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Summer Reading

Poole’s Prize

The first novel of Poole’s to gain attention was The Harbor, a socialist fiction set on the Brooklyn waterfront and based on his experiences among workers in New York. It managed to conceal dogma with drama without ever naming Marx and became a big hit, eventually selling 78,000 copies. Says Keefer, “It is hard to find a person of college age at that time who has not read The Harbor and felt its effect on his thinking.” In John Dos Passos’s The Big Money, a young radical is transformed: “On the train, she read Ernest Poole’s The Harbor and reread The Jungle and lay in the pullman berth that night too excited to sleep.”

I’ve read my Edith Wharton, but Ernest Poole was never in the lesson plan.

And with his first book, Poole made it. He was elected to membership in the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and even included in Who’s Who in America. It stands to reason if you can write a book with a socialist agenda that keeps coeds breathlessly awake, you’ve earned the right to call yourself a success.

His Family was Poole’s next effort, published two years later. It’s the story of an elderly widower, Roger Gale, and his late but sincere effort to know his three daughters. The book begins in New York City in 1913, a town in upheaval, where Gale’s daughters stand for three possible characters available to the modern woman: Edith, the maternal homemaker who will do anything for her family; Deborah, a career woman whose devotion to her job as a school principal renders her a surrogate mother of thousands, but a natural mother to none; and Laura, the party girl dedicated to pleasure, who marries, cheats, divorces, marries again, this time to an Italian playboy, and pretty much is the only person in the book to have a good time.

It’s hard not to be flip. Several days of dedicated effort were required to read the book, and at the same time I managed to finish a Graham Greene novel and the new Denis Johnson. His Family is regularly awful: preachy, flat, and quickly forgotten. Calling it dated would be inaccurate; Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons could have been published yesterday in comparison. One minute, I’m trudging along in the narrative, the next I’ve tumbled into a nine-page furrow and contracted narcolepsy. Tension is so infrequent between events, everything seems preordained; it’s that rare book that would be better told in PowerPoint.

Not that it’s all bad, just mainly. Life occasionally shines through in the dialogue, particularly with Edith, the homemaker. She’s a prig and a whiner, but she gets the best lines. Conversations between Edith and her sisters crackle when they fight, though only from Edith’s end; I kept hoping Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice would wander in and do battle.

But what do I know? Multiple critics called it the book of the year. (Here I really can’t comment: 1917’s competition included Lord Tony's Wife by Baroness Orczy, The Three Black Pennys by Joseph Hergesheimer, and Under One Roof by Mary Cholmondeley, none of which I’ve heard of—titles or authors—whereas the books I do know from Wikipedia’s 1917 publishing index are one by Arthur Conan Doyle—His Last Bow—and another by P.G. Wodehouse—The Man with Two Left Feet—which may say more about my English degree than the year in books. His Family went on to be voted the most important novel of 1917 by a jury for the National Arts Club, and then along came the Pulitzer, the first given to a work of fiction. Poole was awarded $1,000 for writing “the American novel published during the year which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.”

Poole went on to write numerous other novels, stories, articles, a memoir, but with His Family he reached the top of his acclaim, and history hasn’t treated him well since. Perhaps it’s the era. The time of Poole’s peak, between Crane and Steinbeck, isn’t one I know well (I’m willing to bet I’m not the only one), and it was quickly eclipsed by those now considered the heavyweights of American literature: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, and on through the moderns. I’ve read my Edith Wharton and Robert Penn Warren, but not William Dean Howells, and Poole was never even in the lesson plan. Next to His Family, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, published only 12 years later, looks like some alien’s gift beamed down onto Earth, as though the next generation changed the game completely.

Prizes don’t guarantee durability, or even quality. One of the books on that forgotten-Pulitzer-winner list was published as recently as 1997. Faulkner himself would win twice—for A Fable and The Reivers, but not for Light in August or Absolom, Absolom! But though I didn’t like His Family, I still went to the library and borrowed a copy of The Harbor, supposedly Poole’s best. It’s never fair to judge an author on a single title, and that’s a rationale I hope an ancestor someday will grant me when he says my novel’s way better as a hologram.

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Rosecrans Baldwin is a founding editor of The Morning News, a daily Web site of arts and letters.