1951 Pulitzer Prize Review: The Town by Conrad Richter

“Sayward awoke this day with the feeling that something had happened to her.”

The third and final book in Conrad Richter’s “Awakening Land” trilogy, following The Trees (1940) and The Fields (1946), Pulitzer Prize-winner The Town (1950) concludes the personal saga of Sayward (née Luckett) Wheeler, a pioneer woman who grows up and witnesses the extraordinary changes taking place across the Ohio River Valley –her town transforms from an Indian-populated forest, to pioneer farming town, and finally into an economic hub. As described in prior novels, her parents initially moved to the region to set down roots, but it was up to Sayward to raise her siblings when her father abandoned the family to live as a frontiersman. Here, the pioneer life was harsh, brutal, and unforgiving for Sayward. There were frequent encounters with the Shawnee, Delaware, and Wyandotte. But by the opening of The Town, things have decidedly changed. Sayward, now in her 40s, is married to a sometimes-sober judge named Portius, and together they have no less than ten children.

At the outset, Sayward senses a change within herself as well as in her town. As more and more people migrate to the Ohio River Valley every year, and after the sheer exhaustion of raising ten children, Sayward feels disconnected from her husband, her children, her body, and even her town. Consider the following early passage:

“Now why, she wondered, did a woman’s hams have to get heavy just when she needed them supple and light the most? Could those hams spell out that no more child would rise up between them? And why did her breasts, that used to be stout as wood ducks, hang down now like old shook-out meal bags? Ten babes, counting the one that a lay over yonder in the burying ground, had drunk from those bags months on end” (5-6).

It is this brand of crass but vivid imagery that Richter chooses to introduce us to his protagonist, but it gives a sense of the pure physicality that has been invested into growing both a town and a family.

Joining fellow earlier Pulitzer Prize winners (Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons) The Town is conservative in tone –Sayward frequently laments the passage of time and the changing nature of the region. She is saddened by the disappearance of sprawling forests, and dismayed by the rise of mills and farms, along with the influx of new people who bring a hurried pace of life to this humble community. Even the town’s name is changed, from Moonshine Church to Americus. Nevertheless, in becoming a rich woman, Sayward decides to sell off portions of her rural land so her family can relocate to a mansion in town (much to her husband’s delight).

Throughout the novel we are given episodic glimpses into life around Moonshine Church/Americus –there is a competition for the county seat, a public battle over the judgeship, the construction of a new courthouse and a bridge over the river, along with a canal, and various scandals which plague her children –everything from pregnancies and marriages to sickness and politics. Interestingly enough, each chapter opens with a brief epigram at the header, with quotes from the likes of Zoroaster, Sophocles, and even fellow Pulitzer Prize winners like H.L. Davis and Ellen Glasgow. In one of the episodes, Sayward is reunited with her long-lost sister who was taken in by the Lenape while still a child (thanks to a deathbed confession from her father, Worth Luckett), in another instance, her son Resolve becomes governor. 

However, far and away the most complex character in the novel is Sayward’s youngest son, Chancey. As a child he was plagued by “ill omen and pestilence” (i.e. a heart condition) and he often yearns to be alone –Sayward wonders if she may come to regret suffering by keeping him alive as an infant. Chancey is something of a thinker and an insomniac. He is alight with a creative, fictive imagination, and he is known to sometimes stretch the truth. He falls in love with a neighbor girl, Rosa Tench, but they are forbidden from seeing one another due to a past mystery, which is later revealed to be a scandal. Rosa is actually Chancey’s half-sister, the product of his father’s wayward infidelity with the local schoolteacher. Sadly, Chancey is forced to end their budding romance one day at the fairgrounds in a hot air balloon. Rosa, confused and distraught, tragically commits suicide with the very knife she used to cut the balloon loose. As a result, Chancey develops an embittered perspective toward his family. As he grows up, Chancey becomes a poet and journalist in Cincinnati for a newspaper called the New Palladium. Increasingly persuaded by socialist ideas, he begins to reject his mother’s view of the world, and even publishes against her in print. The Town ends on the eve of the Civil War as Chancey returns to Americus while his newspaper begins to fail. He learns that his mother has been anonymously sponsoring the paper for many years, despite his contrarian viewpoint. At the end of her life, all of Sayward’s good deeds come to light and Chancey reconsiders his assessment of his mother. Lying on her deathbed, she wants nothing more than to see the trees through her nearby window.

“‘Mama,’ he called louder. There was no quiver of the eyelids. His mother only lay there, silent and oblivious as in the majesty of death. He knew now that she would never answer him again, that from this time on he would have to ponder his own questions and travel his way alone” (432-433, closing lines of the novel).

Surprisingly to me, “The Awakening Land” series has continued to remain a somewhat influential series over the decades. In 1966, Alfred A. Knopf issued a complete hardback edition of the trilogy, in 1991 The Ohio University Press issued paperback reprints of the trilogy, and in 2017 Chicago Review Press issued reprints of the books. In 1978, television miniseries was created for the entire “The Awakening Land” series (though some key moments were omitted, most notably the brutal suicide of Rosa Tench). Personally, I hope this is the last of the droning, austere pioneer books among the Pulitzer Prize-winners. For me, The Town is not an example of the best the Pulitzers have to offer.

As a unique point of interest, in The Town Conrad Richter gives grateful acknowledgement to a variety of public and private historical collections from whom he conducted research on everything from the geography of the region to the dialect of the Pennsylvania “pioneer” slang (hence all the “Pennsylvany” and “Ameriky” references) with thanks to “those men and women of pioneer stock among whom he lived both in the East and West, whose lives and whose tales of older days gave him a passionate love for the early American way of thought and speech, and a great respect for many whose names never figured in the history books but whose influence on their own times and country was incalculable. If this novel has had any other purpose than to tell some of their story, it has been to try to impart to the reader the feeling of having lived for a little while in those earlier days and of having come in contact, not with the sound and fury of dramatic historical events that is the fortune of the relative, and often uninteresting, few, but with the broader stuff of reality that was the lot of the great majority of men and women who, if they did not experience the certain incidents related in these pages, lived through comparable events and emotions, for life is endlessly resourceful and inexhaustible. It’s only the author who is limited and moral.”

