On Upton Sinclair’s Dragon’s Teeth

“In tragic times like these, an elderly author has nothing to give but words. This collection of words is dedicated to the men and women in many parts of the world who are giving their lives in the cause of freedom and human decency.”
-Autumn 1941 (Upton Sinclair’s opening dedication)

Written during the throes of World War II, Dragon’s Teeth is the third novel in Upton Sinclair’s “World’s End” series (a series which was so-named after its first novel, though it is sometimes also called the “Lanny Budd” series). While it was initially considered for the 1942 Pulitzer Prize, Dragon’s Teeth actually won the Prize the following year in 1943 for reasons explicated below. Between 1940 and 1953, Mr. Sinclair published a total of eleven novels in the “Lanny Budd” series, each book featured the central protagonist Lanny Budd, a young left-leaning socialist whose upper-class activities are buttressed by his family’s wealth thanks to a successful munitions company entitled the Budd Gunmakers Company (in truth, there was an actual company named the Budd Company which manufactured arms during World War II, founded by Edward G. Budd in 1912). Apparently Lanny Budd was a composite figure of several people known to Mr. Sinclair: art dealer Martin Birnbaum and Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr. among others. There is an interesting duality within Lanny –a contrast between Lanny’s elitist lifestyle on the one hand, and his abstract academic concern for the working poor on the other plays a central tension in the novel.

In fact, throughout nearly all of Dragon’s Teeth we experience the eccentricities of this prosperous patrician –his world is one of yachts, fine art, quality wine, operas, symphonies, and European villas– meanwhile economic and political troubles begin to brew all across the world. At the outset in France, Lanny’s wife, Irma, gives birth to a daughter named Frances. Irma is, herself, the daughter of a New York utilities magnate and she is heiress of the “Barnes fortune” –a family trust valued at $23M in assets alongside a vast Long Island estate. She represents the “old money” conservatism of yesteryear’s oligarchs as well as an outdated way of thinking which is in contrast to Lanny’s modestly righteous concern for social justice. After the birth of Frances, Lanny and Irma decide to leave their newborn daughter in the care of a nanny, freeing themselves to sail around Europe aboard a yacht entitled the Bessie Budd. En route to the best ports around Europe — France, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Germany, and Russia among others– Lanny and the group wander through ancient ruins while contemplating the decaying fabric of human civilization. To set the scene, their venture coincides with the Great Depression and the rise of fascism in Europe shortly before the outbreak of World War II.

After the stock market collapse, Lanny begins to sense a creeping specter of viciousness rising amidst the class warfare beginning to permeate Europe –from growing racial prejudice and demagogic populism, to newfangled anarchistic separatism and revolutionary bolshevism. “Nobody understood these events, nobody could predict them. You would hear people say: ‘The bottom has been reached now; things are bound to take a turn.’ They would bet their money on it – and then, next day or next week, stocks would be tumbling and everybody terrified” (135).

The excitement begins in Book II where we experience the impassioned exhilaration of an early Nazi rally. The yacht carrying Lanny and Irma arrives in Germany a week or so prior to the raucous 1930 election: “The city was in an uproar, with posters and placards everywhere, hundreds of meetings each night, parades with bands and banners, crowds shouting and often fighting. The tension was beyond anything that Lanny had ever witnessed; under the pressure of the economic collapse events in Germany were coming to a crisis, and everybody was being compelled to take sides” (107). Scores of disaffected lower middle class workers, burdened by the recession and dreams of regaining Germany’s lost greatness, chant ecstatically at the sight of the “everyman” Fuhrer. Waving flags, they berate the traitorous French and Poles, while blaming immigrants and Jews for poisoning their “superior” Aryan bloodline, and they hold fast to the promise of making Germany a great power once again –“Down with Versailles!”

Lanny and his friends are given an audience with Hitler, himself, along with several other high-ranking Nazi officers. These remarkable scenes examine characters with the courage to oppose the Nazi ethos (like Lanny) and those who decide to compromise their values in exchange for personal safety (like Irma). As time goes by, it becomes apparent that the forgotten “little people” of Germany who have been exploited by the industrialists of the west and the landlords of the east have willingly elected a monstrous new regime. Refugees quickly file out of the country and into France as academics, Jews, Romani, suspected homosexuals, socialists, bolsheviks, and other types of “others” are quietly rounded up. Newspapers are shut down and sham elections are advanced while Hitler marches toward solidifying his power. President von Hindenberg shocks the world when he appoints Hitler as Chancellor which is followed by immediate crackdowns under the auspices of neutralizing the communist “threat” and they mobilize young fanatics who begin a new reign of terror.

“Adolf Hitler taught that the masses did not think with their brains but with their blood; that is to say, they did not reason but were driven by instincts. The most basic instinct was the desire to survive and the fear of not surviving; therefore Adolf Hitler told that their enemies desired to destroy them and that he alone could and would save them…” (252).

One of Lanny’s Jewish compatriots –Freddi Robin– is placed in the Dachau concentration camp and, against his wife’s wishes, Lanny returns one final time to Germany under the guise of selling high-brow art works by his father-in-law, while secretly attempting to release his friend from imprisonment. Conversations with Hitler, Göring, and Goebbels seem to go nowhere, the Nazis then seize the yacht, and Lanny is also imprisoned where he is very nearly tortured but he is released at the last moment and the closing pages of the book reveal that his quest to be an unexpected success, but the greater tragedy is only beginning to unfold across the continent.

There is quite a lot of fluff which pads this 600-plus page novel as Lanny seemingly wanders aimlessly across Europe for most of the story, with much of the action occurring in the final sections of the book, however to the casual reader I might recommend reading only the specific sections wherein Lanny pays visit to Nazi Germany. Despite Upton Sinclair’s reputation as a bombastic socialist, Dragon’s Teeth is actually quite nuanced, or at least it is not a purely polemical work. That being said, I do not feel particularly compelled to read more of the Lanny Budd series.

The novel’s title comes from Lanny’s tearful reflections at the end of the book –he weeps for the Jews of Europe, the viciousness of the growing populist spirit, and for all the diligent men plowing the soils of Europe and sowing dragon’s teeth –from which, as old legends state, armed men will someday spring forth. A bit of research reveals this legend to be of ancient Greek origin, as featured in Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece, in which the planting of dragon’s teeth breeds a new band of vicious warriors (“spartoi”) who fight amongst themselves and before the survivors found the city of Thebes. Colloquially, the phrase “to sow dragon’s teeth” is akin to spawning discord –perhaps not unlike the rising discord displayed throughout Upton Sinclair’s Dragon’s Teeth. In a cruel twist of historical irony, Upton Sinclair’s books were later burned by the Nazis.

The following are some notable quotations I discovered while reading this Pulitzer Prize winner:

“…such details were eagerly read by a public which lived upon the doings of the rich, as the ancient Greeks had lived upon the affairs of the immortals who dwelt upon the snowy top of Mount Olympus” (7, regarding the details of Lanny and Irma’s wealthy families).

“Marriage was a strange adventure; you let yourself in for a lot of things you couldn’t have foreseen” (27).

“Instead of peace the nations of the world had got more armaments and more debts. Instead of prosperity had come a financial collapse in Wall Street, and all were trembling lest it spread to the rest of the world” (40).

“Play your music, read your books, think your own thoughts, and never let yourselves be drawn into an argument! Not an altogether satisfactory way of life, but the only one possible in times when the world is changing so fast that parents and children may be a thousand years apart in their ideas and ideals” (41).

“…he kept wishing that people would stop robbing and killing one another and settle down to this task of finding out what they really were” (50).

“The Hitler Youth constituted the branches where the abundant new growth was burgeoning; for this part of the tree all the rest existed. The future Germany must be taught to march and to fight, to sing songs of glory, hymns to the new Fatherland it was going to build” (111).

“Yes, there were still some who had money and would not fail in their economic duty! People who had seen the storm coming and put their fortune into bonds; people who owned strategic industries, such as the putting up of canned spaghetti for the use of millions who lived in tiny apartments in cities and had never learned how to make tomato sauce!” (156).

“Say the very simplest and most obvious things, say them as often as possible, and put into the saying all the screaming passion which one human voice can carry – that was Adolf Hitler’s technique. He had been applying it for thirteen years, ever since the accursed treaty had been signed, and now he was at the climax of his efforts” (250).

“Assuredly neither of the Plinys, uncle or nephew, had confronted more terrifying natural phenomena than did the Weimar Republic at the beginning of this year 1933” (277).

“It is a dream, and the German people will wake up from it…” (513).

The 1943 Pulitzer Prize Decision
The debacle from the prior year (1942) led the Pulitzer Advisory Board to consider awarding the Pulitzer Prize to Dragon’s Teeth, however since the book was technically published in 1942, it was ineligible for the award and Ellen Glagow’s In This Our Life won instead (click here to read my reflections). In the midst of behind-the-scenes tumult, all three long-serving Jurors abruptly resigned which suddenly opened the door for new voices to serve on the Jury in 1943.

The 1943 Pulitzer Jury was composed of: John R. Chamberlain (Chair), a former anti-war advocate who wrote for a variety of publications —The New York Times, Time, Life, Fortune, and Scribner’s and Harper’s magazines– but by the early 1940s he had shifted into a more libertarian/right-leaning political conviction. He began writing for The Wall Street Journal, taught journalism at Columbia University, and then became a celebrated book reviewer for a libertarian publication entitled The Freeman. The other two Jurors in 1943 were: Lewis S. Gannett, a writer and book critic for the New York Herald Tribune; and Maxwell S. Geismar, a Columbia University alumnus and teacher at Harvard who became a famous literary critic for a variety of publications including The New York Times Book Review, The New York Herald Tribune, The Nation, The American Scholar, The Saturday Review of Books, The Yale Review, The Virginia Quarterly, Encyclopedia Britannica and Compton’s Encyclopedia (he also penned a notoriously belligerent critique of Henry James). These three Jurors continued to serve together the following year. Mr. Chamberlain and Mr. Geismar would also continue serving for several more years thereafter, as well.

Upton Sinclair’s Dragon’s Teeth was listed as the first choice of two Jurors, and it was the second choice of the third. Aside from Dragon’s Teeth, there were two other novels recommended among the Jurors: The Just and the Unjust by James Cozzens, and The Valley of Decision by Marcia Davenport. Because Dragon’s Teeth had been previously suggested by the Pulitzer Advisory Board the prior year, there were no objections this time around.

Who Is Upton Sinclair?

Upton Sinclair (1878-1968) lived an extraordinary life. He was born in Baltimore, MD to an alcoholic liquor salesman for a father who died in 1907 due to delirium tremens, and a pious upper-crust mother. Upton Jr.’s paternal great-grandfather was a veteran of both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. The Sinclair lineage was considered aristocratic in the American sense. They were founders of the Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD and their sons were distinguished Naval officers until the end of the Civil War which displaced the Confederacy. As a young man, Mr. Sinclair studied at the City College of New York and even pursued a law degree at Columbia University. He regularly signed up for classes and then routinely dropped them while teaching himself many languages like French, Spanish, and German. In addition to studying for his degrees he also began supporting himself by writing and selling various pulp stories.

Mr. Sinclair was always a bit of an eccentric. He refused to speak with his mother for many years over a small argument. He was obsessive about consuming a rigid diet of raw vegetables and nuts. He also became enamored with the practice of strict sexual abstinence. Despite his proclivity for abstinence, Mr. Sinclair was soon reconnected with an old childhood friend named Meta Fuller and, against all advice, they were married in 1900. Amusingly, they both attempted to maintain abstinence throughout their marriage, but Meta soon became pregnant almost anyway (she made numerous attempts to terminate the pregnancy). At any rate, both spouses dabbled in affairs and Meta had an illegitimate child with someone else before eventually leaving Upton for a poet. Not to be deterred, Mr. Sinclair remarried that very same year to Mary Craig Kimbrough.

