Sinclair Lewis and the Pulitzer Prize

One last thought on Arrowsmith: I never really commented on the fact that Sinclair Lewis refused to accept the Pulitzer for this book—the only novelist in the history of the award to refuse the honor.  Apparently he was so offended that previous novels of his (particularly Main Street) had been snubbed that he’d planned for years to write a scathing public letter refusing it (for these details I rely, as I have before, on W. J. Stuckey’s The Pulitzer Prize Novels).  He told his publisher that he intended to produce “a polite but firm letter which I shall let the press have, and which ought to make it impossible for anyone ever to accept the novel prize…thereafter without acknowledging themselves as willing to sell out.”  A bold move—he wrote such a letter, and sent it to dozens of publications, and to a list of about a hundred authors he considered sufficiently important (among them Willa Cather, Carl Sandburg, Sherwood Anderson, etc.).  It’s not hard to understand Lewis’s disdain for the taste of the Pulitzer board, though I have to say, to suggest that only sellouts would accept such a prize is a bit egocentric, given that some of his generation’s most celebrated writers (Edith Wharton, Booth Tarkington, Willa Cather) had accepted it graciously.

And, frankly, I’d thought it an admirably honest and principled move when I initially read about it, before I’d read the novel.  But it’s hard not to see it as a bit absurd, in retrospect.  Denouncing a prize over sour grapes for having been denied in the past is a bit too much, especially as his anger stems primarily from the decision in 1921 not to award the prize to Main Street.  Who won instead?  Edith Wharton for The Age of Innocence.  I’ll admit, I haven’t read Main Street.  But to suggest that picking Wharton’s novel is a travesty of such grand proportions that it justifies not just refusing the prize, but refusing it as publicly as possible, with letters sent pointedly to authors (at least one of them a previous recipient of the prize) suggesting they should join in the boycott, is an act of tremendous egotism.

The really ironic thing about all this, of course, is that Lewis proudly rejects the 1926 Pulitzer Prize….which recognizes the best novel published in 1925.  Arrowsmith wasn’t the only novel published that year, of course—another writer also tells a story of a Midwesterner who came to New York following a personal dream, and found something unexpected.  That writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, may have written the best American novel of the 20th Century, The Great Gatsby.  So Lewis’s proud refusal, in retrospect, feels a bit like Adam Sandler rejecting a Best Actor Oscar as “an award unworthy of his talent” while Laurence Olivier sits in the audience wishing he’d been nominated.  But maybe that’s just me.

How the Pulitzers are awarded

Just a quick note—as you can see from the right sidebar (under “Questions Answered”), there’s a new page (as opposed to a “post” like this one) that describes what the criteria have been for selecting a novel to receive the Pulitzer Prize, as well as the process that was used.  Several of you have expressed curiosity about these things, and now that I’ve learned a little about them, I thought I’d share it in a place we can refer back to more easily than an archived blog post.  I encourage you, not only to give it a read, but to offer your honest assessment of the approach—I’m wondering if the Pulitzers deserve their high reputation, I’ll admit.  Perhaps this quest of mine is a little misguided, but I’m sticking with it, regardless.  I wish you all a happy Halloween, and promise you a book review before the weekend is done!

“He was thinking of the town he had known. …”

So begins His Family by Ernest Poole, the (now nearly forgotten) recipient of the first Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1918.  By happy chance, this opening (and some of what follows) allows me to talk a little about one of the reasons I’m taking this journey.

“The town” in question is New York–”he” is Roger Gale, an aging widower, and the “town he had known” is New York of the Civil War era, more or less.  The book begins with an extended meditation on what New York once was and is not now, and goes on to delve into the lives of the Dale family, weaving them into this image of the city.

I have to say at the outset of all this, that I’m under no confusion about what the Pulitzer Prize means.  I don’t believe I am about to read the best novels in American literature (though I hope some of them will be), or the classics that will stand the test of time (this first one, for example, was so obscure that the King County Libraries had to haul their only copy out of storage for me).  To the contrary, all I’m assuming is that, for a certain group of American “elites”, each book represented literature in America at that time.  And that, if I read them and pass the years with them as a guide to the changing landscape of the nation, I might see a little more clearly where it is that I live–who it is that I am, if that’s not being too dramatic.  At the very least, it may open a small window to the past, which will be more than enough for me, if so.

Two comments as I begin this book: one is about New York, a city I do not know first-hand.  On the rare occasions I read novels set in Seattle, I find the scenery a bit distracting (“Ooh, they just mentioned Pike Place! But that’s not near Greenlake at all…”).  I wonder if knowing New York would change American literature for me–from Ernest Poole’s forgotten novel to The Great Gatsby and everything in-between.  If folks dropping by have their own comments (either about New York, or how knowing a setting changes a book), I’d be interested.

And secondly, I found interesting a little exchange between Roger Gale and his daughter regarding her idea of moving out of the city: “‘A suburb, eh,’ her father said, and his face took on a look of dislike. They had often talked of suburbs.” I’m intrigued at the distastefulness of the suburb (as I’ve lived almost exclusively in suburbs, save my two years in Bellingham and 6 months in downtown Mount Vernon, WA), and wonder a few things.  I wonder if suburbs ever lost their diminished status until the sudden boom post-WWII in the Levittown era–or if Roger’s perhaps a bit out-of-date and out-of-touch.  I’m not far in enough yet to know that about his character, or to know if the impending move to the suburbs is a minor touch or a major plot point.  But just the idea of the tension between city and suburb lets me think a bit on what America is like, and whether where we live impacts who we are.  Roger says his daughter will “hole up in her house” if she moves to the suburbs–cut herself off from the kind of community there is in the big city.  Do we live that way, out here in the ‘burbs?

Well, it’s early yet, and Poole’s writing is a bit melodramatic and sentimental, but I like the Gales, and I’m not regretting this project so far.  We’ll see how it goes.