On the 1951 Pulitzer Prize Decision
The 1951 Pulitzer Prize Jury for Fiction consisted of only two members: returning Jurors David Appel and Joseph Henry Jackson. I am not entirely certain as to why a third Juror was not included (what happened to Frederic Babcock from the prior year?)

  • David H. Appel (1910-1984) was a longtime features and book editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer (1946-1970). He also wrote several children’s books and was a freelance editor at The New York Times. He died in 1984 at the age of 74.
  • Joseph Henry Jackson (1894-1955) was the longtime literary editor of The San Francisco Chronicle. He gained a wide following with his daily book review column, “A Bookman’s Notebook”, and with his radio program, “The Reader’s Guide”, broadcast over NBC’s Pacific network. Originally from New Jersey, he moved to California after World War I. He led a book review radio program beginning in 1926 and published several books himself. He died of a stroke in 1955 at the age of 60 while recording a book review for NBC radio.

The following are some notable quotations I encountered while reading:

“To herself she guessed that Moonshine Church could get along by itself. It wasn’t doing bad for an upstart town along the river. All day long you could hear the broken tune of the sash sawmills like giant horseflies buzzing and lighting, stopping and starting, whining and skipping, for the saws cut only on the down stroke” (45-46).

“Oh, times had changed since her pappy had cut down the first big butts around here. Things moved mighty fast” (73).

“Why, she thought she had half forgot she was a woodsy, but this made her feel like one of those sassafrac folks from out in the brush fetching her poor traps in a fine mansion house. It was really her house as much as Portius’s, for hadn’t she built and paid a good half of it? And yet she found no welcome between these fine plaster walls or among the rich” (209).  

“Americus was getting too big for its britches…” (271).

“All afternoon Chancey had to listen to the pioneer singing and story telling. Their theme was ever of hardship and tragedy, of drowning and starving, of mourning, and sudden death. Now how could these old people be so pleased and comforted by such dark and terrible tales? They engulfed Chancey in gloom. He found coming up in him today the creeping terror that used to plague him in church…” (291).

“That was when for the moment Chancey couldn’t believe it. Rosa dead, and by her own hand!” (355, on the moment Chancey is informed by his mother of Rosa’s death).

“Outside the window he could see a regiment of Union troops, eager for glory and mad for death, marching down the street on their way to answer their backwoods president’s war call” (420).

Who Is Conrad Richter?
Conrad Richter (1890-1968) was born the son of a Lutheran Minister in Pine Grove, CA. The town had been named in part by his great-grandfather, a local squire, store, and tavern keeper (he was also a Major in the War of 1812). One of Richter’s ancestors fought under George Washington, and another was a Hessian mercenary in the British service. As a child, he bounced around various mining towns in Pennsylvania where he was first exposed to descendants of the early pioneers and he memorized their stories which would later inspire much of his fiction. Richter attended local public schools and completed the bulk of his professional education at age 15 when he left high school. He worked various oddjobs including at a Pennsylvania newspaper and as the private secretary to a wealthy Ohio manufacturing family. He married Harvena Maria Achenbach in 1915 and they had a daughter, also named Harvena in 1917. She was to be Richter’s only child.

From here, Richter entered the world of published writing –he wrote short stories, and tales for children, as well as a brief stint writing screenplays for MGM in Hollywood. His family lived all over the United States from New Mexico to Florida before returning to Pennsylvania. In addition to winning the Pulitzer in 1951 for The Town, Richter was also a nominee of the National Book Award in 1937 for his debut novel The Sea of Grass, a tale about the conflicts between ranchers and farmers in late 19th century New Mexico. He later won the National Book Award in 1961 for his novel The Walter of Kronos. It was made into a film in 1947 starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey (directed by Elia Kazan). Richter also won the regional Ohioana Award and received high praise for The Town from fellow Pulitzer Prize-winner, Louis Bromfield. His death in 1968 was followed by two posthumously published short story collections. In 1994, Richter’s historic home at 11 Maple Street in Pine Grove, PA was formally dedicated with a historical marker.

Richter, Conrad. The Town. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY. 1963.

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1950 Pulitzer Prize Review: The Way West by A. B. Guthrie Jr.

The 1950s for the Pulitzer Prizes begins with a celebrated Western novel about a wagon train traveling overland along the Oregon Trail. The Way West is actually the second book in a series that A.B. Guthrie Jr. wrote about the growth of Montana throughout the 19th century (1830s-1880s). The series contains the following sequential novels: The Big Sky (1947), The Way West (1949), These Thousand Hills (1956), Arfive (1971), The Last Valley (1975), and Fair Land, Fair Land (1982).

Dedicated to Guthrie’s wife, Harriet, The Way West serves as a nice stand-alone novel despite being part of a broader series. It begins in dreary Independence, Missouri circa 1845 where thirty-five year-old Lije Evans (perhaps short for “Elijah”) decides to join a wagon train headed westward toward the Oregon territory. Why make the risky trek to Oregon? Lije’s father once traveled down the Ohio River in a flatboat, and his sage advice to his son was: “there wasn’t any place as pretty as the one that lay ahead.” The impetus to uproot and migrate to Oregon is based on a mix of hopes and dreams, plus a patriotic urge to prevent the villainous British from ever settling in North America. Lije hopes to escape miasmal sickness rampant in the hazy low country of Missouri. He and his friends dream of greener pastures and warm sunshine, a place with plenty of land, blue skies, rich soil, new people, and a new land to cultivate –the Willamette Valley. After all, “a man didn’t make history, staying close to home” (13), says Lije.

