Guard of Honor: A Dreary Pulitzer Prize Winner

“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 of the Pulitzer Prize winners on my list. 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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In Appreciation of James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific

“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 include 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.

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

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

Old Customs, New Traditions, and a Good Man in John Hersey’s A Bell For Adano

“Invasion had come to the town of Adano.”

John Hersey’s third book, A Bell For Adano, is a true delight. It is an episodic story about the Allied occupation of a Sicilian town at the end of World War II (“Operation HUSKY”) after the American troops invaded the country and Mussolini’s forces were pushed back. Published in 1944, A Bell For Adano won the Pulitzer Prize in 1945, and was adapted into a movie in 1945 directed by Henry King featuring John Hodiak and Gene Tierney.

In the forward to the novel, our anonymous narrator announces the whole purpose of the story: to offer an example of a good man named Major Victor Joppolo, an Italian-American from New York, who is sent to Italy during World War II. What makes him such a good man? This is a central question in the novel. He is an Amgot (Allied Military Government Occupied Territory) officer sent to a small Sicilian coastal town called Adano (the fictional town of Adano is based on the true Sicilian port town of Licata). Adano has been recently shelled in the crossfire following the Allied invasion and the ensuing battle has sent the fascists packing. By the time Major Joppolo arrives, he becomes the de factor Mayor of Adano. While some of the townsfolk profess joy at this change of leadership, many in Adano are understandably skeptical of the Americans –will they rule dictatorially like the fascists?

Major Joppolo quickly reveals himself to be a different kind of leader. He praises democracy and endeavors to lead as a model of servant-leadership. He listens to the people, and keeps his word with them. He asks them about their needs. Rather than demanding food or money. The chief concern among the people of Adano is a 700 year-old bell which once sat in the old baroque clock tower over the Palazzo in the town square. The bell rang beautifully every quarter hour, announcing daily life, a cycle which continued for centuries until the bell was tragically confiscated by the fascists and melted down for “rifle barrels or something” (12). The bell once represented the town spirit, it was a metaphor for the constancy of a people –past, present, and future. Centuries ago, it was placed in the clock tower by Pietro Aragona and designed by a notable Renaissance sculptor Lucio de Anj of Modica. The bell once warned of the invasion of Roberto King of Naples in the 14th century, and about 100 years later later it warned of Admial Targout and his invading French and Turkish forces. Now, the absence of the bell in Adano has left the people adrift. Its deafening silence serves as a small reminder of all that has been lost in the war.

In the words of the priest Father Pensovecchio of the Church of Sant’Angelo: “The bell was the center of the town. All life revolved around it. The farmers in the country were wakened by it in the morning, the drivers of the carts knew when to start by it, the bakers baked by it, even we in the churches depended on that bell more than our own bells. At noon on the Sabbath, when all the bells in town rang at once, this bell rose above the others and that was the one you listened to” (22).

After learning the details of the situation, Major Joppolo makes it his quest to acquire a new bell for Adano, though he must do so while struggling to balance order and justice in the city. There are lingering fascist sympathizers among the people –who can be truly trusted? Where do Adano’s alliances lie? Around town, we meet a colorful swath of Adanoans: Mercutio Salvatore, the town crier; Father Pensovecchio of Sant’Angelo; Giuseppe the interpreter; Tomasino, the calloused fisherman with two beautiful daughters; Lojacono the town painter who creates a striking portrait of Major Joppolo, and Mayor Nasta, a traitorous fascist and former mayor of Adano who spreads pernicious lies about the Major until he is eventually imprisoned and shipped off to Africa (despite one failed escape attempt). On the flip-side, Major Joppolo faces endless internal roadblocks within the American military. The institution is burdened by byzantine bureaucracy and arrogant personalities, many of whom sneer at the simple-minded, one-dimensional Italian peasants. Some of these military personnel include 35 year-old Hungarian-American M.P. Leonard Borth, a cynical man who handles security in Adano; Captain Purvis, a sexually aggressive captain who is often drunk, and the most notorious among the military personalities is perhaps General Marvin, a military bureaucrat whose arrogance and hubris frequently sends him flying into a blinding rage while frivolously shouting wild, erratic commands. He is the fictional embodiment of General Patton: “Probably you think of him as one of the heroes of the invasion; the genial, pipe-smoking history-quoting, snappy-looking, map-carrying, adjective-defying divisional commander; the man who still wears spurs even though he rides everywhere in an armored car; the man who fires twelve rounds from his captured Luger pistol every morning before breakfast; the man who can name you the hero and date of every invasion of Italy from the beginning of time; the father of division and the beloved deliverer of Italian soil” (47-48). However, this is quickly revealed to be a false image and General Marvin is revealed to be a very “bad man.” We get a sense of the work cut out for Major Joppolo. It is also worth noting that a variety of present-day senior American military leaders often list A Bell For Adano among their required reading courses (as in the case of General James Mattis who placed A Bell For Adano as one of the few novels among a batch of seventy or so books required for his officers to read).

