Did the Wrong Book Win the First Pulitzer Prize for Fiction? A Pulitzer Prize Deep Dive on Ernest Poole’s ‘His Family’

After the Pulitzer Prize’s Fiction category failed to launch in the inaugural year of the awards (more on that here), the Pulitzer Board managed to award the first-ever Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1918 to Ernest Poole for His Family. Although he was a successful writer at the time, Poole has faded into obscurity by now. If anyone has heard of him, it could very well be because of his status as the first winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. But there’s also a chance that someone has heard of Poole because his previous novel, The Harbor, has achieved something of a cult following. Indeed, it was one of the most celebrated novels of its time.

The Harbor was so popular in its day that people openly speculate that Ernest Poole became the first winner of the Pulitzer Prize’s Novel category not because of the merit of His Family but because people liked The Harbor so much. You see, The Harbor was published in 1915, one year before the Pulitzer Prize existed. Had The Harbor been published in 1916, the Board may have decided to award a prize that year after all.

In this deep dive, we’ll take a look at His Family, Ernest Poole, and The Harbor (since it is so inextricably linked to Poole’s Pulitzer success). Did His Family deserve to win, or did Ernest Poole get rewarded for the wrong book? Or is there another author who got crowded out of the conversation?

What Is His Family About?

Our protagonist is Roger Gale, a widower who is not actually considered old by today’s standards, although he might as well be a thousand years old in 1917. Roger is alarmed by how quickly it feels he arrived at this age without figuring life out. He still feels youthful and unsure of the world. But mostly, Roger looks around his New York City neighborhood and doesn’t feel comfortable with the changes he sees all around. Every night when he gets ready for bed, he stares at the tall apartment building recently constructed nearby as if it is a menacing thing lording over his home. When he goes on his nightly walks, he becomes anxious about the unfamiliar people, structures, and ways of life he sees. And before we get any further, I want to clarify that part of the reason the people around him look unfamiliar is that he sees a lot of immigrants (specifically Italian, Irish, and Jewish immigrants). So when he worries about unfamiliar people, let’s remove all doubt: he has racial concerns about “less desirable” people coming into his neighborhood. But he will have some degree of evolution on this topic throughout the novel. To be fair.

His three daughters are similarly alien to him. His struggles to relate to each of them make him feel that he has failed his late wife, Judith, whose deathbed promise that “you will live on in our children’s lives” becomes a repeating, taunting refrain for Roger–just like the belltower near his home that marks the rushing passage of time.

These three daughters also reflect the rapid changes in society as the years go on. The oldest, Edith, is singularly devoted to her children and her status as a wife and mother. You can imagine, then, that she is the daughter Roger is most able to understand when the novel begins because this is what he assumes a woman is supposed to do with her life. She’s also the daughter most inaccessible to him once he does begin to get to know his daughters better because she is the one he is least able to relate to.

Deborah, the middle child, is a career woman singularly devoted to the school where she is the principal. She is also a fierce activist working to improve the lives of her students and their families, who are living in abject poverty (and deplorable conditions) in tenement housing. Roger goes on a journey with her during the course of the novel–initially uninterested in her work and just waiting for her to settle down like Edith. But when he actually spends time with Deborah in the neighborhoods where she works, he begins to see the worth of what she does. He begins valuing her conviction and morals to the point that she ultimately becomes his favored child. And Deborah influences Roger in turn, helping him to see the immigrants as human beings in their own right. Roger even invites a young disabled Irish boy into his home and sets him up with a job in Roger’s company–a boy who proves to be a beloved part of his family and a stand-in for the son Roger had lost many years earlier. Deborah is also the epicenter of one of my problems with this novel–that it’s not actually as progressive as it seems, but more on that later.

The youngest daughter, Laura, begins the novel as Roger’s favored daughter but leaves his good graces thanks to her ruthlessly modern (read: heartless and self-centered) way of moving about the world. What seemed to Roger to be a zest for life in Laura’s youth calcified into a disdain for tradition, a lack of respect for institutions like marriage or motherhood, and a cunning exploitation of circumstance to ensure that she will live a life of comfort–at the expense of others if necessary.

