“Invasion had come to the town of Adano.”

So begins A Bell for Adano by John Hersey, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel for 1945.  Hersey’s approach to the novel is explicitly didactic from the beginning—prior to this opening sentence, he offers a foreword that explains his purpose in writing the novel, and it’s all the optimism and exceptionalism and spirited nationalism (maybe the best of all these impulses, to be sure) you would expect from an American writing in the flowering of the Pax Americana, a world-altering victory that would usher in a new era, and one in which the Stars and Stripes reigned supreme.

He informs us in the foreword that his interest is in showing us “a good man”, Major Joppolo, an Italian-American tasked with establishing law and order in the Sicilian city of Adano now that it’s under American occupation as the Allies press on into Italy to topple Mussolini.  He informs us, before the story even begins, that Joppolo “represented in miniature what America can and cannot do in Europe,” and eventually claims sweepingly that “he is our future in the world.  Neither the eloquence of Churchill nor the humaneness of Roosevelt, no Charter, no four freedoms or fourteen points, no dreamer’s diagram so symmetrical and so faultless on paper, no plan, no hope, no treaty—none of these things can guarantee anything.  Only men can guarantee, only the behavior of men under pressure, only our Joppolos.”

That’s a lot of weight to hang on a single character in a novel before we’ve heard him speak or seen him step from his landing craft and survey the town he will inhabit.  My initial criticism of this novel is that, stylistically, it proceeds to give every sign of being just that single-minded, presenting Major Joppolo in the simplest possible light and bringing in basically every other character and situation in such a way as to show both how stacked the odds are against his success and yet of course how inevitably he will succeed by dint of his sheer goodness.  On the other hand, this is the sort of criticism I floated about The Bridge of San Luis Rey when it began, in moralistic fashion and aggressively foreshadowing the book’s ending, and that turned out to be a gem of a novel, one of the brighter stars in Pulitzer’s constellation.  Wilder made the style work, and turned the novel’s limitations into a powerful rhetorical device that imbued each of his characters with seriousness and meaning.  So who am I to say yet that Hersey will not do the same?  I only express concern at the outset.

Licata Sicily from Wikipedia

The fictional Adano is allegedly based on this gorgeous Sicilian city, Licata: the panorama (courtesy of Wikipedia) is a wonderful image to carry with me as I read.

Victor Joppolo is middle-aged, steady, almost too classically the picture of the stoic, determined man of justice so beloved by American popular art in the middle of the 20th century (I think of Gary Cooper here, and his many imitators), although I’ll note with satisfaction that Hersey could easily have skewed towards making him a dialect-spouting, excitable caricature of an Italian immigrant, and totally avoids it.  Still, though, I find myself more drawn in the early going to the much more cynical, sharp-minded sergeant who accompanies Joppolo ashore, a Hungarian-American named Leonard Borth, who has traveled the world, it seems, and likes a good joke more than Major Joppolo.  The two of them have to figure out how to control a town full of people they don’t know—half of them ex-Fascists who dream Mussolini will rise again, and the other half Italians who hated Mussolini and Fascism but hardly can be expected to trust a couple of American G.I.s to do much better.  The little I know about this book suggests that the titular bell—and recovering or restoring it somehow for the town—plays a big role in that.  But surely the book will have to cover more than this kind of architectural rescue mission.

There’s not much more to say as yet—as is my custom, I make this first post based on only the first few pages, just to give me something to reference later (either to note happily how spot on I was, or to cringe a little at how far off my guesses flew).  I approach Hersey’s novel right now, thinking that at best I’m reading a pleasant but slightly forgettable “rah rah America” story, and at worst an excessively stereotypical and pig-headed “rah rah America” story.  Above the floor of the worst Pulitzers but well below the altitudes reached by the best.  Time will tell.

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“Sam Braden never talked about his father.”

