Published in 1917, Ernest Poole’s winner of the first ever Pulitzer Prize in 1918, His Family, is a surprisingly delightful read. The book has been largely out of print in recent years, and much like other early winners of the Pulitzer Prize, including Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons, His Family is largely overlooked by modern audiences.
It tells the story of the relatable but sometimes-curmudgeon Roger Gale who runs a “media clipping” service in New York -a business that provides particular headlines relevant to a client’s business needs. Today, this job has been long eliminated, tossed to the wayside in the age of automation. The novel is a long reflection about the changes and growth in New York City, for better or for worse. It tells of the trials of his three adult daughters at his home in New York and farm in rural New Hampshire. His wife died years prior, and it was her dying wish that he remain closer to their daughters.
His daughters are: Edith (the eldest who is married with four children), Deborah (a school principal for inner city children, primarily immigrant-children), and Laura, who suddenly announces a surprise engagement to an unknown man named Hal Sloane at the outset of the book. Edith has a fifth baby around the same time that Laura gets married and goes on honeymoon to Europe, proclaiming that she never wants to 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 goes to New Hampshire for some fresh air on the family farm. Edith’s anxious husband, Bruce, spends his time racing around in his new “automobile” around the farm acreage. Upon their return to New York he 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 and he tragically dies, leaving her with 5 children. The wedding of Deborah and Allan is then further delayed by the outbreak of World War I. This causes financial straights for many, including Roger’s business as many clients cancel their contracts, and instead of closing his business, he takes out a second mortgage on his home and they bring the children of Edith home to be tutored by Deborah. Suddenly, Laura returns home from Europe and has fallen in love with her husband’s business partner and he intends to divorce her as she has been unfaithful. She then leaves to elope with her new Italian lover, despite Roger’s initial objections. Money troubles grow worse and Roger sells his antique collection of rings, meanwhile Deborah has raised large sums of money for her school, over the objections of her sister Edith who says its wrong for her to focus on other children rather than her own family. A debate surrounding the issue of women’s suffrage emerges and is ever-present throughout at the book, along with other “new” ideas about socialism and progress.
In the end he retires to his farm in New Hampshire, while his young Irish-boy immigrant employee, John, saves his business in New York by finding a source of clients, shortly before the boy dies. Roger dies peacefully in New Hampshire on the farm, as all of his daughters make their amends with him.
His Family is a less a chaotic tragedy like Shakespeare’s King Lear and more an exploration into the mind of a man as his three daughters, along with the world, changes, perhaps not for the better. Like Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, each of the three daughters represents a different type of character – a mother (Alyosha or Edith), an activist (Ivan or Deborah), and a free spirit (Dmitri or Laura).
Who was Ernest Poole?
Born in Chicago and educated in journalism, Ernest Poole took 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 and became a writer for local magazines. Eventually he became an activist in the socialist movement. He was a sympathetic defender of the Russian Revolution, and wrote about it. He married and had three children. His first foray into fiction writing utterly exhausted him and he went to visit his family’s farm in New Hampshire, much like in the novel, just as The Harbor was published in 1915. The book clearly shows his particular socialist leanings. Curiously, there is a sense in his second novel His Family that the growth of poverty and tenements in New York City is crowding out the people like Roger Gale, and the growth of labor is a concern. It does not share the same apology for socialism as is evident in The Harbor. Some have suggested that Poole’s win in the first ever Pulitzer Prize award was as much for The Harbor as for His Family. Ernest Poole continued to write until he later died of pneumonia in 1950 in New York City.