1944: Journey in the Dark, by Martin Flavin

Literary Style:

This book took me less long than the last one, but still much too long—especially because it’s a much better novel, and deserved better from me.  My chief complaint (already described at some length in a previous post) is Flavin’s weirdly circuitous style, that depends so heavily on flashbacks and informing us of sudden, shocking information off-handedly in retrospect that it can be a bit irritating at a plot level.  You can only read passages that go like this—“His mother had arrived by hired limousine, although he didn’t know it at the time.  She looked well when she walked in; so well that neither of them would have suspected this was the last time they saw each other before her untimely death.”—a few times before you start grousing out loud to the narrator.

And yet Flavin makes it work.  In part he does manage at times to achieve that almost Tristram Shandy effect that I imagine he’s going for, where we move back and forth around some key times in the life of our main character, Sam Braden—the sound of an old iron fence being brought down one afternoon punctuates I don’t know how many chapters late in the book, and it comes to take on a certain significance as he keeps bringing us back to Sam in his study that afternoon.  But more importantly, Flavin has such a sure hand on these characters that, even when I know startling news about them in that narrator’s shorthanded asides, finally seeing that same event play out in real time is still gripping to me.  Even when I know what they’ll say in the end, I like to hear them say it.  Life has distracted me away from this book more than once, but Flavin’s hold on the characters—and on me, the reader—is so strong that I never need to retrace my steps.  I am immediately and vividly right back with them, I remember why we are where we are, and I want to observe them again just as intensely as when I set the book down last.

This really is the book that The Late George Apley set out to be and failed at—a long rambling walk through the life of an almost-great man and his family and friends, that illuminates a lot about America from 1900-1940 and has something left to say to a wartime home front.  Sam is remarkable, with just enough flaws and just enough virtues to be interesting to watch, sometimes a good guy to root for, but never the expression of wish fulfillment or some silly notion about “the ideal American businessman”.  Through his eyes we see poverty, opportunity, race, class, gender—you name it.  Flavin isn’t quite progressive enough to give us a novel that could withstand our modern sensibilities, but this is light years beyond the Pulitzer winners of the 1920s and 1930s, dealing very calmly with interracial romance, religious bigotry, and extreme political and class struggle tensions between characters.  It will never be read and dissected like a Steinbeck or a Fitzgerald, but it ought to be better remembered than it is: the story is expansive, the characters fragile and unpredictable in their humanity, and ultimately more than one scene moved me emotionally to the point that I felt at least misty-eyed.  This is a good novel.

Historical Insight:

A well-thought-out book on this front—it certainly captures the sea change that a small Midwestern river town would have gone through over fifty years, including the rise of the railroads, the impact of two wars and the intervening depression, and ultimately the rise of commercialism and factory production.  Sam is reflective enough (and involved enough in a lot of this change) to help us imagine what this looked like to Americans passing through it, and he has two close friends on opposite sides of this America—a grizzled, American Legion type businessman with a fire for competition and an idealist, leftist newspaper man with no head for numbers or accounting but a passion for the rights of the working poor—whose conversations help draw some of these images out in more detail.  A lot of the story of Sam Braden and his family is about class, too—what America will let you overcome and what it won’t, what money will buy and what it won’t—and given this particular era in American history, that makes a real difference to me as the reader.  This doesn’t quite rise to the level of a novel like my last one by Upton Sinclair, but it’s not trying to: what Flavin wants to do on this front, I think he succeeds with, and it certainly is more than good enough at evoking America in this time period to make me happy with it as a Pulitzer winner.

Rating:

My unscientific scale calls this “a great read for anyone who enjoys well-developed characters, especially if you like a longer family saga or a historical novel”.  Not among the very best Pulitzers I’ve read, but close behind them, totally worth reading, and a book I’m glad won an award, since I want it to be remembered.

The Last Word:

As is my custom, I give the last word to the author, and let you be the judge of what you find.  Here, late in the story (after World War II has already engulfed America), Sam Braden is writing a letter to his son, Hath:

“He did not mean, he said, to accuse himself uniquely, for it was his generation which much be indicted; he, himself, was no more than a reflection of the world in which he’d lived, not atypical at all.  He could only be convicted of having realized the fruit which his fellow men had coveted, of being a winner in a race in which, as it turned out, there were not any winners, since there were not any stakes—no real reward for winning; but only the winners had a chance to find that out.  He would plead guilty to success—the very same in pursuit of which most people lived and died, never knowing that the stars at which they grasped were fireflies and marsh lights.  And success had this advantage: once in your hand you could examine it and appraise its actual value—a benefit denied to less successful men.

‘Values,’ he wrote, ‘that’s where we have been wrong: bad accounting methods, confusing liabilities with assets; the books are in a mess.  But I think that it is changing—not just for the duration, as many people say.  And I believe in you, Hath, all you fine young men who must suffer for our faults, who must fight and win a war which you had no part in making, and who must remake a world which we have wrecked—I believe that you will not repeat the old mistakes.'”

1943: Dragon’s Teeth, by Upton Sinclair

Literary Style:

It’s been two years since I wrote one of these reviews.  Of course, right after I reviewed the 1942 novel, In This Our Life, we found out we were expecting our little daughter, so there’s a reason this stretch of my life was so devoid of Pulitzer reading time.  Still, I’m glad to finally finish this one, and with the momentum I picked up, I’m already close to 1/4 done with 1944’s selection (post on that upcoming, probably tomorrow or Monday), so I hope this is the longest gap I ever hit between reviews here at FP.

Of course, it wasn’t all my daughter’s fault.  Upton Sinclair’s book is maddening in its first half—slow-paced, shallow, crammed full of characters that are hard to distinguish, formless, seemingly aimless.  If not for the blog, I’d have given up all hope of sticking with it entirely.  But that would have been to miss out on some good story-telling, it turns out.  The last half of the book succeeds at least in being gripping and page-turning, and to some extent in digging deeper into characters, by shedding most of what makes the first half bad.  Once the Robins are endangered by the rise of the Nazi state, and one in particular is imprisoned in a concentration camp (n.b.: not an extermination camp, like Auschwitz, since we’re still only in 1933-1934…that’s not to say anything about the camp is less than horrifying, but I think we do tend to conflate “concentration camp” with “extermination camp” in casual usage), Lanny Budd and his wife Irma become our central focus.  Sinclair mostly forgets his jabs at wealth and class, or else figures out how to work them into a more thoughtful examination of the character of Irma in particular, whose wealth and class have a real bearing on her willingness to risk on behalf of some Jewish in-laws who’ve run afoul of powerful German capitalists.  The stakes are high, and the book gets far more up close and personal with the gruesome, dehumanizing violence of the Nazi agenda that I would have guessed.  I expect that Sinclair’s fearlessness in depicting these horrors probably worked to his advantage in the voting for that year’s Pulitzer—a novel that makes Hitler and his henchmen look this blandly evil, written by a noted American propagandist, must surely have felt “right” to a lot of people on the board.

