Unless you’ve been following my YouTube channel of late, I’m willing to bet that you’ve never heard of Josephine Johnson or Now in November, the book that made her the youngest winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (then called the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel). She was 24 years old and although you probably haven’t heard of it, Now in November was a critical and commercial success back in its day. It sold out its first edition five days before it was even published. When Johnson released a short story collection not long after winning the Pulitzer, The New York Times‘ review noted that it was unlikely to go unnoticed by readers “thanks largely to the Pulitzer Prize jury, which redeemed itself for previous lapses in taste by awarding the prize this year to Miss Johnson’s first novel.” In that same review, The New York Times compared Johnson to Emily Dickinson, commenting that “She has the same instinct for solitude, the same fresh and startling apprehension of sensuous beauty, the same subtle and eccentric type of mind.”
Yet unlike Dickinson, Josephine Johnson was largely forgotten as time went by. She published ten more books after achieving such great success with Now in November, but had faded into obscurity by the time of her death in 1990 at age 79. Undeniably, this is something that happens to a lot of authors. Success can be fleeting, and even prestigious awards cannot guarantee literary immortality. But in recent years, Josephine Johnson and her career have undergone something of a reappraisal. She’s not quite at the level of being rediscovered and newly appreciated yet, but there are strong signs that she could be well on her way. And as this reappraisal goes on, some have begun to speculate as to why her career faded so quickly after such a promising debut.
In this project where I’m reading every book that has won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, I’ve covered some really well-known books so far (including Beloved, Lonesome Dove, and Gone With the Wind). But one of the things I was most excited about when I started on this journey was the opportunity to dive into some of the forgotten books and authors to see if they deserve to be better remembered. This is the first time I’ve managed to do that so far, and I really enjoyed the experience of heading into somewhat uncharted waters–and I’m especially glad that Now in November was the first “Forgotten Pulitzer” book I’m covering because it has a particularly interesting conversation attached to it.
Of course, there’s always the possibility that Josephine Johnson’s reputation faded because she had other priorities instead of writing, and we’ll get into why that could have been the case in a moment. But an article in The Cut speculates that Johnson was dropped by her publisher because her subsequent work “was far too sympathetic to Communism.” And that her career never recovered.
Just what is meant by that critique of her work? Is it true? Does it even matter? And with the benefit of almost a century of hindsight, do Josephine Johnson and Now In November deserve to be recognized as great American literature? All those questions and more will be the focus of this Pulitzer Prize deep dive.
What Is Now in November About?
I’ve seen Now in November referred to as a Dust Bowl novel, but there are a couple of interesting things about that. First, this book was published the same year as what Wikipedia refers to as the first of three waves of drought, causing ecological devastation in the midwest. Although in actuality, drought conditions had existed for years at that point–this was just where they began to tip into larger disasters. That means that Now in November was written before what we think of when we think of the Dust Bowl took place. For an audience living at that time, Now in November must have felt extremely timely because Josephine Johnson wrote about something most people probably weren’t paying attention to until conditions got really bad–and conditions got really bad the same year this book was published. It would be five years before the book most people consider to be the definitive novel of the Dust Bowl was published: another winner of the Pulitzer Prize, The Grapes of Wrath.
Another thing that’s interesting about describing Now in November as a Dust Bowl novel is that Johnson never identifies the time and place of her story. There are allusions to the Great Depression but it is never named. The characters experience drought conditions that have devastating results, but the narrative is not attached to anything specific. In this way, Now in November is both highly specific and of its time and somewhat timeless. I’m sure at least part of this is because the language of the Dust Bowl and how we describe it would have barely existed as Johnson was writing (if at all), but I think it’s one of the most successful things about the novel.
