“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.

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

  1. Bonnie Hood says:

    Well, I’ve only been to New York once in my life, but I did have a friend in middle school, whose grandfather was the author of the Dune books, and her father was friends with Michael Crichton. So when Crichton filmed the movie Disclosure on Bainbridge Island and Seattle, he used my friend’s house as Michael Douglas’ house in the film.

    Anyway, when I saw the film (which I shouldn’t have at that age as it’s a strong R rating, but I did anyway, since I was an extra in it) I was hugely distracted by knowing the location. He turned the wrong way out of the driveway of their house, because the view was better to the left, for one thing. And for another, he runs onto the car deck of the ferry(!), and everyone is waving goodbye on the atrium like they’re leaving for a yearlong voyage!

    I haven’t read a book that I knew the location that well, but I could see it also being a huge distraction. Either you’re thinking “I’ve been there!” or you’re thinking “that’s not possible!” Both of which take away from the story.

    Dyed in the wool New Yorkers, on the other hand, seem so unfazed by things, that it probably doesn’t bother them as much. But that’s just my opinion.

  2. jwrosenzweig says:

    That’s right, you knew the Herberts–interesting! I’d forgotten about Disclosure being filmed around here. Your comment bears out my feelings I think–I remember vaguely (but Google isn’t finding) a famous French director saying you could be watching the greatest film in the world. but if it was filmed in your own house, you’d be too busy looking at the wallpaper to notice.

    Your comment regarding New York is interesting, though–I suppose you’re right that they might develop a different attitude, especially given how much of our culture (books, TV, movies) is set there. Maybe that suggests that visiting NYC (but not being from there) would detract a lot from my enjoyment?

  3. Paul Hamann says:

    First, James, let me say that your quest is quite tremendous. I feel like checking out the books when you do. There’s no chance in hell I’ll read them at the pace you’ll be able to (due to our now-diverging career paths), but just having them on the night stand will be pretty awesome.

    I don’t know what “suburb” really -meant- before Levittowns sprung up after WWII, but I do know that many who live in suburbs are quite intentionally going for insularity. When M and I moved to Vancouver, our realtor simply couldn’t believe some of the neighborhoods we were interested in. “But that’s HIGH CRIME!!” he’d tell us. (We looked up the numbers…they were below both the state and national averages in all major crimes.) And when he showed us his alternatives, they were beautiful houses surrounded ONLY by beautiful houses–we literally would have had to drive 15 minutes to get to a Safeway…and 10 even to find a mini-mart.

    I’m not sure what this has to do with -His Family- (and I’m also not certain a copy exists in Clark County, so I may not have this one on my nightstand). But I would hazard a guess that people fled the city during the time the book is set for the same reasons they flee the city now–to get away from all that is undesirable. And I would hazard that “city dwellers” looked down on suburban folks for some of the same reasons they do now.

    But I’m eager to be corrected by those with more knowledge on suburban/urban history than I (which is to say everyone).

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Thanks for dropping by! Heaven knows if I’ll be able to keep up a “tremendous” pace, but being pretty familiar with the life of a teacher, I certainly know what you mean. I would be very happy, though, to know you had even some of the books handy–it would be great to have a fellow traveler, regardless of the page count racked up! This one’s admittedly obscure (though I have to say, I’m finding it very pleasant), but the next three are The Magnificent Ambersons (Booth Tarkington), The Age of Innocence (Edith Wharton), and Alice Adams (Tarkington again), all of which should be a little easier to find.

      I share your general notions about suburbs (and the need not to live in the most “suburby” of them, if possible–we’re across the street from the grocery store, at least), as well as your feeling that I’m out of my depth as far as the history of suburbs goes.

      What’s most interesting to me is that, given our shared notion of suburbs as having been basically a destination for “white flight”, or something similar, it’s Roger, the old man whose prejudices against immigrants (particularly Jews and Italians) are so evident, who is opposed to a move to the suburbs. His daughter Edith, who shows no signs of such sentiments, finds the suburbs attractive. You’d think she’d use the general decay of the city to convince her father it was time to leave–that would seem to be a successful argument with him–and yet she doesn’t. So what lured people to the suburbs in the 1910s, if not that sort of irrational reaction against immigration, allegedly increasing crime rates, etc.?