That’s not to say it is obvious to me, taken as a whole on its literary merit, that this ought to be a prize-winning novel.  I don’t have personal experience with the other likely contenders from that year (maybe one of Steinbeck’s less well-known titles, The Moon is Down, or Lloyd Douglas’s big popular success in historical fiction, The Robe? It’s hard to say), but Sinclair’s novel has at least as many weaknesses as it has strengths.  Certainly as a work of literature (which is all I consider in this section of the review) it is weakly executed in narration, characterization, and consistency of tone—of all the many characters I’m asked to keep up with, only two really feel alive to me.  If you like a well-written novel (and not every reader cares; I happen to, but I’m not judging people who are more taken by setting, plot, etc.), this will fall short of the mark.

Historical Insight:

The ugly, appallingly evil world into which Sinclair lets us peer

The ugly, appallingly evil world into which Sinclair lets us peer

The strength of the book, as I have said all along (more so recently), is Sinclair’s unflinching look at the desperate state of Europe in the 1930s through the eyes of a lefist American (Lanny Budd, ostensibly, although really most of the actual commentary/insight is expressed by our allegedly 3rd person narrator, a thinly-veiled Upton Sinclair).  Given the second half of the book, really the deepest looks are aimed into the crumbling Weimar Republic in Germany, and how the cruel peace imposed on Germany at Versailles in 1919 planted the seeds of revolution that Hitler would grow into a garden of his own devising, and for his own purposes.  We see the violence of the Nazi state, the duplicity with which Hitler used real revolutionaries to seize power (only to double-cross those same revolutionaries when they threatened his ability to win over the powerful tycoons who ran big business in Deutschland), even down to the minute details like Goebbels’s wife being the highest ranking Nazi woman (given that Hitler and Göring are bachelors in 1933) or Ernst Röhm, leader of the SA, being a homosexual (a fact blandly commented on by the characters who know it: while no one could call this a gay-friendly narrative, it’s strikingly devoid of homophobia, especially given the era).  Lesser insights are given into French and English politics and social movements of the era.  In fact, if I have one complaint, it’s a damning one (for a Pulitzer winner)—Sinclair barely explains anything about America at all.  He’s poised to comment—Lanny and Irma are heirs to various American businesses and fortunes, and have extensive ties on that side of the Atlantic.  They even visit on one or two occasions, but Sinclair sweeps them back to Europe before they can really engage with the Great Depression, the right-wing unrest in the States that in some ways mirrored Nazism/Fascism on the European continent, Roosevelt’s surge into leadership and his bold actions in pushing through his 100 Days of the New Deal.  I’ve certainly enjoyed revisiting the 1930s—as a history major, most of this is review for me, but some of it is new and all of it is interesting.  I just wish it was telling me something more about America.

Rating:

On the unscientific scale, I give this a “If you are interested in the time period, like a good pot-boiler, and aren’t fussy about writing style”.  As someone who is interested in the 1930s (and likes a thriller at least some of the time) but IS fussy about style, I’m pretty ambivalent about this one.  I wouldn’t recommend it too widely, but I did find myself liking the last third, especially, and am much more positive about it now than I was only a month or two ago.

The Last Word:

As is my custom, I give the author the last word in the review, choosing a passage I think shows some of the better side of what I read (although, in this case, it’s showing some of the worst sides of a character’s personality).  The context is a conversation from late in the book (but not the end), in which Lanny and his wife, Irma, are arguing about what to do for the member of the Robin family imprisoned by the Nazis.  Irma’s character is finally being developed—we can see some of this emerge as the narrator explains her reactions to her husband, and I think this is a good example of Sinclair actually working out how someone different from him sees the world.  It’s also not devoid of his moralizing—none of his narration is—so if you don’t mind that, you might be great with this book, and if it really irritates you, this novel will not work for you.

Anyway: Lanny has just gotten news identifying the camp to which this poor Robin was taken, and has announced to his wife his determination to save the prisoner—she has attempted to put her foot down, but Lanny has dismissed her attempts to stop him:

“So Irma had to give up.  She had told him what was in her heart, and even though she would break down and weep, she wouldn’t change; on the contrary, she would hold it against him that he had made her behave in that undignified fashion.  In her heart she knew that she hated the Robin family, all of them; they were alien to her, strangers to her soul.  If she could have had her way she would never have been intimate with them; she would have had ehr own yacht and her own palace and the right sort of friends in it.  But this Socialism business had made Lanny promiscuous, willing to meet anybody, an easy victim for any sort of pretender, any slick, canting ‘idealist’—how she loathed that word!  She had been forced to make pretenses and be polite; but now this false ’cause’ was going to deprive her of her husband and her happiness, and she knew that she heartily despised it.

It wasn’t just love of herself.  It was love of Lanny, too.  She wanted to help him, she wanted to take care of him; but this ‘class struggle’ stepped in between and made it impossible; tore him away from her, and sent him to face danger, mutilation, death.  Things that Irma and her class were supposed to be immune from!  That was what your money meant; it kept you safe, it gave you privilege and security.  But Lanny wanted to throw it all away.  He had got the crazy notion that you had no right to money; that having got it, you must look down upon it, spurn it, and thwart the very purposes for which it existed, the reasons why your forefathers had worked so hard!  If that was not madness, who could find anything that deserved the name?”

1942: In This Our Life, by Ellen Glasgow

Literary Style:

This novel was a strange trip for me—at various times over the course of reading the book, it becomes really distinct and different stories.  Is it a romance?  A reflection on aging and generational values?  A “problem novel” grappling with race and class?  A sort of bildungsroman for young women in the late 1930s?  In the end, it does none of these things really consistently or well.  A more charitable reader might argue that the novel is intended to be complex, and to straddle a lot of different kind of stories in order to represent “this our life” in all its multiple guises.  This reader thinks it’s a poorly managed novel that shows just how important it is for a novelist to not only have talent at the sentence level (that is, crafting nice turns of phrase, etc.) but at the level of the plot outline.  Now, you can get away with a plot that isn’t really well plotted and still create art, if you are a genius doing something totally daring and non-linear—if you are, say, Umberto Eco, or Italo Calvino, maybe David Foster Wallace.  But if this novel proves anything, it’s that Ellen Glasgow and Italo Calvino should not be mentioned together in any sentence.  Other than that one.

