How would you rank the Pulitzer novels?

I’ve decided it would probably be fun/interesting/a good conversation starter if I kept a running ranking of the novels I’ve read, in order of excellence.  As has become obvious, just because something wins the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel, that doesn’t make it automatically worthwhile.  I’ll divide the list loosely into categories intended to give some perspective on what a ranking means…but of course these positions are a bit fuzzy and may change.  Each novel’s title will be a hyperlink to my final review of the book.  (To be clear, the lower on a list something is, the worse it is: if there are four novels in “Run—save yourself while you still can”, number “1” at the top of the list will be a preferable novel to number “4” at the bottom.)

I may reformat this page from time to time if it becomes necessary: obviously when this holds 75 novels, it may need to look a bit different than when it holds 10.  Please feel free to talk back at this list, offering comments, questions, and arguments as they strike you.

Novels I recommend very highly:

  1. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  2. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
  3. Now in November by Josephine W. Johnson
  4. The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder
  5. The Store by T. S. Stribling
  6. Laughing Boy by Oliver La Farge

Novels I recommend:

  1. Journey in the Dark by Martin Flavin
  2. One of Ours by Willa Cather
  3. Early Autumn by Louis Bromfield
  4. So Big by Edna Ferber
  5. His Family by Ernest Poole

Novels with weaknesses that make me reluctant to recommend them:

  1. Dragon’s Teeth by Upton Sinclair
  2. The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
  3. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  4. Years of Grace by Margaret Ayer Barnes

Novels I do not recommend:

  1. Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis
  2. The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
  3. Lamb in His Bosom by Caroline Miller

Novels I actively discourage people from reading:

  1. Alice Adams by Booth Tarkington
  2. The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington
  3. The Late George Apley by John P. Marquand
  4. In This Our Life by Ellen Glasgow
  5. Honey in the Horn by H. L. Davis

Run—save yourself while you still can:

  1. Scarlet Sister Mary by Julia Peterkin
  2. The Able McLaughlins by Margaret Wilson

28 comments on “How would you rank the Pulitzer novels?

  1. Matt Villeneuve says:

    At the end of this process, I will read whatever book you recommend to me blindly and without question.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Thanks, Matt! I expect I’ll have several novels to suggest, but I’ll be sure to have a specific suggestion tailor-made for you. 🙂

  2. I’ve taken on this project, but without the chronological component. I appreciate your last category, since I will happily leave these until I am too demented to care how bad they are… P.S. My dad was an academic librarian, so I feel connected to you somehow. Trivia: Jhumpa Lahiri, whose Interpreter of Maladies is in my Definitely Read category when I rank the list, is also the daughter of an academic librarian (who used to work with my dad).

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Thanks for your comment, Beth! Will you be blogging the results of your project? (If so, let me know—I’m always happy to link to a fellow Pulitzer blogger, and I like reading other people’s takes on the often-obscure titles as I finish them.) Your academic librarian connections make me smile: I always find these little threads tying people together fascinating. Good luck with the reading (and definitely leave Scarlet Sister Mary and The Able McLaughlins for a weekend where you are well-fortified mentally and physically)—I hope you’ll comment on any of my posts if you’re reading the same book and find you have comments/questions to raise!

      • I’m blogging most of my reading at http://bethslistlove.wordpress.com (I am doing a variety of lists, Nobel, Pulitizer, 1001 Books, Orange Prize), so you will get my take on various books! I’m really looking forward to following your reviews!

        • jwrosenzweig says:

          Marvelous! I’ve added you to my blogroll — I look forward to any reviews of old Pulitzers you may post (for what may be obvious reasons, I try to dodge all reviews of Pulitzers I haven’t read yet until I finish the book, to keep my ideas fresh 🙂 ). And as I creep nearer the present, hopefully I can catch up on any more recent reads you’ve posted.

