1945 Near Miss: The History of Rome Hanks and Kindred Matters by Joseph Stanley Pennell

From the Dust Jacket:

For dramatic impact, imaginative power, vividness of characterization and emotional intensity, there are few American novels that compare with this remarkable story in which the American past and present are so brilliantly blended.

This big strange book is the record of young Lee Harrington’s ancestors—chief among them his heroic great-grandfather Rome Hanks—as recreated by Lee from what he saw and was told. The characters are men and women of both North and South who lived and fought through the Civil War and then struggled for a livelihood in the impoverished South or the little towns of the West. Lee began to brood about the lives of these people when nettled by the beautiful Christa Schell’s bored responses to his reminiscences—“I am sure your grandfather must have been a fine old Southern gentleman!”

All the memories of the Civil War and of the years afterward up to Lee’s birth, gathered largely from a loyal friend and admirer of Rome Hanks, Thomas Wagnal, formerly surgeon in the 117th Iowa, and from others who fought, are sifted through Lee’s mind and given a new quality by it, and are set down as they come, without chronology. They are chiefly about the heroic Romulus Hanks, Captain in the 117th, cheated of advancement by the politician, Clint Belton, who, though he groveled under the bluff at Pittsburg Landing while the Battle of Shiloh raged, became Colonel and ended a Brigadier.

Another main source of Lee’s information was the old North Carolinian, his great-uncle Pinkney Harrington, “Uncle Pink,” who began his account of that blazing walk across the field of Gettysburg with the words, “We ate roast pig the morning before Pickett’s Charge.” And another was his grandfather, Tom Beckham, of the Zouaves, who fought in the Seven Days and was photographed by Brady as he lay among the wounded outside a field hospital. But no less impressive than the Civil War years are the pictures and episodes of Midwestern America, especially Kansas, up to 1900 or so. Continue reading

1945 Near Miss: Colcorton by Edith Pope

From the Dust Jacket:

In “Colcorton” Edith Pope introduces one of the really great characters of fiction-Abby Clanghearne. Growing up with a dreadful secret locked in her heart, striving always, through her brother Jared, to overcome the poverty and decay that have been her environment, Abby remains undaunted. Courageously, as she becomes adjusted to the situation, she accepts the ruin of her plans for Jared and, after his death, she takes on the responsibility of his widow and unborn child, and, at last, overcomes the horror of her secret by tremendous sacrifice, gaining an almost proportionate release from that horror.

The beauty of the Florida coast line comes alive in “Colcorton.” Whether it is the clean etched line of the great pine trees, the vast sparkling entity of the Atlantic, or the muted mysterious world of the swamp, Edith Pope makes you really see, hear, smell and feel the grandeur, the heartbreaking loveliness of this region. She transmits, without sentimentality, Abby’s love for this land that has been her whole life as well as her livelihood.

There are other unforgettable characters in this warm, deeply-moving book of people and the land they live on. Danny Strikeleather is one-wise and kind with eyes that make it impossible for anyone to lie to him. Beth Clanghearne is another-Beth, whose fragile appearance and quiet manner make people think of her as weak and stupid, but who becomes aware of a deep, almost animal, wisdom and strength within herself. And there is Clement Johnson, perpetually running from himself, weary, disillusioned, selfish, who finds a peace of short duration with the selfless, instinctively understanding Abby.

With its beauty of setting, its inevitability of outcome, and above all its brilliantly conceived and completely realized characters, “Colcorton” is a deeply satisfying book.