“He didn’t guess he would join up for Oregon, for all that he would be proud to have a hand in it, to build up Uncle Sam and stop the British. Missouri was a good-enough country… It was just that he wanted something more out of life than he had found” (4).

In the town of Independence, all the talk is of Oregon. From Mexican hired hands on the Santa Fe trade, to men like Tadlock from Illinois who intends to travel overland by himself without the aid of a company, or Henry “Hank” McBee from Southern Ohio with his large family (including his attractive daughter Mercy), Curtis Mack and his wife Amanda who is reluctant to sleep with her husband in fear of becoming pregnant in the wilderness, and Charles Fairman and his wife Judith who suffers from depression. There is also an amusing preacher named Brother Weatherby. They invite veteran frontiersman Dick Summers to be the pilot of the wagon train. Dick is a rough and tumble outdoorsman with plenty of experience traveling through the country and fighting Indians (Dick Winters previously appeared in A.B. Guthrie Jr.’s The Big Sky). Yet he is also a melancholy man pushing fifty whose sickly wife has recently died, hence why he decides to leave his farm in Missouri and return to the open frontier. Throughout the novel, we are given vague glimpses of Dick’s life –such as the ghostly memories of yesteryear’s trailblazing mountain men who populate his mind, and his young love affair with a beautiful Crow girl. He is one of the more elusive and compelling characters in the novel.

Joined by his faithful wife, Rebecca “Becky” Evans, and their son Brownie (as well as the family dog Rock) Lije and his family make haste for Oregon, despite Becky’s initial reservations. Along the way, they encounter innumerable situations –sickness and storms, pregnancy and stillbirth, indiscretion and impropriety (like the embarrassing problem of defecating in the wilderness without wandering too far from the train), camps along nameless place-markers, signs of civilization like Fort Laramie, buffalo stampedes, rattlenakes (whose poisonous bites kill Toddie), friendly Shoshone (like Dick’s old friend White Hawk), and hostile Kaw, Pawnee, and Sioux Indians. At one point, Brownie stays behind to scrawl his name on a rock and he is then kidnapped by unfriendly Sioux who bargain him for meat, supplies, and tobacco. There is also infighting within the group as some turn back and Lije unseats the headstrong Tadlock as captain, but the conflict is further complicated when an intimacy-starved Mack in unable to control himself one evening and sleeps with Tadlock’s daughter, Mercy. In time, she realizes she is pregnant and quickly marries Brownie shortly before the troupe arrives in the Edenic paradise of the Willamette Valley.

Once again, I was lucky enough to read a first edition copy of this book, courtesy of my local library. Later editions apparently included a foreword by Wallace Stegner which I wouldn’t mind reading in the future. Needless to say, I thought this was a wonderful installment in the pantheon of Pulitzer Prize winners –certainly a breath of fresh air after the 1949 winner Guard of Honor by James Gould Cozzens. Clifton Fadiman, the distinguished book reviewer and public intellectual, once dubbed The Way West “the finest novel on the subject in existence.” A Hollywood film was released in 1967 starring Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, and Richard Widmark.

The following are some notable quotations I came across while reading:

“The day dawned clear, but it had rained the night before, the sudden squally rain of middle March” (1 -opening lines).

“Each stick and splinter of this place was built by Lije, each little touch of prettiness put there by her or him. Everything had something in them in it. They had come here young and sure and seen the years pass and known trouble and happiness. It was, she thought again as she worked her broom, as if the house had shared their time and feelings, as if, quiet in the walls, sad in the empty rooms, was the memory of their doings, was the dread of strangers come” (36-37, Rebecca Evans reflecting on departing from her home in Missouri).

“Summers sat on his horse and watched, thinking how things had changed. This country was young, like himself, when he saw it first, young and wild like himself, without the thought of age. There wasn’t a post on it then, nor any tame squaw begging calico, but only buffalo and beaver and the long grass waving in the Laramie bottoms. The wind had blown lonesome, the sound of emptiness in it, the breath of far-off places where no white foot had stepped… Now there wasn’t a buffalo within fifty miles or beaver either –the few that were left of them—and the wind brought words and the hammer of hammers and the bray of mules and the smells of living under roof” (136).

“Evans knew this time would pass. He was right to try for Oregon. He had been all along. It was just that the country overpowered the mind” (276).

“Here, from Boise to the Dalles, was the windup of the trail, the finish of the test, the yes or no Oregon. Here by slow wheel tracks at last was being written the answer to a question raised years ago last spring, raised so long ago a man lost its beginning across the plain-peak, sage-tree, sand-rock field of time. He lost it along with places, people and doings remembered from before, so that none of them came real to him and he asked himself is sure enough there was an Independence, a Missouri and a spot he once called home, or were they vapors in his mind” (306).

About the 1950 Pulitzer Prize Decision

The 1950 Fiction Jury was composed of the prior year’s returning trio: David Appel, Joseph Henry Jackson, and Frederic Babcock. As far as I can tell, David Appel was a book editor for The Philadelphia Inquirer and the author of several children’s books; Frederic Babcock was a journalist and travel writer for The Chicago Tribune; and Joseph Henry Jackson was a longtime editor of The San Francisco Chronicle where he penned a daily column “A Bookman’s Notebook” and he also helmed a popular radio program entitled “The Reader’s Guide.”

Interestingly enough, the musical play South Pacific by Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Joshua Logan won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1950. James Michener’s novel of the same name had also won the Pulitzer in 1948.

About A.B. Guthrie Jr.

Alfred Bertram “A.B.” Guthrie Jr. (1901-1991), known to his friends as “Bud,” was born in Bedford, Indiana, where his father was a newspaperman, before the family relocated to the small town of Choteau, Montana. Here, Guthrie was raised to love the high country of the Mountain West. Upon entering adulthood, he studied at the University of Washington before transferring to the University of Montana. Later, he attended Harvard University under a Neiman Foundation scholarship where he started writing.

