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.