1930 – Oliver La Farge, Laughing Boy


The first of only two novels about native Americans to win the Pulitzer – the other was House Made of Dawn (1969) – this novel is a love story, set in 1915, about a gentle, spirited Navajo man and his independent, duplicitous young bride, an American-educated girl who feels a dangerous kinship to both cultures. She teaches him about things he’s barely even heard of, like jail, liquor and kissing. The novel is extremely respectful of Navajo culture, so much so that the characters, though affectionately drawn, feel stilted at times. On the other hand, there seems to be a formality to Navajo culture, so perhaps that’s reflected in their language and interaction. The characters are all presented with Anglicized names – like “Laughing Boy” and “Slim Girl” – rather than names in their own language. This seems to date the novel, which is nonetheless entertaining, thoughtful and well-told.

1931 – Margaret Ayer Barnes, Years of Grace

The life and times of Jane Ward Carver: daughter of a good Chicago family, in love as a teen-ager with a sweet French/English lad, educated at Bryn Mawr, married to a dull but devoted banker, smitten with the roguish husband of her childhood best friend (a novelist/playwright) and, in the end, loving mother of three. The canvas of characters is broad, yet so little actually happens in the novel that it’s amazing how much Barnes finds to write about them all. Her prose, however, are breathless, and Jane is an engaging Modern Woman (circa 1890s through 1920s) who battles her family to get an education (which she feels she never uses) and who tries to live with integrity and curiosity about the world.

1932 – Pearl S. Buck, The Good Earth


The author lived in China during her childhood when her parents were missionaries there, and this is one of her most famous novels about Chinese life. Wang Lung begins life as a humble farmer and eventually becomes a wealthy landowner, for a while placing his success above even his feelings for his kin. Flood, drought, disease and revolution all make his struggle more challenging. Buck tells the story as if it’s a sort of modern fable. At times her sentences feel almost Hemingwayesque, although at other times they sound more mannered. The details of Chinese life are surely authentic, and Buck’s portrait of the Chinese character is understandably reserved and respectful. Read the book online.

1933 – T. S. Stribling, The Store

This book requires some patience – and some historical context. Set in 1880s Alabama, but written in the more “enlightened” 1930s, it’s about the post-Reconstruction South, where Colonel Miltiades Vaiden – plantation owner, fallen soldier, proud former Klan leader – doesn’t much care for “his fat wife Ponny” and can’t find a place for himself in a Republican-run nation of freed slaves. His fellow townsmen in Florence, Alabama, tolerate the town’s Negroes – some “wizened,” some “gray-wooled” – and place their hopes on Democratic presidential candidate Grover Cleveland, whom the Negroes fear will revive slavery. (Remember, back then, the Republicans were the party of “civil rights.”) One white citizen of Florence even attends meetings with Negroes and supports their struggle for equality.

There’s lots of talk of “niggers” and “quadroons” and “octoroons,” all certainly true to the novel’s 19th Century Southern milieu. The climax involves mob violence and a lynching. You sense that Stribling believes in something resembling social justice, but it’s hard to tell whether he believes in genuine equality, or whether he just wants to scold the South for its racism and vigilantism of the past century.

1934 – Caroline Miller, Lamb in His Bosom


Cean marries the kindly Lonzo, and they set up housekeeping on Lonzo’s farm, where her busy life is quietly rewarding. She and her kin – whose lives also unfold – are of Irish descent and now live in rugged Georgia cotton country, having migrated from the more genteel Carolinas. Miller’s richly detailed, almost naturalistic account of ante-bellum farm life has hints of feminism as we watch Cean’s strength and independence emerge, and as we sometimes go inside her head to learn what it feels like to be a woman in this patriarchal world. Cean knows that a woman has to be stronger than a man. Her Ma told her that “a woman mulls over things, so the best thing to do was to keep busy. But Cean couldn’t keep from mulling. Her hands worked, but her head was idle inside.” The dialogue is written in an attempt to capture Southern dialect, which sounds inauthentic when you consider that the author didn’t live in the period about which she’s writing.

1935 – Josephine W. Johnson, Now in November

Unlike other early novels about American farmers and pioneers, Johnson’s novel conveys a deep and unrelenting sadness about the lives of its characters. It’s also the first Pulitzer novel narrated in the first person. The storyteller is Marget, the introspective eldest of three sisters who live on a Midwestern farm with their parents. Youngest sister Merle is a persistent optimist. Middle sister Kerrin, a school teacher, is mentally unstable and capricious. Johnson gives a stark sense of how difficult farm work can be, and the uncertainty of the Depression further clouds the family’s existence.

“There was a bitterness in sowing and reaping when all it meant was the privilege of doing this over again,” Marget says. “Here were all of us then, crawling along the ruts and shoving our debts ahead like the ball of dung-beetles.” The novel’s small narrative incidents are also unusually heavy and ominous, no doubt an expression of the feeling of the time.