Or maybe it’s just that anyone reading Now in November in 2022 has experienced the economic collapse of 2008 and all the economic turmoil that has followed (including the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic). Maybe anyone who reads Johnson’s novel now is primed to relate to a family going through an incredibly hard, uncertain time. At a time when housing has become largely unaffordable and mortgage rates are sky-high in most areas, it’s easy to empathize with a farmer repeatedly stressing over his mortgage payment and the ever-present threat that a bank can take his home and livelihood away from him.
As you can guess from all that, this is a novel about hardship. Author Ash Davidson does an excellent job explaining the plight of the family at the center of this text and why it feels so relevant today in her introduction to the new edition of the novel (which you can find online at Lit Hub):
Quiet and surprising, Josephine Johnson’s Now in November is more than a novel about the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. This is a book about thirst—the land’s thirst for rain, yes, but also human thirsts for love, for justice, for the relative security a little money can bring.
These longings start with Arnold Haldmarne, who is already deep into his fifties when, broke and “chopped back down to root,” he sells the family car and most of their possessions and moves his wife, Willa, and three daughters to a heavily mortgaged farm. There, he takes up the plow, yoking the family to a debt that will cast its shadow over their lives.
… If you’ve ever struggled to make the minimum payment on a credit card or student loan, you’ll recognize how the corrosive worry about money gnaws at the Haldmarnes. A failed dairy strike exposes the rot at the core: the injustice of working hard and just barely scraping by, of subsisting at the mercy of the market and the whims of the weather. The thirst for a fair price for the fruits of their labor taunts the parched family like a mirage, disappearing as they draw close.Ash Davidson, “A Book About Thirst”
The Haldmarne’s perceptive middle child, Marget, is our narrator. In the way of many middle children (myself included), Marget feels like an observer in her family at times rather than a full participant. Her older sister, Kerrin, is dynamic, forceful, and dangerous. Her younger sister, Merle, is kind, hardworking, and likable. In contrast, Marget feels dull and plain, often overlooked. She longs for the qualities she finds admirable in her sisters, or at least their power to either claim things they want or let them go. Marget feels deep love and longing and worries that it will always go unrequited, that she will never know the tranquility that comes with contentment. “Lord make me satisfied with small things,” she prays at one point. “Make me content to live on the outside of life. God make me love the rind” (p. 102).
Now in November opens with the Haldmarnes relocating to their farm and then fast forwards through ten years of hard drought to focus on a single critical year where the situation reaches a breaking point, culminating in the month of November as Marget reminisces on everything that happened. Marget notes in the opening that “I can look back now and see the days as one looking down on things past, and they have more shape and meaning than before. But nothing is really finished or left behind forever” (p. 3). In this way, Now in November is also a beautiful rumination on time, memory, and perspective.
It’s also a novel profoundly focused on the systems that make life so difficult for people like the Haldmarnes. Johnson places them in the middle of a class structure where, like Marget, they feel trapped and unable to escape. “It would have taken so little to make us happy. A little more rest, a little more money–it was the nearness that tormented. The nearness to life the way we wanted it. And things that have cost more than they’re worth leave a bitter taste–a taste of salt and sweat” (32).
To the north of the Haldmarnes you find the Rathman family, who live in comfort–oblivious to the troubles of the people around them. To the south are the Ramseys–warmhearted, generous, kind, and black. Exploited by their neighbors and denied basic human decency, the Ramseys not only show the callousness shown to the very poor, they also show the systemic racism that exists in this country. As Ash Davidson puts it, Marget’s father “would happily borrow the Ramseys’ mules, but won’t break bread with them.” Honestly, I could spend a lot of time talking about the dynamic between these three families but we have a lot of ground to cover so I’m going to leave it at this rather paltry summary. I’ll just add that through Johnson’s subtle geopolitical landscape, Now in November conveys sharp political messages about capitalism, economic disparity, racism, religion, and classism. The kindness of the Ramseys means nothing in the end because they are poor and black. And the security of the Rathmans turns out to be only temporary. Meanwhile, the hard work and dedication of the Haldmarnes is never enough for them to get ahead while they are taken advantage of by banks that do not value their toil, and they are rejected by a church that considers them to be trashy.