Throughout this period, he wrote poetry and gradually became politically active as an avowed socialist. At one point, he founded a socialist colony (it burned down under mysterious circumstances), he deepened his involvement in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Mr. Sinclair spent several weeks in cognito at a Chicago meatpacking plant which became the basis of his 1906 bestseller The Jungle, a muckraking novel published as a serial in the socialist newspaper Appeal To Reason (which was in operation from 1895-1922) The novel details harsh working conditions faced by immigrants in Chicago’s meat-packing industry. Mr. Sinclair intended The Jungle to be a call for socialism in America, however most readers were simply appalled by its depictions of unsanitary working conditions leading to stronger federal regulations like the Meat Inspection Act (1906). Today, The Jungle is remembered as Mr. Sinclair’s most important work. At the time of its publication The Jungle was praised by Winston Churchill and criticized by Theodore Roosevelt.

Mr. Sinclair became a well-known agitator. He organized demonstrations in New York against John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil, and he also wrote polemics against big oil, coal, and the auto robber barons. Between 1940-1953, Mr. Sinclair wrote his bestselling Lanny Budd series –a collection of eleven novels following an aspiring young socialist as he encounters the most important people and events of the 20th century. The third installment Dragon’s Teeth won the Pulitzer Prize, though today these books are mostly out of print.

In the 1920s, Mr. Sinclair and his second wife moved to California where he grew connected to the burgeoning film industry, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Charlie Chaplin. Mr. Sinclair also developed a personal fascination with telepathy and the occult, as well as strict vegetarian diet. He founded the California chapter of the ACLU and twice ran unsuccessfully for United States Congress on the Socialist Party ticket: in 1920 for the House of Representatives and in 1922 for the Senate. He was the Socialist Party candidate for Governor of California in 1926 and again in 1930. In 1934, he ran as a Democrat under the “End Poverty in California” (EPIC), but he was resoundingly defeated by incumbent Governor Frank Merriam. After his populist, rabble-rousing campaign in 1934, big business Hollywood studio bosses turned against Mr. Sinclair and his questionable campaign tactics. He was expelled from the Democratic party.

After his second wife died, Mr. Sinclair remarried for the third and final time to Mary Elizabeth Willis. The couple moved to Arizona for a spell before returning to the east coast and settling in New Jersey where they both died in a nursing home –Mary in 1967 and Upton the following year in 1968. Today, his former home in Monrovia, CA is a privately owned historical landmark.

Sinclair, Upton. Dragon’s Teeth. The Viking. Press, New York, 1945 (originally published in 1942).

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

Click here to read my reflections on Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.

In This Our Life: A Bleak Pulitzer Prize Winner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reflections on The Late George Apley

Upon reading an advanced copy of The Late George Apley, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1938, Sinclair Lewis wrote the following message: “I started to read it and it appeared to me to be an exact and very detailed picture of a Boston aristocrat… One can never be sure about Boston, and I hope I am not mistaken in my idea that the author is kidding the Boston idea. It is very subtle and clever, and I am not sure that Boston will get it.”

A mirror of its author’s own life, The Late George Apley offers a charming but satirical portrait of an upper-crust Boston Brahmin from birth until death. It is epistolary in style, not unlike a later Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (2004)click here to read my reflections on Gilead. The Late George Apley employs a sense of realism, akin to an earlier Pulitzer Prize winner The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927)click here to read my reflections on The Bridge of San Luis Rey— as we are offered a variety of fragmentary letters representing key moments in the life of the recently deceased George Apley (1866-1933). His fictional biography is presented to us by George Apley’s friend, Horatio Willing, Boston’s Dean of Letters and an amusing gentleman in his own right with experiencing compiling other notes and letters of prominent Bostonians. Why write a book about George Apley? Mr. Willing was apparently spurred to edit the biography at the insistence of Mr. Apley’s somewhat rebellious son, John. According to Mr. Willing “At no time in the history of the world have such material changes occurred as those in George Apley’s life span” (29). The novel asks us to piece together George Apley’s life through the writings of various people who knew him, perhaps not unlike the interviews presented in Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941).

The story, at least insofar as there exists a narrative, guides us through the history of the Apley family from their place of origin in Sussex, England before emigrating to the United States and embarking on various businesses ventures including in the slave trade, but the true source of their wealth comes several generations later via enterprises in the Boston shipping industry. George Apley is raised alongside the Charles River at his family’s home on Beacon Street in Boston as well as the family’s country estate at Hillcrest. He attends Mr. Hobson’s school as a boy, and then Harvard where he participates in many clubs, student government, and so on. He is often found quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson in his “quiet world of mind and order” (41).

George Apley’s father Thomas is a stuffy conservative textile businessman who favors protectionism for his industry, while his mother is something of a socialite. We learn of an incident in George Apley’s life –an incident which he wanted removed from his own biography but which was included anyway at his son John Apley’s request– an incident in which he falls in love with a demure but respectable young woman named Mary Monahan. At any rate, his time at Harvard is followed by a sailing trip to Europe before Mr. Apley again returns to Boston to attend Harvard Law School. He then becomes engaged to a young woman named Catharine Bosworth and their marriage is “in every way an eminently suitable match” (119). George Apley spends his days at various clubs and philanthropic organizations and he writes a paper called “Jonas Good of Cow Corner” a scholarly paper tracing the characteristics of the many owners of a particular parcel in North East Boston which he presents to the gentleman’ club, the Browsers’ Club in Boston. Presently the parcel is occupied by restaurant and laundry. This was a fascinating little interlude in my view, but all of it remains mostly superficial without much depth (and I think this is a key point of the novel –superficiality). As time goes by, marital discord ensues when they are unable to decide on a name for their firstborn. We learn of the passing of Mr. Apley’s father and thus George becomes leader of the prominent Apley family. As the years go by he becomes a grandfather, and begins to experience failing health while traveling through Rome. He founds a nature camp retreat for men in Maine called the Pequod Island Camp. We learn of his support for World War I, even though he cannot personally serve himself and he expresses disappointment toward a reluctant nation for the war effort, so he demands for moral action. As a much older man he becomes active in efforts to preserve the old, high-brow Puritan and Protestant associations in Boston. In the end, George Apley dies in 1933.

The Late George Apley, which 1930s writer Percy Hutchison of the The New York Times called “a finely perceptive novel” is a celebration of the Bostonian spirit as we watch George Apley transformed into a high-minded gentleman. In fact George Apley says of himself “I am the sort of man I am, because environment prevented my being anything else” (3). He is a reflection of the all-encompassing ethos of Boston, by the end of the novel he claims the following: “And indeed… it is a good place to live in, taken all in all. Probably the best place in this neurotic world, with the possible exception of London, although I am not even sure about this. At any rate, it is the only place I care to live in” (323).