1936 – Harold L. Davis, Honey in the Horn


Here’s a tale with all the pioneer adventure your Grampa went on and on about when you were a kid. Set in Shoestring Valley, Oregon, just after the turn of the century, it’s the story of homesteaders who live life with “pure unfounded faith in the benevolence of nature.” Preston Shiveley is an educated man whose generosity leads him to adopt many orphaned children. One of them is Clay Calvert, who had a “knob-joined godforsakenness of expression about him” as a youth, but who is tamed by the love of a good woman. Davis describes his milieu with photographic detail and a robust intimacy that seems to give everything, even nature, free will. “When sheep decide to go down,” he tells us, “they stay down, and any effort to reason them out of it would simply be elbow grease gone to hell.” It’s all rather draining really, and nowadays this kind of storytelling seems very dated.

1937 – Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind

Perhaps the most famous Pulitzer Prize novel ever written. Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler have an on-again, off-again love story set against a backdrop of death and flames during the Civil War. A very long but readable novel – part drama, part melodrama – although nowadays most people probably just don’t give a damn about the book and rent the movie instead. The language in the book is considerably saltier than the movie, which shocked people in its time when Rhett Butler uttered his last words.

1938 – John P. Marquand, The Late George Apley

A 19th-Century-style novel for a 19th-Century man. The first Apley left England for America in 1636, and the first in a long line of Apleys graduated from Harvard in 1662. Now, George William Apley (1866-1933) is dead, and his long-time friend Willing has reconstructed Apley’s privileged life through letters, journal entries and remembrances of his own. “My life has been governed,” Apley wrote at age 36, “by the rigors of blue-nosed bigots who have been in their graves for century.” Thus he’s a man aware of his station yet vaguely uncomfortable with it. (Apley’s son says his father had “guts,” a word that Willing finds too crass for a Harvard graduate to employ.) We see Apley grow from a bright young man into a thoughtful, philanthropic older gentleman, all the while quietly searching for the true nature of happiness and good citizenship.

The narrator has a rather scholarly voice, as if he knows he’s reconstructing the life of an important figure in an important work, and Marquand presents the chapters with titles and subtitles, like: “Chapter VIII – INTERLUDE – Dealing with a Subject Which Would Not Ordinarily Be Discussed in a Work of This Nature.” It’s a touching story at times, although very cool in its emotions, which is apropos for its milieu. Read the book online.

1939 – Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, The Yearling


This evocative novel tells the story of a boy and his fawn. Jody Baxter and his parents live in the Florida scrub in perfect harmony with both the good and bad of the natural world. “He was addled with April,” Rawlings writes of Jody. “He was dizzy with Spring. He was as drunk as Lem Forrester on a Saturday night. He was swimming with the strong brew made up of the sun and the air and the thin gray rain.” Rawlings writes about nature with a moving simplicity, using images that are at once concrete and metaphoric. (She describes natural phenomena unusually well.) The fawn doesn’t appear until the middle of the novel, so most of The Yearling is a vivid, detailed story of contended farm life and its occasional hardships. The dark side of nature is Old Slewfoot, a killer bear the town has been tracking for five years. The gentle side is Flag, the motherless fawn whom Jody takes into his care. Read the book online.

1940 – John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath


Perhaps the most important Pulitzer Prize novel ever written. The Joad family migrates from Oklahoma, where “a walking man lifted a thin layer of dust as high as his waist,” to California, where they hope to live the American Dream, but where they find only low wages and corporate abuse. The novel’s impressionistic “interchapters” – where the characters have no names and the dialogue has no quotation marks – tell you that the Joads’ struggle is also the broader story of a depression-poor nation. An unparalleled portrait of American injustice, its haunting, almost hopeless ending was changed in the 1940 movie to a dishonest – but, in its time, politically necessary – anthem for The American People. Read the book online.

1942 – Ellen Glasgow, In This Our Life

The title of this plodding book could be the name of a soap opera. It’s the story of Asa Timberlake, age 59 when the novel opens in 1938 (it ends barely two years later). When Asa was 12, his father lost a battle to keep a big corporation from buying his successful family-run tobacco company in their Virginia town. So the old man killed himself, and Asa, who had intended to live a life of comfort, began working in the stemming room of his father’s former company, where he still works when we meet him. In the meantime, he marries the daughter of a respected family and has two daughters, although he must have wanted sons: Stanley, who marries Craig, an idealistic liberal lawyer; and Roy, who marries Pete, a reckless doctor who eventually kills himself (must be something in the tidewater) when Roy falls in love with Craig, which drives Stanley to insanity. It’s supposed to be about modern times, the loss of the individual, and the destiny of our lives. Instead, the whole thing just feels passionless and adrift, not so much because it wants to be, but rather because it’s so slow and dull. Perhaps this novel had resonance in its own time. In this, our life, it has very little.