Johnson does a marvelous job portraying the Haldmarnes as a family caught in a nexus of despair: always working for the future and never enjoying the present. They live in a country that lives off of the hard work of farmers like them while sneering at them and actively devaluing the work they do, creating a system in which it is virtually impossible for them to succeed.
And coming up on a century after this novel was published, it’s (unfortunately) still relatable. I had an experience with someone from my student loan company that eerily mirrors an exchange the Haldmarnes have with a man from the bank, who values the Haldmarnes well above what they are able to reasonably pay each month because he’s using criteria that don’t actually have anything to do with their financial situation.
Simply put: Now in November is a staggering, empathetic novel that deserves to be read more widely than it has been.
Let’s end this section with an interesting Pulitzer connection: during the revision process, Johnson wanted to change Marget’s name to Hilda because she was worried that it was too similar to the name of the character Margot in Caroline Miller’s novel Lamb in His Bosom, which had just won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1934. So you can see how the book that won the Pulitzer the year before Johnson almost had a hand in shaping this novel.
Who Is Josephine Johnson?
Josephine Johnson was born in Kirkwood, Missouri in 1910. After leaving college without a degree, she moved into the attic of her mother’s house and began writing. A story Johnson published in Atlantic Monthly in 1932 caught the eye of Clifton Fadiman, an editor at Simon and Schuster, who reached out to her to see what she was working on. Johnson initially wanted to illustrate “a book of queer and grotesque sketches and poems”, an idea that probably predictably went nowhere (queer obviously meaning unusual and not referring to the LGBTQIA+ community as it would today). Nine months later, however, Johnson was back in touch with Fadiman to announce that she was almost finished with a novel: Now in November. And the rest is history.
How people know Josephine Johnson (if they know her at all) usually comes down to either her status as a Pulitzer Prize winner or her 1969 nonfiction book The Inland Island, considered to be an early landmark in environmental narrative literature alongside Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The Inland Island was recently republished in a handsome new edition at the same time as Now in November, which is part of why I feel Johnson’s literary fame is primed for a resurrection.
In addition to her (early) literary success, Johnson was also an activist–and we’ll get into that a bit more when we talk about what may have happened to her writing career.
Johnson still holds the title of youngest person to win a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction–a record that is unlikely to be beaten anytime soon given that she achieved it at the tender age of 24. For context, a quick count tells me that the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction has been awarded 95 times at the time I am writing this. Only 17 people were under 40 when the book they won a Pulitzer for was published. That’s roughly 18% (if you trust my math, which is always dodgy). Only one other winner, Oliver La Farge, was still in his twenties (he was 28 when Laughing Boy was published)–and that was in 1930 (five years before Johnson’s win). Winners under 40 have become increasingly rare over time. In fact, you would have to go back to Michael Chabon’s win in 2001 for the last time an author under 40 won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (he was 37 when The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay was published).
Johnson ultimately published 11 books, married in 1942, had three children, and died at age 79 in 1990.
What Happened to Josephine Johnson’s Writing Career?
The first and most important thing to note here is that if Josephine Johnson’s career was derailed because her publisher, Simon & Schuster, was worried about Johnson promoting Communist ideology in her books, there is no evidence to prove it. At least not at the time I am writing this. Even The Cut is careful to note that this is simply a “working theory among the handful of scholars who cared enough about Johnson to dig into” archives related to her third, lost novel (the one that prompted Simon and Schuster to drop her).
