You may have noticed by now that I have something of a fixation on the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. I’ve even decided to read every single Pulitzer Prize winner for Fiction–and a few nominees and supplemental books along the way. If you’re interested, my video announcing the project and how I plan to structure it is above.
With the basic organizational details out of the way, I thought it would be fun to make some wildly uninformed predictions for how this is going to shake out. It will be interesting to see how these compare to the actual outcome. And if videos are more your thing, here’s my YouTube video about this:
My Predicted Favorites
Of course, I fully expect A Confederacy of Dunces, The Color Purple, Interpreter of Maladies, To Kill a Mockingbird, Angle of Repose, The Stories of John Cheever, and The Age of Innocence to remain favorites. But here are some predictions for the books I have yet to read but think I might love.
Beloved, by Toni Morrison, is a book I’ve been looking forward to reading for about twenty years now. I’ve read one of Morrison’s lesser-known books and really liked it a lot, so I have very high hopes for her most famous work, which is about Sethe, who is haunted by the spectors of her life as a slave and of the baby she lost, which was buried without a name under a tombstone marked only by the word “beloved.”
The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck. Buck was the daughter of missionaries and grew up in China. She drew on her firsthand observations of life in a Chinese village to craft The Good Earth, a deeply sympathetic depiction of a farmer and his wife living in rural China in the early 20th century. I don’t quite know why, but I’ve always thought that I will love this book when I finally get around to reading it.
The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck. I am fascinated by the Dust Bowl. My grandmother-in-law survived the Dust Bowl and told me stories about it once and it is honestly one of the best things that ever happened to me. This novel is considered a landmark in American literature and it follows the Joad family as they strike out for California after experiencing the devastating effect of both the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl.
The Magnificent Ambersons, by Booth Tarkington. Tracing the decline of the aristocratic Amberson family during the rapid socio-economic change resulting from the Industrial Revolution, this novel contrasts the old guard with the “new money” rising up to replace it, examing the difference between “being things” and “doing things.”
A Summons to Memphis, by Peter Taylor. I happen to adore novels about complicated families, and this one sounds like a doozy. It’s about Phillip Carver, who gets the titular summons back to his family home and finds himself embroiled in a mess of family drama and old resentments.
A Death in the Family, by James Agee. Another complicated family and an autobiographical novel that was published posthumously to boot! It has been called one of the best depictions of grief ever written, tracking the fallout in the family of Jay Follett after he is killed in a car accident–inspired by the loss of Agee’s own father. This is also an interesting case because it was unfinished when Agee himself died unexpectedly of a heart attack. In fact, there are two versions of the novel: the one originally published, and another based on the original manuscripts, which is intended to be more representative of Agee’s own vision for the novel.
Keepers of the House, by Shirley Anne Grau. This novel is a deep-dive into southern attitudes and hypocrisies around race over several generations by examining the Howland family and the secrets they have kept. Complicated family drama? Check. Hard look at race in America? Check. Family secrets? I am in.
Books I’m Really Intrigued By
A lot of the earliest winners of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel (as it was known then) are unknown to me, so I’m intrigued to try them–and I’m also intrigued because their subject matter can be very similar and in most cases the now-unknown books seem to have been eclipsed by a more famous version of the same story. Now in November was eclipsed by The Grapes of Wrath. Lamb in His Bosom was eclipsed by Gone With the Wind. Honey in the Horn was eclipsed by the entire works of Willa Cather. I’m very interested in seeing how these stories relate to each other and if the forgotten novels deserve a better place in history.
I’m also going to single one of those unknown-to-me early winners out as a novel of particular interest: Scarlet Sister Mary, by Julia Peterkin. This is particularly intriguing because the novel was deemed obscene in its time but still managed to win a Pulitzer. It deals with race and religion and class in complex ways and I think it will be very interesting to see if it holds up at all.
Andersonville, by MacKinlay Kantor. This is a look into the deplorable conditions of the titular prisoner of war camp for Union soldiers during the Civil War and the Confederates who operated it. I’m not going to call it a five-star prediction because it worries me a bit that descriptions of this book online seem to indicate that is has more sympathy for the Confederate characters than the Union ones. That could be interesting or it could be insanely problematic.
The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, by Oscar Hijuelos. I was tempted to put this novel, which tracks the story of two brothers who immigrate to the United States from Cuba hoping to find success as musicians, in my five-star prediction category, but I also read the plot and the story feels familiar. Maybe it will feel fresh, but maybe it will feel tired. To be determined.
Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry. To be honest, I’m mostly intrigued by this hefty western novel because it was one of my grandfather’s favorite books. It’s a love story, an adventure story, and a grand epic about the American frontier.
Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell. A lot of people on BookTube love this book so I’m intrigued to see if this comes across as problematic or resonant. I’m also very curious to contrast it with the film adaptation, which in many ways has eclipsed the novel in the realm of pop culture immortality.