The central question of the novel concerns George Apley’s character and whether or not he resigns himself to an elite world of conformity. Is he a courageous gentleman, as our narrator would have us believe? Or is he instead a mere frivolous trust-fund recipient, devoid of honor and lacking in substance? Personally, I am inclined to find Mr. Apley somewhere in the middle. The Late George Apley is mostly a winking lampoon of the decaying aristocracy of old Boston, but there is nevertheless an air of quiet virtue about the late George Apley.

The following are some key quotations I found while reading along:

“George William Apley was born in the house of his maternal grandfather, William Leeds Hancock, on the steeper part of Mount Vernon Street, on Beacon Hill, on January 25, 1866” (3 -opening lines).

“And now arises a final question and one which has perplexed many another biographer. What is truth in a life? In order to delineate character there must be an artistic stressing of certain qualities –but are these the vital qualities? Who has the right to say?” (7-8).

“To a casual observer, from another section than our own, these works my not seem worth preserving. Taken individually this may be so, but collectively they reveal the spirit of the man and his influence on the life around him. They reveal too, I think, the true spirit of our city and of our time, since Apley was so essentially a part of both” (8).

“Biography, like every other branch of art, must have its form and its conventions” (9).

“Pride in family, place, and tradition were inherent within the man; his realization of their importance grew with the years, until many of his activities became centered about genealogical research” (27).

“There is no doubt that in the broader sense Apley was a man beloved by all” (321).

The Late George Apley was made into a Broadway Play in 1944. A film version was also made in 1947 directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and starring Ronald Colman as George Apley. This was followed by a television program from 1955-1957.

On The 1938 Pulitzer Decision
For the first time since 1929, the Novel Jury was slightly changed following the death of multi-year Juror in 1937 Albert B. Paine, notable Mark Twain biographer. He was replaced by a new Chairman, Joseph W. Krutch, a theater critic for The Nation and Columbia University professor with a focus on ecology and pantheistic naturalism. His book entitled The Measure of Man (1954) won the National Book Award. He was joined by returning Jurors and fellow Columbia professors, Jefferson B. Fletcher and Robert M. Lovett

The Late George Apley was unanimously selected by the Jury along with two possible runners-up: The Sound of Running Feet by Josephine Lawrence, and Northwest Passage by Kenneth Roberts. With the benefit of hindsight it quite astounding that neither John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, nor Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, nor the collected U.S.A. Trilogy by John Dos Passos made the cut for the Novel Jury in 1937 (and to a lesser extent, both John Steinbeck’s The Red Pony and Ernest Hemingway’s To Have And Have Not were also overlooked that year).

Who Is John P. Marquand?
John Phillips Marquand (1893-1960) was once was hailed as “the most successful novelist in the United States” by Life Magazine in 1944. Like the protagonist of his most famous novel (George Apley), Mr. Marquand was a descendent of the early governors of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, as well as of prosperous shipping magnates but his family lost all their wealth in the Panic of 1907. He was a Harvard alumnus and later became a part-time war correspondent.

During the 1930s, Marquand was a regular contributor to the Saturday Evening Post, where he debuted the character of Mr. Moto, a Japanese secret agent. This led to a series of popular novels. Three years later, Marquand won the Pulitzer Prize for The Late George Apley. Its critical success led to his appearance on the cover of both Time Magazine as well as Newsweek. Several more novels followed in the proceeding years: H.M. Pulham, Esquire (1941), So Little Time (1943), B.F.’s Daughter (1946), Point of No Return (1949), Melvin Goodwin, USA (1952), Sincerely, Willis Wayde (1955), and Women and Thomas Harrow (1959), each of them chronicling life in early 20th century New England for which John Marquand was dubbed a ‘Martini Age Victorian” by the critic Charles Brady in 1952.

Mr. Marquand was married twice, both of them ending in divorce, and produced a total of five children. He died of a heart attack in his sleep at the age of 66 in 1960 at his home in Newburyport, Massachusetts.

Marquand, John. The Late George Apley. Little Brown and Company, Boston, 1936.

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Honey In The Horn: A Portrait of Oregon Pioneers

“…He met her in the line and he laid her on a board
And he played her up a tune called Sugar in the Gourd,
Sugar in the gourd, honey in the horn,
Balance to your partners, honey in the horn…”

-traditional square dancing tune

During the depths of the Great Depression Columbia’s Pulitzer Prize Board tended to honor novels that reminded readers of harsher times in days gone by, particularly stories of struggling early American pioneers. As a result the 1930s often feels like a grueling mountain that unfortunately must be summited to get a little farther along on this pilgrimage through the Pulitzer Prize winners. Honey In The Horn, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1936, is no exception. Honey In The Horn is a tedious, dreary read about rural Oregon homesteaders settling the west coast during the early 20th century. Published in 1935, it was the debut novel by H.L. Davis and to date he remains the only novelist from Oregon to win the Pulitzer.

At the outset, Mr. Davis offers a brief preface in which he claims all characters in the book are fictitious, none are autobiographical, and he expresses no intent of offering social criticism nor social reform. He originally intended to document a history of the State of Oregon homesteading period (1906-1908) but that idea was abandoned for the sake of brevity.

It begins with a survey of the pioneering families residing in Southern Oregon, especially Uncle Preston Shiveley, an eccentric “scholar of the community” who runs a tollbridge and an apple orchard with a couple of ne’er-do-well sons whom he once kicked off his property. His innumerable Aristotelian studies of nature amount to little more than “a mule’s heel worth of hay” (4). He busies himself writing a history of the Oregon pioneers while adopting children, especially a 16 year old orphan named Clay Calvert who works as a sheep rancher until he stumbles into trouble. He gets somewhat accidentally entangled in a scheme to release his relative, Wade Shiveley, from jail by slipping a gun into the cell. The act forces Clay to flee. The rest of the novel concerns Clay’s journey via wagon throughout the state of Oregon as he dodges capture from the law. His travels take him from the eastern wheat fields and the Cascade mountain towns, to the Columbia River and the tree-lined coasts.

