1918 – Ernest Poole, His Family


The “him” of the title is the indomitable Roger Gale, a 60-year-old New York City widower/businessman with three grown daughters: capricious young Laura, thoroughly modern “feminist” Deborah, and wife-and-mother Edith. It’s the beginning of the new century, where dentistry straightens your teeth, gay people go dancing on the roof of the Astor until the wee hours – and America’s rising immigrant population lives in virtual poverty while the Manhattan elite live high. Then the war in Europe intervenes, making Roger’s life difficult and the lives of the city’s poor tenement residents unbearable. Poole’s narration is antiquated and formal (people smile “constrainedly”), and at times the dialogue (“listen here, young man”) sounds rather contrived. But the novel has a social conscience: Deborah teaches immigrant children and becomes an innovator in New York education. Poole had a flirtation with socialism in his youth and helped Upton Sinclair research The Jungle. So this novel was an interesting debut for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Read the book online.

1919 – Booth Tarkington, The Magnificent Ambersons


Ostensibly the story of George Amberson Minafer, grandson of the respected affluent old Major Amberson of Midland, America – Tarkington is from Indiana – circa 1870s through the early 20th Century. The Ambersons mix it up with Eugene Morgan, a widowed inventor who courted George’s mother decades ago; and his lovely, spirited daughter Lucy, with whom George is smitten. George Minafer, who thinks himself quite important, is “a remarkably good-looking fool-boy with the pride of Satan and a set of nice new drawing-room manners that he probably couldn’t use more than half an hour at a time without busting.” Everyone wants to see him get his comeuppance, and eventually he does.

Although this story is about the changing times and the advance of new technologies – especially the automobile – Tarkington cares nothing for the lower classes. His prose are often quite witty and arch as he describes the social frivolities of the fin-de-siecle American upper crust, but never really to the point of criticizing them too sharply as a class. Three years later, with the publication of Alice Adams, Tarkington became the first of only three writers to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction twice. (Faulkner and Updike are the others.) The first edition of the book contains numerous black and white illustrations, drawn by Arthur William Brown, depicting scenes from the novel. Below each drawing is a brief passage from the text to indicate the scene that it illustrates. Read the book online.

1921 – Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence


The 20th Century saga of a famous late 19th Century American menage-a-trois: Newland Archer, young society gentleman; May Welland, his betrothed, from a fine family; and May’s cousin, Ellen Olenska, whose marriage to a European count ends badly. When the Countess returns to America to spend time with the Wellands, Archer is immediately intrigued. But alas, it cannot be.

Wharton’s novel is so thick with period detail that it’s almost oppressive to read it. She captures the rigid gaiety of Old New York in unparalleled fashion, and she takes us inside the heads of her characters without violating their own sensibility, which is one of self-imposed discretion and propriety. The most amusing supporting character is the corpulent, kindly old Mrs. Mingott, “whose immense accretion of flesh had descended on her in middle life like a flood of lava on a doomed city, changing her from a plump active little woman into something as vast and august as a natural phenomenon.”

1922 – Booth Tarkington, Alice Adams


In a midland city (think turn-of-the-century Indianapolis), 22-year-old Alice Adams, who is not certain of her place in the world and the upper-crust society she would like to attend, walks the boulevard looking lovely and smiling at everyone with a smile she once saw an actress perform on stage. But her father runs the sundries section of a wholesale drug store, and Alice is really just a middle-class girl with a small wardrobe who wants to look as fine as her well-to-do friend, Mildred Palmer. Tarkington presents Alice’s world with embellishments that both capture and criticize its preciousness and pretense. The story explores a family’s battles about financial comfort and Alice’s search for her own identity in a culture that invites people to put on airs. Read the book online.

1923 – Willa Cather, One of Ours

Claude Wheeler, a strapping, intellectually curious young man, works on his family’s prosperous Nebraska farm with his earthy father and his naive kindly mother, who fears what her son might learn at the State University about the amoral modern world. An immigrant friend tells Claude, “You Americans are always looking for something outside yourselves to warm you up.” But Claude has the new American 20th Century pioneer spirit, and he wants to do more with his life than just make money. He finds his destiny in the First World War. Cather’s novel begins slowly and then picks up, although her writing is methodical, a bit dry, and not as introspective as you’d like it to be. Still, it’s interesting to note that the first “war novel” to win a Pulitzer – and the last one for many years – was written by a woman. Read the book online.

