The Unremarkable Able McLaughlins

I finally finished the next Pulitzer Prize-winning novel on my list after dragging my feet for much of the summer. It is altogether difficult to go from reading the beautiful rolling novels of the great American pioneer writer, Willa Cather, to the bland landscapes of Margaret Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Able McLaughlins.

The problem with Wilson’s novel is that it overtly attempts to impart a moral lesson of redemption and forgiveness on its readers. It attempts to encourage those with strength to take pity on those who are suffering. However, the reader is the one who winds up suffering due to a lack of connection with any of the characters in the novel. The Able McLaughlins drags on until a wildly anticlimactic ending leaves the reader confused and unsatisfied.


The book is about Scottish immigrants who settle on the Iowa prairie around the time of the Civil War (an event which unfortunately bears little mark on the story). Wully McLaughlin returns home to his family’s farm from the war to spend one golden evening with his love interest, Chirstie McNair -a mostly unremarkable woman, who is reportedly very beautiful and highly emotional. Wully and Chirstie swear to commit to one another, but then Wully is called back to the war. He returns again a short time later, this time for good. He immediately visits Chirstie’s home only to find her changed -she is now distant and aloof to his advances. He eventually discovers she has been raped and impregnated by their cousin, Peter Keith. In a rage, Wully goes after Peter Keith and threatens to kill him if he ever returns again. Peter Keith runs away.

Years pass. Wully and Chirstie have gotten married and Wully has claimed responsibility for the child. He bears the public shame for the child’s early birth, sparing Chirstie the scandal, but soon many in the tight-knit Iowa farming community discover the truth. Wully and Chirstie build a home and a farm together, and one day Peter Keith returns and tries to grab Chirstie while she is alone in the house. In the course of the scuffle he quickly flees when she screams. Wully later learns that Chirstie shot Peter Keith in the foot. Wully and a group of men grab their guns and hunt for Peter Keith out on the prairie. This scene is set in a long and suspenseful scene in which the reader desperately longs for bloodlust -to see Wully violently punish Peter Keith for his misdeeds. However, Peter Keith is never found. One day, Wully and Chirstie are in town conducting business, and Wully happens to find Peter Keith lying alone, unconscious, and suffering in a hay stable with a hemorrhage. Wully decides to leave him, but Chirstie begs him to return and do the right thing. They tie up Peter Keith and bring him to his mother’s farm to die. In the end, Wully has a sudden and unexpected change of heart. He decides to help Peter Keith in his passing. Somehow, after years of hatred, Wully inexplicably finds forgiveness. In the closing lines of the novel, Wully shockingly mentions how he may even go to find a pillow for Peter Keith -an abrupt and confusing conclusion to an anticlimactic novel. In all the preceding chapters, Wully has gone into a frenzied rage at the mere mention of Peter Keith’s name, only to let it all dissipate in the end. The vengeance which we so desperately seek, and for which we braced so tightly in anticipation, sadly never arrives.

However some praise for The Able McLaughlins is in order. The novel delivers what has been called an accurate portrayal of the fervent Presbyterianism of prairie immigrants. So, I suppose that is something worthy of consideration. Apparently the initial recommendation from the novel jury to the Pulitzer Board was that no novel for the year 1923-1924 was “outstanding enough to merit a prize this year.” They even considered nominating Willa Cather for the second time (and I wish they had). Eventually the committee noted that “if it is deemed that a prize should be awarded anyhow, the committee would name “Margaret Wilson’s The Able McLaughlins.” A follow-up statement was issued with assurances that they would avoid the same type of scandal that occurred in 1921 when Sinclair Lewis was denied the Pulitzer, and the Novel Jury took their frustration to the newspapers. Much of the early years of the Pulitzer were spent trying to avoid controversy, in an effort not to besmirch the name of the committee, the university, or Mr. Pulitzer’s name.

