The men (and women) of Independence, Missouri, circa 1845, “were different from mountain men. They couldn’t enjoy life as it rolled by; they wanted to make something out of it.” And they didn’t want Britain to get Oregon. So they loaded up the covered wagons and became the first wave of pioneers to settle America’s Northwest. This traditional Western – with its easy-going adventure and sometimes colloquial language – feels influenced by Western movies of the time. It’s detailed and entertaining, if unspectacular. Guthrie’s simplest images give a sense of what these people did: “The wagon, backed up to the back door, was nearly full. There wasn’t much to do before they closed the door and rolled away and left the Evans home to be somebody else’s.” Yet Guthrie’s tale doesn’t emphasize movement and landscape as much as character, relationships and routine occurrences, like encountering Indians, buffalo and snakes. The characters’ view of Indian culture is somewhat modern, considering how we usually see 19th Century encounters between Indians and settlers portrayed.
Sayward Luckett’s pappy came home one day many years ago and moved his family from Pennsylvany to the untamed West of Ameriky. Now Sayward is an old woman in her 40s (longer than her mother lived), and after 10 babies, “her breasts that used to be stout as wood ducks hang down like old shook-out meal bags.” Her husband Portius is a lawyer who eventually becomes Judge in their newly formed country. Her oldest son, Resolve, grows up to be governor; her youngest, the precocious and imaginative Chancey, becomes a poet, writer and newspaper editor who criticizes his politician/brother. The last of Richter’s early 19th Century pioneer trilogy – which includes The Trees and The Fields – The Town moves slowly, its more amusing anecdotes and tales scattered among Richter’s mannered earthiness, which always threatens to become precious. Each of the book’s chapters begins with a short epigram taken from old proverbs, old songs, old sayings, Sophicles, Zoroaster, Ellen Glasgow, H.L. Davis – the latter two Pulitzer winners for, respectively, In This Our Life (1942) and Honey in the Horn (1936). Much like the Glasgow and Davis novels, this seems, on the whole, a rather old-fashioned book to win a Pulitzer Prize, especially as late as 1951.
The crimes and trial of the unbalanced Capt. Queeg, who got his command at a rather young age, and whose men ultimately mutiny against him aboard a Navy minesweeper/destroyer in the South Pacific during World War II. One of the most famous WWII novels, it became a Broadway play and a movie, no doubt because the climax of the story takes place in the courtroom, which is always dramatic. (Is it possible not to picture Bogart and hear his voice when you read about Queeg?) It’s a tense, methodical character study of a fatally flawed man and the nature of leadership and war, filled with lots of seaman’s jargon and action on the dangerous, blustery high seas. But don’t look for too much salty language. In his “Note” before the novel begins, Wouk writes: “One comment on style: The general obscenity and blasphemy of shipboard talk have gone almost wholly unrecorded. This good-humored billingsgate is largely monotonous and not significant, mere verbal punctuation of a sort, and its appearance in print annoys some readers. The traces that remain are necessary where occurring.” One
suspects the times had more do to with the omissions than annoyance.
A man, a marlin, an ocean: The ultimate fish story. Santiago, an old Cuban fisherman who hasn’t had a catch in 84 days, is certain that his 85th day at sea will bring him The Big One. He’s right – but it’s not that easy. Whether you like Hemingway or not, this is a swift, vivid, exciting story about the circle of life, death, man and nature. The prose are Hemingwayesque in the extreme, and it’s written in one long chapter, with no breaks or pauses. And it’s a small book, perhaps only a major work by the author because of its popularity. Hemingway may even have won the Pulitzer for the book as a reward for his life’s work. He was so well known – so revered – at the time of the book’s publication that his first name doesn’t even appear on the cover. The author of the book is merely “Hemingway.”
As often happens with Faulkner’s prose, this novel virtually dares you to follow it: The longest sentence I found goes on for more than a page and a half. Ostensibly the story of a mutiny and court marshal in a French army regiment at the end of World War I – so, therefore, something quite different for the author – A Fable is densely written and relentlessly psychological in an almost stream-of-consciousness way. The story – reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 movie Paths of Glory, which was based on a novel (not Faulkner’s) – revolves around a corporal and 12 of his men who “corrupted” an entire regiment of 3,000 soldiers, somehow convincing them not to leave their trench and fight when ordered by their commander. Their executions are swift, cold, anti-climactic, and the number 12 is not arbitrary: A Fable is the author’s metaphor for the crucifixion of Jesus, the story of a man who died for society’s sins.
Faulkner’s actual plot details in the novel are threadbare, and most of the characters have no names, only titles and military ranks. The narrative covers a stretch of time, then goes back over it again (and sometimes again) from other characters’ points of view. A few anecdotes and themes about war sprinkle the narrative. “Isn’t the war over?” one of the men said. The sergeant-major turned almost savagely. “But not the army,” he said. “How do you expect peace to put an end to an army when even war can’t?” On the whole, though, A Fable is more of an intellectual endurance test than a novel. Faulkner’s second Pulitzer novel, The Reivers (1963), is much easier to follow and engage.
An immense, exhausting, vividly detailed account of the infamou Andersonville prison in Georgia, where as many as 14,000 Northern soldiers died among the 50,000 who were imprisoned there by the South during the Civil War. The novel explores the prison itself and the effect it had on the lives of the people in the town around it. “Boys who were crawling got up and hobbled on scurvy-tightened limbs, boys who were motionless began to crawl,” Kantor writes. “It could have been that the dead already deposited in the dead row began to roll away from it. There seemed motion and flexing among the stiff meager bodies on the hill yonder even as shovels trampled them down.” This is a portrait of an antique war in which people did not die swiftly or heroically.
Although the Pulitzer judges did not choose to give an award for Fiction this year, they did give “a special citation to Kenneth Roberts for his historical novels, which have long contributed to the creation of greater interest in our early American history.” Roberts was born in 1885, a descendant of Maine colonials, and published his first historical novel in 1930. His last few books, published in 1956 and 1957, are not considered to be among his best work, which may be why the Pulitzer judges gave him a special prize for his life’s work rather than the Fiction prize for his 1956 novel Boon Island. He died three months after receiving the award. Roberts set all of his historical novels in Maine or thereabout, believing that “a writer can write more effectively about his own people than he can about people that aren’t in his blood.”
His books, published from 1930 to 1957, are the historical novels Arundel, The Lively Lady, Rabble in Arms, Captain Caution, Northwest Passage, March to Quebec, Oliver Wiswell, Lydia Bailey, Boon Island, The Battle of Cowpens (posthumous); as well as an autobiography, a history of Maine, a witty book about the removal of one’s tonsils, and three books on “dowsing,” or the art of finding water underground with a rod. His two best historical novels are considered to be Arundel (1929), the story of Col. Benedict Arnold’s expedition into Canada during the American Revolutionary War; and Northwest Passage (1937), a story of the French and Indian War, and the first of his books to win critical and commercial success.
Roberts’ narrator in the vivid and entertaining Arundel – which is the name of the Maine town pioneered by the central family – is Steven Nason, who at age 12 joins his father on a dangerous mission to rescue a girl from hostile Northern Indians, and who later joins Arnold on his campaign to conquer Quebec in the years after the French and Indian War. He sets himself up early as a most reliable narrator, which is probably as much a novelist’s hubris as a narrative device. Still, Nason is deeply respectful of minority cultures and just as deeply suspicious of his own.
“Most of our white people,” he explains, “wag their tongues in all directions in order to impress their hearers with their knowledge of affairs, all afeared to admit they do not know, even when they know nothing. Because of this I long ago learned it is wiser to seek information from an Indian or from a black slave, if the exact truth is desired, than to accept it from a white man.”
Arundel is rich with historic detail and images of late 18th Century life among colonials and Indians. (One’s mouth waters during a feast of rare venison dipped in sugared raccoon fat). And while Indians, like white men, come in good and bad varieties, Roberts makes his sympathies – and his judgments – clear: “It has been one of the peculiarities of our colonists,” says Nason, who is especially critical of Bostonians, “that they have never kept faith with the Indians. They have either stolen their lands outright, or made the Indians drunk and persuaded them to sell vast stretches of territory for a few beads and a little rum and a musket or two. Everywhere throughout New England the colonists have lied to them and cheated them and robbed them.”
And finally, in our current 21st Century America of PATRIOT acts and fiery allegations of lost liberties, Arundel offers an intriguing echo of both the 18th Century of its setting and the early 20th Century of its creation. Living in a time of unrest brought on by the Sugar Act, greedy corporate land speculators, special privileges to wealthy merchants, “senseless English laws” and, of course, the King’s ransom – you own the land, the King owns the trees on it – Nason observes: “I could not help but see that those who talked the loudest about their loss of liberty were the poorest and wretchedest of our people, with little land and less money and no vote. Yet I learned from travelers that this was the way of it throughout New England.” Q.E.D.
Agee’s last novel, published posthumously, is the story of a Knoxville family – Mary Follet, her two young children, and her siblings, parents and in-laws – coping with the sudden death of Mary’s husband, Jay, in an automobile accident. It’s a largely autobiographical tale (Agee’s father died similarly when Agee was 6), told with restrained emotional intimacy, that explores every thought and feeling of every character, from deep pain to cool sympathy. As the family discusses their tragedy, the dialogue swings from the religious to the skeptical – that is, whether the death was an act of divine providence or one without any eternal meaning. In this regard, it echoes the concerns of Thornton Wilder in his 1928 prize-winner, The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Agee worked on this novel for many years, and it shows in his portrayal of family life and the nature of grief and recovery. The novel was adapted into the Pulitzer Prize-winning play All the Way Home by Tad Mosel in 1961, making it the second (and, so far, last) work to win dual Pulitzers, first as a novel, then as a play (the other was James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific). Agee never finished the book, and parts of the unfinished manuscript have been placed in the published novel where his heirs felt they belonged.
As the story opens, in 1849, Jaimie McPheeters is a typical 14-year-old who makes mischief with his slingshot, comes home late for supper, and doesn’t eat his vegetables. His mother is beautiful, spirited, churchgoing; his father, a doctor who likes to play poker on the shantyboats where they live in Louisville, Kentucky, is in debt to the bank. So Dr. McPheeters decides to go to California to pan for gold, taking Jaimie with him. Along the way, father and son encounter a “riotous sink of predatory butchers, prank-loving plainsmen, lamblike emigrants and other oddities of humankind.” Jaimie narrates the tale as a young man of 17, but his snippets of foreshadowing make the story feel all done. And because their livesultimate turn on serendipity and fate, the novel leaves you wondering why it exists at all. Taylor’s writing gives you a sense of events, but not as good a sense of place or purpose, and the characters ultimately seem indistinguished. It’s an odd Pulitzer choice, and one can only assume it had more resonance in the late 1950s.
In Cold War Washington, D.C., a controversial left-wing nominee for Secretary of State sets off a brutal fight in the Senate that leads to blackmail and destroys lives. Although the politics are dated by today’s standards, it’s still a gripping political thriller and a smart inside look at the mechanism of ideology and politics. (Nobody can beat Drury when it comes to the shock of screaming headlines.) Advise and Consent spawned half a dozen sequels that furthered the lives and political differences of its characters, leading to a grand finale in the mid-1970s, by which time Drury’s politics had become stridently right wing. The last two novels explore the same U.S./Soviet crisis through two scenarios: first with a liberal president in Come Nineveh, Come Tyre, then with a conservative president in The Promise of Joy. Guess which president saves America?
A little girl learns about prejudice and redemption when a black man in her small Southern town is wrongly accused of murder and her father, the lawyer Atticus Finch, defends him. Next door to young Jem’s home is the Radley Place, wherein lives a “malevolent phantom” named Boo Radley who turns out to be a nothing more than a shy, private, childlike man. An extraordinary novel, simple and thoughtful, with an almost ethereal quality to go along with its disturbing social realism.
For half a century, it was believed that the notoriously reclusive Lee never wrote another book – and, more or less another word – after this debut work, unless you count a letter to the editor in the April 10, 2006, issue of The New Yorker. In the letter, she recalls that William Shawn, the long-time New Yorker editor, was not portrayed authentically in the 2005 film Capote, which featured an actress portraying Lee. But then, it was revealed that To Kill a Mockingbird was a reworking of an earlier version of the book that she called Go Set a Watchman, which revolved around an adult Jem looking back at her life (including the incident and trial that dominates Mockingbird). Her father had become a virulent racist in his old age, but Jem retains her compassionate outlook. Some saw the long-unpublished novel as a work that tarnished the reputation of an iconic figure in American literature – Atticus Finch, that is – while others saw it as another telling testament to the times.
At 55, Father Hugh Kennedy no longer does his work with “the mixture of innocence and awe, of freshness and wonder, of reverence and excitement” that he possessed as a younger priest. That may be the result of his depression and alcoholism years ago after his father’s death – a passage in his life that forced him to spend four years in a Church-run rehab facility, where good counselors and the grace of God led him to a new inner peace. He’s now more of a working stiff, and he presides over Old Saint Paul’s, a cavernous, anomalous dinosaur of a church in an old-fashioned Irish neighborhood just a few blocks from Skid Row, where he sometimes makes sickbed calls. His story is one of simple things: Life, death, regret, commitment and faith – all brought to the forefront of his consciousness by his encounters with the Carmody family, and especially the irascible old skinflint Charlie Carmody. O’Connor writes in patient, measured tones: At times his novel is gentle, sad or introspective, yet at other times it’s long-winded and preoccupied with uninteresting detail. In the end, though, it feels romantically realistic, true enough to its time and place, and thoroughly unquestioning in regards to Catholic doctrine and faith.
