Robert M. Lovett was replaced on the jury for the Pulitzer Prize for Novel by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, known for introducing the Montessori method of teaching to the United States, and also listed as a tertiary recommendation for the Pulitzer Prize the year before for her novel Seasoned Timber. According to a poll of book reviewers that year, the overwhelming choice by critics for 1941 was Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, although the jury had a different opinion altogether. The jury report lists two novels as being deserving of the award: The Trees by Joseph Conrad and The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, and called the decision that year particularly difficult because “we find little to choose between the two.” However, they report states that one member of the jury preferred Richter’s The Trees and so they presented it as their primary recommendation.

They went on to list three more novels, stating they were “carefully considered” but found none of them were “as worthy of the prize” as their two primary recommendations. Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls was on this list, alongside Native Son by Richard Wright and Oliver Wiswell by Kenneth Roberts. The report calls Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls “unquestionably vivid, picturesque, and interesting” but faults it for its “romantic sensationalism and a style so mannered and eccentric as to be frequently absurd.” Continue reading

1940: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

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From the Back Cover:

At once naturalistic epic, captivity narrative, road novel, and transcendental gospel, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is perhaps the most American of American classics. Although it follows the movement of thousands of men and women and the transformation of an entire nation during the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s, The Grapes of Wrath is also the story of one Oklahoma farm family, the Joads, who are driven off their homestead and forced to travel west to the promised land of California. From their trials and their repeated collisions against the hard realities of this new America, Steinbeck creates a drama that is intensely human yet majestic in its scale and moral vision, tragic but ultimately stirring in its insistence on human dignity.

My Thoughts:

It’s difficult to know exactly where to begin with a book like The Grapes of Wrath. I remember first reading it for pleasure in the 7th grade, a time in which I was probably just old enough to begin to understand the more subtle, complex ramifications of the book, but not quite old enough to maintain a decent grasp on them. I borrowed the book from my grandmother’s bookshelf at her recommendation, after she had told me a few stories of her own life growing up in West Texas through the Great Depression and World War 2. Many of those stories are just bits and pieces now, and if anything, rereading The Grapes of Wrath now makes me want to hear them again, and ask better questions this time around. Continue reading

The 1940 Novel Decision

The jury of Fletcher, Krutch, and Lovett returned for the third and final year in 1940, and by their opinion, had no trouble selecting their recommendation for the prize, writing in their report, “We are unanimously agreed to recommend as our first choice ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ by John Steinbeck,” calling it “the most powerful and significant of all the works submitted for our consideration.” As a second choice, they listed Escape by Ethel Vance, and in the case neither of those satisfied the committee, also provided To the End of the World by Helen White, Seasoned Timber by Dorothy Canfield, and Night Riders by Robert Penn Warren as tertiary recommendations.

While the jury had no problem recommending The Grapes of Wrath, some members of the Pulitzer Prize Advisory Board had problems with Steinbeck’s work being awarded the prize. In advance of their meeting, member Walter M. Harrison of the Oklahoma City paper Daily Oklahoman, wrote to the board trying to persuade them not to choose The Grapes of Wrath, stating that “such a decision would encourage more efforts in erotica by a host of authors writing for the market and promote a false sense of value with the immature reader which surely is neither enlightening nor constructive.” He went on to complain that while some of the migrants from his state may resemble the characters in the book, “there is another unit, clean in their habits and minds, decent in their living and speaking.” He further criticizes “the quarrel about the cause of the problem” faced by the migrants and “the lack of a solution.” Continue reading

1939: The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

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From the Dust Jacket:

The scene of Mrs. Rawling’s new novel is inland Florida, the wild and beautiful “hammock” country which she first made known to American readers in South Moon Under. In the hammock country live a breed of Americans that it is hard to surpass. Proud, self-reliant, industrious, forever struggling against the encroachments of the tropical forest and the raids of wild beasts, their lives are hard, but full of the experiences that make living worth while.

It is with the Baxters, one of these hammock-country families, that The Yearling is concerned. One year of their lives is spanned in the book­ – a year brim full of event and incident, of drama, conflict, tragedy, humor and beauty. The Baxters are three – Penny Baxter, the father, a little man, but a mighty hunter; his stout, hard-working wife; and twelve-year-old Jody, “the yearling,” around whom the story centers. But there is a fourth – another yearling – who plays quite as poignant a part in the story as the humans – “Flag,” Jody’s pet fawn, taken from the side of its dead mother in one of the many unforgettable scenes in the book. Continue reading

The 1939 Novel Decision

The same three jurors, Fletcher, Krutch, and Lovett, came back in 1939 to judge the Pulitzer Prize for Novel and “unanimously agreed to recommend” Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling for the prize. The jury report calls the book “an interesting and sensitive account of the coming of age of a poor boy in a remote part of Florida” and applauds the “psychological insight” as well as the “description of the life of a picturesque people.”

The jury also listed as secondary recommendations All This and Heaven Too by Rachel Field, Black is My True Love by Elizabeth Mattox Roberts, May Flavin by Myron Birnig, and Renown by Frank O. Hough, but the Pulitzer committee agreed with their first choice and awarded Rawlings the Pulitzer, although John Hohenburg states that at the choice, “the critics grumbled.”

Currently reading: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck