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

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The 1945 Novel Decision

In 1945, Orville Prescott of the New York Times replaced Lewis Gannett of the New York Herald Tribune, and the three jury members, if anything, had even more trouble coming to a consensus than before. Orville Prescott championed John Hersey’s World War II novel, A Bell for Adano, while Maxwell Geismar preferred Joseph Pennell’s The History of Rome Hanks and Kindred Matters, and the chairman, John Chamberlain, argued for Edith Pope’s Colcorton. Like the year before, the jury report provided a list of each member’s preferences, this time ten books long apiece, and gave numerical values to the first five spots on each jury member’s list. The resulting tally found Pope’s Colcorton in first with 13 points, Hersey in second with 9 points, but Prescott just behind in third with 8 points. Each of the jury members went on to explain their thoughts on their choices in individual paragraphs.

Chamberlain writes that Colcorton is “the best novel of the year” for its “sheer ability to maintain a mood of mounting terror throughout a long novel in which the characters are fully created.” Though Geismar placed The History of Rome Hanks at the top of his list, he goes on to explain that “in some ways I like Colcorton better, though it is more limited, and flattens out in the end. And Prescott writes that the novel “transcends mere local color and achieves a note of psychological tragedy of almost Grecian grandeur.” Continue reading