So, what is this work?  I’d argue, based on the ending, that Glasgow ultimately decides she wants to be writing an existential novel—the universe she finally articulates is cruel and meaningless.  There are essentially two kinds of people in the book: selfish people who steamroll everyone around them in the name of finding their own happiness, and the selfless people who get walked on as a result.  The selfish people find the happinesses they achieve to be so fleeting and hollow that they ultimately would have been better off never aiming at it in the first place.  The selfless people find that sacrifice brings nothing but heartache and the realization that they will never even know fleeting happiness.  I can’t remember the last time I read a bleaker novel, a book more thoroughly pessimistic about the human condition and its hopelessness.  When, by the book’s end, one of our more “selfless” characters walks out into the night because she cannot imagine how to go on living, or what to go on living for, within the confines of the novel’s picture of reality, I honestly think she’s right.  In a world that looks like this one, suicide is probably the best option—she may not avail herself of that outcome, but someone else does, and it’s hard to argue that they aren’t luckier than most of the people Glasgow kicks around in the whole last half of the book.

Søren, you look like a candy striper when compared with the Timberlake family by the end of this novel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Søren, you look like a standup comedian when compared with the Timberlake family by the end of this novel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now, existentialism is a proud tradition—you might be thinking I’m being pretty narrow-minded and unfair to bash this book because it’s existentialist.  But I really have to emphasize this: I don’t think this is good existentialism.  I’ve read some Kirkegaard, and some Sartre.  They’re not necessarily my cup of tea, but they were grappling with something real, and however tough it might be to handle what they say at times, they’re never as pointlessly abusive as this book gets.  It’s not clear to me that Glasgow had any real purpose for this project: it certainly doesn’t start out existentialist.  Like I said, she goes through a ton of novels as the book progresses—she starts all sorts of threads that just get dropped or badly “wrapped up” in the final chapters.  Somehow she wrote herself into an ending that’s just ugly to slog through, with a bunch of characters being vile for no real purpose that I can see, and with absolutely no attempts on her part to try to really illuminate any of this and help us understand anything more usefully.  It would be one thing if the novel was a clear attempt by a novelist who sincerely wants to dramatically explore the idea that “man is born free, and he is everywhere in chains”.  But it’s something very different to feel like you’re reading a book written by someone who was either uncreative enough or depressed enough (or both) to end up chaining all the characters down accidentally, and who decided to just ride that train to the very bottom of the valley and see how dark it could get.

At least three of these characters would make my list of the 10 worst human beings I’ve encountered so far in the 20+ Pulitzer winners I’ve read, and that’s despite the fact that (at most) only one of them is responsible for the death of another human being.  And I’ll take the criticism openly that I do prefer novels where I find something to admire in the characters—that’s true, and it’s certainly a bias that operates.  But I think it’s only fair for me to argue that truly meretricious characters, characters whose lives really are cruel and heartless and almost irredeemable, are characters that the novelist at least needs to explore.  You want to make a 20 year old girl into a monster, someone who has been so spoiled by her family that her insatiable appetite for pleasure destroys the lives of everyone she touches?  Fine—but make her real.  Force me to see how she might get that way, what it might be like for her to sincerely see the world that way.  Let me learn something from having known her.  Don’t just make her a cardboard character so awful I cringe whenever she shows up and practically boo and hiss her “off stage” until she disappears.  I can name plenty of bad, even evil, characters in fiction that I think are great to read, and whose books/plays/poems I think are fantastic.  Those characters are written in a way that Glasgow can’t manage.  In the end, as I said from early on, too much of this is soap opera—unworthy of the Pulitzer brand, and unworthy of most people’s time.

Historical Insight:

I’ll say this much—I think that a lot of the issues this novel raises were real issues in the 1940s.  Racism covered with a (very thin) veneer of alleged “open-mindedness”.  Licentiousness, infidelity, broken families, suicide, alcoholism, homicide.  The works.  And I think it’s useful for a society that has idolized that particular generation (this so-called “Greatest Generation“) and that has cloaked that era in sepia-toned awe of the beauty of middle-class American life in its golden age to really confront what it was like then.  I know from researching my family’s history (and my wife’s) that we only think that our “modern” social problems started with the Pill and rock’n’roll and hippies, or whatever it is that America’s moral scolds want to wave around as the reason American culture and American families are the way they are today.  All of those things I listed at the beginning of this paragraph are in our two family trees (well, I may be wrong about homicide, but certainly the rest) from 1960 stretching back to 1860 or so.  I’ll credit Glasgow with writing a book that doesn’t sugar-coat what it’s actually like to live in Virginia in the late 1930s.  But it’s really weak where it should be strong—while the problems are there, the novel is too shallow to really try to make sense of what they are or how they come to be.  The suicide, for example, involves a character we do not know well, whose inner life is never explored, and the suicide occurs well “off screen” several chapters after the last time we saw the character.  We do get at least some kind of realistic contemplation of the aftermath of suicide on an allegedly respectable Southern family, but too much is unexplored.  Racism should be the perfect topic for this book to address, given the events that occur, but the novel only wallows in (and, to some extent, reinforces) racist ideas and attitudes, and never really confronts race, much less provides any African-American character with psychological depth and importance.  In the end, the novel raises some really useful questions about our image of America in the 1930s/1940s, but it does very little to shed light on them.  Certainly it gets better marks here than other novels do, but it’s well below the best in this category.

Rating:

By my unscientific scale, I give this a “Why bother thinking harder about these characters than the author did?”  There are some good moments in the novel, a couple of which I’ve written about earlier.  And I think there could potentially be some value in trying to work with the existential crises that grip our two most central characters late in the novel.  But really, I had to read a long time before I hit anything worth my time, and I felt the final chapters were terribly constructed, a forced ending that waves its hands screaming “Isn’t this oh so very deep and provocative?!?” but without really earning that kind of serious reflection.  Ultimately most of the characters are too thin to serve as anything but cutouts for the plot, while the plot itself is too threadbare and slapdash to provide any real satisfaction.  The ending, furthermore, undercuts what little energy the plot has at that point, by sabotaging the novel’s few options for a meaningful resolution of any of the book’s central conflicts.  So I wouldn’t waste my time if I were you.  I can recommend many better Pulitzer winners (to say nothing of the non-Pulitzer-winning novels) and I hope you’ll spend time with one of them instead.

The Last Word:

By custom, the review finishes with Glasgow’s words—her final appeal (admittedly, one curated by me) to win you over if she can.  Here’s a passage from relatively late in the novel that at least captures some of the depth I think Glasgow was trying for by that point: Sidney Timberlake (the aforementioned monstrous 20 year old girl) is in a tense conversation with her father, Asa.  He’s just returned from seeing their rich relative, Uncle William—he was supposed to ask William for money so that a heartbroken Sidney can travel the world and “forget her problems”, but Asa has to deliver the news that William is unwell, and unable to accommodate her request.  Asa says,

“Wait until he’s himself again, and feeling his oats.  There are times, though you’ll never believe it, when waiting is the best policy.”

