1918 Pulitzer Prize Review: His Family by Ernest Poole

First published in 1917 and winner of the first Pulitzer Prize for the Novel, Ernest Poole’s His Family offers a delightful yet reflective portrait of one man’s family as his three daughters shed the coils of youth and learn to navigate the tumult of early adulthood. Through sickness and poverty, each character faces a unique struggle amidst the burgeoning vibrancy of the 20th century. In some ways, His Family represents Poole’s turn away from his earlier syndicalist convictions in favor of what W.J. Stuckey calls a brand of “sentimental socialism.” 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 on par with the high-minded, experimental literature as found in later Pulitzer Prize winners, I suspect readers today will still find something to glean from this little known glimpse of an earlier time.


His Family tells the story of a kindly curmudgeon, Roger Gale, who runs a “media clipping” service in New York City. What exactly is a media clipping business you might ask? Apparently, it was a curated news service that provided key selections of newspaper headlines relevant to a client’s business needs. Today, the profession has long since disappeared, tossed by the wayside in the age of automation. Much like his company, 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 he grow closer with his own daughters, and so he has remained in the Big Apple while the city around him has continued to change. In a certain light, His Family can be interpreted as one long reflection on the transformation of New York City, for better or worse, as experienced through the microcosm of Roger Gale.

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 promptly 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 their family farm in rural New Hampshire. Edith’s anxious husband, Bruce, spends his time racing around the farm’s acreage in his newfangled device known as an “automobile.” Upon return to New York, Roger orchestrates a marriage proposal for his daughter, Deborah, to a gentlemanly doctor named Allan Baird.

Before the wedding, Edith’s husband Bruce is suddenly struck by an oncoming car in New York and he tragically dies leaving Edith a widow with 5 children (anxiety about the advent of the automobile is a prevalent theme among the early Pulitzer winners). 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 makes the fateful decision to take 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 a new man –her husband’s business partner. She divorces her husband and then elopes with this new Italian lover, against Roger’s objections. Meanwhile, money troubles grow worse for Roger and he sells his antique collection of rings to keep the roof over their heads. 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 one’s 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. Inn many respects, thematic tensions between the virtues of individualism contra familial obligations pervade throughout the novel.

In the end, an exhausted Roger retires to his farm in New Hampshire, while his young Irish-boy immigrant employee, Johnny, miraculously saves the clipping business in New York by uncovering a new source of clientele. Sadly, the energetic boy dies shortly thereafter off tuberculosis which causes Roger great sorrow and the novel ends as Roger dies peacefully in New Hampshire on his farm while his three daughters all make amends with one another.

His Family is less of a dark tragedy like Shakespeare’s King Lear, and more an examination of the American middle class as exemplified in Roger Gale, a man with a sense of wearied introspection about the world around him. His tenuous balance between the American values of rugged individualism and social concern for the poor is contrasted with lives of his three daughters as they grow and change with time, much like the rapidly industrializing city around them. Throughout the novel, Roger wonders if all these changes are happening for the betterment of our world. Perhaps, in some ways, we can 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), and as such, they approach issues like individualism, socialism, and family ties in radically different ways. Additionally, each daughter opens up a new part of Roger’s character as we experience his greatest joys, as well as his deepest sorrows.

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 these people were (note: there was no winner of the Pulitzer Prize during its inaugural year in 1917, since no suitable winner was agreed upon). While I was unable to determine the names of the 1918 Novel Jury members, in a June 4, 1918 announcement of the Pulitzer Prizes The New York Times states: “The juries for the awarding of the prizes in letters were selected from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the National Institute of Arts and Letters.”

In 1918, along with His Family, the Novel Jury apparently also considered Bromley Neighborhood by Alice Brown, a story about two rural families whose lives were transformed by World War I. However, the Jury’s majority decision ultimately sided with Ernest Poole’s His Family. Much speculation has been made about whether or not the award was actually intended to honor Ernest Poole’s earlier and far more celebrated novel, The Harbor. According to W.J. Stuckey, despite being Poole’s more popular novel, The Harbor offers a “crude imitation of the social history novels of H.G. Wells and John Galsworthy.”

A commencement ceremony for the Pulitzer Prizes was held on June 5, 1918 hosted by Columbia University President Nicholas Murray Butler.

Ernest Poole.jpg

Who Is Ernest Poole?
Born in Chicago and educated in journalism at Princeton, Ernest Poole developed an early passion for the great Russian fiction writers of the 19th and 20th centuries. After graduating from Princeton in 1902 (where he was unceremoniously voted “most useless man”), Poole lived in New York City for most of his life where he worked as a writer for local magazines, including Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post, and a socialist paper entitled The Call. His parents were prominent Chicago citizens –his father, Abram Poole, served on the Chicago Board of Trade, while his mother, Mary Howe Poole, was something of a legend in the windy city for her heroism during the Great Chicago Fire.

Eventually Poole pursued the life of an activist in the nascent socialist movement, having been inspired by writers like Upton Sinclair and Mark Twain (both of whom he met), as well as progressive leaders like Clarence Darrow. Poole was deeply impacted by the suffering of people around him, particularly those along the East Side where he lived, and he was a sympathetic defender of the Russian Revolution (he wrote about it rather extensively while serving as a war correspondent). He married and had three children (William, Nicholas, and a daughter, Mrs. Robert Henry Lanchester), however his first foray into fiction-writing utterly exhausted his spirit and it eventually sent him packing from the city to his family’s farm in New Hampshire (much like the farm featured in His Family). Poole’s most celebrated novel, and consequently his debut novel, The Harbor, was published in 1915. In a February 1915 review of The Harbor, The New York Times praised it as “the best American novel that has appeared in many a long day” yet it was also “a very unusual book.” 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 has stated to crowd-out its long-time residents 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, though it certainly touches upon similar questions. Some have suggested that Poole’s Pulitzer Prize in 1918 was actually intended to honor his earlier novel, The Harbor.

In later years, his zeal for socialism was tempered following the rise of communism and fascism around the world. Ernest Poole published his autobiography The Bridge in 1940. He continued to write until he died of pneumonia in 1950 in New York City shortly before his 70th birthday. In its obituary, The New York Times remembered him fondly as “a warm and unselfish human being.” His widow, Margaret Winterbotham Poole, died in 1968 at the age of 87. She had been an interior decorator before joining the movement for Women’s Suffrage. In 1917-1918, she was President of the Women’s City Club of New York. She later became a member of the Cosmopolitan Club and served as a trustee of Bennington College, a private liberal arts school in Vermont.

Poole, Ernest. His Family. New York, Grosset & Dunlap, 1926.

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