I finally finished the next Pulitzer Prize winning novel after dragging my feet for much of the summer. It is altogether difficult to go from reading the beautiful rolling novels of the great American pioneer writer, Willa Cather, to the bland landscapes of Margaret Wilson’s Pulitzer-Prize winning book, The Able McLaughlins.
Wilson’s novel is a story that tries to teach a moral lesson of redemption and forgiveness. It attempts to encourage those with strength to take pity on the suffering. However, the reader is the one who winds up suffering from a total disconnect with any of the characters and their struggles. The novel drags on until a wildly anticlimactic ending leaves the reader confused and unsatisfied.
The book is about Scottish immigrants who settle on the Iowa prairie around the time of the Civil War (an event which unfortunately bears little mark on the story). Wully McLaughlin returns home to his family’s farm from the war to spend one golden evening with his love interest, Chirstie McNair -a mostly unremarkable woman, who is reportedly beautiful and highly emotional. Wully and Chirstie swear to commit to one another, but then Wully is called back to the war. He returns again a short time later, this time for good. He goes immediately to Chirstie’s home only to find her changed -she is now distant and aloof to his advances. He eventually discovers she has been raped and impregnated by their cousin, Peter Keith. In a rage, Wully goes after Peter Keith and threatens to kill him if he ever returns again. Peter Keith runs away.
Years pass, and Wully and Chirstie have gotten married, with Wully claiming responsibility for the child. He bears the public shame for the child’s early birth, sparing Chirstie the scandal, but soon many in the tight-knit Iowa farming community discover the truth. Wully and Chirstie build a home and a farm together, and one day Peter Keith returns and tries to grab Chirstie while she is alone in the house, but he quickly flees when she screams. Wully later learns that Chirstie shot Peter Keith in the foot. Wully and a group of men grab their guns and hunt for Peter Keith out on the prairie -a long and suspenseful scene in which the reader desperately longs for bloodlust, to see Wully violently punish Peter Keith. However, Peter Keith is never found. One day, Wully and Chirstie are in town conducting business, and Wully happens to find Peter Keith lying alone, unconscious, and suffering in a hay stable with a hemorrhage. Wully decides to leave him, but Chirstie beckons him to go back and do the right thing. They tie up Peter Keith and bring him to his mother’s farm to die. In the end, Wully has a sudden and unexpected change of heart. He decides to help Peter Keith in his passing. Somehow, after years of hatred, Wully inexplicably finds forgiveness. In the closing lines of the novel, Wully shockingly mentions how he may even go to find a pillow for Peter Keith -an abrupt and confusing ending to the novel. In all the preceding chapters, Wully has gone into a frenzied rage at the mere mention of Peter Keith, only to let it all dissipate in the end. The vengeance which we so desperately seek, and which we were anticipating, sadly never arrives.
However some praise for The Able McLaughlins is in order. The novel delivers what has been called an accurate portrayal of the fervent Presbyterianism of prairie immigrants. So, I suppose that is something worthy of consideration. Apparently the initial recommendation from the novel jury to the Pulitzer Board was that no novel for the year 1923-1924 was “outstanding enough to merit a prize this year.” They even considered nominating Willa Cather for the second time (and I wish they had). Eventually the committee noted that “if it is deemed that a prize should be awarded anyhow, the committee would name ‘Margaret Wilson’s The Able McLaughlins.” A follow-up statement was issued with assurances that they would avoid the same type of scandal that occurred in 1921 when Sinclair Lewis was denied the Pulitzer, and the Novel Jury took their frustration to the newspapers. Much of the early years of the Pulitzer were spent trying to avoid controversy, in an effort not to besmirch the name of the committee, the university, or Mr. Pulitzer’s name.
Published in 1923, Wilson’s novel won the coveted Pulitzer in 1924. The 1924 Novel Jury was composed of returning members: Jefferson B. Fletcher, Samuel Crothers, and Bliss Perry. The Able McLaughlins was Wilson’s first, and most notable, novel. Today, The Able McLaughlins is a difficult book to track down, having been out of print for many years. Luckily, having access to a strong inter-library loan program was the only way I was able to get my hands on this one.
Who Is Margaret Wilson?
Margaret Wilson (1882-1973) grew up on a farm in Iowa. She graduated from the University of Chicago before pursuing missionary work in India during the early 1900s. She later returned to the United States to become a teacher and to care for her invalid father. During that time she built a reputation for serializing short stories in the Atlantic Monthly. Two central themes found throughout much of her writing include the redemption offered through faith and forgiveness, and this is evident in the conclusion of The Able McLaughlins in which revenge is not exacted by Wully. The other chief theme found in her writing is the unique suffering faced by women. In 1923, the same year her first novel The Able McLaughlins was published, Wilson married a Scotsman tutor at Oxford. She wrote several adult novels, some focused on her experiences in India, and one book for children. Her last book, published in 1936, was a sequel to her debut Pulitzer-Prize winning book, entitled The Law and the McLaughlins. Grahame Greene once wrote a notably favorable review of the book.
Here are two passages from the novel that struck me as I was reading:
“The prairie lay that afternoon as it had lain for centuries of September afternoons, vast as an ocean; motionless as an ocean coaxed into very little ripples by languid breezes; silent as an ocean where only very little waves slip back into their element. One might have walked for hours without hearing anything louder than high white clouds casting shadows over the distances, or the tall slough grass bending lazily into waves” -opening lines.
“They were happy as the summer wore on, the three of them working from the first streak of dawn to the frog-croaking darkness. The stars in their courses and the clouds in their flights seemed to be working with them that season. Week after week, just as the ground grew ready for it, they watched the desired clouds roll up in great hills against the sky, and pour down long, slow, soaking rains. They watched the sun grow more and more stimulatingly warm, and then, just when their corn needed it, grow fiercely hot in its coaxing. They worked like slaves, of course. But then, they had always worked like slaves…Wheat and corn had surely never grown better than theirs did that year. To John, now, a field of wheat was a field of wheat, capable of being sold for so many dollars. To Wully, as to his father, there was first always, to be sure, the promise of money in growing grain, and he needed money. But besides that, there was more in it than perhaps anyone can say – certainly more than he ever said – all that keeps farm-minded men farming. It was the perfect symbol of rewarded, lavish labor, of requited love and care, of creating power, of wifely faithfulness, of the flower and fruit of life, its beauty, its ecstasy. Wully was too essentially a farmer to ever try to express his deep satisfaction in words. But when he saw his own wheat strong and green, swaying in the breezes, flushed with just the first signs of ripening, the sight made him begin whistling. And when, working to exhaustion, he saw row after row of corn, hoed by his own hands, standing forth unchoked by weeds, free to eat and grow like happy children, even though he was too tired to walk erectly, something within him – maybe his heart – danced with joy. Therefore he was then, as almost always, to be reckoned among the fortunate of the earth, one of those who know ungrudged contented exhaustion” (Chapter XIII, p. 170-172).
Wilson, Margaret. The Able McLaughlins. Atlanta, Ga., Cherokee Pub. Co., 1951.