So begins Journey in the Dark, by Martin Flavin, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1944.  Flavin is another of Pulitzer’s forgotten names: his Wikipedia article (linked to in that first sentence) is about as barebones as any of the authors I’ve yet encountered, and it appears this was about his only swing of the bat in terms of making a splash nationally with his art.  Combine that with the fact that this novel starts like several of the worst books I’ve yet read—a slow retrospective glance at a Midwestern family in the 1880s that doesn’t have quite the glamour and money they think they deserve/once might have had—and it seems like a surefire recipe for a bad experience.

Except that I’ve read about the first third of the novel already, and the main reason I’ve moved so quickly is that it’s really good.  Not Steinbeck good; not Wharton good.  Maybe not even Stribling or La Farge good (although I’m not at all sure yet). Still, though, it’s clearly better than any non-Steinbeck novel I’ve read in the last three years (which encompasses about a decade’s worth of Pulitzer winners).  For the first time in a while, I’m sort of hoping one or more of you either has read this or feels like jumping in, since I’d love an outside perspective.  First, though, let me offer my own.

The setting jumps around a bit (I’ll explain in a second), but for the first third, it really is based pretty solidly in fictional Wyattville, Iowa, a small Mississippi River town dominated by the large number of descendants from the founding Wyatt family.  The Bradens are poor, based largely on Sam’s father’s severe laziness, but just high enough in status (his father’s East Coast law degree—earned goodness-only-knows-how—gets him the job as “town marshal”) to hob-nob with the Wyatts in certain social situations (but not all of them).  Sam’s the youngest of four kids—ambitious, thoughtful, a little bit of a dreamer and also a good kid who mostly wants his mother to be proud of him.  I’m calling him a kid, but as I mentioned, this book skips around—so far I’ve seen little vignettes of Sam as a much older, fairly successful businessman.  The glimpses don’t normally explain enough to give away important plot points, and quickly there’s usually some event that causes older Sam to remember being young again, and we flop back into a fairly conventional chronological re-telling of Sam’s rise from being youngest barefoot kid of the town’s no-good sheriff to being a man of substance.  There’s something very Dickensian going on for Sam (it’s no coincidence, I think, that Flavin has Sam’s mother give him a copy of David Copperfield for Christmas, and later there’s brief mention that Sam enjoys Great Expectations, maybe enough to make it his favorite novel: certainly there’s a lot of Pip in him).

All of that, though, is only enough to make this a potentially good novel—it has the bones of better works, but that’s never a guarantee.  What I appreciate most about this novel so far is its modernity and maturity, which is most easily encapsulated in Sam’s relationship with his next door neighbor, a girl named Cassie.  Cassie, you see, is a young black woman—two years older than Sam, adventurous with a sunny demeanor—and by the time she hits her teens, she takes a shine to Sam.  He initially resists, but not for long.  Here’s the remarkable thing: Flavin depicts a real series of sexual encounters.  Not in graphic detail (although there are plenty of lines that would make Edith Wharton blush), but honestly—the tension that builds between the two of them before an illicit encounter in an abandoned warehouse in a storm, then the furtive, repeated liaisons when time allows and no one else is watching.  Furthermore, Cassie and her family are depicted as regular folks: generous, lively, decent neighbors.  Although Sam is aware that he needs to keep his relationship with Cassie secret from his white friends (particularly the toffee-nosed Wyatt girl who lives in the mansion and never says a word to him….yeah, like I said, really inspired by Great Expectations), there’s never a hint of his feeling any kind of internal shame about their racial differences, or any condescension to Cassie’s family (beyond a very brief mention of the fact that Cassie has no discernibly “black” accent, unlike her father—a very neutral statement in context, honestly, although perhaps some judgment is implied).  Even when they are discovered and he must be confronted by an adult, it’s Cassie’s father, a black man, who scolds Sam—and the interracial situation is never even remotely addressed, despite the fact that I was absolutely certain, given the time period, that Sam would catch an earful for “traveling outside of his rightful folk” or something like that.  And Cassie’s father is not even as outraged as I would expect a modest turn-of-the-century man to be when discovering the neighbor boy has been shtupping his daughter regularly on the down-low for a year plus.  He does assert several times that it’s shameful what they’ve been doing, but he’s a deacon in his church, and his daughter has turned up pregnant—this seems pretty much par for the course.  And honestly, he spends more time on praising Sam than on shaming him, emphasizing how good a young man he is in most respects, and how proud his mother (then deceased) would have been to see him grow up, and the burden he feels as a man who’s watched Sam grow up to hold him accountable to the values Sam’s mother would have wanted instilled.