1924 – Margaret Wilson, The Able McLaughlins


This is the first “Western” to win a Pulitzer: The saga of the huge extended McLaughlin family – 69 bairns when the story begins! – Scottish immigrants living and farming, circa 1860s, on the silent immutable prairie to which they’ve brought their high spirits. The main McLaughlin is Wully, a Civil War hero who marries his beloved Christie, who has been made pregnant by Wully’s careless cousin. This is a breezy and affable book, almost a comic one at times, and it’s filled with exclamatory emotions, whether joyous or sad. The McLaughlins are a religious bunch, always breaking out the Psalms, although Wully prays mostly because “daily family prayer was one of the things a decent man does for his family.” Translation: The times they are a’changin’.

1925 – Edna Ferber, So Big


Selena Peake, the spirited, well-read, city-bred daughter of a journeyman gambler, leaves Chicago in 1885 at age 19 to become a schoolteacher in an Illinois farming community made up of stolid Dutch immigrants, among whom she makes her new life and raises a family. Ferber’s swift descriptive metaphors are often quite amusing. On Selena’s journey to her new country home, “she sat perched next to him on the high seat of the wagon like a saucy wren beside a ruminant Holstein.” Grateful to be in a fine Chicago restaurant, “she flirted with the lamb chops.” A lively, enjoyable, old-fashioned novel of pioneer spirit, written like a gentle yarn (or even vaguely like a fable) in the voice of a benevolent omniscient narrator. Says the book’s cover: “Courage, strength – a womans [sic] gay indomitable spirit – they are the qualities which make this one of the truly great books of this generation.”

1926 – Sinclair Lewis, Arrowsmith

The titular character of this novel, one of Lewis’s most accessible, is a small-town Ohio doctor who would rather be developing cures for diseases than merely treating patients, although he does the latter with enormous dedication. But when he can, he conducts science – developing, for example, a vaccine for a cattle disease that stumps a local veterinarian, working for a while in New York City, and traveling to a disease-ridden Caribbean island to explore an experimental treatment for bubonic plague. Although Lewis’ 1922 novel Babbitt probably deserved the Pulitzer more than Arrowsmith – the earlier book’s title has become a word in the English language – this is a fine book about a doctor who fights the narrow-mindedness and conformity of his time and place. Lewis’ generally concise writing is sometimes gently sardonic, but less so here because he has great admiration for his protagonist. He refused the prize for this book, saying it was inappropriate for authors to be in a competition with one another. But four years later he accepted the Nobel Prize because, he reasoned, it was for a body of work and not for a single novel. Read the book online.

1927 – Louis Bromfield, Early Autumn


The Pentlands of New England are an old rich self-satisfied family. But Olivia Pentland, the middle-aged central character of the novel, is a 20th Century woman struggling to live more honestly and passionately. She’s not content “that all of us here may go on living undisturbed in our dream, believing always that we are superior to every one else on the Earth, that because we are rich we are powerful and righteous.” Although this is another long and windy narrative about High Society, it’s unusual because it attempts to question the self-image of that society and to create a heroine who openly challenges it. Read the book online.

1928 – Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey


A well-meaning cleric sets out to discover why five people were chosen to die when the finest bridge in Peru, circa 1714, mysteriously collapses. Was it God’s plan? Can he find a formula to explain why it was these five and not five others? “This collapse of the bridge of San Luis Rey was a sheer Act of God,” reasons the good-hearted Brother Juniper. “It affords a perfect laboratory. Here at last one could surprise His intentions in a pure state.” His sojourn leads him to create a good-and-evil score card for each victim of the collapse, and finally what he discovers is the bridge between all of humankind. A small, simple, touching tale that Wilder reportedly thought nobody would want to read. Wilder also won Pulitzers for two of his plays: Our Town (1938) and The Skin of Our Teeth (1943). Read the book online.

1929 – Julia M. Peterkin, Scarlet Sister Mary


The “Sister” part comes when Mary is baptized into the Church, which she cherishes with all her heart. The “Scarlet” part begins when she marries July, the love of her life who’s also “the wildest buck of the Quarters.” This is the first Pulitzer novel about the lives of black people, and while it certainly means to be authentic and respectful (the author is white), it’s rather patronizing by modern standards. The novel is filled with descriptions of nature because the characters embrace life with all the richness of the earth, which means “dey hab lots ‘n’ lots o’ chillins” (the dialogue is written in this sort of speech). Mary works in the cotton fields (post-slavery), yet she performs her back-breaking job with high spirits because her people have done it for generations. A curious novel to say the least, filled with people who praise Gawd at revival meetings and who get through their difficult lives quite joyfully because of their religious fervor. The cover of the book (right) promises “a novel that goes far beyond the polite screen of civilization to life’s naked elements of birth, growth and death. A story full of earth’s richness.” Considering the subject matter, that sounds a bit patronizing in our time.