      And, to continue my general musing from the post…where are we now? Is the city undergoing a resurgence (as it seems to be, in places)? I wonder if we’ll merely reverse the film on the early 20th century, with wealthy elites drawing back into the core and leaving the inner ring of suburbs to the impoverished lower classes? Or am I oversimplifying (check that–I know I am. But is the general idea a likely one, or not?)?

      • Paul Hamann says:

        It depends. Since about October of 1945, “suburb” has meant “family-friendly” in a sort of uniquely American antiseptic way. I don’t see that going away–gentrification is done less by families than by single hipsters (or married ones without children). I don’t see Detroit, to use an extreme example, becoming attractive to soon-to-be-parents-looking-to-settle…not for another millennium at least.

        But, again, I don’t know what “suburb” connoted in 1910. The excerpt from the book tantalizes, but doesn’t answer that question.

        I’d already looked into the Ambersons. I found a free audio podcast version that I will upload and try to listen to in the car…and I’ll also grab it at the library and try to at least get in a few pages now and then. I’ll also start on it NOW, hoping a head start before the kids arrive (two weeks from tomorrow) will enable me to maybe finish at least one of these things with you.


      • jwrosenzweig says:

        On reflection, I have to agree with you. Belltown may be appealing to 20/30-somethings, but I have to believe people living there will move to Enumclaw or Monroe to raise their kids (if not Bellevue or Mercer Island). Whether or not the suburbs can change (they’ll likely remain an ideal for a variety of reasons…but could they become more cultured, less provincial? Maybe not), I don’t know, but I can hope.

        If a different excerpt would clarify the case, I’d gladly provide it, but the best I can do is note that “Morristown” is identified at one point as the “suburb” in question. Perhaps someone with a better grasp of NYC geography than I possess can at least get a sense of how far that is from Manhattan, but even if that distance was known, I don’t know what it would tell us. I imagine suburbia will reappear in later novels…maybe I can put this early mention into some kind of context at that point.

        And hurrah for your efforts in acquiring the Ambersons–above and beyond any call of duty, and greatly appreciated! I start that book this evening, or perhaps tomorrow, but it will probably take a good week to get through at least, and maybe longer. I look forward to seeing your perspective!

  4. Paul Hamann says:

    Wikipedia tells me that Morristown does not border NYC…it’s a full county over. “The military capital of the American Revolution.” Surely in 1910, before the ubiquity of the automobile, that was a hell of a long move–one that would disengage the daughter from the city more than a suburb would disengage one from the city now. (Even Sammamish.)

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Ah, Wikipedia…is there anything it doesn’t know? Thanks, Paul–this gives some useful context to that conversation. This is less her suggesting she’ll escape the grimy elements of the city, and more her suggesting she’ll escape her father and his whole world, then.

  5. Bonnie Hood says:

    Also from Wikipedia: “Prior to the 19th century, suburb often correlated with the outlying areas of cities where work was most inaccessible; implicitly, where the poorest people had to live. Charles Dickens used the word this way, albeit not exclusively, in his descriptions of contemporary London. The modern American usage of the term came about during the course of the 19th century, as improvements in transportation and sanitation made it possible for wealthy developments to exist on the outskirts of cities.”

    So before ready transportation, it really was like moving to the middle of nowhere.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Interesting–thanks for supplying the quote! I wonder how much this had changed by 1913–her husband was about to buy a car, after all, but I have no idea about road conditions at the time. I know his car could get above 60, since Bruce did so and nearly gave his father-in-law a heart attack, but who knows if he could drive that speed into NYC? I think not. Still, the “distance” measured in time from Morristown to NYC is an unknown that matters here, and I wish I knew the answer.

  6. […] in the 1890s, which was a surprise and delight for me.  You may perhaps remember, long ago, in my very first post on my very first Pulitzer novel (His Family, 1918), I reflected on the novel’s New York setting, and wondered what it would […]

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