Yeah—racially and sexually progressive.  Or at least the attitudes towards race and sex of the central characters would not be totally out of place in a novel written and set in the 2010s—which is astonishing in 1944.  If Flavin keeps it up, this will win my personal award (which I talked about a long time ago, I think during a terribly racist stretch in Scarlet Sister Mary) for being the earliest American novel I’m familiar with to treat race in a decent and non-embarrassing fashion.  Add to that the fact that, in what is maybe even more evident to me after my long sojourn with Upton Sinclair, Flavin can write a real character.  Sam in particular is incredibly complex—single-minded in some things (like his pursuit of the Wyatt girl, or his ambition to make something of himself), but undecided and malleable in others (for instance, when, as a child, he gets an unexpected gift of cash, he wavers back and forth between buying himself a sled or buying his mother a gift—the balancing act feels very natural).  And most of the townsfolk are distinguishable from each other and operating with sensible motivations in response to the outside stimuli we would expect them to: these feel like real human beings grappling with a world that’s as simultaneously marvelous and malevolent as the real world is.

The dialogue doesn’t have a ton of sparkle to it, and the narration falls a little flat at times.  The jerks back and forth between the main, chronological storyline and these “flash-forwards” to an older, wealthier Sam don’t always work very smoothly and can be a little disorienting.  And again, this book at times drags so much out of Great Expectations (seriously: there is a scene where Sam arrives at the Wyatt house on an errand and sees the Wyatt girl he likes playing with a rich young boy, who he hates immediately and wants to fight….it’s like Pip and Estella are both ill and we’re watching their American understudies) that it can feel a little needlessly redundant.  All of these criticisms are valid, and unless Flavin can master them, will keep this novel out of the highest levels of the Pulitzer stratosphere.  But there’s so much else to like right now, I’m rooting for him to take this as far as it can go—there’s a real “American success story” planted inside Sam Braden, and Flavin seems ready to set the story in the real America.  Again, if you’ve read this before (or have time to grab a copy), please hop into the comments—this one has me wanting to talk it out!

First Line Friday: Guess the book by its first line

We take a break from poetry here at Following Pulitzer for a little game I’ve been playing with friends on Facebook for 5 years now—a game in which I post the first lines of a diverse array of novels and short stories, and people have to guess them (without cheating with Google or any other resource, online or in print, other than their own brains and the brains of the people next to them).  I think it’s fun, or at least fun enough to do once a year, and this year, on November 1st, I thought a “first line contest” sounded like something fun for the blog too.  I’m still posting the usual contest at Facebook—for those of you who are my friends in person and are connected with me there—but I’m posting the same contest here for my friends out here in the blog world, to see if you think this is fun also.  If it works, it’ll be a very occasional feature here, probably once or twice a year, and if it doesn’t, I hope it’ll be fun attempting once, at least.  I’ll emphasize that anybody is welcome to have a guess, and I encourage anybody happening by to give it their best shot!  You have nothing to lose, after all, and the guessing is kind of entertaining, I think, especially when multiple guesses and comments lead somebody to work out the answer to one of these.  In four previous runs, we have never gotten all 11 books “solved”—I’ve always had to reveal the title of the toughest example—so I’m hoping we break that streak this year.

