Did You Know?

For a few hours, the article on His Family at Wikipedia is being spotlighted in their “Did you know” section on their front page, thanks to its recent expansion (inspired by my project)?  A little tiny slice of happiness for me…always wanted an article to make the DYK section, but this is my first success. It’ll probably be gone by the time you read this, of course, but it was fun while it lasted.

1918: His Family, by Ernest Poole

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

Literary Merit:

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

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

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

Historical Value:

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

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

Last Word:

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

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

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

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

The side benefit to all this…

is that it allowed me to expand a nearly worthless three sentence Wikipedia article on this novel into a much sturdier thing.  Still woefully lacking in critical commentary, etc., because I lack the necessary sources, but at least there’s a plot summary now, and the article bears a citation.  You can have a look at the article if you like–it won’t tell you anything about my opinions of the book, of course, but if you’re interested in the ins and outs of the plot, it’s much easier to read there than to piece it together from my blog posts. And hopefully others will come along soon and improve what I’ve written.

I’m realizing this may become a habit, based on the condition of a lot of the articles Wikipedia has for obscure Pulitzer winners.  At least it’s work I enjoy!

“Mankind had suddenly unmasked and shown itself for what it was–still only a precocious child…”

“…And the picture rose in his mind of a child, standing there of giant’s size with dangerous playthings in its hands, and boastfully declaring, ‘I can thunder over the earth, dive in the ocean, soar on the clouds!  I can shiver to atoms a mountain, I can drench whole lands with blood!  I can look up and laugh at God!'”

The Great War has come.  I’d thought it was a non-factor in the book (which thus far made no mention of what year it was) because it didn’t concern these people in their private lives, far away from the battle…but no, Roger picked up the paper, July 30, 1914, and now everything has changed.  The petty childishness of the family (commented on before) is now dwarfed, in Roger’s eyes, by the childishness of the human race.  Seeing, as I do, from the benefit of a century’s hindsight, it is hard not to read a phrase like “I can shiver to atoms a mountain” and not feel Roger (and Ernest Poole, who conceived of him) eerily looking through time to the horrors of the mushroom cloud.

The war and private tragedy are combining to crush this little family that I have come to care about (even though their weaknesses are on full display…perhaps never more so than now in the first months of the war).  It’s hard to read this book in context–I look at a passage like Roger’s watching his young grandchildren and asking himself what kind of world will be left, asking himself if they can escape war and poverty.  And I cannot help but think that George and Elizabeth will be young and married when the market crashes.  They will raise children in the Great Depression only to see their sons go off to Normandy’s beaches or fly to their deaths in the Coral Sea, to see their daughters tend Victory Gardens and dance at the USO and pray their loved one returns safely home.  The century ahead, which Roger looks to with hope–hope that it will prove to be all that the dreams of progress promise it will be–is hard to see in that light.  But maybe I’m making the 20th Century out to be more grim than it truly was–Roger was too early to understand it, and I was too late.

As the family pulls together (and not easily) to survive the winter of 1914-1915, Deborah (the idealist school principal) turns to her father and says “Every nation at war is doing it, Dad–become like one big family–with everyone helping, doing his share.  Must a nation be at war to do that?  Can’t we be brothers without the guns?”

Can’t we, indeed.  I wonder.  It seems like fear is all that speaks to our hearts in a voice loud enough to bring us together.  Is Deborah too idealistic…can anyone point to a time where people pulled together without the threat of violence (if not war)?  And if not, what does that say about humanity?  I’m near the end, now: the next post will probably be my review of His Family.  Whether or not I can find an answer that satisfies me, I hope I can find Ernest Poole’s–he wrote this before the war had ended.  What did he see in their future?

“I was thinking of hungry people…”

“…Hungry, oh, for everything–life, its beauty, all it means. And I was thinking this is youth–no matter how old they happen to be.”

One hurdle I have to clear at the outset–I’m realizing I just have to talk about these books as though you’ve read them, even if you haven’t.  I’ll try to identify characters and situations clearly, and not give away every crucial plot point, but to dig into what I’m thinking, there’s no vague way to do this.

As I get further into His Family, it’s becoming clearer that one of the critical problems of the rapid pace of modern life (as far as Ernest Poole is concerned) is that no one really grows up.  Everyone is constantly a beginner at life–Roger Gale, the aging patriarch, is racist, perhaps sexist, certainly not comfortable in 1910s New York.  But his racism feels less like a deep angry fear, and more the casual intolerance of a child who’s never played with a particular group of children.  At first it seemed this would be a book about how old-fashioned, conservative Roger can’t accept the world, while his daughters try to enlighten him.  But it’s steadily clearer that the kids are just as clueless–Edith who hopes somehow to mimic her deceased mother (and can’t accept the world’s changing any more than her father can), and on the other end of the spectrum Laura, whose desperate quest to find a world devoid of responsibility and full of fun would be at least amusingly understandable in a teenager, but seems recklessly doomed in the late twenty-something that she is.