The ultimate argument of His Family seems to be for moderation, Deborah embodying a sort of middle ground between the ultra-traditional Edith and the ultra-modern Laura.

Over the course of the novel, Roger attempts to get to know his daughters before it’s too late. He also helps them through grief, through uncertainty (largely brought on by WWI), and to see areas where they may be wrong (while simultaneously challenging his own preconceptions about how the world works).

Why Is This Important?

When His Family was published, society had undergone drastic changes during the preceding fifty years or so thanks to the Industrial Revolution. Social structures that had seemed to be set in stone were upended within the space of a single lifetime, and Roger Gale embodies that lifetime. At the novel’s opening, Roger is described as “not quite sixty years of age.” The American Industrial Revolution ramped up in the late 19th century, after the Civil War, so he grew up alongside all of the changes that took place. He has been left unmoored in a world he no longer understands (and the divide between him and his daughters thematically enhances this sense that he is out of touch). If you want to understand how this works in a modern context, consider the difficulties your grandparents may have had as they adjust to a digital, online world. Or how they might be struggling to understand your nonbinary cousin.

In its early years, the Pulitzer Prize would prove to be particularly fascinated by novels that reflected these drastic social changes. In fact, the first five winners of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel all dealt with this topic in some form. The second winner, The Magnificent Ambersons, traces the decline of the aristocratic Amberson family at the expense of “new money” families whose fortunes have risen because of the Industrial Revolution. The third winner, The Age of Innocence, is described by its author, Edith Wharton, as follows: “a momentary escape in going back to my childish memories of a long-vanished America… it was growing more and more evident that the world I had grown up in and been formed by had been destroyed in 1914.” And while that quote specifically refers to the outbreak of World War I, her novel is very much about how New York society had been so significantly altered. And so on through the next two winners, Alice Adams and One of Ours.

So His Family set the tone for how the earliest Pulitzer juries would define what novels could be described as worthy winners of the prize. Defining what a Pulitzer novel should be was of particular concern as the award was established, which is why there had been no winner in this category in 1917. And a disagreement over how to interpret the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel’s mandate ultimately led to a decision not to award the prize at all in 1920.

The Pulitzer Prize was also a way of legitimizing America on the world stage. In the early 1900s, the United States was looked down on by Europe. As an example, the Nobel Prize for Literature was created in 1901, and at this point in time, no American had won the award (and it wouldn’t go to an American until Sinclair Lewis achieved it in 1930). As discussed in my post about the origins of the Pulitzer Prize, Joseph Pulitzer specifically wanted categories for literature and drama to prove the worth of American art. As such, it’s probably no surprise that His Family also set a tone for the early years of the Pulitzer Prize relying on big American names–established authors (including Sinclair Lewis) whose contribution to literature could be seen as undeniable. Only one winner out of the first ten was unknown–and that was Margaret Wilson, who won her Pulitzer for her debut novel, The Able McLaughlins. Every other winner from the early years was a popular author who would have been very known at the time.

Is This Novel Any Good?

To be honest, His Family is fine. And that’s about it.

For one thing, I’ve read both The Harbor and His Family now, and I can confidently say that Ernest Poole has never met a piece of symbolism that he didn’t just love to hammer into the earth without remorse. Everything has to mean something, everything has to point to the theme, and everything needs to be repeated again and again just in case you missed it. I was exhausted by the time I finished the first fifty pages. If there had been just one more mention of a clock ticking or a bell tower sounding when Roger considered time getting away from him, I can’t promise that I wouldn’t have thrown the copy I was reading across the room in frustration.

Every page of an Ernest Poole novel exerts itself, and the reader can feel all the sweat coming off the page.

But I’ll give Poole some credit here: His Family is actually an improvement over The Harbor, which to me is barely even a novel. It’s a political pamphlet extolling socialist propaganda filled out to the length of a novel with cardboard characters, paragraph after paragraph of symbolism, and a good deal of soapbox speechifying. It’s just a lot.

