Pulitzer Project: The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck (1932)

The Good Earth.jpgA Brief Summary: Wang Lung is a poor farmer who has dreams of a better life. In the beginning of the book, he lives in a small two room mud hut with his elderly father. The book opens on his wedding day, where he has finally been able to purchase a slave, O-lan, from the wealthiest family in town, to bring home as a wife. Together, Wang Lung and O-lan toil to build a life together. We follow Wang Lung’s rise to fortune, lands, and wives. As Wang Lung slowly amasses land and fortunes, he slowly becomes the same kind of  corrupt landowner that he grew up hating. Meanwhile, China is undergoing the turbulence of famines and revolutions – the Xinhai Revolution.

Setting: Anhui, China

Time Period: 1911-ish

A Fun Fact: Not sure if this fact is “fun” but Anna May Wong was denied the role as the leading lady in the film adaptation because she was “too Chinese.” Instead, the role went to American/German actress Luise Rainer, who won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role.

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Review: The legacy of this book is pretty controversial. Writer Celeste Ng has written a pretty scathing essay on all the reasons why she hates this book.

I hate The Good Earth because, all too often, it’s presented not as a work of fiction but as a lesson on Chinese culture. Too many people read it and sincerely believe they gain some special insight into being Chinese. In one quick step, they know China, like Neo in The Matrix knows kung fu.

I agree with Ng in a lot of ways. If I am being generous, I would say that maybe in the 1930s, this book was seen as revolutionary or insightful on life in a foreign country. I think that like Oliver La Farge and Julia Peterkin, the authors’ hearts are in the right place. Pearl S. Buck was the daughter of missionaries and spent a good part of her life actually living in China (about 42 years.) She was even awarded the Nobel Prize for “her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces.”

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Anna May Wong

But, like Scarlet Sister Mary, I don’t think this book really stands the test of time. It’s important to keep in mind, that at the time this book came out, there were still miscegenation laws in America, so that a Chinese actress could not kiss a White actor on screen. So of course it’s logical for 1930s-America to accept at face-value that Buck is an expert on China. While I didn’t find her writing as ridiculous as Peterson’s, the tone of the book seemed very judgmental. She writes like an anthropologist observing uncultured heathens in their natural environment.

 

But the writing and story itself, if we examine it strictly from plot and character development, are quite compelling. Wang Lung is a pretty fully fleshed out person; he’s flawed, selfish, ambitious, and hard working. The story of a man’s rise from rags to riches is common and crosses cultural identities. I would honestly have been more interested if Buck wrote more about life as a missionary in China, and I would have perhaps found her observations more compelling in a different medium (memoir? essays?). I’m sure she’s written other books, but it does irk me, as a Chinese-American, that Pearl S. Buck’s name is so synonymous with Chinese fiction.

My only other criticism is that by the end of the book, Buck has beaten the metaphor of “good earth” to death. She is obsessed with the idea of land as provider, the Good Earth. There are better books to read about farmers, about the Chinese revolution, and about how people can become corrupt or greedy as they become wealthier.

“Wang Lung sat smoking, thinking of the silver as it had lain upon the table. It had come out of the earth, this silver, out of the earth that he ploughed and turned and spent himself upon. He took his life from the earth; drop by drop by his sweat he wrung food from it and from the food, silver. Each time before this that he had taken the silver out to give to anyone, it had been like taking a piece of his life and giving it to someone carelessly. But not for the first time, such giving was not pain. He saw, not the silver in the alien hand of a merchant in the town; he saw the silver transmuted into something worth even more than life itself – clothes upon the body of his son.”

The importance of diversity and representation is that no single book becomes the defining book of a culture or nation. I’ve probably said this a million times, but I think what we need to do is read widely, so that we can see a cross-section of a time or culture. I wouldn’t recommend this book as an introduction to Chinese culture, but then again, I wouldn’t recommend any single book as an introduction to Chinese culture (or any culture).

***

 

 

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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)

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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.

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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:

The Pulitzer Project: Early Autumn, Louis Bromfield (1927)

the pulitzer projectbromfield

A Brief Summary: Early Autumn follows the rich Pentland family through a summer in Massachusetts. Like many of Bromfield’s fellow winners, he explores the contrast between the old-money families and the nouveau-riche immigrants moving into the neighborhood. The head of the Pentland family is old John Pentland, whose son, Anson Pentland spends all his time researching and writing a book on his family history. Anson’s wife, Olivia, is quickly approaching 40 and feels trapped and listless. She befriends her new neighbor, Michael O’Hara, one of the new Irish immigrants disdained by the Pentland family. Many events quickly culminate at the end of the summer/early autumn (see what I did there?).