Guthrie first entered the newspaper business as a devil’s printer for the Choteau Acantha newspaper. He worked a variety of odd jobs –the Forest Service, an irrigation project in Mexico, Western Electric in California, and even in a grocery store, before moving to Lexington in 1926 where he began working as a reporter at the Lexington Leader. He married Harriet Lawson, they had two children, and after his books became bestsellers, he began teaching writing courses at the University of Kentucky. Following the successes of The Big Sky and The Way West, Mr. Guthrie relocated his family back to Choteau, Montana where they typically split their time between Choteau and Great Falls, Montana. He also dabbled in Hollywood scriptwriting after penning the Academy Award-nominated script for Shane (1953), and he also wrote the script for The Kentuckian (1955).

Mr. Guthrie died in 1991 at the age of 90 at his ranch near Choteau, Montana.

Guthrie Jr., A. B. The Way West. William Sloane Associates. New York. 1949.

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1949 Pulitzer Prize Review: Guard of Honor by James Gould Cozzens

“Through the late afternoon they flew southeast, going home to Ocanara at about two hundred miles an hour” (opening lines).

Mired in inane military bureaucracy, Guard of Honor rounds out the 1940s for the Pulitzer Prize-winning novels. Like many fellow sojourners on this journey, I found Guard of Honor to be a dreary slog. It takes place across three days in September 1943 at the Ocanara air base in Florida. The novel is divided into three chief sections: Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Though there are numerous forgettable characters throughout the novel like Colonel “Pop” Mowbray, Brigadier General Joseph Josephson “Jo-Jo” Nichols, Captain Nathaniel Hicks, the former judge Colonel Norman Ross, Lt. Jim Edsell, Lt. Amanda Turck, and Captain Donald Andrews among many others, we might consider the novel’s protagonist to be Major General Ira “Bus” Beal, a 41-year-old two star general (the youngest general in the Army). At the outset, or for the first 100 pages of this 631-page doorstop of a book, we follow General Beal’s airplane as it transports a group of military personnel from Seller’s Field, Mississippi to Ocanara, Florida, but there is a mix-up and the plane accidentally crashes into another plane operated by an all “black bomber group.” This precipitates a fight between Lieutenant Colonel “Benny” Carricker who punches Lieutenant Willis, the African American pilot of the bomber. Racial animosities arise while the officers deliberate over policies, jurisdiction, legality, and who among them has authority to address this issue. The ensuing commotion is actually a nod to a true series of events –in April 1945, a group of African-American officers protested the segregation of the Air Force officer’s club facilities in Indiana, in an event which became known as the “Freeman Field Mutiny.” It is widely regarded as the chief impetus for the desegregation of the American military. The offending officers, many of whom were court-martialed, were only vindicated by the Air Force in 1995.

At any rate, the following passage in Guard of Honor details the moment of the plane crash, which is, in my view, sadly the most compelling part of the novel:

“Then they ran into something –not on the ground; they were as high as the great hangar roofs; overtaking the bomber, but still above and behind. They hit very hard with a bucking, buckling violence. One wing went down. The cabin roof became the side; the opposite wall became the ceiling; and from it, with a crashing slam, came Sergeant Pellerino, striking Nathaniel Hick’s potting table. In Nathaniel Hicks’s earphone a panicky voice was shrilling: “B-26 on runway; B-26 on runway! There is an airplane directly behind you. There is an airplane—” (83).

At any rate, as the novel drags on we are given a variety of reflections and reactions from a panoply of characters working within the Army Air Force Operations and Requirements Analysis Division (AFORAD) until on Friday during a training exercise, several parachute troopers accidentally land in a lake and, since they are bogged down by heavy equipment, they all tragically drown in the lake. Thus concludes this painfully monotonous tome. For all its faults, at least Guard of Honor reminds us of the multi-layered dimensions of war –it is often all too easy to dwell on battlefield heroics, while we often overlook the interpersonal and administrative dynamics which necessarily take place on the home front.

Needless to say, James Gould Cozzens remains a divisive writer, many of his books remain out of print today and his name sits squarely on the crowded, dusty shelf of Pulitzer Prize winners who have been mostly forgotten. Nevertheless, there is a small club of critics who still believe Cozzens is deserving of a critical reappraisal, even if he often drew the ire of his contemporaries in his own day (more on that below). Examples of his defenders include essayist Noel Perrin who deemed Guard of Honor “probably the best war novel of the twentieth century.” Orville Prescott, a former Pulitzer Jurist and writer for The New York Times said: “No other American novelist of our time writes with such profound understanding of the wellsprings of human character and of the social pressures that help to form it.” Brendan Gill of The New Yorker remarked: “Every page of Guard of Honor gives the impression of a writer at the very top of his powers setting out to accomplish nothing less than his masterwork.” Such glowing reviews force me to pause and ask myself, did I read the same novel as this trio?

One interesting fact I learned when researching this novel is that Cozzens had a working title for this novel entitled “The Tempest.” Also, he includes a quotation from Shakespeare’s The Tempest at the outset. It is taken from a scene in which Ariel calls Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian fools for thinking they can attack her anymore than they might pierce a gust of wind or the flow of water:

“I and my fellows
Are ministers of Fate: the elements,
Of whom your swords are temper’d, may as well
Wound the loud winds, or with bemock’d-at stabs
Kill the sill closing waters, as diminish
One dowle that’s in my plume: my fellow ministers
Are like invulnerable.”

On the 1949 Pulitzer Decision
The 1949 Fiction Jury consisted of David Appel, Frederic Babcock, and Joseph Henry Jackson. As far as I can tell, David Appel was a book editor for The Philadelphia Inquirer and he was the author of several children’s books; Frederic Babcock was a journalist and travel writer for The Chicago Tribune; and Joseph Henry Jackson was a longtime editor at The San Francisco Chronicle where he penned a daily column “A Bookman’s Notebook” and he also helmed a popular radio program entitled “The Reader’s Guide.”

