1942 Pulitzer Prize Review: In This Our Life by Ellen Glasgow

“Your creeds are dead, your rites are dead,
Your social order too!
Where tarries he, the Power who said:
See, I make things all new?”

In This Our Life is a drab and dreary novel that suffers from a burdensome lack of inspiration or motivation. As W.J. Stuckey notes, “In This Our Life is a minor performance by an otherwise significant novelist” (127). Mirroring the life of its depressive author Ellen Glasgow, In This Our Life is a bleak story about uprootedness, discontentment, and the fruitless efforts of one family to discover its own happiness. The novel is told in three parts (Part First: Family Feeling, Part Second: Years of Unreason, Part Third: All Things New) and it trails a cohort of “decaying aristocrats” living in Virginia just prior to the outbreak of World War II.

Our protagonist (and the only mildly likable character in the book) is Asa Timberlake, a 60 year-old man whose once-prosperous Virginia family has fallen on hard times. He now works in his family’s former business, The Timberlake Tobacco Factory, which was previously the finest tobacco company in Virginia until it was acquired by the Standard Tobacco Company. In the old days, Asa’s father personally knew the faces and names of all the factory employees, but the business is now run by a corporate behemoth in New York, as such it has devolved into a drab and impersonal place to work (the decline of this once-great family echoes earlier Pulitzer Prize-winners like The Magnificent Ambersons and Early Autumn). Sadly, when Asa’s father lost his good health as well as the family’s fortune, he ended his life by shooting himself. Now, Asa has inherited a broken family and his meager estate relies on the financial support the unpleasant William Fitzroy. At the start of the novel, the Timberlake family’s elegant home is demolished, a reminder of the impermanence of things, and throughout the novel Asa’s loveless marriage sits in a state of complacency –his hypochondriac wife Lavinia remains bedridden and emotionally distant. Asa’s only escape comes when visiting a neighboring farm where a lovely widow named Kate resides with her two dogs (Lavinia has forbidden Asa from having a dog). Much of the novel concerns Asa’s two daughters (both given masculine names for inexplicable reasons): Roy and Stanley. Roy is the mature, level-headed elder sister, while Stanley is the petulant, narcissistic younger sister.

“Like all other successful men of his time and his place in the South, he had seen, as a child, the ruin of his family fortunes and the complete reversal of a social system” (114).

As the novel progresses, both Roy and Stanley become engaged to two suitable men. Roy marries a surgeon while Stanley is betrothed to a lawyer, but the ever-vain and indulgent child, Stanley steals Roy’s husband and both sisters’ marriages completely fall apart. There is a lot of depression, physical abuse, and suicide (Roy’s one-time husband shoots himself), and we are treated to constant reminders that nothing truly lasts in this life. We are also offered a backstory of a young Black driver named Parry, a boy with dreams of one day becoming a lawyer. He is wrongfully blamed for a reckless car accident which injures a White woman and kills an innocent girl carrying pink flowers. In truth, it was actually Stanley who caused the accident while on an alcoholic binge. Naturally, Stanley faces no consequences for her actions and the novel ends without resolution or redemption. At the very least Asa makes a phone call which exonerates Parry and grants him the freedom to return home to his parents while avoiding any more time in the squalid “Negro jail cell.” In a strange coda at the close of the novel, Roy briefly runs away from home with plans to head for New York but she stays for a night at a random strange man’s house before briefly returning home because she had forgotten her clothes. In This Our Life ends here, with Asa wondering if his morally bankrupt family can be salvaged. I am not quite sure how this novel won a Pulitzer, I suppose Part III is the only mildly significant or engaging section of the book, but you need to read about 350 pages to get there! To be fair, there are some sobering, reflective, existential passages peppered throughout the text, but all too often Ellen Glasgow masks any shred of profundity in the facade of pure lugubriousness. Her sense of hopelessness is often confused with depth. At any rate, of all the Pulitzer Prize-winning novels I have read thus far I would rank In This Our Life among the worst.

The title for this novel was apparently borrowed from the sonnet collection “Modern Love” by 19th century Victorian poet and novelist George Meredith: “Ah, what a dusty answer gets the soul/ When hot for certainties in this our life!” In 1941, Warner Bros. purchased the film rights to In This Our Life for $40,000 to create a movie starring Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland as sisters Roy and Stanley. It was released in 1942 under the direction of John Huston as well as Raoul Walsh (Walsh was uncredited in this directorial role when John Huston was called away for war-time activities). Naturally, Hollywood downplayed some of the more depressing plot points in the film and the ending was understandably wholly rewritten. It was actually John Huston’s second directorial assignment after The Maltese Falcon, and by all accounts In This Our Life was a bit of a sophomoric effort on his behalf, it was greatly overshadowed by his later more impressive directorial efforts.

The following are a collection of quotations I deemed worthy of sharing:

“The street was darkened by a smoky sunset, and light had not yet come on in the lamps near the empty house. Under a troubled sky the old house looked deserted but charged with reality” (3 -opening lines).

“He was a bookish chap, and learning from books had always been easier than learning from life” (6).

“They will never again build like this, he thought. Dignity is an anachronism. Yes, the old house was going out with its age, with its world, with its manners, with its fashion in architecture” (8).

“Acceleration, not beauty, was the strange god of our modern worship” (63).

“‘Happiness. I want happiness… Oh, Father, I’m so wretched! I’m so terribly wretched…'” (343).