After fifty pages, Poole begins to reign in the symbolism in His Family–and he actually seems to care that the members of the Gale family should seem like humans instead of being empty vessels for a point Poole wants to make. The characters in this book are complicated in a way none of the figures in The Harbor are. They embody contradicting behaviors, they make mistakes, they second guess themselves, and they compromise. They are as messy as a family, and how their moods, alliances, and frustrations shift feels reflective of an actual family unit.

This novel has a fair amount of good once it stops trying so hard. It plays with ideas in a way that doesn’t feel one-sided. It grapples with many ideas about life, progress, and family without making other ways of living feel ridiculous, which is definitely not something you could say about The Harbor.

However, as much as I enjoyed the evolution of the understanding between Roger and Deborah, I can’t help but feel it builds to a conclusion that accidentally undermines the entire book (skip to the next section if you want to avoid spoilers). First, a quick explanation. Edith, Roger’s eldest daughter, has a life that revolves around her biological children. Deborah, the middle child, is a career woman and an activist initially uninterested in biological children: she considers her children to be the students and families who need her, and so her children number in the thousands (that is one of the ideas Poole repeats relentlessly in this novel–that Deborah has children numbering in the thousands). Laura, the youngest, is ultimately passively rejected by her father partly because she rejects the idea of children outright because her worldview is too self-centered to allow anyone else to take up her energy. It is here that the seeds of the problem are sown. Because ultimately, Roger wants to see Edith and Deborah set up for happiness before he dies–and his definition of happiness for Deborah is that she should have children of her own. And the book gets a happy ending because she decides that Roger is correct.

Through most of the book Poole allows for–and almost seems to encourage–the notion of a chosen family. Deborah doesn’t need biological children because she has a career and family surrogates provided by that career. Roger finds replacements for his dead son first in his son-in-law Bruce, then in his second son-in-law Allan, and most poignantly in John, the disabled Irish boy he quasi-adopts. When he realizes that John is dying of tuberculosis, Roger allows himself to vocalize that feeling to John and expresses a desire to see John officially join the Gale family. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen because John has passed away by the end of that page. So in this novel that is so intrinsically about family that it is the title of the book, it seems surprising at first that Poole’s definition of what constitutes a family is so expansive and, well, modern.

And then it isn’t anymore.

After Roger learns he is dying, he works on Deborah to convince her to marry Allan and have her own children. During their conversations about the matter, Deborah reveals that she wants biological children but is too afraid that they will take her away from her work, which is so important to her. And yet it doesn’t take long for Roger to scare her that she will end up alone if she doesn’t have biological children. So she does. And when she does, she remarks, “at last, I am one of the family.” The implication is that while adoptive parenthood or chosen family is fine, it isn’t worth as much as biological parenthood. And Poole explicitly says (through Roger) that you can only ensure you live on through your children if they are biologically tied to you. Because apparently, you can’t have an impact on someone who isn’t related to you. It’s subtle, but I find it very offensive as a former foster parent. Furthermore, it undermines the entire rest of the book. It’s like it’s trying to make a case that family exists in many forms that don’t require blood connections, but then it negates all that to say that actually, only blood connections count.

There’s a really bizarre sense of whiplash that comes from being told that it’s okay to let go of the old ways of doing things, but actually, the old ways are better and you should just do that.

Ernest Poole

Who Is Ernest Poole?

Ernest Cook Poole was born in Chicago on January 23, 1880. His father, Abram Poole, was a commodities trader and his mother, Mary Howe Poole, was legendary for heroism during the Great Chicago Fire. Poole enjoyed a very privileged childhood. He originally wanted to be a composer, but when that proved difficult during a gap year, he gave up and attended Princeton–where according to his obituary in The New York Times, he was voted “Most Useless Man” in his class.