Somehow this trio selected Guard of Honor instead of other vastly superior novels, such as Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. At least during this year the Drama category made a more appropriate selection with Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

Who Is James Gould Cozzens?
James Gould Cozzens (1903-1978) was born in Chicago and grew up on Staten Island. His father was a prominent businessman and his grandfather was William C. Cozzens, former governor of Rhode Island. His mother’s lineage could be traced to pre-Revolutionary America (a family of Connecticut Tories). As such, Mr. Cozzens led a privileged life. He was apparently encouraged from an early age to become a writer by his doting mother who hoped to fulfill her own creative ambitions via her son. She also seems to have given her son such an inflated sense of himself that was often displayed in adulthood as arrogant indifference to the feelings and opinions of others.

Mr. Cozzens was raised in an Episcopalian family, he attended Harvard University (though never graduated), and published his first novel while in school (Confusion in 1924), but he soon fell ill and indebted. Mr. Cozzens then traveled around the world working as a tutor in Cuba and in Europe, all the while writing short stories. He served in the army during Word War II where in his unique role he became a central hub of news and information, especially any potentially damaging intel on General Henry H. Arnold. Mr. Cozzens achieved the rank of major by the time was discharged at the war’s end.

He married Sylvia Bernice Baumgarten, a literary agent with Brandt & Kirkpatrick. In many ways she was Mr. Cozzens’s opposite –a Jewish liberal democrat who was committed to pursuing a better world. Regarding his feelings at the time of his marriage, Mr. Cozzens later scoffed to a Time Magazine reporter that he supposed ”sex entered into it. After all, what’s a woman for?” Nevertheless, it was a successful marriage that lasted until both died, though they never had any children. The Cozzens’s lived entirely secluded lives split between country home in Williamstown, Massachusetts; Lambertville, New Jersey; and eventually Martin County, Florida. Throughout his life, Mr. Cozzens was depressive and reclusive, sticking to a rigid schedule of writing within his home. He was dubbed “the Garbo of U.S. letters” and “the hermit of Lambertville.” He was by all accounts a misanthropic hermit –despising sentimentality, as well as modern liberalism and egalitarianism, and his comments often drew negative press coverage. He once remarked of a liberal friend, ”Oh, he’s one of those fellows that want(s) equality for Indians,” and on the race issue he said, ”I like anybody if he’s a nice guy, but I’ve never met many Negroes who were nice guys.” His remarks, perhaps intended to be darkly humorous, were often met with disdain. Many of his contemporary writers discarded Cozzens’s books, Faulkner apparently brushed off Cozzens while John Updike excoriated his final novel Morning, Noon and Night for being essentially unreadable. Cozzens responded in kind: “The Old Man and the Sea could have run in Little Folks magazine. Under the rough exterior of Hemingway, he’s just a great big bleeding heart. Sinclair Lewis was a crypto-sentimentalist and a slovenly writer who managed a slight falsification of life in order to move the reader. Faulkner falsified life for dramatic effect. It’s sentimentality disguised by the corncob. I can’t read ten pages of Steinbeck without throwing up. I couldn’t read the proletarian crap that came out in the ’30s; again you had sentimentalism—the poor oppressed workers.” He granted a rare and controversial Time Magazine interview which essentially tanked whatever favorability remained of Cozzens’s public persona. While there is much fluff in the interview, I was paticularly struck by Mr. Cozzens’s writer’s routine (quote below):

“A typical day in the Cozzens’ Lambertville house (bought in 1933, but soon to be abandoned because Cozzens fears that impending power lines will spoil his valley view) unreels with near monastic austerity. Daily except Sunday Cozzens rises at 5:15 a.m., brews a pot of tea for himself and fixes coffee for Bernice, who gets up at 5:45. In his 1957 station wagon he drives Bernice to the Trenton station for an early train to Manhattan, then returns for a breakfast of scrambled eggs, orange juice and milk. He works from 8 to noon (he is a two-finger typist). Says Cozzens, who spent eight years on By Love Possessed: “For every three pages I write, I throw away two. On a good day, I get two pages done.” After lunch (with two martinis) he naps for an hour, putters around in the flower garden (he tends the roses), and reads until he picks up Bernice at the station. After dinner Cozzens goes to his study, “where I meditate and put on a rubber tire with three bottles of beer.” Cozzens’ sole hobby is a pop record collection, vintage 1920 to 1927—Al Jolson, Paul Whiteman—which he plays by the hour on his hi-fi set. “Most of the time I just sit picking my nose and thinking.”

After winning the Pulitzer in 1949 for Guard of Honor, he was nominated again for By Love Possessed (1957), his strongest popular success. It was a traditionalist novel which offered a series of reflections on small-town life by a 49 year old attorney. It won the William Dean Howells Medal, an award granted every five years by the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1925-Present). It was also was made into a Hollywood movie in 1961 starring Lana Turner. However, the book drew the wrath of liberal critics, such as Dwight Macdonald in Commentary and Irving Howe in The New Republic. They critiqued it for being long and dense but also for certain social and political attitudes it apparently espoused. In his now infamous essay, ”By Cozzens Possessed,” Macdonald accused Cozzens of being anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic and anti-Black, as well as priggish in his treatment of sex and brutal in his portrayal of women. The essay became an infamous document in the history of critical demolition.

In his later years, Mr. Cozzens served on an advisory board at his alma mater Harvard and was granted an honorary doctorate in 1952. His notebooks during this period reveal a man struggling with acute depression and suicide. Both he and his wife died in 1978. The late Matthew J. Bruccoli, a professor at the University of South Carolina and leading expert on the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, and John O’Hara, became an official biographer of Mr. Cozzens and one of his most ardent defenders in academia.

Cozzens, James Gould. Guard of Honor. Harcourt, Brace. And Company, NY, 1948 (first edition).