A “reiver” is a robber or plunderer, which aptly describes Boon Hogganbeck, a character done in lively Faulknerian style in the author’s last novel. (He died one month after its publication and thus won the Pulitzer posthumously.) Boon was “a mutual benevolent protective benefit association, of which the benefits were all Boon’s and the mutuality and the benevolence and the protecting were all ours.” So says Grandfather Lucius Priest, the narrator of the story, set in Jefferson, Miss., in (of course) Yoknapatawpha County. The action begins in the late 19th Century, although Grandfather is telling the long-ago saga of Boon to his grandson in contemporary times (presumably the late 1950s). Grandfather’s family, the Priests – who are a “cadet branch” of the McCaslins and the Edmondses – along with Major de Spain and General Compson, had the responsibility of making sure Boon didn’t kill anyone or cause too much trouble in Jefferson. Between them all, it was a full-time job, especially after Boon “borrows” the family’s car and – with the adults away at a funeral – takes 11-year-old Lucius on a raucous adventure. Read the book online.
William Howland is the latest in a long line of men to occupy the old Howland home and thriving farmstead in Louisiana; the mother of his three youngest children, whom he meets in his 40s (she’s 18) and stays with for 30 years, is Margaret Carmichael, a black woman descended from Freejacks (slaves freed by Gen. Andrew Jackson after the war of 1812). The law forbids William and Margaret to marry, or even to give their children the Howland name. So despite William’s affluence – which allows him to send his fair-skinned, mixed-race children North to boarding school and college, where they can pass for white – Margaret goes by train to have each child in Cleveland so their birth certificates will not say “Negro” on them. But race ultimately comes back to haunt the family in a series of startling, skillful climaxes. William’s granddaughter, Abigail, tells their family story – which is also her own – set against the backdrop of a troubled-but-changing 20th Century South. The tone of Grau’s subtle, evocative, humane novel strikes a delicate balance between realism and naturalism. It’s about Southern heritage, but also about race relations in the South, and it seems like a bridge between Faulknerian fiction and a more modern type of Southern novel.
This collection contains “every story I have ever finished and published,” Porter says in her rather self-congratulating introduction, which ends, “Go little book. . . .” They were written from 1923 through the early 1960s, the shortest piece a mere three pages, the longest ones 50 or so pages, and thus novellas – although Porter dislikes that term, preferring instead “short novels.” Her stories have a doleful, fatalistic, introspective quality, like parables or grim fairy tales: A young Catholic wife, scorned by her husband’s infidelity, eventually take mortal revenge; an old woman on her deathbed remembers the man who got away 60 years earlier; a painter, endlessly mourning the departure of his beloved model/muse (who didn’t love him), dies one day while eating spicy food.
The most famous story in the collection, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, is dark and sad: Miranda, a newspaper theater critic, spends her last few days with her sweetheart, Adam, before he goes to war – from which he’ll never return. Porter was born in Texas and lived for a while in Mexico before moving to New York, so she sets many of her stories among Mexican or Mexican-American culture. Her writing is an interesting blend of the descriptive and the psychological – somewhat dense, but not at all difficult to absorb. She tends to view relationships between men and women as being impossible, inevitable and very melancholy, and she often writes about the inner lives of women. These are entertaining stories, although after a while the lessons they teach about love, death, desire, regret and fate begin to grow repetitive (as any author’s collected work might).
Yakov Bok, a Jewish man in Czarist Russia, is accused of the ritual murder of a young boy. He takes on a heroic quality in the course of his impossible struggle to prove his innocence, fighting against the prejudices of his homeland and the intractable, powerful Russian state. He battles starvation and tedium during his long imprisonment. “He begged for something to do. His hands ached of emptiness, but he got nothing…At night he had terrible dreams, visions of mass slaughter that left him sleepless, moaning. When he dozed again people were being cut down by Cossacks with sabers. He often wished for death.” A very grim novel with no happy ending.
In 1831, a slave named Nat Turner launched a rebellion in Virginia that led to the deaths of 59 white people and either the death of incarceration of all the rebels. Styron takes a 20-page pamphlet from the era called “The Confessions of Nat Turner” and turns the subject matter into an intense, emotional, introspective account of the slave and his life. He calls the book “less a historical novel in the conventional sense than a contemplation on history.” A rewarding book, but a difficult one to read, both for its images of slavery and for the density of its prose.
Only the second novel about a native American to win the Pulitzer – the other was Laughing Boy (1930) – and the first by a native American. It’s the story of the alcoholic, emotionally troubled Abel – a Kiowa Indian (like Momaday) trying to find direction in his life after his service in World War II. Written in dense, detailed, introspective prose – Momaday is also a poet, and it shows – it’s sometimes hard to see the whole because everything is so close up. But that seems to be Momaday’s point: “To see nothing at all, nothing in the absolute. To see beyond the landscape, beyond every shape and shadow and color. That was to be free and finished, complete, spiritual.” The narrative moves backward and forward in time. The scant story unfolds in dribbles, and even then it’s as much metaphoric as literal. The rest is about the immutable link between Man and Nature, and while you can admire this sort of writing, it’s really not very absorbing or satisfying.