Published in 1917, Ernest Poole’s, His Family, winner of the first Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1918, is a surprisingly delightful read. The book has been largely out of print in recent years, much like other early winners of the Pulitzer Prize, including Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons.
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 long since been eliminated, tossed to the wayside in the age of automation. Similarly, our protagonist, Roger Gale, is something of a relic. He is a single, middle-aged father of three daughters. Years ago, it was his wife’s dying wish that Roger remain close with his daughters. In a certain light, the novel can be read as one long reflection about the changes and growth of New York City, for better or 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 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 her honeymoon to Europe. She loudly proclaims 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 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, 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 and he tragically dies, leaving her with 5 children (anxiety about the advent of the automobile is prevalent in early 20th century winners of the Pulitzer, see also my thoughts on The Magnificent Ambersons). The wedding of Deborah and Allan is then further delayed by the outbreak of World War I, which causes financial strain across the nation, including Roger’s business, as many clients cancel their contracts. Instead of closing the business, Roger takes out a second mortgage on his home and he brings Edith’s children home to be tutored by Deborah. Suddenly, Laura returns home from Europe. 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, despite Roger’s objections. Money troubles grow worse and Roger sells his antique collection of rings, meanwhile 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 is ever-present 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 business in New York by finding a new source of clients. Sadly, the boy dies shortly thereafter causing Roger great sorrow. The novel ends as Roger dies peacefully in New Hampshire on his farm, and his three daughters all make amends.
His Family is less of a chaotic 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 happen for better or worse. Like Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, each of the 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.
Who Is 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 he became a writer for local magazines. Eventually Poole pursued the life of an activist in the socialist movement. He was a sympathetic defender of the Russian Revolution, and he wrote about it rather extensively. He married and had three children. His first foray into fiction writing utterly exhausted him and he left the city to to visit his family’s farm in New Hampshire, much like the farm in His Family. At the same time, The Harbor was published in 1915. The Harbor, likely Poole’s most financially successful 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 over-crowding people like Roger Gale, and the growth of labor is a concern more than a mark of progress. His Family does not share the same apology for socialism that he presents in The Harbor. Some have suggested that Poole’s win in the first ever Pulitzer Prize award was as much for The Harbor as it was for His Family. 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.