After reading each novel, I refer to a book published in the early 1980s by W. J. Stuckey entitled The Pulitzer Prize Novels: A Critical Backward Look. Stuckey’s the author/researcher to whom I’m indebted for my account (which is linked to in the sidebar) of how the Pulitzer Prize was awarded to novels (by what standards, etc.). He offers his own comments on each novel, and the circumstances of its victory, sometimes very briefly, and sometimes at remarkable length. I’ve largely kept his observations to myself, but I thought tonight (as I take a quick break from the assignment I’m working on) I’d offer a couple of quotations for your amusement. If you thought I was hard on Margaret Wilson’s novel, well, old W. J. seems to be keeping me company.
There is little that he really likes. He calls The Age of Innocence (which, you will recall, I adored) an “almost first-rate novel [that] is intelligently and competently written.” If I ever need an example for what a “back-handed compliment” looks like, I think I’ve got it in that sentence. He sounds like he’s offering an appraisal of a user manual. Wharton fares well, though, in comparison to some of her peers (and Margaret Wilson, who hardly qualifies as Wharton’s “peer”).
The first winner, His Family, which I liked but admitted was uneven, is described by Stuckey in this way: “Judged even by the standards of commercial fiction, His Family is not much of a novel.” Of the author I could not stand, he says “Miss Wilson’s talent cannot be called distinguished or original,” and notes that “when it is judged as a novel, The Able McLaughlins is an amateurish performance.” In describing So Big, he concludes by hoping that, some 50-75 years hence, historians of American literature will have gained the proper perspective, and that therefore “So Big will have come to signify the low level to which even educated American taste was capable of sinking in the 1920’s.” Ouch.
Clearly Stuckey thinks there’s a division between these “popular” or “commercial” tastes and “true” literature. But it seems odd to me to dismiss even such authors as Edith Wharton and Willa Cather (One of Ours is labeled an “artistic failure”). Even when I didn’t like Cather’s choices, I recognized her talent. Heck, even ol’ Tarkington and I, despite our differences, have a sort of grudging respect—I can see, at least, what he was good at, and I was impressed enough by Alice Adams to give it a higher review than Stuckey did. What do you think—I know we can draw a line between Harlequin novels and Tolstoy. But is there a line to be drawn between novelists like Wharton, Cather, Ferber (and presumably Steinbeck, Hemingway, Updike, etc.) and “real” literature that doesn’t appeal to such a wide audience? What is “literature”, anyway?