He encounters an array of characters on his journey, especially a native Tunne Indian boy and a girl named Luce with whom he falls in love –“Her name, she told him, was not Lucy, as he had thought, but Luz, which is the Mexican word for light. The Mexicans and the Vascos in the sheep country across the mountains called it Luce” (119). Sadly, all the people Clay meets are ancillary background figures in service of the author’s true purpose, offering various regional descriptions of the Oregonian landscape. The characters are all little more than wooden, hollow characters with barely superficial interactions. While striving for grand premonitions of Mark Twain’s regionalism (a characterization Mr. Davis would reject), Honey In The Horn is the epitome of a contrived novel. As in Caroline Miller’s Lamb In His Bosom, a fellow Pulitzer Prize winner from a few years prior (feel free to read my reflections on Lamb In His Bosom here), Honey In The Horn would have been much better served as an anthropological investigation rather than a novel.

At any rate, as the narrative unfolds Wade Shiveley is eventually hanged for his crimes and Clay tracks down the Tunne boy before he is killed, and finally he locates Luce after an extended period of separation. The novel ends abruptly as the Clay and Luce discuss their less-than-romantic reunion. It is clear that Honey In The Horn had every intention of being a picaresque, panoramic glimpse of various pioneering groups who settled the Oregon territory, but I have no idea how or why H.L. Mencken could have dubbed Honey In The Horn the finest debut American novel ever written. Amazingly, Mr. Davis’s novels were also praised by Robert Penn Warren and Carl Sandburg.

The following are a handful of memorable passages I encountered while reading:

“There was a run-down old tollbridge station in the Shoestring Valley of of Southern Oregon where Uncle Preston Shiveley had lived for fifty years, outlasting his wife, two sons, several plagues of grasshoppers, wheat rusts and caterpillars, a couple of three invasions of land-hunting settlers and real-estate speculators, and everybody else except the scattering of old pioneers who had cockleburred themselves onto the country at about the same time he did” (1 -opening passage).

“He tied a cord firmly around the gun from the inside of the trigger-guard to the face of the hammer. He wedged the gun into the leg of Clay’s right boot and strung the cord up through a hole in the right-hand trousers pocket. Pulling lifted the pistol free of the boot. Paying out lowered it to the floor, where the folds of extra trousers leg concealed it” (69).

“He had cut himself off from society to be independent of rules and restrictions, and the only thing he could think of to do with his freedom was to get up other rules and restrictions of his own which weren’t a lick more sensible than the ones he had escaped from” (113).

“The country through which they traveled grew nothing that could be observed from the road except six weeks’ grass, a scrubby species of sagebrush, a few blue-green dwarf junipers so crooked that there wasn’t a straight piece on them long enough to clean a pistol…” (298 -an example of many scenes in the novel).

“Over the water was one single, big cottonwood tree, with initials and comments cut in its bark, most of them dating from the period of the Civil War and expressing sentiments disrespectful to the Union, the President of the United States, and every body who held a job under him. It was along this line that a part of the western Confederate armies had gone to pieces and deserted after the Union troops broke their hold on Missouri” (301 -a fascinating glimpse at the lingering remnants of the western edge of the Civil War.)

“Nobody can discuss agriculture so learnedly as a farmer who hasn’t paid the interest on his mortgage for eight years, nobody can describe a military campaign with so deep an understanding of principles controlling the art of war as the commander who got the worst of it” (316).

“Nothing counts except whats goin’ on around you” (379).

On The 1936 Pulitzer Prize Decision:
The 1936 Pulitzer Prize Novel Jury was once again composed of returning Jurors: Jefferson B. Fletcher (Chair), Robert M. Lovett, and Albert B. Paine –the trio of Jurors that dominated the 1930s. The Jury recommended Honey In The Horn for the prize, but they apparently also considered several other novels including This Body the Earth by Paul Green, Time Out of Mind by Rachel Field, Silas Crocket by Ellen Chase, Ollie Miss by George Wylie Henderson, Deep Dark River by Robert Ryles, and Blessed is the Man by Louis Zara.

Interestingly enough, H.L. Davis elected not to attend the Pulitzer Prize ceremony in New York in 1936 because he did not want to put himself on exhibit.

Who is H.L. Davis?
Harold Lenoir “H.L.” Davis (1894-1960) was born in southern Oregon’s Umpqua Valley in 1894. He grew up in Oregon working various odd-jobs before beginning his writing career as a poet, receiving the prestigious Levinson Prize at age twenty-five. Some of his poems were purchased by H.L. Mencken and with his encouragement, Davis turned to fiction publishing five novels and many short stories as well as essays during the course of his career. He lived in Seattle and Napa (settling on a ranch with a vineyard) as well as a brief period in Mexico after winning a Guggenheim Fellowship. He wrote Honey In The Horn during this stint in Mexico. Along with a Pulitzer Prize Honey In The Horn also won a Harper Prize, a now discontinued award issued by the Harper Brothers publishing house from 1922-1965.

His writings were published in many notable publications including magazines such as Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post, however none of his later novels achieved the acclaim of Honey In The Horn. His later years were met with tragedy: divorce, disputes with his publishers over royalty rights, declining readership, an artery condition which forced the amputation of his left leg, and he eventually died of a heart attack in 1960 in San Antonio, Texas.

Davis, H.L. Honey In The Horn. New York, Grosset & Dunlap Publishers of Harper & Brothers, 1935.

Once again for this novel I had the extraordinary privilege of reading a first edition copy.

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Thoughts on Now In November

“Now in November I can see our years as a whole. This autumn is like both an end and a beginning to our lives, and those days which seemed confused with the blur of all things too near and too familiar are clear and strange now” (opening lines).

Missouri-born Josephine Winslow Johnson was just 24 years old when she published Now in November. She had recently attended Washington University in St. Louis, departing without a degree in 1931. In those days publishers were considerably more aggressive in seeking new talent, even during the Great Depression. For reasons unknown, Simon & Schuster fervently pursued this young college dropout who had only published a bit of poetry up until that point. The result was Now In November, a novel Ms. Johnson wrote while living in the attic of her mother’s home in Webster Groves, Missouri. As of the time I write this review, she remains the youngest novelist to ever win the Pulitzer (age 24).