“You don’t know,” she cried angrily, and burst into tears.  “You don’t know how it feels to be wasting your life.”

There was a sudden chill in his heart, a streak of ice, as he looked at her.  With all the piled-up agony in the world, with all the pain and the bitterness and the destruction which she had caused, had nothing ever made the faintest dent in her armor of egoism?  Is there any hope for humanity? he thought.  Is there any hope of making a civilized world so long as we are imprisoned in a multitude of separate cells?  “Why are you so sure?” he asked.  “How do you know what I have felt?”

Her face quivered, and she looked up at him through a rain of tears.  “You’re cruel.  Oh, you’re cruel, all of you!  Even Mother, who used to love me best, has turned against me since I came home.”

The chill melted within, and the old irrational softness invaded his thoughts.  She would always win in the end, not with him alone, but with other men also; and she would win, he told himself, not through strength, but through some inner weakness, whether her own or another’s.

1940: The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck

Side note: This is my 300th post at Following Pulitzer.  Whether you’re a newcomer, or have been on the journey with me since His Family in August of 2009, thanks for being here.

Literary Style:

This may be the Great American Novel.  It’s hard to grapple with that designation, I know, in part because it’s a bit too self-important a thing for even a weighty novel like this one to bear up under, and in part because nobody really knows what we mean by it.  But if it means anything, I think it means a story that captures the best and worst of America, from an authentically American perspective and written in the language that Americans genuinely speak.  A story that, long after the years have turned our civilization to dust and the words “United States” are as mysterious and exotic in the ears of schoolchildren as the words “Assyria” or “Çatalhöyük” are to us today, will speak enough of who we were and what we meant that we would feel fairly represented.  By these measures, only a few novels in my experience deserve to be mentioned in the conversation, and it’s hard for me to make a better case for anything I’ve ever read than I can right now for The Grapes of Wrath.  That doesn’t make it the perfect novel—though it is very, very good.  But it’s as good at being an American novel as I think can be achieved.

This is not to say that there are no slips in Steinbeck’s prose—the saga of the Joad family loses steam a bit in California, where a more aggressive editor’s hand might have sustained some energy that gets lost in their slow peregrinations across the landscape.  Some character arcs don’t quite feel finished enough, and other characters don’t step nearly out into three dimensions enough for my liking, particularly Rose of Sharon.  And the choice to end it exactly where and as he did is, well, daring is one word that comes to mind.  Baffling is another.  I’m not faulting the scene itself, which is definitely powerful and resonates with some themes he’s been working with (some themes I like and some I am impatient with), but as a finale it strikes me as ill-chosen.  It resolves a minor dissonance in the symphony, but not the leitmotif.

English: John Steinbeck

I doff my cap to you, John—this is one hell of a novel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But these are petty quibbles with a work that I think is incredibly powerful—Steinbeck manages a cast of characters who remain distinctive and generally very lifelike, including writing a number of women (both leads and supporting cast) who are far more complex and engaging than what I’d usually expect out of him (or, in fairness, out of most of the male novelists of the time period).  His unusual decision to swing the novel back and forth like a pendulum between the sweeping saga of Everyman in the Dust Bowl era and the fine details of one family’s path through those terrible, heart-breaking years works remarkably well, largely because he is so careful to make sure that the two tales harmonize with each other, sometimes reinforcing ideas and at other times revealing some of the diversity of human experience.  His narrative can sometimes step across the line into sentiment and sermonizing, but mostly I find that he strikes the just the right note—an elevated rhetoric that makes these simple lives of simple folk into a tapestry of epic and mythic struggle that deserves to be commemorated for centuries to come.  It takes daring, and a self-confidence bordering on arrogance, to write a really masterful novel, and Steinbeck puts himself in the right frame of mind to do it here.  There are risks associated with that kind of attitude, and it could have easily gone off the rails in any number of directions, so it’s to his lasting credit that he keeps it together and delivers one of the best novels of the 20th Century.

In addition to that grand and soaring tone Steinbeck pulls off, I think the other genius of the work comes in its beautiful little details—a hundred moments that stick in my mind’s ear and eye because they’re so keenly observed.  Little facial twitches that reveal something bubbling under the surface for a character, or the way the earth and sky look to a man who has been out working between them all day, or the grace that passes between families who do not know each other but who survive the same crisis together.  Independent of any of the content associated with the plot, there’s a skill to the delicate details throughout the book that make it a pleasure to read.  I argued in an earlier post that Chapter Twelve is about the greatest prose poem an American ever wrote, and I’ll stand by that.  Apart from the novel’s powerful ideas, it’s just a beauty to read (and read aloud).  I could keep this up for a while, but you’ve heard a lot of this praise in my posts about the novel: I’ll leave what praise I’ve already spoken to stand as a general indication of how well I think the entire thing works.

Historical Insight:

This is one of the things that is most powerful about Grapes—how vividly it brings to life an American reality that too many Americans were blind to in the 1930s.  Steinbeck writes it as propaganda, not in the pejorative “brain-washing” sense, but in the older sense of sharing news that will not otherwise spread…”propagating” it like seeds in a field.  I’ve only ever read one piece of fiction that was as good about capturing the fear and helplessness associated with farmers at the mercy of Nature and powerful business interests, and that’s another Pulitzer winner, Josephine Johnson’s quieter (and more confined) but no less important novel, Now in November.  Steinbeck captures, also, though, what Johnson does not—the soul-crushing scale of the misery of these people, the ways in which the system on a national scale sets them up in hope and then crushes them as though in spite.  An enormous portion of America in the 1930s is here—the transformation of lives by mechanization (principally the tractor and the truck), the deprivations of the Great Depression, the panic and the death associated with the last decade America would spend without any kind of safety net for the poor and the homeless, the angry radicalism slowly born in this desperation and despair.  This is a world that America had built, however unknowingly, and a reality with which it would have to contend.  In some ways those battles were settled even as Steinbeck was writing his book, and in other ways they are with us still.  Regardless, this element in the review asks how vividly the book conveys America in that time and place, and how well it connects me with 1940—this novel gets about the highest conceivable marks possible.  I can only think of one or two other Pulitzer winners that are as clearly of their moment in history, and perhaps none that make that history feel almost claustrophobically present around me as I read.

Rating:

By my unscientific scale, this matches the rating I once gave The Age of Innocence—I’m telling you that “you must own this book”.  You don’t want to go through life not having read it, or not being able to press it into the hands of a friend who hasn’t read it, or not being able to pick it up and just read a chapter or two aloud to yourself someday when you realize you want to hear it.  It is devastating in its depiction of poverty and helplessness, but it also inspires great hope, and if you want to encounter “America”, I can’t think of a better book to start with.

Last Word:

I know this passage may seem a bit too well-known, but I can’t help it—it’s a beautiful moment late in the story, and I think it’s one of the better moments for Steinbeck to make his case to you about what this story is really about and why it matters.  Put yourself into the right mind-set: Tom Joad and his mother are talking to each other in a little natural hideout in the woods.  It’s late at night, and the two cannot see each other.  He is about to leave this place, and it’s not clear when or if he will come back—two of Ma’s six children have already left the family behind, and another of her sons has threatened all day to go off and be with his fiancée.  Tom has been talking with her about ideas he’s picked up from the preacher, Jim Casy, and while he hasn’t come out and told her what he plans to do, he’s been talking about getting people together and doing something about injustice, and she knows what that means, in this place and in this time.

They sat silent in the coal-black cave of vines.  Ma said, ‘How’m I gonna know ’bout you?  They might kill ya an’ I wouldn’t know.  They might hurt ya.  How’m I gonna know?’

Tom laughed uneasily, ‘Well, maybe like Casy says, a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a big one—an’ then—‘

‘Then what, Tom?’

‘Then it don’ matter.  Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark.  I’ll be ever’where—wherever you look.  Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there.  Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there.  If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys tell when they’re mad an’—I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready.  An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build—why, I’ll be there.  See?  God, I’m talkin’ like Casy.  Comes of thinkin’ about him so much.  Seems like I can see him sometimes.’

‘I don’ un’erstan’,’ Ma said.  ‘I don’ really know.’

‘Me neither,’ said Tom.  ‘It’s jus’ stuff I been thinkin’ about.  Get thinkin’ a lot when you ain’t movin’ aroun’.'”

1939: The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

Literary Style:

Barn on ' property in Cross Creek, Florida

A barn in Cross Creek, Florida—Rawlings lived nearby, so this is part of the setting that I imagine inspired her. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Yearling has been, as you’ve seen, a bumpy ride.  There are certainly things to praise about Rawlings’ novel—her use of setting, most critically, and also some of her character development.  At its most winning, it’s an engrossing experience, walking me through a world I don’t particularly know (the swampy farmland outside of Volusia, Florida), and helping me understand an era of small subsistence farming that is important to remember.  The storm and its aftermath are probably the best section of the book for me, since they really bring home how hard it is to live where the Baxters do, and how inventive and enterprising they have to be just to keep food on their table.  Those moments certainly help me understand why many people loved this book when it came out—it wasn’t just a Pulitzer winner, but a major best-seller—and why some still read it and recommend it to others today.

But the other side of The Yearling gets to be too much for me.  I’ve already talked about my uneasiness with how Rawlings uses gender in the novel.  The end of the story does a little to redeem it, especially when we see Ma Baxter in a slightly new light in the events around Christmas (as well as Grandma Hutto’s canny solution to a very serious problem).  But it also perpetuates the ideas about women that persist throughout the novel.  In the end, there’s only one parent that matters to Jody Baxter—only one whose betrayal really stings, only one who he need apologize to, only one relationship that really matters in any way as far as this novel is concerned.  As I said before, I get that there’s a lot of accuracy in Rawlings’s portrayal of Jody as a boy fixated on becoming a man, and on being a man like his father.  I just wanted a novel that knew Jody’s vision was blinkered.  And instead I got a novel that did its best to portray a world that was in reality what Jody thought it was from his perspective.  I’ve read enough Pulitzer novels by now to know that I’m not asking for too much there.  But I will say that other great novels of the era do have gender issues.  I think Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is really excellent, but I could lay the same charges about gender at its feet that I do at The Yearling‘s.  Am I being a hypocrite, then?  Maybe.  Or maybe it’s that A) Steinbeck’s novel has more interesting and important things to say (when it’s not talking about gender) than Rawlings’s novel does, and B) Steinbeck’s novel is not aimed at fifth graders.  Anyway, I’m willing to be swayed on this point, and willing to acknowledge that I see how a reader could work around this objection.

I’ll try not to give away much about the ending, but my real hatred of how Rawlings ends the book is a major factor in my souring on it overall.  It’s no shock to anyone, I hope, that Jody’s beloved pet deer is doomed—this, as I said at the outset, is how these novels go.  Because I was expecting it, and understood it was necessary on some level, it’s not the death in particular that I object to.  It’s how manipulative and cruel the whole scenario is.  Rawlings devises one of the worst possible outcomes—in doing so, she has to sideline characters and make other characters fools for the sake of getting the most gut-wrenchingly agonizing ending she can.  The whole plot machinery squeals and grinds as she wrenches the novel into MAKE-THEM-WEEP mode.  And unlike other stories in this genre—Old Yeller, Where the Red Fern Grows, etc.—the animal’s death doesn’t even mean something.  There wasn’t something like love or hope at the heart of this sadness.  Only unalterable Fate; unavoidable Despair.

In the end, if everything Rawlings and her characters say is accurate, Jody’s beloved father is a fiend—a man who, out of the desire to be kind, has proven more cruel and psychologically damaging to his son than many a lesser father might have.  Furthermore, the moral he wants his son to walk away with—and, given the novel’s structure and Penny’s place in it, the moral that Rawlings surely is trying to inculcate—is a vicious one: in Penny Baxter’s universe, humanity is alone and frightened.  We toil in desperation and solitude; we cannot trust one another or the ground we walk on; the sooner a child learns that life is empty, the better.  I understand how a man like Penny might reach these conclusions, and how a novelist might want to explore these powerful ideas, but coming at the end of an otherwise cheerful little nostalgic tale about an innocent boy and his love for a pet, it’s really unfair to the reader, and unjustified.  Rawlings may want this ending, but she hasn’t earned it.  Penny Baxter shifts from being Atticus Finch to being one of the slavers of Astapor, forging in naive and trusting Jody his little Unsullied warrior who will serve him well.  He explicitly acknowledges that Jody can escape the unendurable (and ultimately unsurvivable) subsistence farm the family lives on, and then makes his son promise not to flee for a better life, but to stay here in his abandonment and his loneliness in order to fill his father’s shoes.  As I said, I don’t mind the dead deer.  It’s casting the boy into a living hell that I mind.  Rawlings’s cheap sentiment at the end of the novel, which seems like an attempt to bandage the open wound of having read the final chapters, is almost nauseating.  It mocks the idea of happiness, and it reminds us how badly the ending suits the novel we have been reading.

So I’m left with a novel that’s well written on the sentence level, although not always well-constructed.  On the one hand it makes characters we enjoy and want to spend time with, and on the other it uses those characters to undermine any reasonable treatment of women in the novel.  It’s sweet and nostalgic, right up to the point where it becomes almost bizarre in its efforts to shock and harm us—in doing so, it perpetrates consequences on Jody Baxter that I can’t forgive.  There’s no reason a novel can’t be dark, even dark and great—ask me about Mary Doria Russell and The Sparrow sometime—but you have to earn it, and Rawlings doesn’t.

