Prelude to Pulitzer: Between Two Worlds by Upton Sinclair

Plot Summary:

In 1940 Upton Sinclair returned to the literary scene with World’s End, a novel which delighted thousands of readers and caused H. G. Wells to remark of it:

“A great and well-balanced design…I think it the most competent and most faithful picture of that period that has been done, or is likely to be done.”

In his new novel, Between Two Worlds, he presents another thrilling narrative of Lanny Budd’s human journey, carrying his young hero through that turbulent, brutal, wealthy era that began with the Treaty of Versailles and ended with the 1929 crash.

The book is so rich in action and varied scent that a mere catalogue of its contents reads like a novelist’s lifetime repertoire. It includes six full-length love stories; four weddings and two separations; two murders and one near-hanging. The scenes include a Riviera village, a German Schloss, three French chateaux and an imitation one on Long Island; three yacht cruises, and many visits to Paris, London, Berlin, Munich, Geneva, Genoa, Rome, and Leningrad. Historic characters include Hitler, Mussolini, John Sargent, Anatole France, Lincoln Steffens, Isadora Duncan, and Sir Basil Zaharoff. Historic events include six great international conferences; the early days of Italian Fascism and of German Nazism; the Great Bull Market in New York and the panic of 1929 which broke it.

Around Lanny are all the characters that have won the affection and respect of thousands of readers in the months just past–Beauty and Robbie, Kurt and Rick, Jesse Blackless and Rosemary Codwilliger–and with them a rich new cast. But though readers of World’s End will renew their acquaintances with pleasure, it is not necessary to have read the first book to appreciate the second. Upton Sinclair’s theme is the world of the twentieth century, and it is enough to have lived in that time to understand and enjoy his story wherever he picks up its thread.

My Thoughts:

Picking up shortly after the end of World’s End, Between Two Worlds continues the story of Lanny Budd as he manages to find himself in the middle of every important world event in Europe and the United States over between 1919 and 1929. Lanny attends a number of conferences in the aftermath of the Treaty of Versailles as the nations involved attempted to clarify, adjust, and amend the treaty.  Lanny finds himself interacting with Mussolini, Hitler, and others as he attempts to navigate his own political and economic beliefs while faced with Russian communism, Italian fascism, German Nazism, American capitalism, and any number of other beliefs and systems and protests. Continue reading

Advertisements

Prelude to Pulitzer: World’s End by Upton Sinclair

Plot Summary:

The son of an American arms dealer and his mistress, Lanning “Lanny” Budd spends his first thirteen years in Europe, living at the center of his mother’s glamorous circle of friends on the French Riviera. In 1913, he enters a prestigious Swiss boarding school and befriends Rick, an English boy, and Kurt, a German. The three schoolmates are privileged, happy, and precocious—but their world is about to come to an abrupt and violent end.
When the gathering storm clouds of war finally burst, raining chaos and death over the continent, Lanny must put the innocence of youth behind him; his language skills and talent for decoding messages are in high demand. At his father’s side, he meets many important political and military figures, learns about the myriad causes of the conflict, and closely follows the First World War’s progress. When the bloody hostilities eventually conclude, Lanny joins the Paris Peace Conference as the assistant to a geographer asked by President Woodrow Wilson to redraw the map of Europe.
World’s End is the magnificent opening chapter of a monumental series that brings the first half of the twentieth century to vivid life. A thrilling mix of history, adventure, and romance, the Lanny Budd Novels are a testament to the breathtaking scope of Upton Sinclair’s vision and his singular talents as a storyteller.

My Thoughts:

My first thought on reading World’s End was that Lanny Budd was some sort of early 20th Century Forrest Gump. He just happened to be in all the important places and run into all the important people as he gallivanted across Europe in the years before and during World War 1. He is, of course, a literary device more than he is a character, and is most often a vehicle for perspective and commentary on world events. His father is a capitalist arms manufacturer, giving Lanny a view into the economy of war. His uncle is a communist sympathizer, organizing labor unions and protests, introducing Lanny to a variety of other political characters. His two best friends before the war are an Englishman and a German. His mother’s connections across France keep him tied to the wealthy elite of Europe throughout the book, and yet his penchant for playing with the village children growing up in France allows him to be at ease with the common folk across the world. Continue reading

The 1943 Novel Decision

After the fiasco in 1942, all three jurors on the novel jury for the Pulitzer Prizes resigned their positions, and an all-new trio of jurors was formed to consider the books eligible for the 1943 prize. The jury was headed by John R. Chamberlain, who was at the time a journalist for Time, and a professor of journalism at Colombia University. The jury was rounded out by journalist Lewis S. Gannett and author and literary critic Maxwell S. Geismar.

The jury report states, “the novel most worthy of the Pulitzer Prize is Upton Sinclair’s ‘Dragon’s Teeth.’” Chamberlain writes that Sinclair’s novel appeared first on the list of two of the members of the jury, and was the second choice of the third. Chamberlain writes that “The Lanny Budd sequence, of which ‘Dragon’s Teeth’ is an integral part, is Sinclair’s best fiction by far,” and attempts to soothe the advisory board by telling them that though Sinclair is “known as a socialist, he has, however, lost his old habits of the doctrinaire and pamphleteer. The subject of ‘Dragon’s Teeth’ is not anything so narrow or questionable as the Marxist class struggle, which Sinclair used to portray thirty years ago.” Continue reading

1942: In This Our Life by Ellen Glasgow

IMG_2195

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

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

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

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

IMG_2184

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