How does this work?  I’m posting the first line of a novel or short story—at times I have a little discretion as to what “counts” as the first line, but I try not to cheat too egregiously.  The books/stories can be from any time period or genre, for children or for adults, and about the only thing tying all of them together in any meaningful sense is that all of them are on my bookshelves (and that they haven’t appeared in any of the previous four contests)—this year’s only new wrinkle is that I’ve decided to allow myself to post a book or two that I haven’t read all of (although I like the book and know it reasonably well).  Your job is to guess the author and title of the work I’ve quoted from.  You are bound by honor and my express request not to Google or use any other reference sources for this contest—otherwise this would be really dull—although discussing it with friends and family (as long as they abide by the no Google/other resource rule) is acceptable and even encouraged.  The point is to see if you can dredge up from your memory enough to figure out the author/title of something I’m betting you’ve read, or even just heard enough about to be able to guess it from the first line.  My only caveat as far as using a non-human source—if you own a copy of the work, it’s fine to check it before you post it as a guess.  Any other reference work or tool, print or online, is strictly forbidden.  If it’s driving you crazy and you end up Googling or something to end your own agony, I understand, but don’t share your findings with the rest of us!

Otherwise, have fun. 🙂  Feel free to offer half-guesses, or lists of titles “it can’t be although it sounds like it”, or comments of any kind: usually we’re able to crowd-source the titles pretty rapidly.  Some are intended to be easy, some harder, and a couple I’d be surprised if anyone can manage to guess right away.  Any that don’t fall in a day or two, I’ll start offering some hints about, to see if I can nudge us to completion.  The only other new wrinkle this year is that I’ve cross-posted this here, and if a blog reader gets one of these right, I’ll do my best to update the note on Facebook (and vice versa). Oh, and one clue, in connection with this blog—one of the first lines below is from a Pulitzer winner I’ve read, which means it has been the title of a blog post of mine…maybe that will jog a memory?  And now, for the 2013 candidates:

1. The intense interest aroused in the public by what was known at the time as “The Styles Case” has now somewhat subsided.

2. I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.  The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling: like that singular organic jewel of our seas, which grows brighter as one woman wears it and, worn by another, dulls and goes to dust.

3. I have just returned from a visit to my landlord—the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with.  This is certainly a beautiful country!

4. Keith, the boy in the rumpled shorts and shirt, did not know he was being watched as he entered room 215 of the Mountain View Inn.  Neither did his mother and father, who both looked hot and tired.

5. A man with binoculars.  That is how it began: with a man standing by the side of the road, on a crest overlooking a small Arizona town, on a winter night.

6. On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York.

7. This inscription could be seen on the glass door of a small shop, but naturally this was only the way it looked if you were inside the dimly lit shop, looking out at the street through the plate-glass door. [The sentence refers to an image of reversed letters that appears at the top of the page.]

8. The first outbreak I saw was in a remote village that officially had no name.  The residents called it “New Dachang,” but this was more out of nostalgia than anything else.

9. A throng of bearded men, in sad-coloured garments, and grey, steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods, and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes.

10. In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three.  Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.

11. When I reached ‘C’ Company lines, which were at the top of the hill, I paused and looked back at the camp, just coming into full view below me through the grey mist of early morning.  We were leaving that day.

“Lanny Budd was the only occupant of a small-sized reception-room.”

So begins Dragon’s Teeth by Upton Sinclair, the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1943.  Upton Sinclair, of course, is a famous name—the kind of name that folks who don’t read literature may remember from a high school class, the kind of name that creeps into Trivial Pursuit questions and Jeopardy answers.  But most of us, of course, haven’t read any of his stuff: his magnum opus is 1906’s The Jungle, a look at the Chicago stockyards that’s so famously harrowing that most of us don’t have the stomach for reading it.  I myself have only ever read excerpts, and generally haven’t wanted a hot dog for days afterwards.  Maybe a very select few of us have encountered 1927’s Oil!, although I’ll admit I’ve never even picked it up once, and might never have heard of the novel (or that Sinclair wrote it) had Paul Thomas Anderson not chosen to adapt it (loosely) in an Oscar-nominated film called There Will Be Blood a couple years ago.  Dragon’s Teeth, then, feels to me a little like one of those consolation prizes coming in—the author that the Pulitzers never got the chance to recognize (or felt like recognizing) before, winning a little too late in his career, perhaps?  Certainly another Sinclair (Lewis, that is) got one of those pity prizes for Arrowsmith, anyway.  The novel is the third in an eleven novel series (yes, eleven) that arcs through most of 20th Century American history up to that point, following along with the life and career of a man named Lanny Budd (a reference to Melville’s Billy? I kind of doubt it, but you tell me).