    • Rich says:

      Beth: a family member here. Don’t necessarily discount the 2 books in the very last category (Scarlet Sister Mary was the August ’13 read in the the goodreads Pulitizer group, so I read it while up at the cabin). No disrespect the author of this blog (on the contrary, much respect for the undertaking and candor), but I do think SSM is worth a read in my opinion. And I do intend to make a go at Able McLaughlins at some point in the near future.

      • jwrosenzweig says:

        Rich, thanks for the comment! I certainly respect the varying opinions on these titles—my “run” is at least a little tongue-in-cheek, although of course it’s also a pretty sincere depiction of my reaction to those books. If you do read the McLaughlins and find them delightful, I hope you’ll post a comment here letting me know what I missed! 🙂

  3. Jillian ♣ says:

    I’ve been ranking to books I read too! A friend highly recommends Edith Wharton. I’ll have to try her pretty soon. 🙂

  4. Risa says:

    I might have gone blindly with a rank list like this, except that The Age of Innocence ranks very low on my list of classics read, Gone with the Wind ranks high, and my mom feels that if I don’t read The Good Earth, I’m missing out on something incredibly good! Just goes to show how personal preferences can defer. 🙂

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Haha, fair enough, Risa! It’s intended as a record of my feelings, and an indication of my opinions, but certainly not as “the last word”. As I mention up front, it’s really supposed to be more of a conversation starter than anything else. I’m interested in what you didn’t like about Age of Innocence, if you don’t mind saying? I’ve heard enough from GWTW supporters that I feel I get the case for that book, though it doesn’t deal with my problems with the book; The Good Earth is widely admired by enough people that I think I get it. Personally I think that I and the novel’s fans are agreed on what Pearl Buck sets out to do, and think it’s a worthy premise—they just think she succeeds, and I think she doesn’t. Anyway, I’d love to hear your take on Wharton, if you’re willing to give it!

      • Risa says:

        My major problem with Wharton was her writing style. That, and more gratingly, her penchant for telling her readers what to think of her characters. For example, she keeps referring to the Countess as being a fiery woman. But actually, she isn’t. Nothing in her character or behaviour qualifies this statement that Wharton keeps making about her. She tends to do this almost all the time, I feel. And I found it quite annoying. I was fascinated with the era she was dealing with, though, because I’d never read anything relating to the American aristocratic families of that time before. And because of that, I’ve decided to give Wharton another try with House of Mirth.

        I’m keeping my fingers crossed though!

        • jwrosenzweig says:

          Thanks, Risa—I’m fascinated by your response, since if you asked me what I liked about Wharton, very high on my list would have been a statement something like “she never tells you what to think of her characters”. I’ll keep your comments in mind when I read more of her work: personally I didn’t notice that kind of slanted portrayal (and am usually really bothered by them), but I can’t be certain I wasn’t getting won over by other aspects of her writing. Anyway, good luck with House of Mirth!

  5. Donna says:

    I just finished reading All the King’s Men and very much look forward to the time when you get to that. I expect you will put it pretty high on your recommendations list — as least I liked it very, very much.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      I’m definitely looking forward to that one, Donna! We’ll see how it strikes me, but I’ll be going in with optimism, given what I’ve heard about it. 🙂 Thanks for the recommendation!

      • Brenda Townsend says:

        I’ve almost finished it, and I’m loving the language! Had to start a list of all the words that I’ve never heard before (and I’m pretty widely-read). Not looking them up as I go along, as I can get meaning from context and don’t want to interrupt the “flow,” but will definitely look them up when finished. Perhaps they are region-specific? The novel isn’t THAT old, so I was surprised there were that many…Many more than ANY other Pulitzer read (and I’m going pretty much chronologically). I love the added challenge and look forward to building my vocabulary. There are also many chuckle-inducing “noir” metaphors and similes that are a fun surprise when you reach them. Also loved the unexpected Civil War romance, but don’t want to spoil it for you! I predict that you’ll enjoy it…

  6. Kristin White says:

    It’s funny that you tell people to run from Scarlet Sister Mary. It wasn’t the Pulitzer committee’s first choice. It probably wasn’t even their second choice. Though you may know the story.