My Thoughts:

We return back to Florida in Edith Pope’s Colcorton, and while it shares some of the character and feel of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling, Pope’s novel is one with much larger themes and much more complex characters. Instead of focusing on a young boy coming of age in the wilds of Florida, Colcorton follows the third generation of Floridians, Abby and Jared Clanghearne, whose grandfather was a slave and plantation owner on the Florida coast, and whose past wealth and land holdings are now but the faintest shadow of what they once were, due not only to the end of slavery, but also because of a dark secret that has kept Abby mostly isolated on the ruins of the old plantation house: her grandmother was black, and thus her family’s bloodline, according to the general white public, is “tainted,” and Abby and her brother Jared are at risk to be treated as black themselves, losing their friends, their livelihoods, and potentially even what little is left of their family’s property and money. Continue reading

1941 Near Miss: For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

From the Dust Jacket:

Into this great new novel­­‑nearly twice as long as “A Farewell to Arms”-Ernest Hemingway has poured the fullness of his experience, the perfection of his art. A novel of wartime Spain, in which a young American and a Spanish girl live a lifetime of love and courage in four momentous days, it speaks with final and unforgettable power about the truth-the truth of war and life in our time.

With Robert Jordan already behind enemy lines on his dangerous mission-to join forces with a band of Spanish men and women hidden in the mountains, and blow up a bridge that is essential to the great attack-the story begins in the midst of the action. It moves forward with rushing swiftness and a compelling sense of reality to the moment when he must blow up the bridge-the bridge on which the whole future of the human race can turn.

Before this crucial action Robert Jordan enters into the life of the men and women whose destiny he shares, who, living at the edge of danger, come vibrantly alive, intimately known. There is Pilar, a great woman who has lived long and fully, brave, barbarously outspoken, yet warm-hearted; and Pablo, her husband, a strong man at the start of the movement but now dangerously undependable. And there is Maria, a tawny, lovely Spanish girl who escaped the fascists to find healing in her love for Robert Jordan. Their story becomes one of the most tender, passionately moving love stories ever written.

In these superbly real men and women-sharing days of heightened excitement, deeper and richer experiences than most lifetimes hold-Hemingway seems to have embraced all human experience, the conflict of life itself, not only martial but spiritual and emotional. All that he has written before, including some of the greatest novels of our generation-points toward the achievement of this work of art, a novel that carries the rare, perfected shine of enduring greatness.

My Thoughts:

The ostensibly simple plot of For Whom the Bell Tolls-an American explosives expert teams up with Spanish guerrillas in the mountains to blow up a bridge-while compelling, serves more in the book as a vehicle to explore a number of other themes. The protagonist Robert Jordan thinks several times that he has loved more in the four days of the novel than many people love in their whole lives, but this does not hold true only for love. Hemingway uses the tensions and stresses and the sense of impending doom among the characters to provide a condensed look at many aspects of life and humanity over the course of four days: love, war, death, religion, politics, courage, fear. The characters are complex and nuanced, providing different aspects that play off each other, sometimes in conflict, and sometimes in congruence. It is a long and at times laborious novel, intercut often by long trains of thought and mental monologues, exploring the characters’ motivations and fears and ideologies as the action moves slowly forward, tension building slowly throughout most of the novel until it erupts in brief violence. Continue reading

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

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

1934 Near Miss: A Watch in the Night by Helen C. White

Plot Summary:

A Watch in the Night is an historical novel of the Middle Ages, with Jacopone da Todi, the Franciscan who waged the battle of the “”Spirituals”” against the more worldly minded members of the order, as the central figure. A vigorous story, beautifully told, animated by a strong religious spirit, a vivid and moving picture of the period, and an extraordinary interpretation of the soul which swayed the Franciscans in the stormy years following their founder’s death.

My Thoughts:

Like most of the books on this blog that I hadn’t heard of before I began reading my way through them, I had no idea what this novel was about when I started it. The opening action caught me off guard because I found the novel was set in the Middle Ages in Europe, as a nobleman observed the final preparations for a joust and tournament. With the exception of Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, of which I knew the general plot, this was the first book I’d read in this project that was not only set outside the United States, but was set before the United States had even been founded (The Bridge of San Luis Rey just barely fit this category, being set in 1714). A Watch in the Night, however, is set in the early Thirteenth Century, before the Americas had even been discovered by Europe, and centuries before the United States were founded.