Historical Insight:

As a part of the whole, this really does a great job of getting inside the world of the struggling farm in the Deep South—its misses (the authentic experience of women on the farm) are notable, but so are its hits.  It is less vivid than Now in November, and less sweeping (and sympathetic to women’s stories) than Lamb in His Bosom, but taken in conjunction with them, I found a lot of it to be really interesting and insightful.  There are pieces I wish Rawlings had done more with—Southern identity in the post-war period (Penny is a Confederate veteran, but we hear little about this), their connection to the wider world (other than a little about “going to sea” and some speculation about Jacksonville, they feel too isolated, even given their circumstances)—but overall this is definitely the side of the novel that should get high marks.  She cares about these bygone days, and wants us to care about them too—she largely succeeds.

Rating:

According to the unscientific rating scale in use here, this gets a “Read only if forearmed against its weaknesses…and whatever you do, don’t put this in a child’s hands.”  If you go into this book ready to interrogate its relationship to gender, and prepared to fight back against the conclusion it tries to present, there’s a worthwhile read locked inside it.  I’m not recommending you do this.  But I can see people enjoying this book, under those circumstances.  The one thing I have to emphasize, though, is that I really don’t think you should have a child read this—really, not even if you have nostalgic memories of this from your own childhood.  Our kids get enough “man=good, woman=bad” messages from our culture and media, and there are plenty of great stories that avoid that problem entirely—no shortage of other options there.  And whatever you want your child to grow up believing about humanity and purpose, I’d urge you not to blind-side them with this book’s ending.  It’s not that the deer dies, like I said above—animals die in kids’ books, and it generally doesn’t scar them.  But the author booby-traps this novel—the final message is utterly enervating without being consistent with the story we’ve read, and it blows up any possibility for hope.  A kid can read plenty of books that explore dark or serious themes while avoiding what Rawlings does here.

The Last Word:

Rawlings’s work with setting is lovely, so I’ll let her take us out that way.  This passage is from late in the book, but there’s lots of this throughout—here’s the opening of a new chapter:

“March came in with a cool and sunny splendor.  The yellow jessamine bloomed late and covered the fences and filled the clearing with its sweetness.  The peach trees blossomed, and the wild plums.  The redbirds sang all day, and when they had done with their song in the evening, the mockingbirds continued.  The ground doves nested and cooed one to another and walked about the sand of the clearing like shadows bobbing.

Penny said, ‘If I was dead, I’d set up and take notice, a day like this ‘un.’

There had been a light shower during the night and the hazy substance of the sunrise indicated there would be another before night.  But the morning itself was luminous.”

1938: The Late George Apley, by John P. Marquand

Literary Style:

The trouble with Apley, as I’ve already chronicled in some detail in my reflections along the way, is that I don’t feel John Marquand successfully negotiated the fuzzy boundary between fiction and non-fiction that he took on in this novel, which presents the character of George Apley over the course of his whole life, through the eyes of a close friend and the documentary bric-a-brac he left behind him.  Marquand isn’t ambitious enough with the fictional details to turn the story into something just slightly larger-than-life, more vivid than what ordinary biography can provide.  But he wasn’t energetic enough to pitch the idea of fiction altogether, and research an actual figure—I understand why that seemed daunting, but it would have had the advantage of being genuine, which Apley in its current state does not earn.  As it is, I feel I am getting a very incomplete picture of a man not quite real.  As I’ve mentioned earlier, even when George takes interesting actions, there is no means by which to examine his motives, to consider what may be happening inside George (or any other character).  The format precludes any kind of engagement with the cardboard cut-outs that comprise the dramatis personæ.  What few insights Marquand has to offer seem to me very pedestrian—yes, fathers are often overbearing and ungentle to their promising young sons; yes, the strictures of upper-class American society cause some people to reach the end of their lives and find that, to borrow from Thoreau, they had not truly lived; yes, on some level the older generation never does understand the younger generation, or the world in which they live.  Did it really take a novel to accomplish that kind of trite epiphany?

The problems are not devastating, in one sense—the book is rarely offensive, its characters occasionally turn a phrase worth pausing over, there are times when it glimpses something about human lives that I was not quite expecting.  But in another sense this is really damning, because Marquand is so tentative with the premise and so bound by the rules he establishes that the book isn’t worth getting excited about on any level.  The Pulitzers’ more wretched fare—Scarlet Sister Mary, to take but one example—at least has the merit of exuberance and almost cheekiness in its failure.  I really disliked that book, but I remember it.  I doubt very much that I will remember Marquand’s little story.  Devoid of meaningful conflict (it’s hard to be interested in the lives of people you never meet), reined in by an insufferable narrator character who can’t even manage to be boring enough to be funny, walled in by a strict chronological march of decades that saps the energy (or at least it did mine)—the novel is really a strange little work.  That this effort beats out Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, is a bafflement.

Zora Neale Hurston, American author. Deutsch: ...

I get that Zora was too cool for the Pulitzer squares, but still, what an injustice. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’d go on at more length—this review’s a bit shorter than usual—but I’ve rung the changes on this book every way I know how in my previous posts.  Unlike many of the other novels I’ve encountered on the journey so far, this one’s like plain oatmeal, and I’m out of adjectives to describe how it fails to inspire much in me.  Some folks like Marquand, I know, and they’re welcome to him.

Historical Insight:

To the extent that the novel is a successful experience for me—which is to say, not very—it’s the fact that Marquand does explore some interesting New England (especially Bostonian) upper class phenomena.  The gentlemen’s club dinners, the ladies’ sewing circles, the family plots in ancient graveyards, the Copley portraits hanging in the hall and Revere silver on the dining room table, etc., etc.  I didn’t really feel I was breaking a lot of ground that I hadn’t already covered in a slightly more rural high-income old New England family in Early Autumn, or in a more or less equally high-income old family in New York in The Age of Innocence, but there were certainly a few new glimpses of that world, which I found useful.  I liked the fact that we get a little idea of how Harvard University changes over time (and how its alumni see it, in this period), and I think there were some nice things done with World War I and Prohibition.  But all of this is very slight—because I never really connect to the characters, these little pieces of trivia about the time and place are never quite as real as I want them to be.  It’s a bit sad, since I think “historical insight” is really Marquand’s motivation for writing the novel—it’s the only sense I can make of why he wrote what he did.  But he never gets there as successfully as I would have wanted, and in trying for it he loses too much.