It’s also important to note where Now in November exists on the timeline of the United States’ complicated history with Communist fears (which also, interestingly, ties into my Pulitzer Prize Project). In the forward to the 1915 novel The Harbor by the first winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Ernest Poole (a book I read as an addendum to this project), it is noted that in the early 1900s there was a Socialist movement beginning to take root as a reaction to The Industrial Revolution. The Harbor is essentially philosophical propaganda for the Socialist movement in the United States and it was wildly popular when it was published–so much so that it is widely believed that Ernest Poole became the winner of the first Pulitzer Prize for Fiction as a way of rewarding him for The Harbor, which was published two years before the Pulitzer Prizes were first awarded. And we’ll get into all of this when we eventually talk about His Family, which is the book Poole won for (update: you can read that deep dive now). For now, I think it’s just important to note that World War I quickly put an end to this. Within a space of a few years, Socialism went from a grassroots movement to counteract industrialism to something that was largely viewed as dangerous. This intensified over the first half of the century. Congressional committees investigating Communist activity in the United States began popping up as early as 1918. The House Un-American Activities Committee was created in 1938, leading to infamous hearings that caused many people in Hollywood to either play along or get blacklisted. And of course there’s the witchhunt led by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s to root out a so-called Communist menace that McCarthy believed had infiltrated the U.S. government. Now in November was published in the middle of all this, when fear of Communism and/or Communist activity was on the rise in the United States but hadn’t fully weaponized into something toxic and dangerous–although it was getting close.
I should also point out that it’s difficult to have a conversation that involves Communism and Socialism because a century after the close of World War I, both are still used as scare tactics by conservatives. People have visceral responses just to the terms themselves. And I feel I need to make it clear that I am not trying to make a determination about whether or not Johnson was, in fact, a Communist–nor am I trying to wade into whether or not it matters if she was outside of the question “why was her writing career derailed?”
It seems safe to assume that Johnson’s activism wouldn’t have helped her avoid getting wrapped up in concerns that she was supporting Communist ideology. Here is a quote from that article in The Cut:
When it came to that activism, Johnson walked the walk. Her work was locally focused, community-based: she and another forgotten author, Fanny Cook, helped establish a school in Copperville, a neighborhood in St. Louis where primarily African-American sharecroppers lived and worked for little pay and had nowhere to formally educate their children. In 1936, Johnson was arrested in Arkansas for encouraging a strike in the cotton fields. Later in her life, she would become an environmentalist and anti-war activist.The Cut: Her First Novel Won the Pulitzer Prize When She Was 24
And it’s also important to note that Communism could be a red herring here (pun intended), because even if there were concerns about Johnson’s politics and how they began to appear in her novels, there’s a rather unfortunate fact we need to face here: Johnson’s second novel, Jordanstown, bombed.
But let’s back up a bit before we get to that. The timing of that arrest mentioned by The Cut is interesting because it came a year after Johnson won the Pulitzer and her second book, a collection of new and previously published stories called Winter Orchard, was released. Like Now in November, Winter Orchard was very well received. The New York Times later had this to say about it: “‘Winter Orchard,’ her book of short stories, was just as original as ‘Now in November,’ and sealed any doubts as to the genuineness and distinction of her gift. The only question it left unanswered was whether Miss Johnson could progress further…” While reviews could be a bit mixed (noting that Johnson occasionally worked a message too hard), critics were in love with the overall tone and feel of her writing. I almost cut all references to Winter Orchard from this deep dive to save space, but I do ultimately think it’s important to know that Johnson’s second book was just as well received as her first.
Now we get to 1937: three years after Now in November, two years after Johnson’s Pulitzer (and the release of Winter Orchard), and one year after her arrest in Arkansas. This is where Jordanstown tanks and makes things considerably more complicated. To be fair, it was not necessarily received poorly by critics. The New York Times Book Review found it “frequently naive” but also praised it for being “ardently and passionately alive.” It does feel odd, though, that the review ends with these lines: “Miss Johnson is not a ‘propagandist,’ and never will be. She has merely demonstrated in “Jordanstown” that she has the rich and broad interests which a novelist of any stature must possess.” From this, one can infer that the politics working behind the scenes in Johnson’s previous books had made themselves more overtly known in Jordanstown. It also implies that there had been some level of conversation about Johnson’s own politics, and that some people either won’t like those politics or will view her novels as propaganda.
