Pulitzer Project: Laughing Boy, Oliver La Farge (1930)

the pulitzer project

laughing boy.jpgA Brief Summary*: At a ceremonial dance, the young, earnest silversmith Laughing Boy falls in love with Slim Girl, a beautiful but elusive “American”-educated Navajo. As they experience all of the joys and uncertainties of first love, the couple must face a changing way of life and its tragic consequences

Setting: T’o Tlakai, a fictional town in Southwestern America

Time Period: 1914

A Fun Fact: The book was adapted into a movie in 1934.

Review: After the disappointment of Scarlet Sister Mary, I was hesitant to pick up Laughing Boy when I saw it was a “Navajo” love story written by a rich white guy from Rhode Island. But, I gave La Farge a chance, and I was pleasantly surprised. I wasn’t completely blown away, but I enjoyed the book much more than I expected. Turns out, La Farge was an anthropologist who spent most of his life fighting for Native American rights. I think it was this interest and devotion that helped him create complex characters, especially in comparison to the caricatures we saw Julia Peterkin create.

This book tells the love story of Laughing Boy and Slim Girl. Laughing Boy is jealous of Slim Girl’s American education, while Slim Girl is trying to learn the traditional Navajo skills to fit into the community. It’s endearing to see the two of them try to figure out their place in society together, but neither of them ever feel like they fit in. I related to this predicament, as I’m sure most children of immigrants would. As Laughing Boy introduces Slim Girl to a lot of Navajo traditions, such as dances, horse taming, and blanket weaving, La Farge gives us a very basic primer as well. La Farge writes respectfully; for example, he keeps a lot of the traditional songs in the Native Navajo language instead of trying to translate into English. The book has a timeless feel, and I think part of this is due to such a narrow cast of characters and plot. Most of the story revolves around the two main characters, but we get a few glimpses into other people’s lives here and there. One scene I really liked happens when a few young Navajos go into a general store to play a prank on the storeowner.

I think there is an interesting trend going on in the Pulitzer awards. Between 1928 – 1932, four of the five books are about non-White people (even though they all had very White authors). We have just visited Peru in The Bridge of San Luis Rey, the Gullah people in Scarlet Sister Mary, we are visiting the Navajo here, and in just two short years, we’ll be out of the country, in China, with Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. I am always thinking about the importance of diversity, and it’s nice to see the Pulitzer juries valued this even 100 years ago. However, I will definitely be eagerly looking forward to the first person of color to win the Pulitzer! Just taking a brief glance at the list, I’m not sure when this is – does anyone know?

***

I would recommend this book to people who are curious about Native American literature, but honestly, if you are, I would suggest you start with Native American authors, like Louise Erdrich, for starters. While I enjoyed the book more than expected, I don’t think I would recommend this to friends or revisit this book in the future.

Pulitzer Project: Scarlet Sister Mary (1929)

the pulitzer projectScarlet Sister Mary was the somewhat contentious recipient of the 1929 Pulitzer. In 1929, the jury nominated Victim and Victor by John Rathbone Oliver  to receive the prize. However, by the time the suggestion reached the Board, they superseded the pick with Scarlet Sister Mary, which was a nominee from the School of Journalism. The chair of the jury resigned in protest.

scarlet sister maryScarlet Sister Mary is the story of Mary, “a young black woman on a coastal South Carolina plantation who is abandoned by her husband and ostracized by her church for her sinful ways. Aided by a love charm she obtains from the local conjurer, Mary bears a houseful of children by different men.” Ten children, to be exact. The title of the book harkens back to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, and I suppose in a way, it’s the Black version of Hawthorne’s novel.

I will start with the positive aspects of the book. I can understand that in the late 1920s, this book may have been seen as very modern — a woman is sexually active with many different partners and is unapologetic about her actions. This is also the first novel that won a Pulitzer that was written about African Americans. Peterkin also has some lovely writing about the atmosphere and Southern environment. However, I don’t think this book has withstood the test of time.

What I found problematic about the story is that the author, Julia Peterkin, is a white plantation owner. She is renowned for her ability to capture the Gullah dialect and lifestyle. The Gullah people live in the Lowcountry regions of Georgia and South Carolina. However, Peterkin’s imagining of the life of Black people was offensive to me. In her book, Mary actually loves picking cotton, and she finds it fun and relaxing. She is also able to have a life of leisure and fun while being a single mother to ten children. I’m not sure where Peterkin’s imagination is coming from, but are you freaking kidding me? More than anything, it seems to me that Peterkin is imagining a happy life for African-Americans post-slavery as a way of alleviating any White guilt that she may feel. Peterkin may have felt a genuine affection for the Gullah culture, but I don’t think that this book is a respectable homage to the people or times.