It’s very interesting that Poole grew up with such a high degree of privilege because his writing career largely reckons with the very notion of privilege and how he thinks it should be put to use–and sometimes, as in The Harbor, Poole would make a case that the system that allows such privilege should be blown up. And it’s somewhat interesting to trace Poole’s blind spots in this area.

His time at Princeton was pivotal for Poole, not just because he discovered a passion for writing but because he became interested in progressive politics. After graduation, he went to New York City and became a journalist who worked to shine a light on societal inequities–first getting notice for reports on child labor, impoverished life in settlements, and more. Significantly for his later work like His Family, Poole also wrote about the dangers of tuberculosis among tenement populations. He also rubbed shoulders with some of the most famous progressive activists of the time. An investigation into stockyard strikes in Chicago introduced Poole to Upton Sinclair–another future Pulitzer Prize winner in the novel category. Sinclair’s work in the stockyards led to his landmark book, The Jungle, and Poole is credited with helping Sinclair gather the information he needed to write that book. From there, Poole went to Russia to report on the 1905 Revolution.

Poole became active in the socialist party in the United States in 1908. He had been writing plays on the side up to this point, but by 1912 he became interested in writing a novel–which ultimately led to the publication of The Harbor in 1915. That was followed by His Family in 1917 and a Pulitzer Prize. None of Poole’s subsequent novels lived up to the success of these first two.

By 1920 Poole’s career as both a novelist and as a journalist was already winding down, and as the socialist movement in the United States died down, so did Poole’s activism. He died of pneumonia in 1950 at the age of 69.

Poole is also an interesting case for the Pulitzer because 1918 represents the only window of time when it likely would have been possible for him to win. He was riding high off of The Harbor and the progressive politics he represented hadn’t yet been made into something toxic by an American government responding to WWI. Which is a natural transition to…

The Harbor by Ernest Poole

What’s the Deal with The Harbor?

The Harbor was a wild success when published in 1915, which is surprising considering the short shelf life the socialist movement in the United States would have. Indeed, Ernest Poole managed to get references to the outbreak of WWI into his novel before it went to press, and WWI would prove to be the death of the socialist movement The Harbor makes such a strong case for. Within five years, it likely would have been impossible to publish a novel like The Harbor, and socialism steadily became something Americans were forced to disassociate from (just ask Josephine Johnson, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1935, when socialism and communism had been fully vilified by the United States government). Ernest Poole’s own career began to steadily decline by the 1920s.

Inspired by Ernest Poole’s involvement in the Paterson silk strike of 1913 (whose poster was adapted into the cover for the 2012 Penguin Classics edition pictured above), The Harbor follows a man named Billy. Billy grows up in middle-class comfort, overlooking the titular harbor, which seems to him as a child to be a scary, dangerous, alluring place. Indoctrinated into the capitalist way of thinking by his father, Billy initially supports the development of New York City’s waterfront into an industrial center, but an association with a union activist named Kramer causes Billy to question everything he stands for. And when protest begins to break out in the harbor, Billy must decide where his loyalties lie once and for all.

I can see why The Harbor would have seemed like an incendiary polemic at the time it was published, but to me this is essentially a political pamphlet masquerading as a novel. That’s not necessarily to critique the politics of the book (or Ernest Poole), it just makes for exceptionally uninteresting writing to me. The only character with any shape or texture is Billy, and that’s only because he’s meant to go on a sort of hero’s journey–and even he feels pretty thin as a character. Animal Farm, for example, is a book that weaves political messaging into a story with much greater success. This book feels like being yelled at by your friend who just discovered Crossfit and thinks you should also start doing it.

But again, people loved it at the time it was published. Here is a sample of the glowing comments The New York Times had about The Harbor in its 1915 review:

For this first book of his is by all odds the best American novel that has appeared in many a long day. It is earnest, sincere, broad in scope and purpose, well balanced, combining intellect and emotion. It has none of the crudities of the usual promising first novel, no “purple patches,” no touch of hysteria; and it is so real that one finds difficulty in regarding it as fiction. Admirably constructed, it seems a natural, harmonious growth; very long, it is never wearisome; shirking nothing, it is never brutal.

