First published in 1917, Ernest Poole’s His Family won the first “Pulitzer Prize for the Novel” in 1918, and I found it to be a surprisingly delightful read. It offers the portrait of one man’s family as his three older daughters navigate adulthood in sickness and in health during those tumultuous years of the early 20th century. The book has been largely out of print in recent years, much like other early winners of the Pulitzer Prize, and while it is not the high quality literature found in latter Pulitzer Prize winners, I suspect readers today will still find something to glean out of this virtually unknown glimpse into an earlier time.
His Family tells the story of the relatable but sometimes-curmudgeon Roger Gale who runs a “media clipping” service in New York City. Media clipping was a business model that provided selections of particular headlines relevant to a client’s business needs. Today, this job has long since been eliminated, tossed by the wayside in the age of automation. Much like the company he runs, our protagonist, Roger Gale, is something of a relic. He is a widowed, middle-aged father of three daughters. Years ago, it was his wife’s dying wish that Roger grows closer with his daughters, and so he remains in the Big Apple while the city around him is rapidly transformed. In a certain light, the novel can be read as one long reflection on the changes and growth of New York City, for better or for worse, as experienced through the microcosm of Roger’s life.
Roger’s daughters are: Edith (the eldest who is married with four children), Deborah (a school principal for inner-city youth, primarily immigrant children), and Laura, who suddenly announces a surprise engagement to a mysterious man named Hal Sloane. Edith has a fifth baby around the same time that Laura gets married and she embarks on a European honeymoon. Before leaving, Laura loudly declares she will never have children, which dismays Roger. Meanwhile Deborah has been working frantically for her school and she eventually contracts tuberculosis. To help her recuperate, the family relocates to rural New Hampshire where they own a family farm. Edith’s anxious husband, Bruce, spends his time racing around the farm’s acreage in his newfangled device known as an “automobile.” Upon their return to New York, Roger orchestrates a marriage proposal for his daughter Deborah to a doctor named Allan Baird.
Before the wedding, Edith’s husband Bruce is struck by an oncoming car in New York and he tragically dies leaving behind Edith, now a widow with 5 children (anxiety about the advent of the automobile is prevalent among the early 20th century winners of the Pulitzer Prize). The wedding of Deborah and Allan is then further delayed by the outbreak of World War I, which inflicts financial strain on businesses across the nation including Roger’s clipping business. Many clients begin canceling their contracts. However, instead of closing the business, Roger takes out a second mortgage on his home and he brings Edith’s children into his home to be tutored by Deborah. Suddenly, Laura returns home from Europe, as well. She has fallen in love with another man –her husband’s business partner. She divorces her husband and then elopes with her new Italian lover, against Roger’s objections. Meanwhile, money troubles grow worse for Roger and he sells his antique collection of rings. At the same time, Deborah raises large sums of money for her school, over the objections of her sister, Edith, who questions Deborah’s priorities: why focus on other people’s children when her own family is struggling? A debate surrounding the issue of women’s suffrage emerges and it lingers as an ever-present agitation for Roger throughout the novel, along with other “new” ideas concerning socialism, progress, and technology.
In the end, an exhausted Roger retires to his farm in New Hampshire, while his young Irish-boy immigrant employee, John, miraculously saves the clipping business in New York after he uncovers new clientele. Sadly, the energetic boy dies shortly thereafter which causes Roger great sorrow. The novel ends as Roger dies peacefully in New Hampshire on his farm, and his three daughters all make amends with one another.
His Family is less of a dark tragedy like Shakespeare’s King Lear, and more of an exploration into the mind of a man whose three daughters grow and change with time, much like the rapidly industrializing city around them. Roger wonders if all these changes are happening for the betterment of our world. Perhaps, in some ways, we all still meditate on this question. Like Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, each of Roger’s three daughters represent a different type of character – a mother (Alyosha or Edith), an activist (Ivan or Deborah), and a free spirit (Dmitri or Laura). Additionally, each daughter opens up a new part of Roger’s character as we experience his greatest joys, and his deepest sorrows amidst the backdrop of a chaotic world.
The 1918 Pulitzer Prize
Apparently the 1918 Novel Jury consisted of the same three people as in 1917 but I was unable to determine who they were (note: there was no winner of the Pulitzer Prize in its inaugural year 1917). In 1918, the Novel Jury also considered Bromley Neighborhood by Alice Brown, the story of two rural families whose lives are transformed by World War I. However, the majority decision sided with His Family. Much speculation has been made about whether or not the award was actually intended to honor Ernest Poole’s earlier and more celebrated novel, The Harbor.
Who Is Ernest Poole?
Born in Chicago and educated in journalism, Ernest Poole developed an early passion for the great Russian fiction writers of the 19th and 20th centuries. He lived in New York City for most of his life where he worked as a writer for local magazines. Eventually Poole pursued the life of an activist in the nascent socialist movement. He was a sympathetic defender of the Russian Revolution, and he wrote about it rather extensively. He married and had three children, however his first foray into fiction-writing utterly exhausted his spirit which eventualyl sent him packing from the city to his family’s farm in New Hampshire, much like the farm in His Family. His most fondly remembered novel, The Harbor, was published in 1915. As Poole’s most financially successful book, The Harbor was a clear demonstration of his socialist leanings. It is a coming-of-age novel about a New Yorker who spends his life gazing out over the harbor and ultimately finds his own inner advocacy of labor unions. Curiously, there is a sense in his second novel, His Family, that the growth of poverty and tenements in New York City is over-crowding people like Roger Gale, and the growth of labor is more of a concern than a mark of progress. His Family does not share the same apology for socialism that Poole presents in The Harbor. Some have suggested that Poole’s Pulitzer Prize in 1918 was actually intended to honor his earlier novel, The Harbor. Ernest Poole continued to write until he died of pneumonia in 1950 in New York City.
Poole, Ernest. His Family. New York, Grosset & Dunlap, 1926.