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1948 Pulitzer Prize Review: Tales of the South Pacific by James Michener

“I wish I could tell you about the South Pacific. The way it actually it was. The endless ocean. The infinite specks of coral we call islands. Coconut palms nodding gracefully toward the ocean. Reefs upon which waves broke into spray, and inner lagoons, lovely beyond description. I wish I could tell you about the sweating jungle, the full moon rising behind the volcanoes, and the waiting. The waiting. The timeless repetitive waiting” (opening lines).

In a collection of partly autobiographical sketches, James Michener’s debut book Tales of the South Pacific (1947) invites us to consider the often-overlooked lives of Allied soldiers stationed in the South Pacific during World War II. This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is structured to be a panoramic series of interconnected vignettes which present a unique portrait of the era. This was also the book that caused the Pulitzer Prize to change its award title from the “Novel” to “Fiction” in order to allow for groupings of short stories to be considered. To this day, this title has remained unchanged since 1948.

In truth, Tales of the South Pacific represents a cohesive whole –each of the nineteen short stories carry consistent themes, subject matter, characters, and they take place sequentially, culminating in a dramatic invasion of fictional island called Kuralei. Our main narrator is an anonymous “Commander” who delivers paperwork from island to island, serving in those “bitter” years between ’41 and ’43. Perhaps this is intended to be James Michener himself. In fact, it was Mr. Michener’s own experiences as a Naval Historian in the Pacific Theater during World War II which inspired the Tales. During his time in the Navy, he carefully collected observations from the Espiritu Santo Naval Base on the island of Espiritu Santo in the “New Hebrides Islands” (today called Vanuatu). These scattered fragments became Tales of the South Pacific. After the book’s success, the story was later adapted by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein into a wildly successful Broadway play, and a popular musical film released in 1958 (a second film version was released in 2001).

In the book, each of the short stories unfolds like a series of digressions –we see soldiers battling foot fungus and malaria, loneliness and boredom, depression and anxiety, hope and fatalism. Rumors fly amidst the ever-present fear of a Japanese attack while soldiers dream of pretty girls and letters from the homefront. The mise en scène removes us far away to the edge of civilization in the South Pacific, a beautiful tropical locale, where scattered bands of Navy crewmen find themselves in an endless cycle of waiting –waiting for battle, waiting for reinforcements, waiting for news, waiting for letters, waiting for the war to end.

The overarching plot which binds the Tales together is a top secret plan known as “Alligator” which intends to launch a surprise attack on the Japanese forces on Kuralei, not unlike the Battle of Guadalcanal, the first major Allied land invasion in the South Pacific. However, rather than focusing exclusively on the battle, the Tales weave us in and out of individual lives and particular moments of note. We begin as the U.S. Navy routes the Japanese and prevents an invasion of New Zealand. The men eagerly await regular news updates from an unknown Englishmen radioing from behind enemy lines. In another story, our anonymous “Commander” is sent off to a tiny island called “Norfolk” situated off the coast of Auckland in order to persuade the natives to build an airstrip, however upon arrival he soon learns that the natives are actually the descendants of Fletcher Christian and the other notorious 18th century mutineers of the H.M.S. Bounty (from the famous novel Mutiny on the Bounty). Their ancestors fled Pitcairn Island briefly and arrived on Norfolk where Fletcher Christian planted a cathedral of trees which must be destroyed to make way for an Allied airstrip. This allusion to one of the great swashbuckling stories of all time was a truly unexpected delight for me in this book.   

However, Michener’s Tales are not merely the ramblings of yet another starry-eyed jingoist-triumphalist. There is considerable nuance in these tales, for example, in the character of Nurse Nellie Forbush. With Nellie, we are introduced to an optimistic young lady from a small town near Little Rock, Arkansas. She is hailed as a “heroine” in her hometown paper. She initially joined the Navy hoping to see the world and meet interesting people, but instead she is entrapped by a revolving door of sexually aggressive male soldiers (most of them married), like Bill Harbison, a man who attempts to foist himself upon her one evening. “…But that isn’t what Nellie Forbush meant when she said she wanted to see the world. She had meant that she wanted to talk with strange people, to find out how they lived, and what they dreamed about, interesting little things that she could treasure as experience” (94). We are led to believe that all the nurses are sexually assaulted at one point or another in the South Pacific. Later, Nellie meets a wealthy Frenchman named Emile De Becque who owns a vast coastal plantation on the island. However, when Nellie discovers that Mr. de Becque has sired children from several different native women, the thought of non-white children tainting her white southern family causes her “revulsion.” She leaves Mr. de Becque and later returns to Arkansas where she marries her small-town beau, Charlie. Although Nellie only appears in two of the stories, her narrative stands out as unique among the Tales, and her character features prominently in the musical with a notable Hollywood-styled redemption arc. While reading, we reject Nellie’s racial prejudice but sympathize with her struggle against the Bill Harbisons of the world.

At any rate, amidst milk and alcohol runs, in PT boats and dilapidated airplanes like The Bouncing Belch, we are also greeted by a colorful band of merry soldiers. There is Joe Cable, a hard-drinking shoemaker from Philadelphia who is stuck on “the rock” gassing up planes and falling in love with girls who write letters to him. In a later tale, he has a love affair with a teenage Tonkinese girl named Liat on the mythically pristine island of Bali-Ha’i. In this tropical paradise, we meet Liat’s mother whom the men call “Bloody Mary” –a toothless, sloppy, ineloquent, middle-aged woman described as having juice running down the sides of her mouth. We also meet Luther Billis, a large and crass “SeaBee,” and a mechanic who is caught by the censors writing ribald letters to his wife. One of the silent heroes of the book is Tony Fry, a reckless officer who is nevertheless respected by all. He paints beer bottles on the side of his plane The Bouncing Belch for every alcohol mission that he completes. He sabotages a bulldozer to prevent the destruction of the trees planted by Christian Fletcher (as told in the aforementioned tale), and he is obsessed with the elusive British “Remittance Man” broadcasting enemy intelligence over the radio. Tony Fry embodies the kind of joie de vivre that, in truth, the U.S. military seeks to quash.