… Here in this vision of the harbor is focused much of our modern world, its perplexities, its struggles, and its ideals. For the story of Billy and his experiences is representative–he is at once an individual and a type. Whether or not one agrees with all his conclusions, Mr. Poole may be congratulated upon having written an absorbingly interesting and significant novel.

The New York Times, February 7, 1915: “CURRENT FICTION; An Unusual First Novel. Fiction by Gilbert Cannan, W.D. Bank, and Others

There’s no denying that The Harbor was much beloved in its time–and that its existence put Ernest Poole in prime position to win the first Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. And people aren’t even ashamed to discuss that.

In 2012, when The Harbor was reissued by Penguin, The Washington Post had this to say about His Family: “consensus is that it’s the lesser of the two works, that the Pulitzer committee was really honoring Poole for The Harbor.” The introduction to that same 2012 reissue of The Harbor notes that “After The Harbor made him famous, Ernest Poole’s career reached its zenith when his next novel His Family, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1918, an award that some saw as belated recognition for Poole’s more celebrated earlier book.” And the Franklin Library’s 1979 edition of His Family introduces the novel thusly:

Had the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction been in existence in 1915, it might well have been awarded to Ernest Poole for his compelling and perceptive novel The Harbor, an incisive picture of the port of New York at the turn of the century and the significance of that port in our national life. But the first Pulitzer for a novel was not granted until three years later (no award was made in 1917, the year the prizes were begun). The 1918 prize for fiction, however, went to Poole’s next book, His Family, a striking story of the continuity of life from generation to generation in New York City of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Having eagerly awaited His Family after the success of The Harbor, the critics found it to be a worthy and vital successor.

Introduction to the Franklin Library edition of His Family, 1979

Even Poole’s obituary in The New York Times twice refers to The Harbor as his best-known work.

Did Ernest Poole Win a Pulitzer for the Wrong Book?

There’s no way for me to know what the jury for the 1918 Pulitzer Prize for the Novel discussed when making a recommendation to the Pulitzer Prize Board. I don’t know what the Pulitzer Board reflected on when deciding on a winner, and I do not have access to whatever notes from these groups exist today. But despite the way discussion of how or why Poole won is carefully couched in speculation, it seems that most people who spend time thinking about topics like this believe that awarding Poole a Pulitzer for His Family was a backdoor way of rewarding The Harbor. It’s so openly and repeatedly discussed that you almost never see references to His Family without The Harbor creeping into the conversation.

In fact, someone who did have access to the notes and inner workings of Pulitzer Boards and juries past was John Hohenberg, who administrated the Pulitzer Prizes from 1954-1976, and who wrote two books about the Pulitzer Prizes. Even he brought up the specter of The Harbor in the sole paragraph that mentions the first fiction prize, while simultaneously low-key dissing His Family:

The same jury came up with a winner the following year, recommending the first Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for His Family by Ernest Poole. The book had not made anything like the impression of Poole’s earlier and more successful work, The Harbor, which was similar in spirit to the Edward Bellamy-Jack London type of sentimental Socialism. So, while His Family carried off the award, there wasn’t much of a stir about it.

The Pulitzer Prizes: A History of the Awards in Books, Drama, Music, and Journalism Based on the Private Files Over Six Decades, by John Hohenberg (Copyright 1974), page 57

So did Ernest Poole win a Pulitzer Prize for the wrong novel? I think it’s safe to assume that he did. The real question is whether or not he deserved to win for either of those books, which we’ll talk about in a little bit.

Is His Family Problematic?

The way Roger Gale seems intimidated and irritated by the presence of immigrants at the beginning of the novel is really not great, but I guess you have to give him some credit for being less xenophobic as the novel continues. However, the way he casually refers to a Japanese butler with a slur is like a slap in the face when you read it.

Are There Adaptations or Sequels to His Family?