I do not understand the premise of Upton Sinclair‘s Pulitzer Prize-winner, Dragon’s Teeth. This is part of a sort of adventure series he wrote following a character named Lanny Budd. In this installment, Lanny goes to Germany, discovers the bad things the Nazis are up to, and fights Hitler. That sounds insane. I don’t know if it’s supposed to be a clarion call for America to face up to the Nazi menace (Pearl Harbor had already happened by the time it was published, though) or if it just happened to hit a moment of cultural zeitgeist, or if it was legitimately culturally relevant in an Uncle Tom’s Cabin kind of way. We shall see.
Books I Predict I Won’t Like
If you’ve watched me at all, you already know that John Updike is the foremost candidate for this category, and he has two Pulitzer Prize winners–both from his series of novels about Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom–an entitled white dude in America who can’t get his life together, reflecting all the misogyny and white male privilege Updike is repeatedly charged with these days.
I’ve only read Ernest Hemingway‘s short stories before and they are excellent even if they do frequently reveal the problematic person Hemingway can be. The Old Man and the Sea just isn’t a novel that has interested me because why would I want to read a novella about a man struggling to prove his virility?
Sinclair Lewis is known for socially conscious fiction and Arrowsmith fits that mold to a T. It deals with the bureaucracy of medicine and science by telling the story of a man trying to do good within a system stacked against him. But it also sounds very much like a moral argument thinly disguised as a novel with the plot presenting a case study for the author to prove a point, and that sounds exhausting to me.
Finally for this category, a book that didn’t actually win a Pulitzer because the Board rejected it outright as obscene and unreadable and opted not to award a prize at all that year rather than see it go to this book: Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon. This has always sounded like a slog to me, to be perfectly honest, but in order to be a completist, I feel like I need to include it in this project. Sigh.
The Most Left Field Choices
On the one hand, I appreciate the audacity of selecting a light comic novel about how gay men can be shallow, vapid, and self-centered like so many of the men in literature, but on the other hand, Andrew Sean Greer‘s Less probably had no business winning such a prestigious prize.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz, doesn’t seem like it fits in with the rest of the winners. It’s a dramedy of a novel by a person of color about a misfit Dominican teenager who likes comics and science fiction, telling the history of dictatorship in the Dominican Republic through footnotes. But it has real heft to it–this is an instance where feeling left field is a very needed breath of fresh air.
The most surprising victor in the fiction category has to be Tinkers, by Paul Harding. Why? Because it was completely unheard of before it was announced as the winner and it came from a press that was so small that it was unprepared for the onslaught of orders that followed (I worked in a bookstore at the time and it was at least four weeks before we could get a single copy in the store). The New York Times hadn’t even reviewed the book until after it won.
Anne Tyler was building a steady rapport with the Pulitzer Board in the 80s with two nominations but no prizes for Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and The Accidental Tourist. She inexplicably closed the decade with a win for Breathing Lessons, though–a novel that is basically just an allegedly adorable elderly couple fighting for the duration. I don’t get it.
Authors Who Probably Got a Consolation Prize
Even in the Wikipedia entry for Ernest Poole‘s His Family, which won the inaugural prize, it speculates that this award was really intended as a reward for The Harbor, which had been published to great acclaim before the Pulitzer Prize existed.
Willa Cather also wrote most of her well-known novels (including My Ántonia and O Pioneers!) before the Pulitzer Prize existed, so you can probably credit her 1923 win for one of her less-remembered books, One of Ours, with the existence of those other books–although this book is credited with enlarging Cather’s readership. Maybe they would have been better off waiting for her to publish 1927’s Death Comes for the Archbishop–although since I have not yet read One of Ours I can’t really speak to its quality. Yet.
By 1955, William Faulkner had published what are arguably his best works and they had gone unnoticed by the Pulitzer Prize (those being The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom!. Instead, he won two awards (one posthumously) for works that have been largely forgotten: A Fable and The Reivers.
Ernest Hemingway was literally recommended for the Prize in 1941 for one of his most well-regarded novels: For Whom the Bell Tolls, but even though the jury had recommended him unanimously and the Pulitzer Board had accepted, the President of Columbia University (which administers the Pulitzer Prizes) refused to give it the prize. He claimed the book was obscene and could not be associated with Columbia. They ended up not giving a prize at all that year. More than a decade later, Hemingway’s first significant work to come along since, The Old Man and the Sea, ended up walking away with the prize instead.
… and did I mention that Anne Tyler inexplicably won for Breathing Lessons after two failed bids for the big prize with Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and The Accidental Tourist? It bears repeating.
Winners I Had Never Even Heard of
The Able McLaughlins, Margaret Wilson
Early Autumn, Louis Bromfield
Scarlet Sister Mary, Julia Peterkin
Laughing Boy, Oliver La Farge
Years of Grace, Margaret Ayer Barnes
Lamb in His Bosom, Caroline Miller
Now in November, Josephine Winslow Johnson
Honey in the Horn, Harold L. Davis
The Late George Apley, John Phillips Marquand
In This Our Life, Ellen Glasgow
Journey in the Dark, Martin Flavin
Guard of Honor, James Gould Cozzens
The Way West, A.B. Guthrie
The Town, Conrad Richter
The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, Robert Lewis Taylor
The Edge of Sadness, Edwin O’Connor
Elbow Room, James Alan McPherson