About The 1923 Pulitzer Prize Decision
Published in 1923, Wilson’s novel won the coveted Pulitzer in 1924. The 1924 Novel Jury was composed of returning members: Jefferson B. Fletcher, Samuel Crothers, and Bliss Perry. The Able McLaughlins was Wilson’s first, and most notable, novel. Today, The Able McLaughlins is a difficult book to track down, having been out of print for many years. Luckily, having access to a strong inter-library loan program was the only way I was able to get my hands on this one.

Who Is Margaret Wilson?
Margaret Wilson (1882-1973) grew up on a farm in Iowa. She graduated from the University of Chicago before pursuing missionary work in India during the early 1900s. She later returned to the United States to become a teacher and to care for her invalid father. During that time she built a reputation for serializing short stories in the Atlantic Monthly. Two central themes found throughout much of her writing include the redemption offered through faith and forgiveness, and this is evident in the conclusion of The Able McLaughlins in which revenge is not exacted by Wully. The other chief theme found in her writing is the unique suffering faced by women. In 1923, the same year her first novel The Able McLaughlins was published, Wilson married a Scotsman tutor at Oxford. She wrote several adult novels, some focused on her experiences in India, and one book for children. Her last book, published in 1936, was a sequel to her debut Pulitzer-Prize winning book, entitled The Law and the McLaughlins. Grahame Greene once wrote a notably favorable review of the book.

Here are two passages from the novel that struck me as I was reading:

“The prairie lay that afternoon as it had lain for centuries of September afternoons, vast as an ocean; motionless as an ocean coaxed into very little ripples by languid breezes; silent as an ocean where only very little waves slip back into their element. One might have walked for hours without hearing anything louder than high white clouds casting shadows over the distances, or the tall slough grass bending lazily into waves” -opening lines.

“They were happy as the summer wore on, the three of them working from the first streak of dawn to the frog-croaking darkness. The stars in their courses and the clouds in their flights seemed to be working with them that season. Week after week, just as the ground grew ready for it, they watched the desired clouds roll up in great hills against the sky, and pour down long, slow, soaking rains. They watched the sun grow more and more stimulatingly warm, and then, just when their corn needed it, grow fiercely hot in its coaxing. They worked like slaves, of course. But then, they had always worked like slaves…Wheat and corn had surely never grown better than theirs did that year. To John, now, a field of wheat was a field of wheat, capable of being sold for so many dollars. To Wully, as to his father, there was first always, to be sure, the promise of money in growing grain, and he needed money. But besides that, there was more in it than perhaps anyone can say – certainly more than he ever said – all that keeps farm-minded men farming. It was the perfect symbol of rewarded, lavish labor, of requited love and care, of creating power, of wifely faithfulness, of the flower and fruit of life, its beauty, its ecstasy. Wully was too essentially a farmer to ever try to express his deep satisfaction in words. But when he saw his own wheat strong and green, swaying in the breezes, flushed with just the first signs of ripening, the sight made him begin whistling. And when, working to exhaustion, he saw row after row of corn, hoed by his own hands, standing forth unchoked by weeds, free to eat and grow like happy children, even though he was too tired to walk erectly, something within him – maybe his heart – danced with joy. Therefore he was then, as almost always, to be reckoned among the fortunate of the earth, one of those who know ungrudged contented exhaustion” (Chapter XIII, p. 170-172).

Wilson, Margaret. The Able McLaughlins. Atlanta, Ga., Cherokee Pub. Co., 1951.

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

Socrates Ridiculed in the Clouds

The Clouds, first performed in 423 BC at the Dionysia, is Aristophanes’s masterpiece despite receiving a mere third place at the Dionysia festival. Aristophanes’s earlier plays had all been a string of successes. There is a rumor that, in anger at his loss over the Clouds, Aristophanes edited the original manuscript. This is referenced in the play’s first parabasis. We cannot know how much of our inherited play has been revised. Nevertheless, his comedy remains a hilarious satire of Socrates, and of the decadent Athenian enlightenment in ancient Athens. The Clouds is one of a very few contemporaneous artistic portrayals of Socrates in Western literature.