There are no sequels and this novel has not been adapted for any other medium. Wikipedia and some other sites refer to Poole’s 1918 novel His Second Wife as a sequel to His Family, but I cannot find anything indicating that this is true–even the plot description has no relation to the previous novel. They just happen to have similar titles and share a setting: New York City.

Is His Family Readily Available?

You probably won’t stumble upon any copies in your local bookstore, but the benefit of a book this old is that it is now in the public domain, meaning it is not protected by copyright laws. That means that smaller publishers or organizations can make versions of the book and make them available digitally or in print or audio format. That means that if you want to seek it out, you can find access to a copy online, through a subscription app, or in print–without breaking the bank.

Snapshot: 1917

I always like to take a look at the state of the world in the year a Pulitzer novel was published. Here’s a quick look at what things were like when His Family was published.

In bookstores:

According to Publisher’s Weekly, the bestselling book of 1917 was H.G. Wells’ Mr. Britling Sees It Through. His Family came in 8th on that list, which is full of books and/or authors I had not heard of. The Nobel Prize for Literature split that year’s prize between Danish authors Karl Adolph Gjellerup and Henrik Pontoppidan. Gjellerup was cited for “for his varied and rich poetry, which is inspired by lofty ideals,” while Pontoppidan was cited “for his authentic descriptions of present-day life in Denmark.” If it sounds unusual for the Nobel Prize for Literature to be shared by two authors, that’s because it has only happened three other times.

In movies:

The film industry was still in its infancy, but Theda Bara starred in the year’s highest-grossing movie, the silent version of Cleopatra, and Buster Keaton made his film debut.

In the news:

President Woodrow Wilson began a second term in office with U.S. involvement in WWI on the horizon, helped along after German saboteurs set off the Kingsland Explosion at a munitions factory in New Jersey. The United States broke off diplomatic relations with Germany less than a month later. The move to participation in WWI was further accelerated when the British intercepted a telegram in which Germany promised Mexico land (including Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico) if they would declare war on the United States. On April 9th, Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war on Germany.

In other news, of particular relevance to where I live: the state of Montana elected Jeanette Rankin as the first woman to hold federal office as a member of the House of Representatives.

Is His Family the Great American Novel?

Simply put, no. It’s not even a particularly great novel in its category of novels that reflect the enormous social changes in the early 1900s–nevermind helping define American literature. In particular, I would say that Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (which similarly uses New York society as its setting), achieves far more than His Family.

What Was His Family‘s Competition for the Pulitzer?

The first thing I should note here is that we as the public don’t know how many books were submitted for consideration this year, nor do we know the titles of the books that were considered. Only five novels had been eligible for the prize the previous year. I still think there’s merit in looking at what was published by American authors that year, but we should remember that some of these books may not have won because they weren’t submitted in the first place.

When I looked at why there was no fiction winner in 1917, the first year of the Pulitzer Prizes, I had difficulty coming up with anything that was overlooked. That is far from the case the following year, where there are multiple contenders to consider. Here’s how The New York Times summed up the year in fiction in an article that included a mini-review of His Family:

… the outstanding feature of the fiction of the year is certainly the amount of good work that has been done in America, and the high mark attained by many American novelists in 1917. It is not that any one American has shown himself to be a greater novelist than any of the English or Continental masters, or that we can balance up novel for novel across the Atlantic and say proudly “We do this better than you!” Such comparisons would be as ineffectual and pointless as they are certainly undesirable. What does attract our attention in looking over the fiction of the year is that so much of what is good is the work of American writers.

The New York Times, December 2, 1917: “The Year’s Harvest in Notable Fiction”

The first American author lauded in that article is Joseph Hergesheimer for his novel The Three Black Pennys. Hergesheimer holds an infamous spot in Pulitzer history because just two years later, he would be rejected for a Pulitzer Prize thanks to a debate amongst the Board about how to apply the word “wholesome” from the Pulitzer Prize’s mandate. But we’ll talk a great deal more about that in the future. Despite that, and despite the fact that Hergesheimer’s work has been largely lost to time, it’s worth noting that the Times referred to The Three Black Pennys, which follows three generations in a Pennsylvania steel mill, as one of the most notable novels of the year. The novel is available online through Project Gutenberg, but I did not manage to read it before publishing this deep dive.