Each new chapter in the novel paints a brief picture of life in Adano: mule carts need to be transported in and out of the city (despite military orders blocking mule carts from the roads), fishermen who desire to go out fishing again (amidst the risk of exploding mines in the harbor), and children who hunger for “caramelle” candies. Major Joppolo makes great efforts to cut through regulations devised by the American military and, in doing so, he unilaterally allows Adano to go about its daily business, however Major Joppolo’s actions do not sit well with military superiors. With the passing of time, he grows beloved and respected in Adano, and despite being married, he falls in love with Tina, the blonde-haired daughter of Tomasino the fisherman (Tina’s own paramour died in the war). And in the end, Major Joppolo manages to secure a huge bronze bell for Adano courtesy of the U.S. Naval vessel, the U.S.S. Corelli, but before it can be rung out for the first time in the village square, Major Joppolo is punished by the military establishment for his intransigence, and he is sent away to Algiers. The general feeling of exhilaration and jubilance that comes with the arrival of the bell is contrasted with a quietly sorrowful scene of Major Joppolo being whisked away from Adano, the small town he helped rebuild. While driving away, he hears the sound of the new bell ringing out for the first time:

“About four miles outside the town the Major said to the driver: ‘Stop a minute, would you, please?’
It was a fine sound on the summer air. The tone was good and it must have been loud to hear it as far as this.
‘Just a bell,’ the driver said. ‘Must be eleven o’clock.’
‘Yes,’ the Major said. He looked over the hills across the sea, and the day was as clear as the sound of the bell itself, but the Major could not see or think very clearly.
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘eleven o’clock'” (269).

A Bell For Adano is a splendid tale in my view. It is simple, yet it carries immense depth. It ranks among the best of the Pulitzer Prize winners I have encountered thus far in this project. A Bell For Adano offers an optimistic reminder: in spite of overwhelming obstacles, good people like Major Joppolo can still accomplish great things. The image of the bell serves as both a metaphor for reclaiming old traditions while also embracing a new era of peace and hope. It is sentimental yet serious in tone, while offering a compelling examination of good leadership, especially in exploring the traits of a leader who wishes to earn the trust and respect of ordinary people (notably, the people of Adano do not necessarily require mere material economic concerns, but rather they desire something deeper, a connection to their history, people, and place in the form of the town bell). Not unlike the bridge in The Bridge of San Luis Rey, the bell in A Bell For Adano points us toward something much deeper within the human spirit.

I will conclude my reflections here with a brief digression –one of my favorite aspects of reading through the Pulitzer Prize winners has been getting my hands on early copies of these novels. I was pleased once again to read a first edition copy of A Bell For Adano, a successful gleaning from my local library. Inside the book there was an old flap (as is often the case) tracing past library due dates back to the mid 1940s. Sometimes I wonder who else may have read this book and embarked on the same journey that I did back to an old Sicilian port town at the end of the war. Much like Adano’s bell in the novel, libraries still arouse a sense of wonder and a unique connection to the past. In both cases –books and bells– their beauty still rings true for people with open ears for listening.

