That’s right, I’m back on the Pulitzer train! After a very, very long delay, I’ve picked up Upton Sinclair’s Dragon’s Teeth, the 1943 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel, and am charging through as fast as I can just to get it over with. I’m about a quarter of the way through now, and thought I could share at least a few of my reflections, although truthfully Sinclair doesn’t give me much to talk about.
The reason for that is something I discussed last year when I began the novel—Sinclair’s more a propagandist than a prose stylist, and the novel is therefore more an opportunity for him to talk about politics and economics than it is a work of literature. The Budds and Robins (our two principal families) are still doing their respective things as American and Jewish-German munitions dealers during the interwar period (specifically, 1930, at this point in the book), and it’s still giving Sinclair plenty of opportunity to talk about all the things he cared about in the aftermath of WWI and the slow rise of the conditions that created WWII. I still don’t think these characters are very deep or interesting, and I still find that a shame, since there ought to be scope for some really artful psychological stuff here, especially for the Robin paterfamilias whose status as a rich, arms-dealing Jew in Berlin society as the National Socialists rise to power should give him a lot to chew over. We just don’t see it.
What we do see, jarringly, is the first fictional depiction of Adolf Hitler I’ve ever read. Oh, of course I’ve seen him on television and in film portrayed by actors, I’ve read non-fiction about him, and I’ve certainly seen some of the footage taken of his speeches in the 1930s. It’s just odd to have him as a character in a novel I’m reading—a man Lanny Budd is invited to luncheon with, and with whom Budd then has a long, strained conversation. In some ways I liked it—Hitler is so clearly one of the most important men in world history, and the notion that a novel might explore what he was like outside the carefully scripted world of speech-giving and military planning is kind of intriguing. But of course I have Sinclair’s limitations as a writer of character, and unfortunately, with Hitler, even slightly wrong tones can start to feel really odd—you wonder if the novelist is being too sympathetic to a genocidal maniac, or too sloppy in caricaturing a complex man, or any number of other things. In short, a good novelist should try this (and maybe they have), but this isn’t a good idea for Sinclair.
I do like that Upton allows us some complexity in the main characters, at least. For instance, when they spend the summer of 1930 at their villa, Lanny and his wife have a real liberal argument about the poor. Lanny sees them starving and wants to buy cheap food and distribute it to them. His wife, Irma, thinks it’s better to buy their usual expensive food, which puts more money in the hands of locals who will use it in the local economy, and not to bother with charitable handouts, which she thinks will at best encourage laziness and at worst will make people feel disrespected and dependent. As much as I feel more sympathy to one side of the argument, there’s undeniably a case on each side, and Upton, to his unexpected credit, lets both sides have their say.
One complaint, and a common one for me: if you can’t, as an author, get the little details of your setting right, don’t bother writing at all, because it wrecks my concentration to see badly misrepresented reality. For instance, Sinclair in a passage I just read notes that Lanny’s infant, which is a few months old, just said her first word and is now trying to learn to stand. But the timing of these events is weirdly backwards, as I know now (as a parent of an infant). It’s a small thing, Upton, but because it’s small, can’t we fix it?
I will keep plodding—there are much better books ahead, and I want to get to them! But the above is all I have for now.