Jordanstown is about an uprising in a town with sharply divided economic lines, where the rich live on a bluff up above while the poor struggle to survive in the basin below, with a small sort of middle-class area in between. Essentially, this expands on the sharp divisions between the three families found in Now in November, throwing in civil unrest and much more pointed criticism of those divisions. It takes something you could overlook in Now in November and makes it overt.
Jordanstown was also Johnson’s first book that was not overseen by her previous editor, Clifton Fadiman–who had discovered her and nurtured both Now in November and Winter Orchard before moving on to a career that far eclipsed Johnson’s. It’s impossible to say whether or not this was a factor in how the book turned out or Johnson’s ultimate downfall with Simon and Schuster, but it is interesting.
That downfall came after Johnson submitted her third novel to Simon and Schuster. In the meantime, Johnson had published a poetry collection with Simon and Schuster called Year’s End as well as a children’s book that appears to be lost to time except for the fact that it was called Paulina: The Story of an Apple-Butter Pot. Here is what The Cut has to say about what happened:
Johnson was subsequently dropped by her publisher, though not before submitting another novel. Only 24 pages of it survive, tucked away in the archives of Washington University in St. Louis. The working theory among the handful of scholars who cared enough about Johnson to dig into these papers is that Simon & Schuster really rejected it because it was far too sympathetic to Communism. While Ernest Hemingway could get away with lionizing the Spanish Communists and their swashbuckling allies in For Whom the Bell Tolls, a woman depicting grassroots activism at home could not.“Her First Novel Won the Pulitzer Prize When She Was 24” by Ilana Masad
Was the content of Johnson’s new novel the problem? If so, would Simon and Schuster have been more willing to work on Johnson’s novel if Jordanstown hadn’t flopped? Would Clifton Fadiman have protected her? Did the fact that Johnson was both a woman and a burgeoning activist play in? I have looked and I can’t find specific answers. I have no way of knowing who these scholars referenced by The Cut are, how they arrived at this conclusion, or even what is in the 24 pages of this novel that have survived, and I certainly don’t know what the truth is. I am not a researcher or journalist so maybe someone else could do better–and if any enterprising journalist would like to pick this thread up, I would love to see the results of their work.
It seems obvious that a publisher wouldn’t want to let go of an author on a hot streak–and although I haven’t read it myself, Jordanstown doesn’t seem like it should have been such an impediment to Johnson’s meteoric rise. Again, the reviews weren’t great but they also weren’t terrible. Something pretty significant would have had to scare them off, and worries about Communist ideology could certainly do it given where this fits on the timeline. At this point, the House Un-American Activities Commission suddenly exists. There would be legitimate fears for a publishing house like Simon and Schuster to avoid trouble. And if Johnson was unwilling to change the content of her book (assuming it provoked fears in the first place), it’s reasonable to assume the publisher would walk away from her despite the potential for future sales successes like Now in November or Winter Orchard.
Whatever happened, Johnson didn’t reappear in bookstores until 1946, when Wildwood was published by Harper & Brothers. This time, The New York Times was not so kind in its review: “And now in “Wildwood” the concern with human suffering has become a morbid preoccupation. The prose, though still frequently evocative, often strains, sometimes breaks, and in places goes askew. The bravery and the pride are gone; there no longer seems to be courage to face the mornings. And the total effect–perhaps particularly upon one who recalls the author’s original affirmative talent–is so profoundly disappointing that it can be expressed only in terms of personal regret.” The review goes on to complain that not much happens in Wildwood–to the point that there are virtually no stakes for the reader and neither the novel nor its protagonist leave any lesson or impression on the reader. I find this interesting because this was one of Clifton Fadiman’s concerns about early drafts of Now in November. So maybe Josephine Johnson was an author who needed a capable editor to steer her work?