Setting: Durham, Massachusetts (a fictional town)

Time Period: 1920s, post World-War I

Review: The Complete Historical Handbook of the Pulitzer Prize System suggests that in the wake of Sinclair Lewis’s controversial rejection of the Pulitzer Prize in 1926, the jury opted for an uncontroversial young novelist, Louis Bromfield, in 1927. (Bromfield was only 30 at the time.) Looking at the big picture, I can understand why this book won the Pulitzer: it has all of the elements that the Pulitzer juries look for – a woman trapped by the constraints of society, the clash between old and new money, the rapidly changing American society at the turn of the century, a tragic love story. The story starts as all of these society stories start – with a ball hosted in honor of two girls who are home from boarding school for the summer. The hostess, Olivia Pentland, is becoming disillusioned with her life as the Great Lady of the Pentland estate. I found Olivia to be the most compelling character in the book; she is realistic, level headed in the face of a crisis, and very self aware of what her family expects of her.

However, I wasn’t really captivated by the book. The characters all fall a little flat and are one-dimensional to me. Part of the problem is that each character embodies an ideal, but Bromfield doesn’t work hard enough to make this happen. Olivia’s cousin, Sabine, comes back to town, and represents the life that Olivia didn’t live. Olivia’s daughter, Sybil, bears the weight of all of Olivia’s regrets and hopes for the future. Bromfield “tells” instead of “shows.” For example, Bromfield is quick to point out that the Pentland ancestors’ portraits were all painted by John Singer Sargent, expecting that to be enough to tell you what kind of family the Pentlands are. Bromfield tells us, the reason two women don’t get along is because they are too like one another, instead of writing this into the conversations so that the readers can make the connections for themselves. The story read like one of Agatha Christie’s earlier novels, where all of the clues are laid out throughout the story, but the connections are forced and solved too simply.

***

I would recommend this book to fans of cozy mysteries, Jane Eyre (just trust me), and people who enjoy reading about dysfunctional families.

Additional Resources:

  • Explore the Pulitzer Project
  • Read the book for free online via UNZ.
  • The Bridge of San Luis Rey is coming up next – one of my new favorite books!
  • Speaking of dysfunctional families, some of the recent books I’ve been thinking about include: The Family Fang, The Particular Everything I Never Told You, the Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake.

The Pulitzer Project: Arrowsmith, Sinclair Lewis (1926)

Ah, Sinclair Lewis, the only person to date to have declined the much wanted Pulitzer Prize. Although he declined, the Pulitzer Board still lists him as the 1926 winner, so of course I read it anyway. I was looking forward to finally read something by Lewis after seeing his name appear so many times in the Jury’s decision notes.

A Brief Summary*:  Arrowsmith tells the story of bright and scientifically minded Martin Arrowsmith as he makes his way from a small town in the Midwest to the upper echelons of the scientific community. Along the way he experiences medical school, private practice as the only doctor in a small town, various stints as regional health official, and the lure of high-paying hospital jobs. The book contains considerable social commentary on the state and prospects of medicine in the United States in the 1920s. Dr. Arrowsmith is a progressive, even something of a rebel, and often challenges the existing state of things when he finds it wanting.

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A Map of Winnemac, courtesy of GoodReads

Fun Fact: Martin Arrowsmith is born in Elk Mills, Winnemac, which is Sinclair’s Yoknapatawpha County. (Bonus fact, Aerosmith the band adamantly denies naming their band after this book.)

Setting: The book starts in Lewis’ fictional county of Winnemac, but Arrowsmith moves all over from North Dakota, New York, and even goes for a brief stint in the West Indies. 

Time Period: 1900s – 1920s, with the bulk of the story set in the Prohibition era!

My Thoughts: This book is a little hard to describe, but I would put it some sort of science/social commentary category. It’s the first medical book I’ve read, and it was able to make bacteria and test tubes all seem rather interesting and not too dry. We follow Martin Arrowsmith from his early childhood through mid-life as an idealistic truth-seeker who wrestles with the ideas that were hotly debated by the medical community in the 1920s. There’s the truth-seeking academic side who cares about only the science which is always being rushed or “exploited” by the profit-seeking pharmaceutical companies and research think tanks. (I put “exploited” in quotations because I will leave it up to you to decide which side’s arguments have more merits.) One thing I found striking is that despite being written almost a century ago, a lot of these topics are still relevant in the 21st century as we see moral debates over things like the business practices of Valeant Pharmaceuticals. Arrowsmith experiences much of the debate first hand, and his career path meanders through both sides of the debate so that we get a pretty well-rounded picture of the medical industry.

