“Sam Braden never talked about his father…” (opening lines)
His fifth and final work of fiction, Martin Flavin’s Journey In The Dark won both the Harper Prize (distributed by the Harper Brothers until it was discontinued post-1965) as well as the Pulitzer Prize in 1944. Shockingly, Journey In The Dark beat out Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for the Pulitzer Prize that same year.
Journey In The Dark is a novel set adrift by immense sea changes which took place across America from the late 19th to the early 20th centuries. Amidst loads of allusions to Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, we are introduced to Sam Braden, son of a poor family from Wyattville, Ohio. He longs for stability and riches, and thus he falls in love with the wealthy town-namesake’s daughter, Eileen Wyatt. Nevertheless, he wanders for a bit and in these scenes we are treated to some pleasant scenes of small town life –snowy parks and hills for sledding, teenage kissing games, summers by the riverside, first-time jobs working in a town general store, and so on. One day, on a whim after a fishing trip, a teenaged Sam is caught in a storm and has intercourse with a neighborhood black girl named Cassie Cole who apparently becomes pregnant. However, his life just keeps rolling along from here.
We catch up with Sam sometime later after he has become a millionaire in Chicago (though not quite at the level of a “tycoon”), following a stint working as a telegraph operator for the emerging railroad system. He marries his childhood infatuation, Eilleen Wyatt, but their marriage quickly falls apart. They are soon separated and ultimately divorced. Sam volunteers as an officer candidate for the Field Artillery during World War I. Later, he is remarried, this time to a woman named Emilie who bears him a son named Hath. When Emilie dies, father and son are at odds and Hath dies a hero in World War II while Sam works in a defense plant. The novel ends as Sam receives news of his son’s death from Neill Wyatt.
While much of the novel lacks a crux or crescendo, I found myself naturally drawn to the brief historical interludes at the ends of most chapters –passages like the following:
“The year, drawing to its close, was 1892. Grover Cleveland, after sitting out one session, had been re-elected President of the United States. He had published a letter warning the nation that the silver policy must be result in a crisis of great severity. This prediction had been amply confirmed and the country was now in the grip of a depression. Factories were closing down and men were unemployed… The times were perilous – the kind of times when smart and careful bankers watched every move of things – like hawks, still in the wind with planing wings” (45).
All things considered, Journey In The Dark is a mildly engaging albeit long and wandering story of one “everyman’s” life during the remarkable changes which took place at the turn of the 20th century. However, I would respectfully submit that this is one of less memorable Pulitzer Prize winners. There are some nice personal and historical reflections, however Martin Flavin simply does not have much to say here –and my biggest criticism is that the most compelling plot thread, the childhood story in which Sam impregnates a girl, ultimately fades away without significance, never again to be revisited. Surely, we can encounter better Pulitzer Prize winners along this journey.
The following are some notable quotations I encountered while reading:
“And suppose he should come face to face with Eileen Wyatt. She was in his class at school, and he was strangely fascinated by her, though he always pretended not to notice her. She had blonde curls and she was very pretty” (25).
“And in all that years that followed he would not forget this moment, nor would there be another in his life which would quite equal this” (38 –upon gifting his mother a diamond to his mother as she weeps with joy).
“Still, it should not be inferred that Sam’s boyhood was a melancholy sequence of frustrations and defeats. On the whole he led a healthy, carefree life whose underprivileged aspects which, in some degree he shared with numerous other boys of his acquaintance, were seldom in his thought unless events demanded their consideration” (49).
“It took Sam nearly thirty years to acquire his first million… There was nothing spectacular about it: hard work, eternal vigilance, and a kind of native shrewdness – these plus Lady Luck, who smiled at him at last, ultimately turned the trick. And the million, once acquired, quickly multiplied itself, for wealth breeds wealth, and even stupid people with a nest egg of this sort are as likely as not to go on getting richer” (105-106).
“Life proceeds at an uneven pace, in jerks and spurts, like growing plants and children. It rushes headlong for a whole and then it seems to stop. It is not unlike a river, tearing through a narrow channel over shoals and treacherous rocks, and then abruptly spreading out into a placid stream, ripples slowly on its way -or, trapped in an eddy near the shore, may actually flow backwards for a time” (129-130).
“Chicago, proud city whose motto is ‘I Will.’ Sam loved it from the start, in common with countless other boys who came flocking from the farms and country towns throughout the Middle West. And it opened wide its arms and took them in. It was made for them and they for it – like Mecca for the Moslems, a holy city and their own, the heart of their America, the fulfillment of a promise” (162).
“There are events which have an inexorable quality –which, though unforeseen, and regardless if they be malignant or benign, yet seem completely right– a fulfillment of design, without alternative” (370).
On the 1944 Pulitzer Prize Decision
The 1944 Pulitzer Prize Jury was composed of the same three members as the prior year: John R. Chamberlain (Chair), Lewis S. Gannett, and Maxwell S. Geismar. They apparently discussed a variety of books for the award including John P. Marquand’s So Little Time, Martin Flavin’s Journey in the Dark, Christine Weston’s Indigo, Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, John Dos Passos’s Number One, and Ira Wolfert’s Tucker’s People.
Who Is Martin Flavin?
Martin Archer Flavin (1883-1967) was born in San Francisco. He attended the University of Chicago from 1903-1905. He was married three times and had three children from his first two marriages. For a short time he served in the United States Army in field artillery (not unlike Sam Braden in Journey In The Dark). Mr. Flavin was a factory worker and businessman for a period of twelve years, beginning as an office boy and working himself up to the vice presidency of a wallpaper company, but he then left in 1929 to fully devote his life to writing. Throughout his career he wrote a total of five novels, two works of nonfiction, twelve plays, and he also co-wrote several Hollywood screenplays, including portions of the first big prison film, The Big House (1930).
Martin Flavin died at the age of 84 in Carmel, California on December 28, 1967 after succumbing to injuries from a bad fall. His papers were later donated to the University of Chicago.
Flavin, Martin. Journey In The Dark. Avon Books (Hearst Corporation, published by arrangement with Harper and Row), third Avon Printing edition, New York, New York, 1965.