1943 – Upton Sinclair, Dragon’s Teeth


Lanny Budd – the well-off, politically Left hero of 11 Sinclair novels – is now 31 years old and married to Irma, 21, a “glamour girl” whose family is filthy rich. They live in France, have a newborn child, and spend their time with their equally wealthy family and friends. This novel begins in 1929, just after the Wall Street crash – the Budd family survived, Irma’s family didn’t even notice – and ends in 1934, with Hitler’s ascension and the winds of war – and the Holocaust – beginning to stir. Sinclair populates his story with diverse characters: Lanny,a democratic Socialist, who enjoys his privilege, yet who still journeys to the slums, where he creates a “workers’ education” center for the depressed poor; Lanny’s “Red uncle” Jesse, a Communist organizer; Lanny’s mother, Beauty, who has a new husband, a spiritualist who conducts seances; the Robin family, Jewish and successful, who sell guns to the Nazis to fight the Communists; and dozens more of many nationalities. The Budds and the Robins are united by the marriage of Lanny’s sister to Hansi Robin, and Sinclair uses the Robin family to explore the Jewish character and culture – and the consequences of Nazism. Sinclair’s narration is sometimes conversational, sometimes elegant and mannered, and sometimes like newsreel narration. In fact, the novel is often a history book, and Lanny’s meeting with Hitler is especially fascinating. Dragon’s Teeth is a long but interesting panoply of a stirring time in world history and a rare (almost unique) Left-leaning Pulitzer novel.

1944 – Martin Flavin, Journey in the Dark


It takes Sam Braden nearly 30 years to acquire his first million. Not bad for a kid born in the 1880s and raised in little Wyattville, Ohio, by a loving mother and a ne’er-do-well father. Sam loses his virginity at 14 to a black girl a few years older than he, has a bad marriage to Eileen Wyatt (daughter of the town’s founding family), and becomes a wealthy businessmen in Chicago. Flavin, a manufacturer turned writer, tells his story through staid narration speckled with a good bit of dialogue (he was also a playwright). But every now and then he delivers an axiom about the nature of human experience, such as: “Life proceeds at an uneven pace, in jerks and spurts, like growing plants and children. It rushes headlong for a while and then it seems to stop.” The tone of this novel aptly conveys a sense of its central character: Firm and confident, but lonely, isolated and repressed, with a well of emotions just beneath the surface. Although Flavin marks time with references to presidential elections and economic issues, his story, like his protagonist, seems adrift in time.

1945 – John Hersey, A Bell for Adano


Published during World War II, this war novel is an understandably hopeful one by the author of the landmark non-fiction book Hiroshima. When the Fascists invaded the hard-working Italian town of Adano, they took the town’s bell to melt it down for ammunition. Now the town has been liberated, and an American major, Victor Joppolo, is determined – against all odd and the bureaucracy – to get a new bell for Adano.

“I beg you to get to know this man Joppolo well,” Hersey writes in the Foreword to his novel. “We have need of him. He is our future in the world. Neither the eloquence of Churchill nor the humaneness of Roosevelt, no Charter, no plan, no hope, no treaty – none of these can guarantee anything. Only men can guarantee, only the behavior of men under pressure, only our Joppolos.”

1947 – Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men


Willie Stark, known to everyone as “The Boss,” is a corrupt Southern populist politician beloved by the people because he knows how to work the crowd. He steps up to make a speech to his constituents and goes into his public mode: “You saw the eyes bulge suddenly, as though something had happened inside him, and there was that glitter. You knew something had happened inside him, and thought, It’s coming.” This is a dense psychological novel about political morality, difficult to stay with thanks in part to some of novelist/poet Warren’s elliptical sentences and philosophical ponderings. But it’s an important novel nonetheless. Warren also won Pulitzers for two of his poetry collections: Promises (1958) and Now and Then (1979).

1948 – James A. Michener, Tales of the South Pacific


Just like the title says: It’s an episodic book – almost a collection of short stories, really – about soldiers, islands, romance, dry rot, Tonkinese merchants and, occasionally, war. Lively and entertaining, it’s a blueprint for the kind of big epic narratives Michener would later write. Most of the characters whom readers will remember from the musical South Pacific (which won the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for drama) don’t appear until midway through the book, and only then for their comparatively brief episodes. The language of the book is much saltier than the movie (these are American sailors and uneducated island people, after all). This book was the first of only two to win dual Pulitzers, first as a novel and then as a play. The second was James Agee’s A Death in the Family. And Tales of the South Pacific was the first “Fiction” Pulitzer Prize winner. The category was called “Novel” before 1948, and the committee made the change to allow short story collections – which this book more or less is – to be considered for the prize.

1949 –James Gould Cozzens, Guard of Honor


This World War II novel was published the same year as the much more memorable and important The Naked and the Dead, yet somehow it managed to win the Pulitzer anyway – an example, these many years later, of the mediocrity and safety of Pulitzer selections. It’s set in America, circa 1942, where a bunch of Army Air Force officers and enlisted men move equipment around Southern bases, hoping for post-war military careers. Rather than “singling out a man because of his abilities” and thus promoting him, the Army “tests his character by disappointment and delay.” Some of the men – and women, though the WACs behave more like secretaries – have seen action, but Cozzens recounts wartime events coolly and infrequently, in brief flashbacks and asides. The novel is written with little introspection and limited, matter-of-fact omniscience: The characters are described physically, and we learn their thoughts and feelings to some small degree. Cozzens’ dozen or so major character are, finally, “no more than stars among the innumerable stars” who herald the routine business of running a war.