1942: In This Our Life by Ellen Glasgow

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Plot Summary:

In This Our Life must at once be called the impressive culmination of the creative life work of one of the few major American novelists. Ellen Glasgow’s philosophy of life is implicit in all her books-that character is destiny. Never before has it been revealed so inevitably, so passionately, as it is in In This Our Life.

Here is a model of modern times, ending a few days before the outbreak of the war in Europe. The scene is a Virginia Tidewater city. The members of the Timberlake family-mother, father, and the two young women who are their daughters-are the central characters of an intensely dramatic story, dramatic not simply for its happenings, but for the people who cause them. They are true, vital creations, these characters, and they make the action precipitate toward the concluding events of In This Our Life. Then, too (as an eminent American critic has said of Miss Glasgow, ‘She has not been merely a transcriber of life but an interpreter as well’), the book gathers in special intensity as the chief theme grows through the story. The fascinated reader sees unfolding before him an analysis of the modern mind and temper as exhibited in this family and their community. Realism informed with understanding, wit tempered with compassion, these are the qualities which have always distinguished Ellen Glasgow’s work; never have they been displayed more powerfully. And, as always, the story marches to the rhythm of that closewoven, epigrammatic, polished prose, one of the great styles of our time.

My Thoughts:

In This Our Life is a novel that looks at the differences in values between generations, and whether or not people are better or worse off with those values. The chief character in the novel is Asa Timberlake, a father of three, whose own father committed suicide after he lost everything, and who was forced, at a young age, to work long hours in his father’s old factory, under its new owner, to provide first for his mother, then his wife and children. His traditional values throughout the novel leave him tied to a wife he’s not sure he has ever loved, and who doesn’t love him back, working to provide what he can for a family that is often ungrateful. Continue reading

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The 1942 Novel Decision

In 1942, Dorothy Fisher was replaced on the novel jury by Gilbert Highet, a Scottish born professor of Latin and Greek at Colombia University, and joined long time veterans of the jury Jefferson Fletcher and Joseph Krutch. The three of them did not pull any punches in their recommendation letter, stating, “none of the novels brought to its attention seemed of really outstanding merit or equal to many at least of those which have received the prize in the past.” They further exclaimed, “Had it not been for the fact that no prize was awarded last year it would probably have recommended that none be awarded this year.” However, understanding that two years in a row with no prize for novel would be poor form, they recommended, in no particular order, four novels that were the least bad choices in their opinion: Windswept by Mary Ellen Chase, The Great Big Doorstep by E. P. O’Donnell, Storm by George Stewart, and Green Centuries by Caroline Gordon.

Members of the advisory board, always more than willing to step in and make their own decision, produced at least two letters addressed to Joseph Pulitzer, Jr., son of the man who had established the Pulitzer Prizes, who was still closely connected to prizes. One letter, from novelist W. E. Woodward, extolled the virtues of Upton Sinclair’s Dragon’s Teeth, third in a series of novels, which explores American, and world, history, from the Wall Street crash of 1929 through Hitler’s rise to power leading up to World War Two, from the eyes of an illegitimate son of an American arms manufacturer. However, Sinclair’s novel was not published in 1941, but in 1942 (and would, in fact, go on to win the prize the next year). The second letter, written by Julian LeRose Harris of the Chattanooga Times, heaped extravagant praise upon Ellen Glasgow, whose novel In This Our Life, was published in 1941. Harris goes on at length about the long and notable oeuvre of the author, quoting several journalist and reviews which spoke favorably about Miss Glasgow, going so far as to call her one of the most important novelists of the past twenty years. Harris goes on to state that the full work of Miss Glasgow was more than enough to warrant her consideration for the prize, which she had not yet even been considered for, with the statement that, as Miss Glasgow was now approaching 70, though “there has been no diminution in the quality of her work, there is no assuredness that it can continue.” Continue reading