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

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

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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