Adding to this initial surprise in setting was the abrupt change enacted in the first chapters of the novel. After setting up the tournament and the noble characters, the main character, Jacopone da Todi, experiences a disaster at the tournament, driving him to sell all his property and join the Franciscan order in poverty, in the decades following the death of its founder, Francis of Assisi. While Jacopone’s noble past, connections, and education, eventually play a role in the novel, as he works to preserve a section of the Franciscan Order following a strict view of poverty established by Saint Francis, much of the novel explores Jacopone trying to distance himself from his past and everything associated with it. Continue reading

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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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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1921 Near Miss: Main Street by Sinclair Lewis

Main Street was a widely popular and controversial book when it was published in 1920, selling over 250,000 copies in the first year and making Sinclair Lewis wealthy almost overnight. It was cited (along with his later Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Arrowsmith), to be one of the main contributing factors to his winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930, making him the first American author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Plot summary:

Main Street is the 1920 novel by Sinclair Lewis that tells the story of Carol Milford, a liberal, free-spirited young woman from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Carol meets and marries Will Kennicott, a doctor who convinces her to move back to his small hometown of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. While there, Carol finds the smug conservatism of the town objectionable and sets out to try and make the town a little more progressive, with little effectiveness. A satirical gem, Main Street is Sinclair Lewis’ classic portrait of small town Midwestern American life.

My thoughts:

Main Street is biting, sarcastic, and satirical in all the right ways. It is hilarious and at times oddly prescient. Unfortunately, it also feels very dated. Focused on small town Midwestern life in the 1910s, Lewis deconstructs the myth of “God’s Own Country” and doesn’t pull any punches. But it’s a way of life that’s a hundred years gone, and I found it difficult to read at times, especially when Lewis falls into lengthy descriptions of a Midwestern life that are hard to relate to anymore. But when he begins talking about the people, that’s when Lewis really shines through, and the reader is treated with some fantastic lines. “Mr. Blausser was known as a hustler. He liked to be called Honest Jim,” and “It has not yet been recorded that any human being has gained a very large or permanent contentment from meditation upon the fact that he is better off than others,” are two that particularly stand out, but the book is full of similar small gems.

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1920 Near Miss: Java Head by Joseph Hergesheimer

As I explained in my last post, Joseph Hergesheimer’s Java Head missed it’s chance for the Pulitzer Prize by four letters: the difference between “whole” and “wholesome.” So what is it about Java Head that’s unwholesome? The illegitimate child? The opium addiction? The characters who contemplate murder? The suicide? I suppose any of these things could have qualified as “unwholesome” in 1920, but the combination of them all is probably what convinced the 1920 Novel Jury that this novel did not meet the criteria to be considered for the Pulitzer Prize. But as a novel, it is a fantastic construction.

From the back cover:

Java Head is a novel of the American merchant marine at the beginning of the great clipper ship era. It is laid in Salem, when that city was still a port rich with the traffic of the East Indies; a story of choleric ship masters, charming girls, and an aristocratic Manchu woman in carmine and jades and crusted gold. There is a drama as secret and poisonous as opium, lovely old gardens with lilac trees and green lattices, and elm-shaded streets ending at the harbor with the brigs unloading ivory from Africa and the ships crowding on their topsails for Canton. It is a romantic novel-and yet true-rather than a study of drab manners; there is no purpose in it other than the pleasure to be found in the spectacle of life supported by high courage and made beautiful by women in peacock shawls.

My thoughts:

First of all, book descriptions from 1919 are awesome. Especially when they have to clarify that this romantic story is about truth instead of drab manners. Secondly, the description doesn’t really do the book justice, in my opinion. Yes, romance is at the heart of the story; it is the primary conflict for many of the characters. But this is a book about culture conflict: between East and West, young and old, Christian self-righteousness and Taoist resignation to fate. And none of them come out as a clear winner when all the cards are on the table.

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