Lanny is the bright, cosmopolitan son of an American arms manufacturer, and as the novel opens, he is waiting for the news that his wife has given birth. The initial story we get is a bit outlandish: we are apparently in Europe (France, I’m pretty sure) and Lanny’s wife is someone who married him at the drop of a hat.  Literally, we are expected to believe that she was a debutante who got into trouble in Italy, asked the advice of an American reporter there whose advice she trusted, and when he told her “ditch the guy you’re with, get on a train, find Lanny Budd and marry him”, she did, despite the fact that she’d never met Lanny before.  They married within 24 hours of her stepping off the train.  So now, here he is, a fish out of water as an American overseas, waiting for some nurse to stick her head into the reception room and let him know he’s a father.  That’s as much as I’ve read so far, and it’s a little too far-fetched for me so far.  Maybe all of this will settle down soon, but for now it’s hard to see how I’ll identify much with these characters, or take an interest in them.  I wonder (as I always do when the Pulitzers award a sequel) whether or not I’m just out of luck picking up characters who were really introduced elsewhere, and who I won’t ever really understand.

Upton Beall Sinclair Jr. as depicted on the co...

Upton Sinclair in 1934—a guy spoiling for a fight in defense of California’s poor. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sinclair, though, is a fascinating guy, and it’s possible that this novel (which seems to be starting out around the late 1920s) will explore some of the political landscape of America in a meaningful way.  Sinclair wasn’t just the muckraker who exposed contaminated food in the stockyards—he remained active in politics throughout the first half of the century, backing socialist candidates, founding ACLU chapters, ultimately running for Governor of California on the EPIC platform (End Poverty in California) unsuccessfully.  He remained a little marginalized by all sides—a man too capitalist for the real radicals but too radical for the mainstream—and for that reason is interesting to me.  I learned a little about the leftist movements on the West Coast in the 1920s and 1930s when I was working on digitizing labor history documents at the University of Washington, reading the letters of folks like Anna Louise Strong and Lincoln Steffens and occasionally encountering mentions of Upton Sinclair and his work, and it makes me curious to see what his fiction is like.  I think right now my expectations of him as a novelist are not very high, but that I’m trying to make myself ready to be satisfied with a work that’s historically and politically interesting even if it’s not very successful as prose.  But I also don’t want to draw too many conclusions just yet: Lanny may yet win me over!  Onward and upward.

“The street was darkened by a smoky sunset, and light had not yet come on in the lamps near the empty house.”

So begins Ellen Glasgow‘s In This Our Life, the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel for the year 1942.  The opening scene of the darkening street and the empty house quickly features our main character, Asa Timberlake, an aging Virginian scion of a great family laid low, a man trapped in a marriage he cannot abide and a career he’d sooner lose than keep.  He reminds me in many respects of the more exotically named Colonel Miltiades Vaiden, the man at the heart of most of the plots in T. S. Stribling’s The Store, but where The Colonel was interesting as a schemer and a man constantly drawn into the lives of those around him, Asa Timberlake is disappointingly uninteresting, thus far.  He has somewhat strained relationships with his daughters, Stanley and Roy—yes, those are the names of his daughters, and no, as far as I know the plot will not feature them moving to Las Vegas and starting up a magic act—and a feeling of hapless melancholy more or less pervades everything else he touches, from what I’ve seen.

In many ways, the novel’s opening chapter suggests I’m in for another of Pulitzer’s Worst Hits—it’s almost textbook “bad writing”, so much so that I feel I must be judging it too harshly.  We start with aging Asa looking at his old family house being demolished (symbolism, much?).  An unimportant character appears out of nowhere, and extricates Important Plot Points question by question, like a Socratic parody of how to communicate to the audience.  The conversation goes something like this:

“Is that you, Asa?  Aren’t you supposed to be at Significant Job?”
“Yes, it is my job for Reasons Important to My Emotional State Which I Will Reveal to You, a Stranger.”
“Well, my job now is knocking down this house. Say, isn’t it your old house where Important Family Event occurred?”
“Ah, yes, Important Family Event about which I will mention just a few more Revealing Details.”
“Yeah, that was right before Incident I Will Stop Short of Relating Out of Propriety, since I assume the narrator will handle it in a moment, wasn’t it?”
“Yes.”
“And then Antagonist bought it right out from under you when Other Important Family Event made that a necessity?”
“You remember my entire backstory with almost omniscient precision, which is weird, since we’ve never met, and I only vaguely knew your grandfather.”
“Well, that’s my job. That and knocking down this Obvious Metaphor you used to live in. It’s surprisingly hard to demolish!”
“That’s because the house represents Something Significant about the Past. Also we hired a good architect.”

(I promise you, I’m exaggerating only slightly—reading it was like looking closely at a paint-by-numbers Mona Lisa.  It’s like reading the plot of the first novel an alien wrote after studying our literature in secret—it knows the notes, but not the music.) Eventually, the unimportant character disappears, and almost all of the rest of the first chapter consists of our omniscient narrator Telling, Not Showing us who Asa is, what all has happened over the first sixty years of his life, how he feels about it, how that affects all his relationships, and what kind of straits he feels he’s in now. It’s as though Glasgow doesn’t trust us for a minute with her story, and has to front-load all the symbolism and significance so that we can’t possible misunderstand the events of the plot or use them to reach any truths she may not have intended.

Ellen Glasgow, 1906

Oh, Ellen Glasgow, we don’t have to be enemies, but you’re going to have to meet me half-way. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ll grant that Glasgow has more skill on a sentence level than the worst of her predecessors, so at any given moment the book can give some pleasure.  That first sentence, for example, is a pretty serviceable opening—the scene itself is cliché, but the way she describes it is at least slightly unconventional.  That’s the pattern so far, with decent rhetorical execution of really bad plotting and character development.  I’ll give it credit: if we continue in this vein, it will be an entirely new way for a Pulitzer reading experience to go bad.  It gives me more respect for her talent, I guess, than decently plotted stuff that is terribly written, but frankly the other kind of stuff is more fun to read, and this one’s long, so I’m not really looking forward to how this goes.

Reasons for optimism?  Well, I was skeptical about The Store at first too, and I ended up getting a lot out of it—as I said early on in this post, I feel like we could possibly get similarly interesting stuff out of Asa.  The raw material’s there to work with, anyway.  If she can stop using the third-person narration to announce how every character feels and why, and start writing some meaningful dialogue, that’ll help, and if this book can be about anything but his bad marriage and his daughters’ bad marriages (or be about them in an interesting way), there’s hope.  But I’m not clinging to that hope with any degree of confidence.

“To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.”

So begins John Steinbeck‘s The Grapes of Wrath, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1940.  With Grapes, I take on what is probably the most well-regarded novel in Pulitzer’s pantheon—the book that, more than any other recipient of the honor (with apologies to Edith Wharton and Harper Lee), has the status of “classic American novel” across almost every demographic.  Well-regarded by critics and lay readers, praised by grad students and by 11th graders (at least on occasion), its title is instantly recognizable to most of the reading public, and if Americans were asked to list novels they know are supposed to be “great” or “important”, I have no trouble believing that Grapes would make the top ten.  Its popularity is not universal, of course, but no book can make that claim.  Still, its public esteem towers above most of its Pulitzer brothers and sisters—forgotten novels that survive now only on dusty library shelves and in the hands of well-intentioned if mediocre bloggers—as a name that does the prize credit.  Like Babe Ruth or Nadia Comenici, we can argue about whether it remains the very best of its peers, but we are sure that no list of the “greatest” would be accurate if it is excluded.  This is pretty lofty praise, I know, but I think it’s worth acknowledging that I’m approaching a book with a daunting reputation—one of the few books on the list where I feel as though, if I review it negatively, my comments will reflect more badly on me than they will on the book, whose fame will more than defend it.  This is not to say I won’t be honest about it!  But it does give pause.

English: (1885-1978) US journalist Source: htt...