It was a long time before Johnson published anything else. She had married in 1942, spent three years teaching at the University of Iowa, and had three children–so it’s safe to assume that Johnson had other priorities during this period. When she did publish again in 1963, it came with a bit of a twist: The Dark Traveler, a novel, was published by Simon and Schuster. I guess you can assume that they worked out their differences–whatever they were. And while the Times review for this book expressed pleasure in seeing Johnson back, her literary celebrity never approached the heights it had hit thirty years earlier. She released four more books over the next eleven years (in order: a story collection, an essay collection, a memoir, and a nonfiction book about nature) and then apparently retired.
I got a little extra in my pursuit of answers and found a used copy of that memoir, Seven Houses online. I had been hoping that it might have a sly reference to what happened with Simon and Schuster, but it turns out this is a memoir that assiduously refuses to do any more than allude to difficulties or bad times. This paragraph is the only reference Johnson makes to her entire writing career:
I had a rolltop desk in the attic under a dormer window (the wind through those dormer windows made an eerie banshee sound), and I wrote. I wrote, if not endlessly, then enormously, fulsomely. I seemed to be waiting to begin to live; and not all the beauty, all the intensity of the words on paper, not all the public actions, all the desperate search for reform and change, the bitterness of the depression years, not the love for my sisters nor the tortuous refining of a personal philosophy, seemed to be the reality of living that I wanted to find. And then I met Grant Cannon and the waiting-to-live was over and the real life began.Seven Houses: A Memoir of Time and Places (page 87)
Seven Houses is a curious memoir because it seems to invite the readers into Johnson’s private life while steadfastly refusing to let them get close. What is that personal philosophy Johnson refers to? What are the public actions? If you wanted to, you could read Johnson’s memoir and feel a learned defensiveness about speaking her mind publicly–but would that notion be real or imagined? Is it something I want to see because The Cut primed me to look for it, or is it actually there?
If you ask me, there is no tidy solution to the curious case of Josephine Johnson’s career. It seems entirely plausible that her publisher would have dropped her over concerns about Communist ideology. It also seems credible, given the consistency of some complaints in her reviews, that Johnson was a gifted talent who occasionally couldn’t successfully marry her ideas with a satisfying narrative. And it is also probably true that Johnson had other priorities in her life that prevented her from consistently writing and maintaining a presence in the public eye (activism, motherhood, etc.). Maybe, as Johnson indicates in that quote from Seven Houses, she ultimately found satisfaction in parts of her life that had nothing to do with writing and this whole debate is as simple as that.
There is very likely a cancelation of sorts in the arc of her career, but it is by no means the entire story. Things have a way of being more complicated than that. And until someone does look into it more deeply to put all these pieces together, we’re just going to have to be okay with that.
Is Now in November Problematic?
The answer is no, but there are areas that are very reflective of the time in which this book was published. It does have three uses of the n-word that I would say point to negative attitudes toward black people rather than indulging in that negative attitude, if that makes sense (but I’m a white dude so maybe it would be better to ask someone who isn’t). The black characters in this book do speak in that sort of pidgin English that is so common and offensive in literature of this time but I do think Johnson treats them humanely. I also think that she is using their plight and the fact that the hardships of the time fall first and most harshly on them to illustrate ways in which the deck can be stacked against someone.
Are There Adaptations or Sequels to Now in November?
No adaptations and no sequels.
Is Now in November Readily Available?
It’s been hit or miss historically, but the answer is yes (at the time of this writing) thanks to a new edition.
Remember, although Now in November won the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1935, it was actually published in 1934. We’re taking a closer look at what the world was like the year Now in November was published, not the year it won. And while in most of these snapshots I also look at music and TV, those industries weren’t really factors in 1934.
According to Publisher’s Weekly, the bestselling book of 1934 was Hervey Allen’s Anthony Adverse (followed by Lamb in His Bosom by Caroline Miller, which won the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1934 after being published in 1933).
