1918: His Family, by Ernest Poole

I’d like these reviews to take on a sort of regular structure over time, but as yet I’m not sure what that will be.  The only thing I’m sure of is wanting to divide a review between the literary merits of a novel, and its historical value.

Literary Merit:

His Family was certainly an enjoyable read in many ways–Poole creates characters that are sympathetic and at least somewhat complex (particularly the central figures of Roger, Edith, and Deborah).  The dialogue slips at times: Poole’s decision to write a novel of “important ideas” occasionally turns his characters, particularly Deborah, into placeholders that allow him to dig into particular attitudes regarding society in the modern era.  But I’ve seen a lot worse, and normally I didn’t feel this damaged the book.  He does have a tendency to get “preachy” through the mouths of characters, and when he wants the narrative to create an emotional reaction, he tends to simply pile on phrase after phrase in one long sentence.  Sometimes I was carried along by those phrases and felt the intended emotion, but only perhaps half the time.

Plot is probably the book’s greatest weakness: Poole rests most of the forward motion on the (oft-repeated) idea that Roger promised his wife on her deathbed that he would remain involved in their children’s lives, but struggles to connect with them.  This is a good character trait, or at least one I found compelling, but Poole allows all the other conflicts to come and go as a result.  Laura sparks tension but then disappears for ten chapters.  Deborah’s over-commitment to her job is resolved rather quickly.  The novel seems to end at least three times before it does, always because Poole thinks he needs to stay with Roger’s story to the very end, but I think he may have miscalculated there.

Overall, though, this is exactly the kind of a book that a book club could enjoy, if it was still in print.  There’s nothing overly complicated about how the story works, how it’s narrated, or who these people are.  There are recognizable character types, and plenty of room for disagreement by readers (whether any of the characters behave rationally, for instance, or whether or not Roger should have blackmailed Deborah into her marriage to Allan Baird as he did).  I can’t say I end up seeing this as a “great novel” in the way that Gatsby or To Kill A Mockingbird are–it lacks some of their depth, it tries a little too hard to sell the reader on a single moral.  But I enjoyed reading it, and if I ever stumble into an affordable used copy, I’d almost certainly buy it.

Historical Value:

The added value of these older books, I’m realizing, can be pretty powerful when read in historical context.  Poole likes returning to the question of whether the new century will be better than the old one–whether the Great War will mean the end of all wars or the beginning of war without end.  As I mentioned in a previous post, scenes took on much deeper resonance with me because I could read this book in the light of the Depression, WWII, and all the other events of the modern era.  I’d say that this book is particularly good when trying to turn our attention to immigration–for me, seeing the modern immigration debate in the context of the passion surrounding immigration in the 1910s was an interesting exercise, and is something that will stick with me.  Of all the characters in the book, I think my favorite was one who appeared in a single scene: a poor young Polish librarian who, when he had only nine dollars in his pocket, spent seven of them at the city court to change his name to Isadore Freedom.  That’s what it meant to him, and that fact alone, read in context of the horrifying conditions in the tenements, reminds me how complicated this is.  Isadore had come to a country full of prejudice and squalor (as far as he was concerned), and yet the freedom it meant to him became a part of his identity.  Isadore (and others like him) helped this book become a way for me to see the social problems of American cities at the turn of the 20th century: other books could do this better, I have no doubt, but this book does it well enough that I’m grateful for it.

Rating: I hate these, and have no notion of the scale I’ll operate on.  But for now, on a scale of “Never Read It” to “You Must Own This”, I’d give His Family a “You Would Enjoy This”.  I know most people will never pick it up, but if you do, you’ll meet some people worth remembering, and think about some things worth considering, especially here at the end of the so-called “modern” era that the Gales were watching emerge.

Last Word:

The lingering message of this book regarding the childishness of humanity is interesting, especially because it becomes increasingly obvious that Poole intends this to cut both ways.  It is the childishness of these people that blinds them to other people’s needs, that makes them feel hesitant and ill-at-ease in nearly every new situation, that causes them to lash out in fear when they feel threatened.  But because people are childlike (or at least these people in middle-class America in the 1910s), they rebound more quickly from setbacks, they see more possibilities than they have a right to see (and achieve them), and they can still experience the wonder of being alive that is so powerful in the young.  Even Roger is able to tap into this youthful power: I still don’t know whether Poole meant to say that these people had something special in being “young”, or whether all people ought to see themselves as “young”.  I will keep wrestling with this notion downstream I think–these certainly can’t be the last “childish” characters I encounter.  We’ll see if the Ambersons (though “Magnificent”) manage to be as juvenile.