“It’s fear that does most of the harm in life: and he saw all the evils in the world, the whole sinister brood, spawned by fear” (409-410).

On the 1942 Pulitzer Prize Decision
The 1942 Pulitzer Jury was composed of returning veterans Jefferson Fletcher and Joseph Krutch, and they were joined by Gilbert Highet, a Scottish-American Classics professor at Columbia University (he replaced Dorothy Fisher from the previous year).

  • Joseph Wood Krutch (1893-1970) was born in Knoxville, Tennessee and studied at the University of Tennessee and Columbia University. After serving in the army, he traveled throughout Europe with a friend, poet and critic Mark Van Doren. He taught composition at Brooklyn Polytechnic and became a theater critic at The Nation where he worked for many years. Something of a pantheist, mystic, and naturalist –he penned widely read biographies of Henry David Thoreau and Samuel Johnson.
  • Jefferson Butler Fletcher (1865-1946) was born in Chicago, served in the American Field Ambulance Services during World War I, and educated at Harvard and Bowdoin College. He was a long-serving professor of Comparative Literature at Columbia University (from 1904-1939). He was considered a foremost expert on the Italian Renaissance and Dante, and in his obituary in The New York Times, it was noted that he served on the Pulitzer Novel Jury for “several years.” Sadly, his son died in an automobile accident in 1926, and Fletcher also had a daughter.
  • Gilbert Highet (1906-1978) was a Scottish American classicist, academic writer, intellectual critic, and literary historian. He was married to Cold War novelist Helen MacInnes.

When it came time to present their recommendations to the Pulitzer Advisory Board at Columbia, the Jury noted that “none of the novels brought to its attention seemed of really outstanding merit or equal to many at least of those which have received the prize in the past.” If not for the fact that the previous year also issued no award (Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls was infamously snubbed) the Jury would have preferred not to issue an award again in 1942. Nevertheless, they presented four of the least awful novels in no particular order: Windswept by Mary Ellen Chase, The Great Big Doorstep by E. P. O’Donnell, Storm by George Stewart, and Green Centuries by Caroline Gordon.

However, the Advisory Board rejected all four of these recommendations. Instead members of the Advisory Board sent various letters to Joseph Pulitzer, Jr. –son of the award’s founder– with the hope of securing his blessing. Novelist W. E. Woodward praised Upton Sinclair’s Dragon’s Teeth, however the novel was actually published in 1942 (not 1941) and thus it was ineligible for the year’s consideration, however it would go on to win the Pulitzer the following year. Another Board member Julian LeRose Harris of The Chattanooga Times suggested the latest novel by Ellen Glasgow, In This Our Life, would be a top quality choice. He intended the award to be in recognition of her full body of work, while praising her as one of the best and under-appreciated writers of his generation (at the time Ms. Glasgow was nearly 70 years old). This was enough to persuade the Board and so In This Our Life was selected as the winner, although of course today posterity has not exactly smiled upon Ms. Glasgow’s body of literary work.

Dismayed but accepting of the Board’s decision, the three members of the Novel Jury quietly elected not to return the following year thus ending the incredible tenure of Jefferson B. Fletcher as a Pulitzer Jurist. During his decades serving on the Novel Jury he had overseen Pulitzers awarded to the likes of Willa Cather, Sinclair Lewis, Thornton Wilder, Pearl S. Buck, Margaret Mitchell, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and John Steinbeck to name a few. The future of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel now lay in question as a whole new Jury was to emerge in 1943 and lingering tensions still persisted over the true seat of authority between the opposing governing bodies: the Advisory Board or the Novel Jury.

Who is Ellen Glasgow?
Ellen Glasgow (1873-1945) was a lifelong Virginian. She published some 20 novels during her lifetime, many of which focused on the plight of women during the tumultuous years of social change in the post-Reconstruction South, though none of her books has found a modern audience save for her 1942 Pulitzer Prize-winner, In This Our Life.

Ms. Glasgow was raised in Richmond, Virginia at 1 West Main Street, a home which now stands as a National Historic Landmark. Interestingly enough, it has been listed for sale in recent years asking north of $2M. At any rate, Ms. Glasgow also spent her summers at the Jerdone Castle plantation which her father purchased in 1879, and between these two homes Ms. Glasgow wrote many of her celebrated novels. Her father had been head of the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, the main supplier of munitions for the Confederacy during the Civil War and thus her family was prominent and financially stable.

Ms. Glasgow’s first short story was published in 1895, but shortly thereafter tragedy struck when her mother died and then her beloved brother-in-law and mentor suddenly killed himself. To escape the gloom, Ms. Glasgow headed for New York where she attempted to secure a literary agent but the agent in question made aggressive advances on her so Ms. Glasgow soon departed. During her lifetime, she never married but was engaged twice, once to a minister and once to a lawyer. She also had several prominent affairs during her lifetime, including with an anonymous married man she only ever referred to as “Gerald B.”

In later years, Ms. Glasgow’s brother killed himself and her sister died of cancer shortly thereafter. With so much grief and tragedy in her life (she once called her life a “long tragedy”), Ms. Glasgow also attempted suicide herself but she failed. Following years of ill health, she died of a heart attack in 1945. At the time of Ms. Glasgow’s death, fellow Pulitzer Prize-winner, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (author of The Yearling) drafted a biography of her late friend and fellow writer, a project which was never completed.

Glasgow, Ellen. In This Our Life. Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York, 1941. First Edition.

Click here to return to my survey of the Pulitzer Prize Winners.

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