In the play, Aristophanes presents Socrates as saying and doing many laughable things. Socrates becomes a laughingstock, not unlike the story of Thales as presented in Plato’s Theaetetus –a story about the philosopher Thales being so practically inept and so focused on the ethereal questions that he trips and falls straight down a well. Similarly, Socrates runs a useless school primarily for young men to learn irrelevant facts about fleas and clouds and so on. He openly preaches atheism, replacing the gods with the clouds. His teachings, mirroring the sophists, praise injustice over justice – illicit private profiteering over civic virtue.

However, Socrates is merely a symptom of a broader Athenian decay. The cause of the action in the play is Strepsiades’s indebtedness. Why is he in debt? Because his long-haired son, Pheidippides, has a passion for expensive horse racing. The new generation in Athens lives a kind of hedonistic lifestyle, while the old generation of merchants supports it. This whole scene is taking place within the context of the Peloponnesian War, a foreign war that appears largely irrelevant to the main characters in the play. Within this context, Socrates appears silly, unproductive, and perhaps even counterproductive. Aristophanes, the comic poet, represents the voice of the demos, in its blame of Socrates for the ills that have befallen Athens, a charge which Socrates notes in Plato’s Apologia.

In typical Aristophanes fashion, the Clouds celebrates the pain-loving antiquarianism embraced by many conservatives, then and now. Aristophanes looks to a time-gone-by, a golden age of noble Marathon fighters, to judge his present-day woes. He is in love with a painting of the past, in which things seemed to be simpler and easier, superior. He is blinded by his ideological allegiances, and unlike Socrates, he is dependent on the applause of the crowd. As we see in Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes is also a contemporary and, to some degree, a student of Socrates, though he has trouble keeping up with Socrates’s claims regarding comic and tragic poets (recall the concluding lines of the Symposium). Perhaps, as Leo Strauss inquires, Aristophanes is capable only of embracing certain teachings from Socrates. The issues facing Athens – indebtedness, mounting war losses, extravagance, the public pursuit of injustice – come from a certain disharmony in the city, Socrates merely becomes the scapegoat of the city’s troubles.

The Clouds tells the story of Strepsiades (a reference to the Greek words for “tossing and turning), an old member of the Athenian gentry whose son, Pheidippides (a harmony of the Greek words for “thrifty” and “horse”) has become indebted and listless, as a result of his passion for horse-racing. He is long-haired and ignorant of practical matters. Horse-racing was one of the novelties promised to Socrates by the men in the Piraeus during the festival of Bendis, as detailed in Book 1 of Plato’s Republic.

Regarding the issue of indebtedness, recall in Plato’s Republic the importance placed on ‘paying one’s debts’ and also Socrates’s final words to pay his debt to Asclepius. The unjust person lacks a certain degree of balance, or harmony in the soul. Indebtedness is a tangible, numerical way to account for a man’s imbalance.

Interestingly, Socrates’s Thinkery and sophism are not the cause of the old generation’s woes. Instead it is the new generation who is causing debt, and this causes the older generation to look for a superior argument, regardless of justice, to escape debt. Thus sophism is a symptom not a cause of Athenian amorality.

Strepsiades tries to convince his son to go to the Thinkery (Phrontisterion) to learn of an argument – either the Better or the Worse argument – to help him talk his way out of debt as a result of the son’s expensive habits. Pheidipides declines and flees to go to his rich uncle, so Strepsiades goes to the Thinkery himself and he is exposed to their absurd mystery-cult. The pupils are busy deep in thought regarding the question of how many of its own feet a flea can jump (135), among other absurd and vulgar activities. He discovers Socrates in a wicker basket ‘treading the air and contemplating the sun,’ praising the clouds as gods. Strepsiades attempts to learn Socrates’s apparently nonsensical teachings and he lives with the cult at the Thinkery in a bed filled with bedbugs. He returns to his son and convinces him to go to the Thinkery, as well.

Then the Better and the Worse arguments debate one another – the Better argument states that justice exists among the gods, and the Worse argument claims that justice does not exist. Pheidipides emerges as the pale intellectual from the Thinkery promising to argue his way out of his father’s debts, however shortly thereafter he beats his father, Strepsiades, who laments the cold intellectual that Socrates has formed. His education has turned son against father. Strepsiades takes his slaves with torches to burn down the Thinkery as Socrates and his pupils flee.

For this reading I used the Focus Edition translated by Jeffrey Henderson.

The Just Shall Live By His Faith: Habakkuk Considered

The book of Habakkuk is told in three short chapters. Habbakuk’s vision is described as a “burden” (per the King James translation) as Habakkuk is a troubled prophet of Israel. All around him he sees destruction and decay. His name likely comes from an early Hebrew word meaning “embrace.”  Unlike other prophets, Habakkuk has the gaul to question God in the text – “how long shall I cry, and thou wilt not hear!” (1:2). In the following lines, Habakkuk has an unusual exchange with God, wherein God shows Habakkuk how He will raise up the Chaldeans, and he condemns the imperial powers of Mesopotamia, in praise of the ‘just man in faith.’

We imagine Habakkuk as a broken man, crying out to heaven about the failures of Israel’s laws and of the impending violence he foresees for the people. Habakkuk looks around him and he sees a coming collapse of civilization, in a land that is immersed in banality. We are left to guess as to the timeframe of the text – perhaps Habakkuk prophesied the downfall of Assyria. Habakkuk is popularly considered to have been a contemporary of Nahum and Zephaniah.

As a reply to Habakkuk’s cries, God raises up the “bitter and hasty” nation of the Chaldeans (1:6) and He instructs Habakkuk to “write the vision” (2:2) that is revealed. Then, in the most significant section of the text, God says: “…the just shall live by his faith” (2:4). What does this mean? It is a quote that will later be addressed by Paul in his Epistles, and it foreshadows a new, existential religious ontology, whose primary objective is faith.

In the text, the “soul” of the enemies of Israel (perhaps Assyria or Babylon) are contrasted with the “just,” implying that the people of Israel must live independently and privately in faith, regardless of the evils of the world. To borrow from Augustine, the just man contains within himself the keys to the “city of God.” One must give unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give unto God what belongs to God – and thus modern man becomes a kind of duality between political man and faithful man. Those who are just (sometimes translated as “righteous”) do not care for the dealings of the evil empires, but at the same time they are not revolutionaries. They dwell upon their faith in private. The new testament cites this quote at least three times in Paul’s Epistles, as the Christian reorientation from Judaism changes to a theology of faith alone. No longer will there be a particular ‘chosen people’ by God. Instead, the people of God need only to have faith and hope in God’s judgment; which is universally offered to all people.

Chapter Three of Habakkuk is unusual, as it is a song of prayer in praise of the power of God. It is notably absent from the recovered texts at Qumran, unattached to the first two chapters, but nevertheless is a beautiful poem of hope.

For this reading I used the King James Version.

The Persian Fantasy of Esther

The Scroll of Esther is an unusual text for a variety of reasons. First, because the story is an odd burlesque tale of the ancient Israelites in Persia, and it makes no mention of God -one of only two Biblical texts to do so (the other being Song of Solomon). Instead, Haman (the brutal Persian oppressor of the Jews) notes the different “rules” followed by the Jews, without specifying anything particular about the Jewish religion. The second reason Esther is unique is because it is the only book of the Biblical canon that was not found among the texts at Qumran. In many ways Esther stands alone. Esther’s fabricated world of an oppressive Persian empire in which a noble Hebrew plebeian rises to power (by sexually pleasing the ruler) in Persia and saves her people; paints a pleasing picture of the goodness of ancient Israel, as well as the ancient hope for the coming salvation of the Persian empire, though the story surely never actually happened.