Rating:

My thoroughly unscientific ranking scale being what it is, I can only give The Late George Apley a “pass this by, as it fails to be interestingly bad”.  It’s by no means the worst of the Pulitzers.  Certainly it has its defenders, who I hope will speak for it (either here in the comments, or in other venues), since I feel no particular animosity towards the book.  But by virtually every measure I can come up with, this book generally failed to get my attention or to do anything worthwhile with it, when it did.  It might be fun to read a really bad novel and have a nice loud banter-filled conversation about it with a friend.  This novel won’t give you that experience (or much of any other kind of experience, either), so given the world of books and your limited free time, just keep on walking.

The Last Word:

To finish, as usual, with the author getting the final say, I’m going with one of George Apley’s last letters to his son, in which he comments on an essay by Emerson that he’d been reading, and applies some of it to his life.  If this grabs you, maybe you ought to give the book a try.  It comes closer to working for me than most of the rest of the book, and I can’t say it works, even then.  At any rate, here it is—the words of the late George Apley (though the ellipsis is mine):

“I have been amusing myself to-day by reading Emerson’s essay on Self-Reliance.  There is a brave ring to the words.  There is a courage about them which I like to think that Emerson and the rest of us, in a lesser measure, have drawn from the rocky soil and from this harsh climate.  I like to think we are all self-reliant in a way, but sometimes Emerson leads one’s thoughts along disturbing channels.  Emerson disturbed me this afternoon.

He made me do something which I have never really done.  He made me examine my life objectively, and I cannot say that I liked it very much; however, I could see myself as perhaps you and some others see me.  It seems to me that, although I have tried, I have achieved surprisingly little compared with my own father and his father, for instance.  I repeat that this negative result has not been for want of trying.  The difficulty seems to have been that something has always stepped in the way to prevent me.  I have always been faced from childhood by the obligation of convention, and all of these conventions have been made by others, formed from the fabric of the past.  In some way these have stepped in between me and life.  I had to realize that they were designed to do just that.  They were designed to promote stability and inheritance.  Perhaps they have gone a little bit too far. . . .

I have known the satisfaction of accomplishing something on which I have centred all my energies and hopes.  I have known the feeling of warm earth.  I have heard sleigh bells in winter.  All this has been very good.  Yet somehow I seem to have enjoyed very little of these pleasures, for I have never seemed to have had the time to enjoy them.  More than this, I will tell you frankly I have sometimes deliberately tried not to enjoy them.  I have turned away from them because I have believed that most of these were pleasures of the senses rather than of the intellect.  I have been taught since boyhood not to give way to sensuality.  I think this afternoon, now that it is almost too late, that this viewpoint may be a little wrong.  There has been too much talk in my life.  There has been too little action.”

1937: Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell

Literary Style:

Mitchell is a genius at investing a reader in what’s happening on the page—a 950 page novel went past much more quickly than I’d have guessed.  This is not to say that I think she couldn’t have used a good editor or better pacing at times (about which a little more is said below), but she clearly had a talent for writing, and it’s appreciated.  Most of her central characters are really compelling—the enigmatic but undeniably charismatic Rhett, the saintly (yet appealing) Melanie, the brooding lost “knight” Ashley, etc.  Even her relatively minor white characters, like the Fontaines and Tarletons, like Miss Pittypat and Archie, have a liveliness to them.  There’s no question that, as you read, you become personally involved in the storylines, rooting for certain outcomes.  The death of a major character is genuinely moving, and its aftermath hushes the rest of the story.  Had Mitchell not died well before her time, I think she might have risen to more prominence as an American author—perhaps not its most “literary”, since I don’t think her use of language and theme is especially deep or insightful (though it might have grown with time), but among its most popular, and for many good reasons.  There is a reason this book stands at the front of sales figures in the United States—of the books produced by American authors, none have outsold it, and I can see why.  And yet, if you’ve been following my progress through the novel, you know my feelings don’t stop there.

Scarlett is a major obstacle for me, and I think there’s little that can be done about her—she is the novel, and your take on her will inevitably dominate your feelings about the book itself.  Every other character distances themselves from the reader at times, sometimes hundreds of pages at a time, but Scarlett never gives us breathing room.  Mitchell wants us to encounter her very closely….but why?  There is a tragic arc to Scarlett’s life—she matches the classical definition of the tragic hero whose flaw is her downfall—but to me that arc doesn’t pay off.  In part this is because I think the novel is too unwieldy in length to give resonance to her story: by the time Scarlett is ready to face her flaw and acknowledge her tragedy, it has been too long for me.  Like Rhett, I had been willing to wait for her, but not that long—her revelations at the end are no more appealing to me than they are to Rhett, and like him, I no longer give a damn about her.  I think there were opportunities to avoid this in the novel, but Mitchell would have had to write a very different book, and almost certainly a much shorter one, in order to make it work for me.  And frankly, I’m not sure Mitchell wants the character to work—a tragic hero, in the end, at least gets the benefit of realizing what they’ve become.  Scarlett undoes this personal growth, though—her last lines in the novel more or less mirror the last lines in the film, if that’s your only tie to the story.  It’s as though the aging Lear, holding the dying Cordelia in his arms, is bending over her and with the last lines of the play says “Dear, tell me how much you love me.”  It feels a bit profane—as though the character and the work are punching the reader who has let down any guard.  I had at least tried to invest myself in Scarlett’s growth, in her ability to recognize the emptiness of her “old charm”, etc., only to find at the end that she is not moved.  Even Macbeth, the tyrant and slayer of children, earns something true and good in his final cry of “Lay on, Macduff”, his willingness to face Fate and not to run from it.  But Scarlett is denied this, and to me it reads, as it has for much of the book, as though Mitchell has nothing but contempt for Scarlett—as though she wants to punish Scarlett for being herself as much as Booth Tarkington punished Alice Adams.  I know not everyone reads the character, and her relationship to the author, in this way, but the feeling is too overwhelmingly present for me to understand how else to see her.

A cartoon threatening that the KKK would lynch...

An image from 1868, depicting the work of the Klan in whose success all the characters invest themselves to some degree. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lastly, what can I say about this novel’s attitude towards race?  I’ll give one example to explain how complicated this is for me—at one point, midway through the novel, I am fully invested in a very tense chapter.  All of the characters we know and care about are working against a very difficult circumstance, in which the wrong word or action may mean death for several beloved people.  I know I personally was almost on the edge of my seat as I read, hoping they would beat the odds, hoping that no one would be caught, cheering them on: Mitchell’s writing was working very well.  And then I stopped and realized what I was doing.  All of these characters were in trouble because they, as members of the Ku Klux Klan, had killed a free African-American man in an act of vigilante justice, and I was cheering their ability to escape without being caught by the soldiers stationed in Georgia for the prevention of this kind of violence.  And the disgust I felt for myself and the characters and the author and the whole weird mess of the situation was really awful.