Often overshadowed by Steinbeck’s superior epic dustbowl saga The Grapes of Wrath, Ms. Johnson’s Now In November covers a grueling decade in the life of a Midwestern tenant farming family as they scratch out a meager living during the Great Depression, Dust Bowl, and the subsequent drought of the ’30s. The novel is narrated years after the events described by Marget, the middle child in the Haldmarne family. Their family has lived and worked the land since the Civil War.

The novel is told in three parts: “Prelude and Spring,” “The Long Drouth,” and “Year’s End.” The opening passages are beautifully crafted warm visions of orchard-lush hillsides lining the Missouri countryside, but as the somber first-person reflections progress the tone becomes increasingly bleak and harrowing. We meet Marget’s distant father, her demure but caring mother, and two sisters: the elder Kerrin, who is somewhat erratic or perhaps manic, and the younger Merle, who is the more calm and collected of the bunch.

At the beginning of the novel, the 57 year-old patriarch of the Haldmarne family is celebrating his birthday when Kerrin, the perennial wild-child, decides to demonstrate her newfound knife-throwing skills which causes a scuffle leading to the tragic death of the family dog. This is only the beginning of the family troubles. The drought hits the Midwest hard, drying up the land and preventing anything from growing. All the tenant farmers fall deeper into debt, and many start to leave. A nearby ranch-hand named Grant comes to work on the Haldmarne farm. Marget is quite taken with Grant, but he is actually smitten with Merle.

Tragedy after tragedy continues to strike the Haldmarnes. Rain refuses to fall from the sky, the ground crumbles beneath them, a massive fire strikes, and their Mother falls severely ill due to burns on her body. She lies suffering in the house and shortly thereafter, as we begin to see starving people throughout the land, the elder daughter Kerrin commits suicide. Grant finds her in the barn with her wrist slit –and then Grant leaves, much to Marget’s sorrow. In the end Marget’s mother dies and the family is left alone.

Josephine Winslow Johnson sure knows how to craft some beautiful and enduring prose, though it is perhaps masked by the barren wintry subject matter. It seems clear that the early Pulitzer Board had a penchant for selecting rather despondent books about struggling farmers, though they somehow missed Willa Cather’s best novels (only Willa Cather’s One Of Ours won the Pulitzer). Nevertheless I was fortunate enough to read a first edition copy of Now In November as it sat collecting dust at my local library, waiting for the next brave explorer to come along and venture through the Pulitzer Prize-winning novels.

The following are a collection of quotations I found particularly striking while reading along:

“We left a world all wrong, confused, and shouting at itself, and came hereto one that was no less hard and no less ready to thwart a man or cast him out, but gave him something, at least, in return” (6-7).

“This is not all behind us now, outgrown and cut away. It is of us and changed only in form. I like to pretend that the years alter and revalue, but begin to see that time does nothing but enlarge without mutation. You have a chance here – more than a chance, it is thrust upon you – to be alone and still. To look backward and forward and see with clarity. To see the years behind, the essential loneliness, and the likeness of one year. to the next. The awful order of cause and effect. Root leading to stem and inevitable growth, and the same sap moving through tissue of different years, marked like the branches with inescapable scars of growth” (69-70).

“By June things were shriveling brown, but not everything dried and ugly yet. It was not so much the heat and dryness then as the fear of what they would do. I could imagine a kind of awful fascination in the very continuousness of this drouth, a wry perfection in its slow murder of all things” (113, the word “drought” is referred to as “drouth”).

“The living itself was easy enough to do when the days were full of thought, and clothes wearing down fast to bone, soaking up dirt like sponges” (127).

“I wondered why the people were here [church] and if God was here, and the doubt and questioning began again -that doubt which had run like a tunneled stream, coming to surface at unforeseen and unwanted times before, and has gone through all the years afterward… what had they come for, and did they believe what they heard, and did they live by it afterward at all?” (136-137).

“…it is almost two months now since her death, and we have gone on living. It is November and the year dying fast in the storms… We have had our mortgage extended, but it does not mean that we are free or that much is really changed. Only a longer time to live, a little longer to fight, fear shoved off into an indefinite future” (225).

“Love and the old faith are gone. Faith gone with Mother. Grant gone. But there is the need and the desire left, and out of these hills may they come again. I cannot believe this is the end. Nor can I believe that death is more than the blindness of those living. And if this is only the consolation of a heart in its necessity, or that easy faith born of despair, it does not matter, since it gives us courage somehow to face the mornings. Which is as much as the heart can ask at times” (231 -closing paragraph of the novel).

On The 1935 Pulitzer Prize Decision:
The 1935 Pulitzer Prize Novel Jury was once again composed of returning Jurors: Jefferson B. Fletcher (Chair), Robert M. Lovett, and Albert B. Paine. It was year of indecision as the Jury vacillated between eight novels: Slim by W. W. Haines, The Folks by Ruth Suckow, Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson, Goodbye to the Past by W. R. Burnett, The Foundry by Albert Halper, Land of Plenty, by Robert Cantwell, The American by Louis Dodge, and So Red the Rose by Stark Young. Eventually the Board simply selected Now In November, perhaps at the behest of Chairman Fletcher.

The biggest change in 1935 was yet another revision of the Pulitzer Prize criteria (the fourth such change in its two decades of existence). The Prize was now to be granted to: “a distinguished novel published during the year by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.”

Who Is Josephine Winslow Johnson?
Josephine Winslow Johnson (1910-1990) was born in Kirkwood, Missouri into a Quaker family. She attended Washington University of St. Louis from 1926-1931, but she left before receiving a degree. After departing from the university, Ms. Johnson moved into her mother’s attic on the family farm in Webster Groves, Missouri. Here she began writing her debut novel Now In November (1934) for which she later won the Pulitzer Prize. While Now In November is her most widely celebrated novel, Ms. Johnson also published eleven more books in her lifetime –books of poetry, memoirs, and short story collections as well as additional novels. Her follow-up effort to Now In November was a collection called Winter Orchard, a batch of short stories which had previously appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Vanity Fair, The St. Louis Review, and Hound & Horn. Of these stories, “Dark” won an O. Henry Award in 1934, and “John the Six” won an O. Henry Award (third prize) the following year. Johnson continued writing short stories and won three more O. Henry Awards during her lifetime. However, much of her writing was also later criticized for its open sympathy with communism.