The story makes no attempt to correspond to the historical realities of Persia, and was likely written much later, though it remains consistent with the ancient Judaic diaspora narrative. In contrast to the text, the Persians were renowned for their empire of tolerance toward ethnic minorities, at least as far as ancient empires go, hence why the text is uncharacteristic of the time. In the fantasy-world of Esther the Persians are a decadent ruling empire, opening with a grand feast lasting 180 days. King Ahasuerus (likely either Xerxes, per Herodotus, or Ataxerxes) agrees to an unusual genocidal doctrine against the Jews in Persia, as proposed by his counselor Haman, until a Hebrew Persian-born commoner, Esther, rises up to become Queen of Persia and she saves her people from destruction. Haman (associated with the Amalekites in the text, though the Amalekites were the enemies of Israel several centuries earlier) decides to oppress the Jews, and demands that Jews, like Mordecai, bow before him. Mordecai declines to do so, and Haman condemns Mordecai to death by impalement.

Haman Begging For The Mercy of Esther by Rembrandt around 1635

At the same time, Queen Vashti, the King’s wife, refuses to join in the Persian feasting, so Ahasuerus, in a fit of fury, seeks another woman as his wife. Like Joseph, Esther mysteriously rises to power through the ranks of an oppressive empire. The King of Persia is pleased with her sexually after he brings various women to his bed each night. Finding his appetites satiated with Esther, the King appoints her as his new wife, and she appoints her step-father or guardian, Mordecai, to be a chief regent. In a strange twist of events, as is characteristic of the text, Mordecai, who was once condemned to death by impalement on a pike for refusing to bow before Haman, now turns on Haman. Upon discovering his evils acts, the King of Persia condemns Haman and his sons to death by impalement on the same pike that was meant for Mordecai, and Mordecai goes on to be a celebrated Jew in the kingdom of Persia.

Some have suggested that the only reason Esther was written, was to reaffirm the ‘feast of Esther’ or the Jewish holiday of Purim, celebrating the triumph of Esther over Haman. The festival typically takes place in early Spring and mirrors the fasting of Esther, Mordecai, and all the Jews of Persia as described in the text. Indeed, one can easily imagine the Book of Esther reinforcing the national Hebrew narrative of overcoming slavery. It is a beautiful and imaginative rags-to-riches tale that stands out as unusual among the early texts of the Biblical canon.

For this reading I used Robert Alter’s translation.

The Harvest of Ruth

There is a vigorous debate among Biblical scholars regarding the origins of “The Scroll of Ruth.” Is Ruth, in fact, a late Biblical text, or not? Clearly the writer of the text intended for it to be akin to the Judges period in Israelite history, hence why it was placed with the former prophets, between Judges and Samuel in the Greek Septuagint, and consequently in the same spot in the latter Christian canonical order. The writer opens the text with: “And it happened in the days when the judges ruled…” (1:1, per the Robert Alter translation) mirroring the classical Biblical style, though the scroll was likely written much later, perhaps after the Babylonian exile, due to its unique narrative structure. It contains four chapters.

It tells of a man, Elimelech, who takes his family from Bethlehem to the plains of Moab due to famine. Moab is the land east of the Jordan River, east of Israel, in present-day Jordan. While on the plains Elimelech dies, leaving his wife Naomi (meaning “pleasant” or “sweet”) and their two sons who take Moabite wives: Orpah (“nape”, a slang for flight, or departure, per her actions in the story) and Ruth (unclear name origin, perhaps re’ut meaning “friendship”).

Then, both sons die, leaving Naomi and her two daughters-in-law alone. Orpah decides to return to Moab but Ruth “clings” to Naomi. “Where you go I will go,” says Ruth in honoring her commitment. She returns to Bethlehem with Naomi in time for the barley harvest, causing a stir in the town. Naomi changes her name to “Mara” and twice refers to God as “Shaddai,” an archaic Canaanite reference.