    Basically, one member (Robert Morss Lovett) wanted Upton Sinclair’s Boston to win, the committee chair wanted John B. Oliver’s Victim and Victor (long out of print now) to win. Burton, the chair, denounced Sinclair’s left-wing propaganda in a letter. Then Sinclair wrote an open letter saying Oliver’s book was just as much propaganda “for a respectable cause” ( homosexuality) and gathered a fair number of supporters. When Oliver’s book won the poll over Peterkin, the Pulitzer board rejected the choice and awarded it to Peterkin as sort of a Solomonic choice.

    Burton was so disgraced by the outcry that he resigned from the board and never served again. Lovett got “revenge” by swaying the committee to give Sinclair’s “Dragon’s Teeth” the pulitzer in 1943.

    But, yeah, Scarlet Sister Mary was meant to be an empathic portrayal of the Gullah people, but it ends up coming off as frighteningly racist to a modern reader.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Kristin, thanks for the comment—I wasn’t familiar with the story! I read up on it a little: I hate to correct you, but it doesn’t look to me like Lovett was involved at all in Sinclair’s prize in 1943. He wasn’t on the fiction jury, anyway, and apparently Sinclair had been recommended to the jury by a member of the Pulitzer family in advance, so whatever influence Lovett may have had (I don’t know anything about him) doesn’t sound critical to me. But your story about the controversy over Oliver and Burton’s resignation was all both interesting and true: always nice to learn something new about the Pulitzers! Thanks again for sharing it. 🙂

  7. Elizabeth says:

    A few years ago I decided to create a list of the best 20th century American and Canadian novels and read through it. I combined lists by The Modern Library, Library Journal, Radcliffe Publishing Course, Koen Book Distributors, Well Stocked Bookshelf, Time Magazine, Editor Eric. In order to be sure every year had representation, I added the Pulitzer Prizes.

    What I discovered, was that there were many Pulitzer Prize books mentioned by no other list. The winners were either popular books at the time which fell into obscurity (Peterkin, Wilson) or books by great authors written after the main bulk of their best work had already been published (Cather, Lewis, Faulkner, Hemingway). A rare exceptions is The Good Earth. As I read through my list, I am constantly noticing how much better written the nonpulitzers are than the pulitzers for a given year. Had I only read Pulitzers from the 1920s, I would have missed the best of Fitzgerald, Faulker, and Hemingway. I wouldn’t have read Babbitt, An American Tragedy, or the Red Storm. I have considered removing the Pulitzers from my list, but curiosity keeps them on, and I’ve decided to let my public library screen out the worst for me. If they don’t have the book I won’t read it, and based on your rankings, they were the worst. I do hope, however, that if people are reading Pulitzers, that they are already very well read already in 20th c literature, because the Pulitzers seemed to have missed the best of it. I think it’s a shame for people not to read This Side of Paradise or Farewell to Arms, for example.

    All this said, I have been reading your reviews as I go along and appreciate your the level of discernment and analysis which are far better than other reviews one might find on the Internet for these particular books. Thank you very much.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Elizabeth, what an interesting project! I think you raise a good point about the weirdness of the Pulitzer list….something I’ll have to confront sooner or later. I’m really pleased that my reviews are of interest, and I’ve always thought privately that I do a better job than most (not all) of the Pulitzer bloggers out there—there are quite a few of us! Anyway, it’s nice to have validation from an independent party on that point. 🙂 I hope you’ll drop by often and comment: happy reading!

  8. Mango Momma says:

    I, too, bailed on The Late George Apley. Ugh.

  9. Drew Moody says:

    HA! This is priceless. And I completely agree. “Now in November” wins my “Diamond in the Rough” award. What an AMAZING book.