Now, I know the novel can be read in all sorts of ways: all I can tell you is how I read it.  I don’t like being caught up like that, any more than I like a novel to get me rooting for a rapist to assault a woman and get away with it, any more than I could read a novel about the Holocaust and be rooting for the Gestapo to find the Jews hidden in the attic.  I’m not saying that a novel can’t help me explore what it must be like to be a man who commits sexually violent acts, or what it was like to be a German citizen in 1942 and to see the world through those eyes.  I’ve read novels that helped me explore those viewpoints in ways that unsettled me and challenged me, but didn’t make me feel as though I was being co-opted, being asked to stand on the sidelines and cheer.  GWTW is the latter kind of experience, for me as a reader, and for that reason I found many moments of my reading experience deeply unpleasant, to the point that I didn’t see at times how I could continue (in spite of my investment in the characters and in the resolution of the plot).  This is a big complicated novel, and I know there are a lot of places to grab hold of it—I could even feel that complexity as I read, but for some reason I couldn’t grab a hold of it in any way but the way I did.  I can’t explain why.

Historical Insight:

There are two different grades to be given here. As an insight into the South in the 1930s, and as it must have been for Mitchell to grow up in throughout the early 20th Century, it is astonishingly important: a novel that expresses all the complex relationships Southerners had to the idea of the “Lost Cause” and the antebellum South and the imposition of Northerners and their values, etc.  I think there are echoes here also of the hunger and fear that gripped many families during the Great Depression, since Scarlett goes through real deprivation at Tara at the end of the war, and I think there’s something powerful to explore there also.  This is a vitally important book for understanding how the world and the country’s past look through the lens of that society, and Mitchell is very good at providing a wide range of characters and experiences to help illuminate her vision of the war and its aftermath.

But this book has also imprinted on the minds of many Americans a vision of the South and of Reconstruction that is appallingly misinformed—it depicts slavery in the kindest, gentlest possible way, without anyone to challenge or offer context for shockingly bold claims about how nice life was for slaves and how much they appreciated it (and really preferred it to freedom in a number of respects).  It depicts Reconstruction about as accurately as the Nazis depicted German Jews in the Weimar Republic—it regularly plays up stereotypical racist images of freed black men as lazy, peanut-eating, barefoot, illiterate idiots who divided their day between voting illegally to tax ex-Confederates and give the money to carpetbaggers, taking wages and then doing no work for their employers, and sexually assaulting any white woman they could get their hands on (knowing that the Yankee courts would always protect them, no matter how many white women they raped).  I really can’t pull any punches here—the descriptions of Reconstruction are almost criminally irresponsible, and I can’t forgive them under any flag labeled “fiction”.  It was, as far as I can tell, what many Southerners truly believed in the 1930s—that, had it not been for the noble members of the Klan, the South would have lost every cent it had to Northern thieves, and every white woman would have been raped or murdered with impunity.  But it is almost unendurable for me to read.  These little snippets about the Reconstruction era only occur every so often—in total terms, maybe only 1% of the book is given over to the kind of content I’m describing.  But it doesn’t take much to really turn my stomach, and much of this certainly did.

Rating:

Given all of that, how can I encapsulate my response in a phrase?  I’ll say it this way: under my unscientific rating scale, I’ll give Gone With the Wind a “let the reader beware”.  I think it is one of the most important books in the nation’s history.  I think anyone wanting to understand the nation’s history with race, anyone wanting to understand the North-South dynamic, and anyone wanting a window into how this nation changed and grew over the course of the 20th Century almost has to read this.  It would be required reading in any class I tried to teach on those subjects.  And I think it has many moments where, away from the elements that disturb me so much, it is powerful storytelling by one of the nation’s better yarn-spinners—Mitchell might have been our Dickens (if not our Shakespeare), given time to grow.  But I do not think I will ever be able to read it again.  I know many people who, given their preferences as readers, would get no joy, and much pain, from trying to read it even once.  For those who can read it, I think there is something important about approaching the book thoughtfully—ready to interrogate your own feelings, informed about the real history of the period, willing to let the story work on you as it goes.  This is probably the most troubling and problematic book I will read in my Pulitzer journey, as well as one of the most important to the nation.  It is almost certain to be the most memorable of the Pulitzer winners, for me personally.  And I think I’ll have to leave it there.

The Last Word:

It’s one of my testaments to Mitchell’s talents as a writer that, unlike most of the novels I’ve read for this blog, I wasn’t keeping an eye out for a good “last word” passage as I finished—I was too engrossed in the events, to attentive to the conversations, to pick out the right bit for sharing.  As always, I hope to show you some of her most characteristic writing and a glimpse of the novel at its peak—moreover I give her the last word, and not myself, in a chance to win you over if she will.  As it is, I’ve come back to the novel and am a bit uncertain what to select: in the end, I’ve decided to share a bit of Rhett Butler being blunt with Scarlett, which to me is almost always the high point of the book.  This isn’t their very last conversation, but it comes late in the story, when Rhett is ready to let Scarlett have a bit more truth than even he usually loads upon her.  The topic, as usual, is her feelings for him, her feelings for Ashley Wilkes, and Rhett’s rising level of frustration:

“Oh, yes, you’ve been faithful to me because Ashley wouldn’t have you.  But, hell, I wouldn’t have grudged him your body.  I know how little bodies mean—especially women’s bodies.  But I do grudge him your heart and your dear, hard, unscrupulous, stubborn mind.  He doesn’t want your mind, the fool, and I don’t want your body.  I can buy women cheap.  But I do want your mind and your heart, and I’ll never have them, any more than you’ll ever have Ashley’s mind.  And that’s why I’m sorry for you.”

“Sorry—for me?”

“Yes, sorry because you’re such a child, Scarlett.  A child crying for the moon.  What would a child do with the moon if it got it?  And what would you do with Ashley?  Yes, I’m sorry for you—sorry to see you throwing away happiness with both hands and reaching out for something that would never make you happy.  I’m sorry because you are such a fool you don’t know there can’t ever be happiness except when like mates like.  If I were dead, if Miss Melly were dead and you had your precious honorable lover, do you think you’d be happy with him?  Hell, no!  You would never know him, never know what he was thinking about, never understand him any more than you understand music and poetry and books or anything that isn’t dollars and cents.  Whereas we, dear wife of my bosom, could have been perfectly happy if you had ever given us half a chance, for we are so much alike.  We are both scoundrels, Scarlett, and nothing is beyond us when we want something.  We could have been happy, for I loved you and I know you, Scarlett, down to your bones, in a way that Ashley could never know you.  And he would despise you if he did know. . . . But no, you must go mooning all your life after a man you cannot understand.  And I, my darling, will continue to moon after whores.  And, I dare say we’ll do better than most couples.”