Seriously, Anna Louise Strong is fascinating—agree with her or not (and I often don’t), reading her work made me think, which is one of my highest compliments. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My history with Steinbeck is limited to having taught Of Mice and Men once (and loving it), and having done a little reading of excerpts here and there—otherwise I know him more by his reputation than by anything else.  I’ve never even tried to read The Grapes of Wrath, nor have I seen the film (though I’ve seen still photographs of a young Henry Fonda often enough that, like it or not, he’s Tom Joad for me).  The closest I’ve ever come to reading it was during a project I worked on at the University of Washington—when combing through the letters of Anna Louise Strong, a famous socialist/communist writer, I found, read, and scanned her letters to Eleanor Roosevelt (who, it must be said, seemed to enjoy sparring with Strong, but wasn’t terribly receptive to her more radical leanings).  In a letter written in April of 1939, she talks about her travels with John Steinbeck in California, and implores Eleanor to read his “tremendous novel,” The Grapes of Wrath, which has just come out.  Roosevelt read the book, called it “an unforgettable experience”, and became one of Steinbeck’s staunchest defenders against public criticism about the political implications of his work.  I was intrigued by this exchange—and by Strong, a fascinating woman whose memoirs are well worth the read…not many people were close with both Trotsky and Mao, and her stories about traveling in the Soviet Union right after the Revolution are really spell-binding—but never got as far as picking up a copy.  I don’t know what slowed me down…maybe I just got distracted?

Anyway, I’ve read the first two chapters, and so far I’m loving it.  Steinbeck has an incredible eye for detail—most of the time, when I read, the opening chapters irritate me as authors stumble again and again over little errors.  Trains disappear behind hills that couldn’t possibly be there if the landscape was accurately described; trees in the wind suddenly behave like cartoon caricatures rather than looking like trees actually do in a storm; etc.  But Steinbeck has really beautiful command of almost every detail, capturing the little gestures and tics that make humans real, and describing them with economy and skill.  Joad’s character is really well-formed from almost the moment he speaks: the interactions with the truck driver ring almost perfectly true, and the language captures the feel and sound of Oklahoma farmers and truck drivers without resorting to the sloppy, slangy dialect that most other American novelists of the period seemed to think was de rigeur.  Obviously at this early stage I can’t anticipate much of where the story’s going, but I like how fully he immerses me in the world from the beginning.  As much as I loved Now in November, and I truly did love that book, the maturity of Steinbeck’s prose is signalling to me already that this book will depict the grim reality of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression in a way that Josephine Johnson’s novel couldn’t do as well.  If I’m right, this is going to be a really wonderful reading experience, and I’m looking forward to a book for the first time in a little while, which is nice.

This isn’t to say that it’ll be all roses for Steinbeck.  I’m a little concerned about the pacing of the story, and whether or not he’ll try too hard to take in the big epic generalities that he does in the first chapter (which is often great reading, but feels a little remote—I’d rather stick with the Joads, I think, if it’s all the same to him).  And I know that I’ll have to talk about gender—a criticism I’ve levied against Mice and Men (a book I otherwise really dig) and which I can already tell will be at least partly applicable to Grapes.  I’ve started well and then faded fast before, too, so I’ll keep an eye out for that…for now, it’s onward into Oklahoma in the 1930s, and one of the book’s most celebrated moments, involving a reptile of the order Testudines.

“A column of smoke rose thin and straight from the cabin chimney.”

Thus begins The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1939.  This is the story of young Jody Baxter, an only child living in the wilds of rural Florida sometime in the late 1800s.  I know eventually he’ll meet the title character—a young deer—but for now it’s just Jody at home.  What do I make of it so far?