The following are some notable quotations I found while reading:

“America is the international country” (vi).

“And he told about Adano’s seven-hundred-year-old bell. He told how it had been taken away, and about what he had done to try to get another… He made the town’s need for a new bell seem a thing really important, and he made the bell seem a symbol of freedom in Adano. He made it seem as if the people of Adano would not feel truly free until they heard a bell ringing from the clock tower of the Palazzo” (207).

“War is awful for men but it is not too good for women” (216).

On the 1945 Pulitzer Prize Decision

In 1945, Orville Prescott joined the Pulitzer Prize Jury, replacing Lewis Gannett from the prior year. Mr. Prescott was the lead book reviewer for The New York Times and he remained a Pulitzer Juror for several more years to come.

Apparently, there was almost no consensus within the Jury in 1945. Orville Prescott supported A Bell for Adano, Maxwell Geismar argued for Joseph Pennell’s The History of Rome Hanks and Kindred Matters, and John Chamberlain (returning chairman) supported Edith Pope’s Colcorton. Thus the split decision came before the Pulitzer Advisory Board where, despite one objection from a particularly loud and disgruntled Board member who was upset at the portrayal of General Patton, the Board nevertheless awarded the Pulitzer Prize to A Bell For Adano.

Who Is John Hersey?

Born in China, John Hersey (1914-1993) was the child of American missionaries in Asia. His family descended from early 17th century settlers of Massachusetts. After spending his early years in China (where he learned to speak Chinese before English), Mr. Hersey returned to the United States at age 10 and he grew up in New York before attending Yale University and later Cambridge University. During this period, he amusingly worked for a spell as Sinclair Lewis’s personal secretary and chauffeur before becoming a war correspondent for Time and Life magazines.

An intrepid journalist, Mr. Hersey accompanied Allied troops on their invasion of Sicily (which later inspired A Bell For Adano), survived no less than four airplane crashes, and was commended by the Secretary of the Navy for his role in helping evacuate wounded soldiers from Guadalcanal. After the war, during the winter of 1945–46, Mr. Hersey was stationed in Japan, reporting for The New Yorker on the reconstruction of the devastated country, when he found a document written by a Jesuit missionary, a survivor of the atomic bomb which was dropped on Hiroshima. This led to several other introductions and when he returned to America, he began writing his most famous book, Hiroshima, focusing on six stories of ordinary people who survived the Hiroshima bombing.

He lectured at Yale and at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was also active in Democratic politics. In 1950, during the Red Scare, Hersey was investigated by the FBI for possible Communist sympathies. He published some twenty books, most of them fictional and bestsellers like The Wall (1950) which was about the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto. His work was widely praised: Mr. Hersey became the first non-academic named master of a Yale residential college. He served as past president of the Authors League of America, and he was elected chancellor by the membership of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Hersey was an honorary fellow of Clare College, Cambridge University. He was awarded honorary degrees by Yale University, the New School for Social Research, Syracuse University, Washington and Jefferson College, Wesleyan University, The College of William and Mary and others

Hersey married twice. He had three sons and one daughter with his first wife, Frances Ann Cannon, whom he married in 1940 and divorced in 1958. He married his second wife, Barbara Kaufman, in 1958 and they had one daughter together.

In his later years, Mr. Hersey lived in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. He died at the age of 78 at his winter home in Key West, Florida, on March 24, 1993 at the compound he and his wife shared with his friend and fellow writer Ralph Ellison. Mr. Hersey’s body was transported and buried at Martha’s Vineyard. His legacy, however continues to live on. In 2007, Mr. Hersey was honored as one of six 20th century journalists honored by the U.S. Post Office with a personalized stamp. He was also honored with a memorial lecture and scholarship in his name at Yale. The inaugural lecture was delivered in 1993 by the brilliant American historian David McCullough.

Hersey, John. A Bell For Adano. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1945.

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Thoughts On Martin Flavin’s Journey In The Dark

“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.

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