And I gave Ernest Poole and Roger the first words when I started the book–only fair I let them finish with this excerpt from the very end of the book, as Roger prepares for his death:

“…and with a breathless awe he knew that all the people who had ever lived on earth were before him in the void to which he himself was drifting: people of all nations, of countless generations reaching back and back and back to the beginnings of mankind: the mightiest family of all, that had stumbled up through the ages, had slaved and starved and dreamed and died, had blindly hated, blindly killed, had raised up gods and idols and yearned for everlasting life, had laughed and played and danced along, had loved and mated, given birth, had endlessly renewed itself and handed on its heritage, had striven hungrily to learn, had groped its way in darkness, and after all its struggles had come now barely to the dawn.  And then a voice within him cried,

‘What is humanity but a child? In the name of the dead I salute the unborn!'”

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6 comments on “1918: His Family, by Ernest Poole

  1. Wendy Isaac says:

    Worthy worthy project.
    I will follow this with interest.
    For a long time I have talked about (and inched along)reading “the classics” that I missed in high school and college…which includes most of them.
    This is whole other level – and a concrete, identifiable list; I applaud you and I’m tickled that you are going to share your journey.
    Don’t be in too much of a hurry about establishing a rigid format. It’s so much more human and interesting to see how each books comes out at you. Like sitting down with a “cuppa” as my English nana would say. It just comes out – thoughtfully and with some humor – and rests gently with the reader.

    Thank you James!

  2. jwrosenzweig says:

    Thanks, Wendy! I agree about “the classics”–I keep trying to catch up, picking up classics here and there. This is a much more formal (and intimidating) thing to try, or at least it feels that way, but at the same time it’s very simple. It’s just reading books…first this one, then the next one…and that I can do pretty comfortably. Thank you for leaving the comment–I hope dropping by occasionally for a “cuppa” continues to prove interesting!

  3. […] 1918, the decision to award the prize to His Family was apparently very smooth (although allegedly it was largely out of a desire to honor Ernest Poole […]

  4. SilverSeason says:

    I have just read through all your posts on this previously-unknown book. It will be interesting to experience the next stages of your journey. In recent years I sometimes go back to reread books I admired 50 years ago (yes, I have been reading that long) and find some surprises. I found Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street shallow and obvious this time around. Still, it showed a world that is gone now, although it is not clear the replacement is that much better. You will surely find some surprises also.

    I think the presence of World War I in this novel must be important. If Poole wrote in 1917 they were still fighting. Books written during and after the war reflect a disillusion with a human race previously believed to be too “rational” for what the war turned out to be.

    The Wikipedia article directed me to Project Gutenberg where I was able to download a copy of the book to my Kindle. I love books, but the Kindle is great when traveling.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Wow! Reading all the posts on His Family—that’s dedication. 🙂 I retain a fond feeling in my heart about this one, which I read (as you can see) almost three years ago. I would definitely read it differently now—your comment about “surprises” is very insightful, and definitely true in my experience. I’m looking forward to the few Pulitzer titles I’ve read before, since I will be interested to see how differently they affect me in a new context, and with the benefit of a few more years lived.

      You’re definitely right about the impact of the war—in the end (whenever I get there) I’d like to do some “looks back” on themes that cross over multiple Pulitzer winners, and World War I is definitely one of them. I’d like to compare Poole’s perspective from inside the war with, for example, Cather’s vision of it a handful of years later in One of Ours, and hopefully a few more written from an even further distance. What’s striking to me is how optimistic Poole remained in the face of a war that shattered many other people’s belief in human progress.

      I still haven’t adjusted to e-reader life yet! Though my wife certainly has—she swears that, while she still loves physical books, she could never really be without the convenience of an e-reader again. I’ll have to take the plunge eventually, although I’m thinking of holding out for a little while longer. 🙂

  5. […] so far have been impacted in some way by WWI, and some have been explicitly interested in it (His Family and One of Ours, especially).  My current Pulitzer novel deals with families forged in that war. […]

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