“Now in November I can see our years as a whole. This autumn is like both an end and a beginning to our lives, and those days which seemed confused with the blur of all things too near and too familiar are clear and strange now” (opening lines).
Missouri-born Josephine Winslow Johnson was just 24 years old when she published Now in November. She had recently attended Washington University in St. Louis, departing without a degree in 1931. In those days publishers were considerably more aggressive in seeking new talent, even during the Great Depression. For reasons unknown, Simon & Schuster fervently pursued a young college dropout who had only published a bit of poetry. The result was Now In November, a novel Ms. Johnson wrote while living in the attic of her mother’s home in Webster Groves, Missouri. As of the time I write this review, she remains the youngest novelist ever to win the Pulitzer (age 24).
Often overshadowed by Steinbeck’s superior epic dustbowl saga The Grapes of Wrath, Ms. Johnson’s Now In November covers a grueling decade in the life of a Midwestern tenant farming family as they scratch out a meager living during the Great Depression, Dust Bowl, and the subsequent great drought of the ’30s. The novel is narrated, years after the events described, by Marget, the middle child in the Haldmarne family. Their family has lived on the land since the Civil War.
The novel is told in three parts: “Prelude and Spring” “The Long Drouth” and “Year’s End.” The opening passages are beautifully crafted warm visions of orchard lush hillsides in Missouri, but as the somber first-person reflections progress the tone becomes increasingly bleak and harrowing. We meet Marget’s distant father, her demure but caring mother, and two sisters: the elder Kerrin, who is somewhat erratic or perhaps manic, and the younger Merle, the more clam and collected of the bunch.
At the beginning of the novel, the 57 year-old patriarch of the Haldmarne family is celebrating his birthday when Kerrin, the perennial wild-child, decides to demonstrate her newfound knife-throwing skills which causes a scuffle leading to the tragic death of the family dog. This is only the beginning of the family troubles. The drought hits the Midwest hard, drying up the land and preventing anything from growing. All the tenant farmers fall deeper into debt, and many start to leave. A nearby ranch-hand named Grant comes to work the Haldmarne farm. Marget is quite taken with Grant, but he is actually smitten with Merle.
Tragedy after tragedy continues to strike the Haldmarnes. Rain refuses to fall from the sky, the ground is crumbling underneath them, a massive fire strikes, and their Mother falls severely ill after being burned. Her body lies suffering in the house, and shortly thereafter, as we begin to see starving people throughout the land, Kerrin commits suicide. Grant finds her in the barn with her wrist slit –and then Grant leaves, much to Marget’s sorrow. In the end Marget’s mother dies and the family is left alone.
Josephine Winslow Johnson surely knows how to craft some beautiful enduring prose, perhaps masking the underlying barren wintry subject matter. It seems clear that the early Pulitzer Board had a penchant for selecting rather despondent books about struggling farmers, though they somehow missed Willa Cather’s best novels. Nevertheless I was fortunate enough to read a first edition copy of Now In November as it sat collecting dust at my local library, waiting for the next brave explorer to come along and venture through the Pulitzer Prize-winning novels.
The following are a collection of quotations I found particularly striking while reading along:
“We left a world all wrong, confused, and shouting at itself, and came hereto one that was no less hard and no less ready to thwart a man or cast him out, but gave him something, at least, in return” (6-7).
“This is not all behind us now, outgrown and cut away. It is of us and changed only in form. I like to pretend that the years alter and revalue, but begin to see that time does nothing but enlarge without mutation. You have a chance here – more than a chance, it is thrust upon you – to be alone and still. To look backward and forward and see with clarity. To see the years behind, the essential loneliness, and the likeness of one year. to the next. The awful order of cause and effect. Root leading to stem and inevitable growth, and the same sap moving through tissue of different years, marked like the branches with inescapable scars of growth” (69-70).
“By June things were shriveling brown, but not everything dried and ugly yet. It was not so much the heat and dryness then as the fear of what they would do. I could imagine a kind of awful fascination in the very continuousness of this drouth, a wry perfection in its slow murder of all things” (113, the word “drought” is referred to as “drouth”).
“The living itself was easy enough to do when the days were full of thought, and clothes wearing down fast to bone, soaking up dirt like sponges” (127).
“I wondered why the people were here [church] and if God was here, and the doubt and questioning began again -that doubt which had run like a tunneled stream, coming to surface at unforeseen and unwanted times before, and has gone through all the years afterward… what had they come for, and did they believe what they heard, and did they live by it afterward at all?” (136-137).
“…it is almost two months now since her death, and we have gone on living. It is November and the year dying fast in the storms… We have had our mortgage extended, but it does not mean that we are free or that much is really changed. Only a longer time to live, a little longer to fight, fear shoved off into an indefinite future” (225).
“Love and the old faith are gone. Faith gone with Mother. Grant gone. But there is the need and the desire left, and out of these hills may they come again. I cannot believe this is the end. Nor can I believe that death is more than the blindness of those living. And if this is only the consolation of a heart in its necessity, or that easy faith born of despair, it does not matter, since it gives us courage somehow to face the mornings. Which is as much as the heart can ask at times” (231 -closing paragraph of the novel).
On The 1935 Pulitzer Prize Decision:
The 1935 Pulitzer Prize Novel Jury was once again composed of returning Jurors: Jefferson B. Fletcher (Chair), Robert M. Lovett, and Albert B. Paine. It was year of indecision as the Jury vacillated between eight novels: Slim by W. W. Haines, The Folks by Ruth Suckow, Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson, Goodbye to the Past by W. R. Burnett, The Foundry by Albert Halper, Land of Plenty, by Robert Cantwell, The American by Louis Dodge, and So Red the Rose by Stark Young. Eventually the Board simply selected Now In November, perhaps at the behest of Chairman Fletcher.
The biggest change in 1935 was yet another revision of the Pulitzer Prize criteria (the fourth such change in its two decades of existence). The Prize was now to be granted to: “a distinguished novel published during the year by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.”
Who Is Josephine Winslow Johnson?
Josephine Winslow Johnson (1910-1990) was born in Kirkwood, Missouri into a Quaker family. She attended Washington University of St. Louis from 1926-1931, but she left before receiving a degree. After departing from the university, Ms. Johnson moved into her mother’s attic on the family farm in Webster Groves, Missouri. Here she began writing her debut novel Now In November (1934) for which she later won the Pulitzer Prize. While Now In November is her most widely celebrated novel, Ms. Johnson also published eleven more books in her lifetime –books of poetry, memoirs, and short story collections as well as additional novels. Her follow-up effort to Now In November was a collection called Winter Orchard, a batch of short stories that had previously appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Vanity Fair, The St. Louis Review, and Hound & Horn. Of these stories, “Dark” won an O. Henry Award in 1934, and “John the Six” won an O. Henry Award third prize the following year. Johnson continued writing short stories and won three more O. Henry Awards during her lifetime. However, much of her writing was also later criticized for its open communist sympathies and other overt activist messages.
In 1942, she married Grant G. Cannon, editor in chief of the Farm Quarterly. They moved to Iowa City where she taught at the University of Iowa for several years, then they relocated to Hamilton County, Ohio, before finally settling down on a farm outside Cincinnati. The couple had three children together. In her later years, Ms. Johnson became an environmental activist. Sadly, much of her writing fell out of print and today what remains lies on dusty library shelves mostly forgotten. Ms. Johnson died of pneumonia in 1990.
Johnson, Josephine Winslow. Now In November. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1934.