Deborah, the middle child, the schoolteacher, seems the most grounded so far with her desire to reach out and save the lives of these tenement children (“all Jews and Italians”, according to Roger).  But she is anchoring herself to a belief in 19th Century progress that must have already seemed quaintly deluded in a world that was slowly grinding progress into death and blood in the trenches of Northern France.

The underlying problem for me, of course, is whether our culture is any better at dealing with modernity.  Are we less likely to behave childishly, to seek escape in entertainment or tradition or the hope of progress?  Am I?  And does Poole see these people for who they are, or is he as deluded as the rest of them–is he sympathetic to Deborah or Edith, or even, heaven help us, Roger?  I wonder.  Roger’s about to visit Deborah’s school with her–we’ll see if I can pick up the signals there.

(Side note: The children in these turn-of-the-century novels always talk so preciously…the dialogue of the adults seems far more natural to my ears than the kids around the dinner table.  Have children changed so much, or is it just that literary conventions about children have changed?)

“He was thinking of the town he had known. …”

So begins His Family by Ernest Poole, the (now nearly forgotten) recipient of the first Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1918.  By happy chance, this opening (and some of what follows) allows me to talk a little about one of the reasons I’m taking this journey.

“The town” in question is New York–“he” is Roger Gale, an aging widower, and the “town he had known” is New York of the Civil War era, more or less.  The book begins with an extended meditation on what New York once was and is not now, and goes on to delve into the lives of the Dale family, weaving them into this image of the city.

I have to say at the outset of all this, that I’m under no confusion about what the Pulitzer Prize means.  I don’t believe I am about to read the best novels in American literature (though I hope some of them will be), or the classics that will stand the test of time (this first one, for example, was so obscure that the King County Libraries had to haul their only copy out of storage for me).  To the contrary, all I’m assuming is that, for a certain group of American “elites”, each book represented literature in America at that time.  And that, if I read them and pass the years with them as a guide to the changing landscape of the nation, I might see a little more clearly where it is that I live–who it is that I am, if that’s not being too dramatic.  At the very least, it may open a small window to the past, which will be more than enough for me, if so.

Two comments as I begin this book: one is about New York, a city I do not know first-hand.  On the rare occasions I read novels set in Seattle, I find the scenery a bit distracting (“Ooh, they just mentioned Pike Place! But that’s not near Greenlake at all…”).  I wonder if knowing New York would change American literature for me–from Ernest Poole’s forgotten novel to The Great Gatsby and everything in-between.  If folks dropping by have their own comments (either about New York, or how knowing a setting changes a book), I’d be interested.

And secondly, I found interesting a little exchange between Roger Gale and his daughter regarding her idea of moving out of the city: “‘A suburb, eh,’ her father said, and his face took on a look of dislike. They had often talked of suburbs.” I’m intrigued at the distastefulness of the suburb (as I’ve lived almost exclusively in suburbs, save my two years in Bellingham and 6 months in downtown Mount Vernon, WA), and wonder a few things.  I wonder if suburbs ever lost their diminished status until the sudden boom post-WWII in the Levittown era–or if Roger’s perhaps a bit out-of-date and out-of-touch.  I’m not far in enough yet to know that about his character, or to know if the impending move to the suburbs is a minor touch or a major plot point.  But just the idea of the tension between city and suburb lets me think a bit on what America is like, and whether where we live impacts who we are.  Roger says his daughter will “hole up in her house” if she moves to the suburbs–cut herself off from the kind of community there is in the big city.  Do we live that way, out here in the ‘burbs?

Well, it’s early yet, and Poole’s writing is a bit melodramatic and sentimental, but I like the Gales, and I’m not regretting this project so far.  We’ll see how it goes.

Starting out…

This blog is being written to chronicle a particular journey I intend to take–specifically, to read the Pulitzer Prize-winning novels in chronological order (that is the recipients of the “Pulitzer Prize for the Novel” from 1918 to 1947, and of the “Pulitzer Prize for Fiction” from 1948 to the present).  I have my reasons, which I’ll try to address in some early posts here, but none of them are any better than a mountain climber’s reasons for ascending a peak (and maybe a bit worse).  I’m a little curious what the experience will show me about American literature (and, if the literature is any good, about myself), but that’s all in the future.

I’ll post thoughts during the reading of some books (or so I anticipate), and more thought-out “reviews” at the end of each one.  I have no particular time in which I hope to accomplish the goal (within a year or two makes sense, but it’s going to require pretty dedicated reading to finish this in 12 months).  And, although I imagine events from my life will creep into most of what I write (and I may occasionally get into the details of those events, to make it clearer where I’m coming from), this isn’t primarily going to be a diary or journal in the most personal sense.  It’s one side of me–maybe not even the most important side of me–that I’m interested in hearing from.

I’m interested in hearing from you, too, if you’ve dropped by.  Please feel free to comment–to ask a question, to raise a point, to offer an insight.  I don’t know what form I want all this to take, but I know that part of what I hope for is some meaningful conversation about books and the human experience with people who are also interested in such things.

For now, it’s just me and a green hard-bound copy of His Family, by Ernest Poole, a novel written at the end of World War One.  I’ll let you know how it goes.