Lamb In His Bosom: A Portrait of Suffering Georgia Pioneers

Reading through the Pulitzer Prize-winning novels sometimes feels like a long-suffering sacrifice, particularly when it comes to novels like Lamb In His Bosom, Caroline Miller’s debut novel. Published during the depths of the Great Depression, Lamb In His Bosom offers a unique glimpse into the brutal hardships faced by the early American pioneers. Lamb In His Bosom was a best-seller and it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1934 -the novel was initially discovered by Julia Peterkin who won the Pulitzer in 1929 for Scarlet Sister Mary (feel free to read my reflections on the novel here). Caroline Miller was the first writer from the state of Georgia to win the Pulitzer, though her success inspired more publishers to seek out talented Southern writers, one of whom was another future Pulitzer Prize-winner named Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone With The Wind (feel free to read my reflections on the novel here).

At any rate, Lamb In His Bosom was written in the tradition of regional historical realism. Caroline Miller spent hours cobbling together notes documenting the lives of the people of South Georgia, and how their culture was steadily becoming extinct. Miller was also partly inspired to write the novel based on her personal difficulties managing a busy household of three young boys. In the novel, Lamb In His Bosom, we are gently dropped into the lives of an oft forgotten brand of pioneers, a poor but hearty brood of subsistence farmers who once settled the untamed “piney woods” wilderness of South Georgia, along the Altamaha River. Like the pioneers of the Middle West, the farmers of these untouched southern lands struggled to eke out a life amidst myriad threats: disease, stillborn children, animal attacks, Indian tribes, and so on. They find themselves subject to the cold and unforgiving whims of mother nature, siring numerous children many of whom die in infancy without proper medical treatment. These people are desperate for hope, and ensconced in tragedy, and so they are consequently a deeply pious and superstitious group. The novel’s title is taken from the Bible: “He shall feed His flock like a shepherd; He shall gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom…” (Isaiah 40:11).

Our protagonist is named Cean (pronounced pronounced “Cee-Ann”). The novel begins on her wedding day. She is en route to her new home, a farmstead owned by her husband, Lonzo Smith. Throughout the book she and Lonzo face significant hardships, from snake and panther attacks, to disease and poverty. Cean bears some fourteen children -each one aging her a little more- and those that survive past infancy cause her great consternation. We meet Cean’s family (the “Carver” family) including the free-spirited Lias and his city-bred wife Margot.

As the novel progresses, Lonzo dies leaving Cean alone with the farm and their many children, but she soon finds new love in an Irish priest named Dermid O’Connor. Meanwhile the men of the inland farms regularly make the 50-mile voyage to the Coast, a cosmopolitan hub of conversation and commerce. The men of the Coast are red-blooded and itching for war with the Northerners. We hear talk of “sovereignty” and “states rights” and all manner of justifications for slavery -none of which hold much meaning for the rural Georgia farmers, like Cean, who only wish they had enough money to own slaves. Eventually, Dermid is called up to serve in the brewing Civil War as a Confederate priest, while Cean remains home amidst continuing tragedy. In the end, Dermid hobbles home from Appomattox while he and Cean grow old together.

I read a fragile, first-edition copy of this book published in 1933, nevertheless I must say I had a difficult time connecting with the novel. There is some beautifully descriptive prose of the rural Appalachian wilderness in Lamb In His Bosom, but the plot leaves much to be desired. This really would have been a much better historical, geographical, or even anthropological investigation rather than a novel. There is simply nothing at stake in Lamb In His Bosom.

Here are some notable quotes I came across while reading:
“Cean turned and lifted her head briefly in farewell as she rode away beside Lonzo in the ox-cart” (1 -opening lines)

“Her eyes swam away to the horizon with soft blue sky set behind it, and soft yellow sunlight falling across it. Blue and yaller, that would be a purty way to make a frock and a bonnet to match” (16).

“Cean’s strength came back so slowly that she thought never would she be well again. Some force of being, some core of courage, had gone out from her on that night when she had born a child, and killed a painter, too. She felt weak as water inside now, and cried for nothing” (155).

“The empty chair was now a cruel reminder that swallowing and breathing can cease, aye, even in one who is as steadfast a surety as the sun. Now they knew he would never eat with them again until they sat down at meat with him in the Glory-World. The thing that separated them was Death, broader than the farthest reach of sky from east to west, deeper than the depths of the Middle Passage to the Old Country, blacker than any night, and more to be feared than any demon in hell” (163).

