“I wonder if it won’t be the same with the children as it has been with us. No matter how long each one of them lives, won’t their lives feel to them unfinished like ours, only just beginning? I wonder how far they will go. And then their children will grow up and it will be the same with them. Unfinished lives. Oh, dearie, what children all of us are.”
Joshua made a random decision to read the very first novel to win a Pulitzer Prize—Ernest Poole’s His Family (1918)—and he was so impressed by it, and was speaking so highly of it that I decided that I’d read it too. My original intention was to save this one until the end of the Pulitzer Project and read it alongside whatever the most winner would be—until 2011 came, the most recent winner would have been Paul Harding’s Tinkers. However, I don’t think I’m going to be able to read the next 46 Pulitzer novels by the time the next winner is announced in April.
But since Joshua was praising it so, how could I in good conscience pass it up? Particularly in light of one of the novels I had just finished (McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove) and a collection of short stories that I am still tiredly plowing my way through (The Stories of John Cheever). I had just gotten done reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s fabulous Interpreter of Maladies and, after getting the taste of great writing back in my mouth, I wanted more.
I wasn’t disappointed.
I have to be honest—I really wasn’t as excited at the prospect of reading His Family, but much like Josephine Johnson’s Now In November, I was exceptionally surprised at how much I loved it. From every description I had heard of the book, I was expecting yet another early Pulitzer-winning pseudo-Victorian work of rubbish. Of all the early winners I’ve read so far (like The Magnificent Ambersons, The Age of Innocence (even while The Age of Innocence‘s conclusion was wonderful, the rest of the novel was entirely unbearable), Alice Adams, and Early Autumn), I have not been impressed at all. His Family just seemed to be another novel set in Old New York and it seemed to be about an aging man’s struggle to maintain his family’s Victorian dignity in the face of the changing times. I was surprised, and pleased, to find that this novel had very little to do with that. Rather, the focus was an aging man’s struggle to keep his family knit together.
Even more impressive than the story was Poole’s writing. I’d like to compose a list of writing styles that I’ve been most impressed with along this journey—certainly Robert Penn Warren, Jhumpa Lahiri, Josephine Johnson, Elizabeth Strout, and Marilynne Robinson come to mind—, for Ernest Poole will quickly make his way into that list. His writing is so fluid, so poetic, so image-driven, so heartbreaking, so positive, so hopeful—much like Robert Penn Warren’s. There were paragraphs that I actually had to re-read just because I was enamored with them.
What I’d really like to know about this novel, though, is why it won the Pulitzer Prize. Don’t get me wrong—it absolutely deserved the Prize; it’s an incredible novel. But there are so many things working against it. For one thing, it’s not at all pseudo-Victorian like the rest of the early winners. In fact, it stands in stark contrast to the rest of the early winners. Secondly, Ernest Poole was a Socialist and His Family is especially pro-socialism (and, from what I’ve read, this is even more true of another novel of his, The Harbor). During a time when Americans feared socialism (who am I kidding—if there’s one thing we’ve learned from Obama’s presidency, Americans still aren’t over that fear), a socialist-sympathizing Ernest Poole wrote a pro-socialism novel that won the Pulitzer Prize!
I’m going to look more into Poole once this project is over. I want to learn more about this Chicago-born socialist that won America’s highest literature accolade, the Pulitzer Prize (and, moreover, the first Pulitzer Prize ever awarded).