As the Tales come to a crescendo, the slightly mad Commander Hoag and the snappy Admiral Kester direct an invasion of Konora to build a bomber strip and the “Alligator” operation goes into full effect. The Navy amasses a large invasion of Kuralei where many of our beloved friends on this journey tragically die during the assault. Bill Harbison suffers from shock and then is sent home, but sadly Tony Fry, Commander Hoag, and Lt. Joe Cable are all killed as numerous waves of Allied soldiers barrel down upon the island and torch the Japanese trenches. Those who don’t survive have their throats slit by the Japanese, those who do survive are scarred forever, but the operation is ultimately a victory. The victorious dead are buried in a solemn graveyard at Hoga Point, far away from home in the South Pacific.

As is the case in all great writing about war, from Herodotus to Hemingway, there exists a certain degree of anxiety about war ever being forgotten. People who have actually participated in the heat of battle and who have performed great acts of extraordinary courage –from Marathon to Gettysburg to Guadalcanal– long for their sacrifice to be remembered forever. However, there is a somber, bittersweet tone to the book as it openly acknowledges that much will be forgotten. In risking everything, war comes to light as a horrid teacher of unpleasant lessons, so long as it is remembered. But as one generation gives way to the next, and the fog of war lifts, and the quietude of ordinary life resumes, people do forget. How many Americans today can recall the Battle of Guadalcanal? We forget the thousands of heroic deeds accomplished by young men and women from towns and cities all across the United States. Many of their stories, now lost forever, are swallowed up by this great pageant as it marches onward, turning its gaze elsewhere. At least, James Michener’s wonderful collection of Tales Of The South Pacific will continue to stand as an homage to their sacrifices and struggles, triumphs and failures.   

On The 1948 Pulitzer Prize Decision
The 1948 Pulitzer Prize Jury included the returning trio of John Chamberlain, Maxwell S. Geismar, and Orville Prescott. Based on their recommendation of James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific for the then-$500 prize, the decision was made to change the award title from “Novel” to “Fiction” in order to better incorporate the consideration of short story collections like Mr. Michener’s.

This was also the year Frank D. Fackenthal received a special scroll of citation for his many years of service to the Pulitzer Prizes. Her had served as Secretary and then Provost of Columbia University from 1910 to 1945 where he administered the Pulitzer Prizes by fulfilling Joseph Pulitzer’s wishes, implementing the jury system and serving as their central coordinator, and he managed the occasionally fraught relationship between the various constituencies. At the time, the Advisory Board only convened once per year before passing their selections onto the Trustees for final approval, thus it was incumbent upon a timely and organized process. From 1945 to 1948, Mr. Fackenthal served as Acting President of the University during the search for Nicholas Murray Butler’s successor following Butler’s ailing decline, and after an unfortunate conflict with Butler, Mr. Fackenthal was followed in tenure by General Dwight D. Eisenhower who served as President of Columbia University from 1948 to 1953, prior to being elected President of the United States. A Brooklynite and life-long bachelor, Mr. Fackenthal received honorary degrees from Franklin & Marshall College, Columbia University, Syracuse, Rutgers, NYU and Union College; he was involved in the Manhattan Project; he oversaw the coalescence of such Cold War initiatives as the School of International Affairs and the Russian Institute, later under the Rockefeller Foundation. He received the Alexander Hamilton Medal—Columbia University’s highest honor; thereafter, Mr. Fackenthal served as an educational consultant for the Carnegie Foundation, and as president and director of the Bushwick Savings Bank (where his father had also served on the board of directors), and then as a director at Tayler, Stiles, & Company, a financial services firm, as well as a trustee at various institutions such as Barnard College, Franklin and Marshall College, the Riverdale Country School and International House. In 1965, he was critically injured when his car collided with a tractor-trailer. He died several years later in 1968.

The following are some of the many notable quotations I came across while reading Tales of the South Pacific:

“They will live a long time, these men of the South Pacific. They had an American quality. They, like their victories, will be remembered as long as our generation lives. After that, like the men of the Confederacy, they will become strangers. Longer and longer shadows will obscure them, until their Guadalcanal sounds distant on the ear like Shiloh and Valley Forge” (3-4).

“In strange ways they discovered that their lovers were married men, or in jubilation they found they were not. But rarely did they ask the simple question: ‘Are you married?’ For they knew that most men would tell them the truth, and they did not wish to know the truth” (50, on Naval women in the South Pacific).

“D-Day would be selected later, and some officer-messenger like me would fly to various islands and move under heavy guard. He would, like me, be some unlikely candidate for the job, and to each copy of Alligator in circulation he would add one page. It would contain the date of D-Day. From that moment on, there would be no turning back. A truly immense project would be in motion. Ships that sailed four months before from Algiers, or Bath, or San Diego would be committed to deathless battle… The intensity, the inevitability, the grindingness of Alligator were too great for any one man to comprehend. It changed lives in every country in the world. It exacted a cost from every country in Japan and American” (92-93).

“The world was beautiful that night. It was beautiful as only a tropic night on some distant island can be beautiful. A million men in the South Seas would deny it to one another, would ridicule it in their letters home. But it was beautiful. Perhaps some of the million would deny the beauty because, like Joe, they had never seen it” (126).

“It was sometimes terrifying for me to see the mental hunger that men experienced for companionship on the island… Throughout their existence on the edge of a foreign and forbidding jungle, perched right on the edge of a relentless ocean, men lived in highly tense conditions. Throbbing nature was all about them. Life grew apace, like the papyrus trees, a generation in five months.
“And in all this super-pulsating life there were no women. Only half-scented folded bits of paper called letters.
“As a result sensible men shoved back into unassailable corners of their souls thoughts that otherwise would have surged through and wracked them. They very rarely told dirty jokes. They fought against expressing friendliness or interest in any other man. From time to time horrifying stories would creep around a unit. ‘Two men down at Noumea. Officers, too. Dishonorable discharge! Couple years at Portsmouth!’ And everyone would shudder… and wonder’
“And so men in the tropics, with life running riot about them, read books, and wrote letters, and learned to love dogs better than good food, and went on long hikes, and went swimming, and wrote letters, and wrote letters, and slept. Of course, sometimes a terrible passion would well up, and there would be a murder, or a suicide” (145-146).