The first authorized editions of James Joyce’s Ulysses were published in the U.S. Lillian Hellman’s classic play The Children’s Hour, which deals with accusations of lesbianism at an all-girls boarding school, began a successful run on Broadway. And P.G. Wodehouse published his first full-length novel featuring the character of Jeeves, Thank You, Jeeves (there had been stories and story collections prior to that).
The highest-grossing movie of 1934 was Cleopatra–but not Elizabeth Taylor’s infamous Cleopatra. This was Cecille B. DeMille’s Cleopatra starring Claudette Colbert. Claudette Colbert also starred in the year’s third-highest-grossing movie, It Happened One Night, which invented every romantic comedy trope you’ve been watching in movies your whole life and which went on to become one of only three films to win all five of the major Academy Awards categories (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actress for Claudette Colbert) the following year. And in case you’re wondering, the other two movies to have achieved this feat are One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Silence of the Lambs.
In the news:
Bad news for gangsters: Bonnie and Clyde were gunned down by police and two months later, John Dillinger was also shot and killed.
In Germany, there were a lot of news items to cover, so let’s just say that Hitler was busy doing terrible things and in five years WWII would be the result.
The United States was midway through The Great Depression. Significantly for Now in November, drought conditions had been ongoing since 1930 in the midwest and in 1934, they would accelerate into what is known as The Dust Bowl (which would also be captured in literature in 1939’s The Grapes of Wrath, which would also claim a Pulitzer Prize).
Is Now in November the Great American Novel?
I’ve talked a lot about how I believe the Pulitzer Prize and the quest for the mythical Great American Novel are linked (I have a whole post about it here). In short, this is because the Pulitzer Prize is awarded to an American author, preferably for a work that deals with American life. In that conversation I had earlier, I conclude that you really can’t encompass the American experience in a single book (but if you must, Beloved or Lonesome Dove come closest). The best you can do is create a list of books that are essential to the American experience. And if you ask me, Now in November deserves a spot on that list.
What Was Now in November‘s Competition for the Pulitzer?
I’ve grown a little skeptical of the accuracy of the book Chronicle of the Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction by Erika J. Fischer and Heinz Dietrich Fischer for reasons I won’t go into here, but according to it the jury for 1935 had a difficult time coming to agreement on a winner for 1935. They did select eight finalists to share with the Board, although they didn’t seem to find any to be outstanding. Interestingly, all of the other finalists are perhaps even more forgotten than Now in November has been: Slim by William W. Haines, The Folks by Ruth Suckow, Goodbye to the Past by William 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. According to The Chronicle, it is unknown how the Board decided on Now in November as a winner from that group.
You have to go outside of the finalists to find more memorable books from 1934: Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jonah’s Gourd Vine by Zora Neale Hurston (her debut), Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara, and Lust for Life by Irving Stone. Tender is the Night has fans but to me, Appointment in Samarra is the most interesting book to look at here. It would never have been considered for a Pulitzer at the time because it was seen as scandalous for sexual content (content that I feel confident would seem extremely tame these days), but its reputation grew over time–so much so that by the end of the 20th century it was frequently included in lists of the best books of the 1900s.
Should Now in November Have Won the Pulitzer?
I don’t know anything about the other books and authors who were finalists alongside Now in November, so I feel comfortable saying that the right book emerged victorious. I also haven’t read Appointment in Samarra yet (although I did consider holding this deep dive back until I could read it, too), which makes it easy to point to Now in November as the correct choice. But I feel confident saying that the Pulitzer Board made the right decision, and that we should all be thankful that because they did, Josephine Johnson and her superb book have found a way to hold onto a lasting literary legacy.
Other Pulitzer Prize Deep Dives
His Family (1918) • Now in November (1935) • Gone With the Wind (1937) • The Grapes of Wrath (1940) • Lonesome Dove (1986) • Less (2018) • The Netanyahus (2022) • TIE: Trust and Demon Copperhead (2023)