In 1942, she married Grant G. Cannon, editor in chief of the Farm Quarterly. They moved to Iowa City where she taught at the University of Iowa for several years, then they relocated to Hamilton County, Ohio, before finally settling down on a farm outside Cincinnati. The couple had three children together. In her later years, Ms. Johnson became an environmental activist. Sadly, much of her writing fell out of print and today what remains lies on dusty library shelves mostly forgotten. Ms. Johnson died of pneumonia in 1990.

Johnson, Josephine Winslow. Now In November. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1934.

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What Makes A Good Leader? On The Caine Mutiny

“War is a business in which a lot of people watch a few people get killed
and are damn glad it wasn’t them.”

Herman Wouk’s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece The Caine Mutiny examines the situations that inspire men to commit grave revolutionary acts –like the act of mutiny. Often compared to 1932’s Mutiny on the Bounty, The Caine Mutiny is a truly wonderful novel. Thus far in my quest to read the Pulitzer Prize-winners, I have been stuck in a string of novels offering mostly plotless portraits of struggling rural farmers, and so it was a delight for me to shift into a bit more levity with 1951’s The Caine Mutiny, a rare bestseller on top of being a Pulitzer Prize-winner. The tone is light, playful, almost satirical a la Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, even though the subject matter is austere and sobering. In reality there have been several mutinous incidents in the U.S. Navy, but the only true mutiny to ever occur took place aboard the USS Somers in 1842 (likely the basis for Melville’s Billy Budd) which resulted in the hanging of three men. The Caine Mutiny is directly based on Herman Wouk’s personal experiences aboard a destroyer/minesweeper during World War II.

Our protagonist is a clumsy “everyman” named Willis Seward “Willie” Keith who stumbles his way through life. He is raised into a wealthy New York Jewish family, a Princeton man, and he plays piano in the evenings at a nightclub before enlisting as a midshipman in the Navy in the hopes of avoiding the draft. From here there are essentially two concurrent plots in the novel: Willie’s fledgling Naval career during the outbreak of World War II, and his ambiguous relationship with Marie “May Wynn” Minotti, a working-class Italian girl whose Catholic parents own a fruit store in the Bronx (Willie’s mother is skeptical of May and her lower class upbringing). She is described as a red-head with a beautiful figure but she is somewhat shy, playful, and aloof.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Wille is assigned as communications officer aboard the U.S.S. Caine (named after a World War I hero), a dilapidated minesweeper stationed in Hawaii. After initially missing his ship, he is finally reconnected with his aging vessel. In an overwhelming experience, Willie describes his first impressions of The Caine: “It was a place of noise, dirt, bad smells, and thuglike strangers” (74). The Caine is a mostly lawless ship filled with nude shipmen strutting about under a gruff and somewhat detached leader, Captain De Vriess (De Vriess is quickly disappointed with Willie’s many flubs and mistakes). Next, we meet a colorful band of rising officers alongside Willie, a literary friend named Thomas Keefer who always seems to be writing a novel, composing a sonnet, or otherwise reading Joyce, Melville, Proust, or Dostoevsky. We also meet Steve Maryk, a man committed to his Naval duty.

Occasionally, in reading through the Pulitzer Prize-winners I have been struck by small, otherwise forgettable scenes. In The Caine Mutiny, I was attached to a particularly charming scene of Willie and May as they spend about two days of leave together in Yosemite and he fumblingly proposes marriage to her. It is an otherwise ordinary, forgettable moment in the novel but I was nevertheless struck by this little interlude. There was also a fascinating little sub-plot involving Keith and his father, who longs to develop a closer relationship with his son but who dies shortly after Keith departs for the Navy.

At any rate back aboard The Caine, Captain De Vriess is replaced by Captain Queeg, a strict disciplinarian who quickly reveals himself to be petty and paranoid. He begins doling out extreme punishments for minor offenses like untucked shirts, and he restricts shore leave while sneaking contraband alcohol aboard for himself. He regulates the ship’s water usage in a calloused and wanton fashion. When Queeg is made to look foolish early in his tenure (a tow line is mistakenly cut due to his misdirections), Queeg forever blames a poor Idahoan shipman named Stilwell, forbidding him from leaving the ship even for shore leave in California, and despite the fact that Stilwell is desperate to investigate certain rumors that his wife has been unfaithful. Queeg resentfully declares: “The boor, the big stupid egotistic boor… The sadist, the Prussian, the moron” (109). However, Maryk takes pity on Stilwell’s request to travel home when he claims his mother has fallen ill, but when the whole ruse is revealed to be a farce Queeg orders a court-martial during which he attempts to rig the outcome –but the officers involved ignore Queeg and decide to merely restrict Stilwell to “six liberties,” a meaningless punishment since Stilwell is already prevented from leaving the ship. Tension grows between the captain and his officers as Queeg grows increasingly isolated, though he assigned Willie as “morale officer.” As they drift closer to battle, Queeg becomes fanatically obsessed that someone fabricated a fake key to the mess-room one night when a bucket of strawberries goes missing. Keefer speculates that Queeg is paranoid and delusional (he dubs him with the epithet “Yellow-Stain”), while Maryk starts keeping a secret log of Queeg’s activities as Captain. Then a typhoon strikes in the Pacific. Queeg freezes up and delivers suicidal orders under pressure and this is the last straw. Maryk relieves an impotent Queeg from his position in a dramatic show-down on deck.