I may be alone in this view, but I found the medical commentary much more interesting than the social aspects of the book. For one, I found most of the women characters written to be one-dimensional caricatures of wives, girlfriends, and nurses. Dear sweet Leora Arrowsmith is loyal, loving, and eager to learn from her husband – I have seen such a trend in these early Pulitzers of men looking to “educate” their naive, unsophisticated wives. She goes from living under her father and brother’s rules to living under Martin’s rules. She is the most likable character in the entire book, and I wish she had more of a presence beyond caretaker or jealous wife. The book is also a little repetitive at times – the same medical debates are being argued on different platforms again and again, but overall the writing is so smart and witty that I can forgive the repetition.

“I wish people wouldn’t keep showing me how much I don’t know!” said Martin.

Ultimately, I wanted Martin to grow and learn from his mistakes, but instead he packs up and moves to a new job in a new state every time he becomes disillusioned. He grows frustrated when he is unable to find a like-minded community and has to move every time his arguments make him unpopular with employers or colleagues, and yet he is always so sure that the problem is with everyone else and not himself. While I think the characters were a little under-developed and problematic, the ultimate focus of the book is the scientific community, and I was impressed with how well Sinclair Lewis was able to reconstruct this. I’m curious to see how people in the medical profession today would receive this book, so if you’re a doctor, pharmacist or nurse, please let me know your thoughts!

***

I would recommend this book to people who are interested in science and social criticism, people who like books set in the roaring 20’s, and people who have and don’t mind listening to that one idealistic friend talk for way too long over a few beers.

Additional Resources:

  • Up next is Early Autumn: The Story of a Lady, by Louis Bromfeld. I must admit I’ve already finished reading this, but just haven’t had a chance to write about it yet!
  • Read along with me by sending me links to your reviews in the comments below, or follow along with our Pulitzer-Project tag.

A Literary Cocktail Party inspired by Arrowsmith

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I would call Sinclair Lewis’ Arrowsmith a “pretty serious book”, but one of my favorite things about it is its setting within the Prohibition Era. We see the protaganist, Martin Arrowsmith, going into speakeasies with his friends and sneaking into the back rooms of warehouses alongside the general public warnings on the dangers of drinking and gambling. I think this especially stood out to me as the other Pulitzer winners set in this era have all shied away from any mentions of drinking. Without further adieu, I invite you to The Ice House in the West Indies to join Martin Arrowsmith for his signature “rum swizzler.”

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This is Barrio 47, but I imagine The Ice House is similar to this

The Ice House, that dimmest and most peaceful among saloons, with its cool marble tables, its gilt-touched white walls, had not been closed, though only the oldest topers and the youngest bravos, fresh out from Home and agonizingly lonely… were desperate enough to go there, and of the attendants there remained only one big Jamaica barman. By chance he was among them all the most divine mixer of the planter’s punch, the New Orleans fizz, and the rum swizzle.

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Recipe courtesy of Liquor.com

Bermuda Rum Swizzle Cocktail:

  • 4 oz. Gold Rum
  • 4 oz. Black Rum
  • 8 oz. Pineapple Juice
  • 8 oz. Orange Juice
  • 3/4 oz. Grenadine
  • 6 dashes of Angostura Bitters

Shake vigorously with crushed ice, and then garnish with pineapple, oranges, maraschino cherries, and any other tropical fruit that catch your eye.

Although I’m glad we no longer have this law, it’s a period of time that I don’t know much about and am intrigued by. I suppose finding a book on the Prohibition should be added to my to-do list!

Additional Reading:

  • Font courtesy of Manfred Klein
  • Curious about the difference between gold and black rum? Apparently there are four types of rum.
  • Check out our first Literary Cocktail Party post here, featuring Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.
  • Arrowsmith was the 1926 Pulitzer winner, and Sinclair Lewis was the first (and only) writer to refuse the prize. Read more about it here.
  • Fun fact: 1926 was also the year The Great Gatsby was published. Some people would say that Gatsby deserved the Pulitzer much more than Arrowsmith did.