  10. Brenda Townsend says:

    Pretty much agree with your findings. However, I would rank The Store a bit lower, and The Yearling, Gone With The Wind, The Good Earth, and Lamb in His Bosom a bit higher. Completely agree about the Tarkington books. And your ranking of Scarlet Sister Mary made me laugh. Definitely offensive for our times, but that embodies the reason that I began this journey…To discover worlds in different times and places other than my own. I’ve been surprised what the various titles say about their audiences tastes over the years. Eye-opening!

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      I can understand, obviously, folks having different preferences — glad we agree on Tarkington! 🙂 And you’re right — even a book I dislike as much as SSM teaches me something.

  11. Jessica says:

    I really like that your rating system is a pretty flexible one. I haven’t read as many of the Pulitzer winners as you have, but I think we are generally on the same page, except I’d maybe swap His Family with Arrowsmith.

    I read Gone With the Wind when I was in elementary school — I was obsessed with Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler for a good year or two of my childhood. I’m a little hesitant to revisit it, because I don’t want to be disappointed or disillusioned after so many years of fond memories! I might just have to plug my ears and pretend that everyone agrees it’s a great book. 🙂

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Jessica, thanks! It developed organically, but I find it more useful to me than arbitrary stars or letter grades. 🙂 I wonder how I’d feel about His Family now — read it years ago, now, given how long ago this blog started! Maybe I’d move it down also.

      GTTW was maybe the hardest read for me — I had fond memories of the movie from childhood, but had never read the book. I found its racial attitudes jarring and upsetting — and I found the skill of its storytelling strangely successful. It’s hard to feel you’re enjoying a book and simultaneously angry at it. In the end I think I came down more on the side of “this is too bad to be enjoyed” than on the side of “this is enjoyable enough that I can set aside the bad things, at least for a while, to enjoy it”. But I recognize everyone will reach their own conclusions about that kind of thing. I certainly know the feeling of being uneasy about approaching a book I liked as a child, wondering if I’ll “spoil” it for myself. I wish you luck, when you do!

  12. Jack Mahon says:

    My wife and I have been reading the Pulitzer Prize winners in order, more or less, for the last few years. We are making slow progress, but I am enjoying the journey. I like your website and I offer my ratings of the books I have read so far using your categories:

    Novels I recommend very highly:
    One of Ours by Willa Cather > Claude is a worthy hero
    Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry > Commanche Moon, the sequel is even better.
    For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway > Jury selection that should have won.
    Advise and Consent, by Allen Drury > Very informative about government.
    A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole > Hilarious. I loved it.
    The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara > Maybe everything you need to know about Gettysburg.

    Novels I recommend:
    The Road, by Cormac McCarthy > I can’t get it out of my head.
    The Caine Mutiny, by Herman Wouk > A great read.
    All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren > Not a hopeful book.
    The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway > Sure, I guess.
    Breathing Lessons, by Anne Tyler > Very enjoyable.
    Early Autumn by Louis Bromfield > Likeable heroes.
    The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck > ditto.
    The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton > interesting to step back in time.
    Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell > movie great, book better.
    So Big by Edna Ferber > very enjoyable.
    His Family by Ernest Poole > interesting time period, and very thought provoking.
    Alice Adams by Booth Tarkington > quite good, I thought
    The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington > ditto
    The Able McLaughlins by Margaret Wilson > ditto

    Novels with weaknesses that make me reluctant to recommend them:
    To Kill a Mockinbird, by Harper Lee > Very overrated I think, but mostly enjoyable.
    The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck > interesting and enjoyable.

    Novels I do not recommend:
    Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis > I loved it as a boy. Didn’t really like it on the reread.

    Novels I actively discourage people from reading:

    Run—save yourself while you still can:
    Scarlet Sister Mary by Julia Peterkin > an unlikable and unworthy heroine.

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