The following passage is the moment the mutiny takes place as Queeg and Maryk shout contradictory instructions to the helmsman:
“‘We’re not in trouble,’ said Queeg. ‘Come left to 180.’
‘Steady as you go!’ Maryk said at the same instant. The helmsman looked around from one officer to the other, his eyes popping in panic. ‘Do as I say!’ shouted the executive officer. He turned to the OOD. ‘Willie, note the time.’ He strode to the captain’s side and saluted. ‘Captan, I’m sorry, sir, you’re a sick man. I am temporarily relieving you of this ship, under Article 184 of Navy Regulations'”

Everyone aboard is shocked, especially because Maryk had always been such a dutiful officer. In perhaps the best scene in the novel, an intense court-martial is ordered which begins to show cracks in their defense as though Willie and Maryk will pay the ultimate price for the mutiny, however when a fidgety, irritable Queeg takes the stand the defense allows the whole room to witness his extreme paranoia and mental breakdown (while he nervously rolls a pair of marbles in one hand) as his string of mistakes and bad decisions are all blamed on the Caine’s officers –this is the court-martial we never got to see with Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty, yet the scene should be placed on par with other classic American literary courtroom dramas such as To Kill A Mockingbird. After some deliberation by the jury, Maryk (and Willie by proxy) are fully acquitted of all wrongdoing.

In the end, Keefer becomes the new Captain of the Caine with Willie as exec. During a notorious battle at Okinawa, a Japanese kamikaze pilot crashes into the Caine nearly destroying it. Hoards of crewmen and even Captain Keefer abandon ship, but Willie remains behind issuing orders which ultimately save the ship (after the war Willie says the two people he finds himself musing about the most are Queeg and the unknown kamikaze pilot who gave his life to destroy the Caine). For his heroic efforts Willie is issued the Bronze Star and he is briefly appointed Captain of the Caine as he leads it home for decommissioning. Willie’s journey has gone from being an error-prone and indecisive junior officer to heroic Captain of the ship. Now a changed man, he returns home to become a college professor. He goes in search of May to hopefully marry her, and in the end we are led to believe they will remain together.

In a way, The Caine Mutiny democratizes and scrutinizes the idea of good leadership by offering a seemingly wayward protagonist, a meager fallible midshipman, who grows in confidence to become an award-winning captain. It forces us to remove certain judgments about people we may know when neither the decorated ranking leader (Queeg) nor the highly intelligent writer (Keefer) can match the courage and respectability of a once errant communications officer.

Herman Wouk dedicated The Caine Mutiny to his wife. It has continued to have a cultural effect in the many years that have elapsed since its publication, including as the inspiration for actor Michael Caine’s stage name (his real name was Maurice Micklewhite). The Caine Mutiny has been adapted for film and stage numerous times, though perhaps most famously in the 1954 film starring Humphrey Bogart as Captain Queeg (for which he received his third and final Academy Award nomination for Best Actor —feel free to read my review of the film here).

Below are a handful of quotes that struck me as I read the novel:

“Willie opened the envelope with a thrust of his forefinger and yanked out the sheaf of papers. His eye darted to the third paragraph. The words seemed to rise up at him with a sound of trumpets: Report to Receiving Station, San Francisco, for transportation to DMS 22–U.S.S. CAINE” (52-53).

“Willie still considered himself a mistreated hero; he still smarted under the insult of his orders to the Caine. After triumphing over the handicap of forty-eight demerits and rising to the top five percent of the school, he had been sent to sweep mines on an obsolete World War I ship! it was mortifying…” (58).

“Honolulu was full of easy pleasures. The climate was soft, the sun brilliant, the moon beautiful, the air perfumed by ever-blooming flowers” (68).

“‘There’s a handful of brilliant boys that go into the Navy with the long purpose of becoming the nation’s admirals , and they succeed invariably because there’s no competition. For the rest of the Navy is a third-rate career for third-rate people, offering a sort of skimpy security in return for twenty or thirty years of a polite penal servitude. What self-respecting American of even average gifts, let alone superior ones, will enter such a life?” (105 -Keefer speaking to Willie, to which Willie eventually responds “Heresy, heresy…”).

“It was a lovely morning, bright and fragrant. The harbor was blue, and the surrounding hills of Oahu a soft yellow-green, flecked here and there by the fat shadows of puffy clouds which drifted over the north mountains, evaporating on the fair-weather side of the island. without shedding rain. Willie was full of fresh eggs and coffee. The lively zest that comes over a ship’s company upon getting underway -no matter where bound- infected him” (153).

“War is a business in which a lot of people watch a few people get killed and are damn glad it wasn’t them” (263).

“Willie began to develop a deep, dull hate for Queeg. It was nothing like the boyish pique he had felt against Captain de Vriess. It was like the hate of a husband for a sick wife, a mature, solid hate, caused by an unbreakable tie to a loathsome person, and as existing not as a self-justification, but for the rotten gleam of pleasure it gave off in the continuing gloom” (298).

About the 1952 Pulitzer Prize Decision
The 1952 Pulitzer Jury was composed of two members who would return again the following year: Roy W. Cowden, an English professor at the University of Michigan, and Eric P. Kelly,  a Dartmouth English professor and author of children’s books.

Who Is Herman Wouk?
Herman Wouk (1915-2019) grew up in the Bronx. As the second child born into a poor family of Jewish immigrants, he attended Columbia University before finding work as a gag writer for several radio programs during the Golden Age of Radio –shows like “The Joke Factory” and The Fred Allen Show.

Mr. Wouk joined the Navy at the start of World War II where he served on a minesweeper called the Zane (the future inspiration for the Caine). While in the Navy he met Betty Sarah Brown, a personnel specialist. After the war they married and she became his literary agent for many decades. He began writing and publishing a variety of plays and novels. After the success of his third novel The Caine Mutiny (1951) (winner of the Pulitzer) Mr. Wouk found himself in the rare clutch of national celebrity. He published a series of additional World War II novels, some of which were turned into popular miniseries programs, such as The Winds of War (1971) and War and Remembrance (1978).

Mr. Wouk lived a long and storied life, initially residing in New York City before moving to the Georgetown area of Washington DC, and finally settling down in Palm Springs, CA. In 1995, Mr. Wouk was dubbed the “American Tolstoy” at a celebration in his honor at the Library of Congress. At a 2008 ceremony honoring his lifetime achievements, Mr. Wouk presented the Library of Congress with his personal diary which he had maintained since 1937. In honor of his 100th birthday Mr. Wouk published a memoir, Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author (2015). Mr. Wouk died in his sleep at his home in Palm Springs on May 17, 2019 at the age of 103, ten days before his 104th birthday.

Wouk, Herman. The Caine Mutiny. Back Bay Books (Little Brown and Company, Hachette Book Group, originally Doubleday). New York, November 2003 (1951). Paperback edition.

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