There are a few warning signs that resemble bad trips I’ve been on before—weird inconsistencies (we are told that A) the dogs pay rapt attention to Jody and B) the dogs pay no attention to Jody, literally five sentences apart), occasional inaccurate observations about natural phenomena (although to Rawlings’s credit, most of her observations about natural creatures and events are spot on), and a heavy reliance on dialect.  As dialects go, Jody and his parents speak something slightly more incomprehensible than Cean and her family in Lamb in His Bosom, but less comprehensible than the worst excesses of Scarlet Sister Mary.  So far, the dialect hasn’t posed any major problems in getting character depth (unlike both of the aforementioned works), but that’s mostly because none of the conversations so far are all that deep—dialect or no dialect, it’s hard to screw up conversations about why a boy felt like running off to the ‘crick’, or how tasty his mother’s sweet potato pone is.  My concern is that, when we have to get into more difficult and complicated conversations, the dialect seems heavy enough to be an encumbrance, both on Rawlings and on me.  I’m not sure she can be deft enough with it to get across serious dialogue: certainly her predecessors in this arena did not acquit themselves with valor.

N.C. Wyeth

N.C. Wyeth, looking much more bad-ass than any illustration he ever drew. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But this leads me to my real underlying fear: what if the book never tries for anything sufficiently serious?  This is the only Pulitzer I’ve run into so far that is shelved with the children’s literature in the library—my edition has big, Sunday School style illustrations of a cherubic blond boy playing with wild animals.  (Okay, the illustrator is N. C. Wyeth, who probably deserves a kinder summary than that, but I’m sorry, they look exactly like the feltboard images I remember from Sunday School classes when I was 8.)  What I’ve read so far reminds me very much of other children’s literature I read when I was eight or nine—Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series, maybe, or The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew.  And I’ll admit that I’m not terribly enthusiastic about that fact.  Jody is sweet, and his parents seem charming, and I can’t pinpoint anything about the novel that seems off-putting right now, but honestly a lot of that feels like the novel’s determination to maintain a peaceful little glow surrounding the characters.  I’m sure there will be conflict—I suspect around the whole “you can’t cage a wild animal, Jody” notion, though admittedly I know nothing about the deer or how it enters Jody’s life—but the stakes seem so low right now, it’s hard to work out how to get invested in it.

This, it seems to me, will be a nice chance for us to have a brief conversation about whether children’s literature deserves equal footing with literature for adults, in discussions of quality.  Is it plausible that a novel written for nine or ten year olds (if The Yearling really is such a thing—time alone will tell) could be the best novel of the year in the United States, worthy of acclaim above any “adult” competitors?  This year, Rawlings’ novel beats out, among other titles, John dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy, and William Faulkner’s The Unvanquished.  I’m interested in that decision, and the larger children’s lit question I posed.  I think we can all agree that, below a certain level, children’s books can’t be talked about in the same light as adult books—I don’t care how much your kids love Goodnight Moon, it doesn’t deserve a Pulitzer.  (Well done, James—here comes the hate mail!)  But there’s a hard case left in the middle here—hard, in part, because many books not written for children are now associated with them and largely read by them, like the work of Lewis Carroll, or, to name a Pulitzer winner, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird.  I don’t know who Rawlings wrote The Yearling for.  For all I know, she didn’t know either.  I guess we can get into author intention too, if we like, if we think that’s important.  But I’ll leave my fundamental question to you (which I hope you’ll respond to in the comments) as I basically set it out above: If we’re trying to assess the “greatness” of a book, can we compare books written for adults and books written for children on a more or less even playing field?

I’ll stipulate at the outset that I read and loved children’s literature as a child, that I still (on occasion) read from that category, both old and new titles, and that I think there’s no question it has immense value for children, and for adults.  I’m just wondering whether it has a place on a “this is the best novel written this year” list.  My wife tells me this is snobbery, and she may be right: full disclosure—she reads children’s and YA titles pretty extensively these days, and I do only rarely.  I don’t know if my failure to get excited about the genre is a personal flaw or not, but I’m willing, at least, to be convicted on those charges if the evidence is sufficiently sound.  And I recognize that, in part, the challenge here comes from the fact that any attempt to select a “best” work of art is deeply difficult, absolutely soaked with hubris, and probably unwise to begin with.  But if we are going to bother with a “best” novel, I wonder how we go about comparing Little House in the Big Woods (published in 1932) with The Store (the Pulitzer winner in 1933, and so Wilder’s competition).  Your reflections are, as always, avidly solicited.