“Ruth In Boaz” by German religious painter Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld in 1828

Ruth goes out into a neighbor’s field for the harvest in order to attract Boaz, a former family friend of Naomi, now called Mara. Boaz welcomes her into his home and allows her to glean the barley harvest from his field, knowing that she left her family for a strange land with her mother-in-law. One night, at the behest of Naomi, Ruth visits Boaz and uncovers his feet to persuade him to “redeem”, or wed her. Boaz seeks the approval of the town elders first to claim all the property that was once Elimilech’s, and he takes Ruth as a wife. She gives birth to a son, Obed, named by neighboring women, and meaning “worshipper.” Obed is the father of Jesse, who is the father of David.

The Book of Ruth is a text about “going” and “coming back” and “clinging” to one another. It is a simple book, and it appeals to a common humanism found in its characters. The setting of Ruth is bucolic, on the dry plains of Moab and in the remote town of Bethlehem (“house of bread”). Ruth is a foreigner from Moab and a hard worker, as evidenced by her long hours working in the barley fields. She decides to “go back” to Bethlehem from the plains of Moab with her mother-in-law Naomi, after Naomi’s entire family dies, and Ruth accepts the customs and the God of the Israelites. She finds favor in the eyes of a gentleman, Boaz, who honors her devotion and servitude, and he takes her for a wife. She gives birth to Obed, grandfather of David.

The book is simple, and beckons the reader to consider simple times amidst pleasant, amiable countrymen, wherein a stranger proves herself worthy through hard work and dedication, and she is rewarded with blessings. Both the books of Ruth and Esther are similar in the Ketuvim (“writings”) in that they are fantasy tales (one in Bethlehem and the other in Persia) of two noble women overcoming hardship and finding favor with their compatriots, as well as with their God.

For this reading I used Robert Alter’s translation.

Thoughts on The Phoenician Women

Euripides’s Phoenician Women comes down to us as a heavily edited dialogue. Some have suggested it was performed during Euripides’s lifetime, while others have suggested it remained unfinished and was expanded upon by later Greek writers.

The play is an interpretation of Aeschylus’s Seven Against Thebes – in which Oedipus’s two sons, Polynices and Eteocles battle for the kingship of Thebes. Recall in the Oedipus story, that he has married his own mother in a twisted turn of fate. Upon realizing the horrid truth of his life, Oedipus blinds himself and his sons hide him away in the palace, hoping that the people of Thebes forget this story. Oedipus then curses his sons – that neither would be able to rule without killing the other. Therefore, they agree to each rule for only one year, however in practice they are unwilling to relinquish power to the other brother. This sparks a civil war. This is the point at which Euripides’s play begins.

Jocasta, Oedipus’s mother who has not yet killed herself, appears onstage and laments her family’s fate. She plays the role of a judge between the two brothers, criticizing Eteocles for his blind pursuit of power and bemoaning Polynices’s decision to raise in army against his brother. There is an odd detour in the plot in which Polynices is advised by the seer, Tiresias, to kill his own son, which he neglects to do so his son decides to sacrifice himself for the greater good. Meanwhile Polynices and Eteocles duel in battle for the throne of Thebes and ultimately kill each other. Upon hearing the news, Jocasta, overcome with grief, also kills herself. The old and frail Oedipus is led away from the palace of Thebes with his daughter, Antigone, as Creon of Athens assumes control of the city. Oedipus and his daughter make their way to Athens for his exile.

The play is a continuation of the story of Oedipus – the man who refused to accept his tragic fate. Although Oedipus plays a minor role in the play, his fate looms large over the plot. It is a chaotic play about a power vacuum that is created when Oedipus becomes blinded by the horrible truth that he has unknowingly wedded his own mother, and his two sons cannot jointly maintain power over the kingship. Therefore, Thebes descends into chaos and becomes a fallen city, the prey of another more stable city under Creon’s rulership. The character of Oedipus is old and tired, ready for death and willing the impending chaos that has befallen Thebes. Meanwhile his two sons kill each other, along with their sons, and his wife who is also his mother, Jocasta, also kills herself.

It is difficult to decipher what of this play originated from the mind of Euripides himself, however the plot clings heavily to the coattails of Aeschylus’s earlier and superior version of the story in the Seven Against Thebes.

For this reading I used the Elizabeth Wyckoff translation.