Ernest Pool and Sinclair Lewis are mentioned together, but after briefly summarizing His Family, the article merely comments that it is a worthy successor to The Harbor for Poole (faint praise indeed). It spends more time praising Lewis for releasing not one but TWO successful novels that year: The Job and The Innocents (reserving special praise for the couple at the center of The Innocents). I attempted to read The Job for this deep dive and bailed very quickly because it felt very similar to His Family in that it read like a political pamphlet disguised as a novel–and one determined to hammer in every point it wants to make with force.

Then there’s the case of Edith Wharton’s Summer, which likely never would have been considered for the Pulitzer despite being a rather good and powerful novella–and from the author who would win the third Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Age of Innocence. Summer would not have been seen as a contender because it was seen as a controversial novel (then and now) for daring to depict a young woman being used and abused by men–and becoming pregnant out of wedlock. If Java Head lost the prize due to debate over how to apply the word “wholesome” from the Pulitzer’s mandate, it seems reasonable to assume that Summer would have caused a similar quagmire.

Edna Ferber also went on to win an early Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (for her novel So Big in 1925), and she also released a novel that was overlooked by the Pulitzer jury (if it was submitted for consideration at all): Fanny Herself. Following the titular character as she comes of age in Winnebago, Wisconsin and eventually heads out for the business world, it’s a surprisingly funny and resonant book. When Fanny’s mother worries about losing business to mail-order catalogs, it sounds like the current concerns small businesses face with online shopping. And when Fanny eventually goes to work for one of those mail-order companies, it sounds like she’s helping create the difficult conditions that exist in Amazon shipping facilities today. Interestingly, it covers some of the same topics as Ernest Poole’s His Family (industrialism and business, at least)–but much better, more interestingly, and more humanely. It also covers a lot of the same ground as The Job–and decidedly better. I have a full review of it here.

One of the most difficult things about going as far back as 1917 is that I don’t have the general knowledge of the publishing field that I do when it comes to the last 20-30 years. I can recognize authors like the ones just mentioned, who have proven to have staying power in the American literary field, but many of the other names and titles are completely unknown to me. It makes it difficult for me to compare the work of, say, Joseph Hergesheimer, and Edith Wharton, and the same is true for the book that was actually the runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize that year: Bromley Neighborhood by Alice Brown. It sounds like an interesting novel that focuses on the domestic sphere like His Family. It is available online, but I didn’t have a chance to read this one either. I did skim it, though, and my quick impression is that it has a strong opening but seems to get a bit melodramatic as the story progresses.

Should His Family Have Won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction?

To my way of thinking, neither The Harbor nor His Family were particularly notable reads. I do understand why readers of the time celebrated them, but I think we could have done better than this with the first Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Especially since it seems reasonable to believe that it was a consolation prize for The Harbor. And while I understand that sensibilities of the time most likely prevented Summer from being a contender, it’s just a better book than His Family. And so is Fanny Herself.

His Family feels like a chore to read. Summer and Fanny Herself feel bold and vital–even more than a hundred years after they were first published. And of the two, I would opt for Edna Ferber’s Fanny Herself. So my hot take on the first Pulitzer Prize for Fiction is that it should have gone to a woman.

Ultimately, it’s fairly easy to see why His Family would have felt like an urgent novel in 1917. But it isn’t anymore. Fanny Herself was urgent in 1917 and feels just as urgent in 2023. It would have been a much better winner.

Other Pulitzer Prize Deep Dives

His Family (1918) Now in November (1935)  Gone With the Wind (1937)  Lonesome Dove (1986)  Less (2018)

Deep Dives On Pulitzer Years With No Winner

1917  2012

His Family by Ernest Poole

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