“…when you have done an evil thing, the only thing you can do is bury it and let it rot away like carrion in the earth” (188).

“Cean would sit on the doorstep in the early evenings and cry. It was a pitiful thing to her for the little fellers to breathe never once, to cry and be hushed in her arms never once, to taste their mammy’s milk never once” (217).

“War talk flamed around the camp fires under the live-oaks at the Coast. As far back as Lonzo could remember, men had talked of war with the North; but now there were stronger arguments for and against War. Now there were hotter heads… He would lean over a trading-counter and listen while some young blood of a planter’s family harangued over states’ rights. There were fire-eaters among these planters, Lonzo thought; they would fight at the drop of a hat. Their eyes flashed and their skins darkened when they recounted some new tale from up North -some runaway slave, mayhap, that was petted and pampered when what he needed was fifty lashes on his greasy back. Rich planters would tighten their fists, wishing for a war so that they could go lick the Northern upstarts who hadn’t learned to tend to their own business. The planters argued that the Negro was well cared for under slavery…” (235).

“How was she to tell her daughters all the things that she had learned, all the secrets that take root in the heart of a woman and grow into evergreen things and put out new leaves as the boxwood does, slowly and faithfully, year by year” (259).

“Lonzo’s death was no great matter to the crops that were planted in his ground; pea-fields blossomed and bore as heavy a hay-crop as ever; as in any past happy year in Cean’s life, corn stretched its brazen-green stalks upward to golden flower-heads” (291).

On the 1934 Pulitzer Prize Decision
The 1934 Novel Jury did not come to a unanimous decision. First they recommended A Watch in the Night by Helen C. White, followed by Lamb in His Bosom by Caroline Miller, and in third place, No More Sea by Wilson Follett. The Board of the Pulitzer Prize chose Lamb in His Bosom instead. They braced themselves for what could have been yet another public scandal, but fortunately for them it never came.

The 1934 Pulitzer Prize Novel Jury was again composed of: Jefferson B. Fletcher (Chair), Robert M. Lovett, and Albert B. Paine.

The Pulitzer Prize award ceremony was held at Columbia University on May 7, 1934. When addressing the audience, Caroline Miller said “she felt like Cinderella and that the success of her book seemed like a fairy tale.” When she returned to Georgia she was greeted by a swelling crowd of 2,500 along with a marching band. Miller was hailed as a brilliant writer of the emerging Southern Renaissance. In 1935, Miller was also honored with a French literary award, the Prix Femina Americain.

Caroline Miller, who died in 1992, published just one other novel in her lifetime, Lebanon (1944). The story of a backwoods girl much like Cean Carver in Lamb, Lebanon flopped with both critics and book buyers. Miller blamed its failure on cuts made by editors because of the paper shortage during World War II.

Who Is Caroline Miller?
Caroline Pafford Miller (1903-1992) was born in Waycross, Georgia, the youngest of seven children, she was the daughter of a Methodist minister and schoolteacher. She never attended college. She married her teacher, William Miller, and relocated to Baxley, Georgia. Together they had three sons, two of whom were twins. During her early years of marriage while raising children Miller wrote short stories. During this period she wrote Lamb In His Bosom and it surpassed all expectations, with both critical and financial success.

Miller’s newfound celebrity proved to be a stressful burden, and her fame grew incompatible with the quiet, simple existence she and her husband had cultivated. The strain spilled over into their marriage and in 1936 the Millers divorced, but Caroline was remarried the following year to Clyde Ray Jr., an antique dealer and florist. They moved to the town of Waynesville, North Carolina where Caroline worked in the family business while continuing to write short stories and articles for newspapers and magazines. They had one daughter and a son. After her second husband died, she moved to a remote mountain home in North Carolina. It was described as “so remote that visitors had to drive through a cow pasture taking care to close a maze of gates behind them.” In the coming years Miller continued to write but she never published again after her sophomoric follow-up to Lamb In His Bosom entitled Lebanon (1944). For the most part, she lived a quiet, private life in her rural western North Carolina home.

On July 12, 1992, Miller died in Waynesville, North Carolina, at the age of 88. She is buried in Green Hill Cemetery.

Miller, Caroline. Lamb In His Bosom. New York, Harper and Brothers, 1933.

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