“I think Segi Point, at the southern end of New Georgia, is my favorite spot in the South Pacific” (222).

“I was on the LCS-108 when we hit Kuralei… We made rendezvous at D-minus-two. It was a glorious feeling. You went to bed alone on the vast ocean. In the morning you were surrounded by big important ships of the line” (297).

“When the smoky room was emptied, I went on deck. In the gray twilight of D-Day the first wave was going in. Fire raked them as they hit the coral. Jap guns roared in the gray dawn. But some of them got in! They were in! And now the battleships lay silent. The airplanes withdrew. Men, human beings on two feet, men, crawling on their bellies over coral, with minds and doubtful thoughts and terrible longings… men took over” (304).

“In my bitterness I dimly perceived what battle means. In civilian life I was ashamed until I went into uniform. In the states I was uncomfortable while others were overseas. At Noumea I thought, ‘The guys on Guadal! They’re the heroes!’ But when I reached Guadal I found that all the heroes were somewhere farther up the line. And while I sat in safety aboard the LCS-108 I knew where the heroes were. They were on Kuralei. Yet, on the beach itself only a few men ever really fought the Japs. I suddenly realized. That from the farms, and towns, and cities all over America an unbroken line ran straight to the few who storm the blockhouses. No matter where along that line you stood, if you were not the man at the end of it, he ultimate man with his sweating hands upon the blockhouse, you didn’t know what war was. You had only an intimation, as of a bugle blown far in the distance. You might have flashing insights, but you did not know. By the grace of God you would never know” (317).

“Before me lay the dead, the heroic dead who took the island. Upon a strange plateau, on a strange island, in a strange sea, far from their farms and villages, they slept forever beside the lagoon which bore them to their day of battle. Over them the sea birds dipped in endless homage. Above them the deep sky erected a cathedral. I cannot put into words the emotions that captured me as I looked upon the graves of my friends” (321).

Who Is James Michener?

Born in New York City in 1907, James “Jim” Michener (1907-1997) was adopted into a Pennsylvania foster family. Throughout his long life, he never managed to discover the true identity of his birth parents. His upbringing was difficult and, as such, he sought refuge in classic literature, such as the novels of Dickens and Balzac. As a teenager, he was hit with wanderlust, hitch-hiking and hopping boxcars across the country and working odd jobs before he entered Swarthmore College on a scholarship. He graduated with distinction in 1929, and subsequently traveled all over Europe. He became a teacher and married his first wife Patti Koon (they divorced in 1948) and then he accepted a lecturer position at Harvard University and worked as a social studies editor at Macmillan Publishers (which would eventually publish Tales of the South Pacific).  

Upon the outbreak of World War II, Mr. Michener joined the U.S. Navy and was promptly shipped off to the Pacific which would later become the setting for several of his celebrated novels (especially Tales of the South Pacific). By accident, he became a Naval Historian which took him on long journeys across South Pacific Ocean. He made diligent efforts to record his impressions and experiences in the form of notes which he later successfully transformed into Tales of the South Pacific, which he published at the age of forty.

Over his lifetime, he published more than four dozen books, the most popular of which were large tomes of historical fiction, each one distinguished and thoroughly researched: The Bridges at Toko-Ri, Sayonara, The Source, Centennial, Chesapeake, The Covenant, Space, Poland, Texas and Alaska. Mr. Michener also devoted much of his time to public service. In 1962, he ran for Congress as a liberal Democrat, but he lost in a decidedly conservative district. He continued to serve in a variety of public capacities.

In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, his many honors and awards include honorary doctorates, the Medal of Freedom, and an award from the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.

He was married for a second time to Vange Nord (they divorced in 1955), he then married Mari Yoriko Sabsawa, a Japanese-American woman whose family had been placed in an American internment camp. They remained married for 39 years. Mr. Michener’s novel Sayonara (1954) was a partly fictionalized account of a cross-cultural romance not unlike his own. The great success of Mr. Michener’s books afforded him considerable financial freedom. In 1989, he donated the royalty earnings from the Canadian edition of his novel Journey to create the Journey Prize, an annual Canadian short story literary prize worth $10,000. He continued to give huge sums of money away throughout his lifetime. After his wife passed away in 1994, Mr. Michener contracted kidney disease. After several years, he allowed himself to end daily dialysis treatments and he quietly died at the age of 90 on October 16, 1997. He never had children.

As an aside, there is a truly powerful 60 Minutes segment wherein Diane Sawyer and James Michener (then in his 70s) return to the South Pacific together. Mr. Michener leads the camera around his old haunts along the port of Santo on Vanuatu, a place where some 500,000 troops once landed en route to Guadalcanal. With the war long over, the island now seems quiet, even solemn, containing only vague traces of the great movement that once was. The true “Frenchman’s” estate now lies in disrepair, all that remains are some tin shacks, as James Michener tearfully recalls the great gaiety that once consumed this hallowed place, and he fondly remembers all the souls who once toasted the future together. However, the show’s crowning achievement comes when they track down the real woman upon whom the character “Bloody Mary” is based. She is a 90 year-old woman living at the edge of a wooded enclosure on the island, and she and Mr. Michener sing one last song together, a fond memory of old times. It is a fitting conclusion to an extraordinary chapter in James Michener’s remarkable life.

Michener, James A. Tales of the South Pacific. International Collector’s Edition, The Curtis Publishing Company, Garden City, New York, 1947.

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Click here to read my review of the 1958 musical South Pacific.