I’ve spent some time reading about this book and its impacts on American literature. I find it hard to believe, but Scarlet Sister Mary actually became a favorite book during the Harlem Renaissance. W.E.B. Dubois wrote:

“Peterkin is a southern white woman, but she has the eye and the ear to see beauty and know truth.”

Apparently, several authorities (not really sure what this means) cite Peterkin’s work as paving the way for more realistic novels by African Americans including Zora Neale Hurston. If this is true, then I suppose I should relent and be grateful that Peterkin’s work exists. However, the fact that this book was adapted into a famous Broadway play consisting entirely of black-face performances makes me cringe. I am eagerly looking forward to reading a Pulitzer-awarded book actually written by a person of color. The near future of my Pulitzer reading isn’t looking too hopeful. Next up, we have a book written about Navajo Indians by a white man, and then shortly after, a book written about Chinese people written by a white woman. While these choices may have seemed very modern or open-minded at the time, I think we can all agree today that diversity is so important, not only in subject matter but in authors, editors, and jury members as well.

***

I honestly wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone unless you’re trying to read all the Pulitzers.

Don’t just take my word for it — here are some additional reviews and essays on this book:

The Pulitzer Project: The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thornton Wilder (1928)

the pulitzer projectthe bridge of san luis rey.JPG

Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey was the 1928 Recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. This book took me by surprise and was such a breath of fresh air as I’ve been trudging through the 1920s. First, this book isn’t set in the United States at all. While we went to Europe for half of Willa Cather’s One of Ours, Cather’s story was still firmly rooted in the canon of American WWI stories. Second, the story also has a surprisingly modern and unconventional structure. The Bridge of San Luis Rey starts on July 20, 1714 with a freak accident on a bridge in “San Luis Rey,” Peru. This bridge was inspired by the great Inca suspension bridges built over the Apurimac River in the 1350s. Five people die in this freak accident, and a Brother Juniper witnesses the accident and thinks it’s the perfect opportunity to investigate the moral character of these people in order to prove God’s Divine Providence. He wants to show bad things happen to bad people and everything is part of God’s plan. The book is divided into five parts, with each part exploring the life of one of the victims of the accident, and each chapter ends with the character walking across the bridge to their death.

inca bridge.jpg

Photo Credit: TCS World Travel

At first, I was thrown off by the setting of the story, since I was so used to reading about 1890s-1910s in the US. In exploring the stories of these people, Wilder says he was trying to answer the question: “Is there a direction and meaning in lives beyond the individual’s own will?” While the US isn’t mentioned at all in this book (technically, since it’s set in 1714, the US isn’t even a country yet), the themes the book struggles with – faith, love, and destiny – seem very American to me. The book tackles all the same questions that any Great American Novel wrestles with, and it does this concisely and lyrically in 138 short pages. I almost wished more people died in this fictional accident so that the book could be longer. I later discovered the last passage of this book is famous and oft-quoted in the wake of tragedies. I think the entire book is quotable and I wanted to reread the book as soon as I finished it.

There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.

I spent some time wondering if I should be concerned about the authenticity of this book. Thorton Wilder, after all, never set foot in Peru — I’m not even sure if he spoke Spanish. Would this book be considered inauthentic or appropriative if it was published today? (In fact, this is a question that I think I’ll have for the next few Pulitzer winners as well.) Ultimately, I don’t think Wilder necessarily chose Peru because it is exotic and “other” (although those both help create a lush and vivid setting for this story). I think he wanted the story to take place in an older time, before the industrialization and automobiles that his peers were obsessed with (see Ernest Poole and Booth Tarkington) and away from American high society (see Edith Wharton). 1700 Peru makes a more compelling setting than 1700 Europe, wouldn’t you say? Please let me know if you disagree and find Wilder’s setting problematic. I’d love to think more about this.

The Pulitzer Jury unanimously decided on The Bridge of San Luis Rey, writing “this piece of fiction is not only an admirable example of literary skill in the art of fiction, but also possesses a philosophical import and a spiritual elevation which greatly increases its literary value.” In the aftermath of a book set in Peru winning the Pulitzer, there was an additional change in the wording of the terms of the award. Do you remember the original wording? 

“for 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.”

We saw in 1926 that “wholesome” was changed for “whole” after Sinclair Lewis scathingly declined the Pulitzer Prize for Arrowsmith. The term “the highest standard of American manners and manhood” was dropped, and the new criteria became:

“for the American novel published during the year, preferably one which shall best present the whole atmosphere of American life.

This change in criteria gives the jury much more room for interpretation in selecting a winner. In fact, I believe this is criteria that still exists to this day.

***

I would recommend this book to anyone, really.

Additional Reading: