“He was thinking of the town he had known.”
As many know, the Pulitzer Prize began as a journalism prize, named for the media stalwart Joseph Pulitzer. Pulitzer, a Hungarian immigrant to the United States, was known for investigative reporting, a political career, and eventually for sensationalist media known as ‘yellow journalism’. He left endowments to Columbia University upon his death, and the Pulitzer Prizes began from there.
How fitting, in my opinion, that the first-ever prize for fiction would go to a writer with similar inclinations.
His Family is not a known novel, and its author, Ernest Poole, is far from a household name. Poole was a Chicago-bred writer and journalist who did much of his work in New York. He was an avowed Progressive, a group who in the 1910s devoted their time to muckraking, trust-busting, ending child labor, and preventing the spread of communicable illnesses. I admit to being rusty on my AP U.S. History. Poole was also a socialist, and the principles of that movement feature prominently in his first major novel, The Harbor. It details the plight of waterfront workers and their efforts to unionize against an oppressive upper class. Heavy, powerful stuff. I didn’t read it.
Perhaps I should have, because when the Pulitzer Prize for fiction became a reality and was given to His Family, many believe it was a belated prize for The Harbor. We see it now with Oscar winners, a late career award given for a lifetime of work (Leonardo DiCaprio, anyone)? Nevertheless, His Family was a decidedly milder work, still keeping with major progressive themes. The novel focuses on Roger Gale, an aging widower with three grown daughters. And at its surface, it’s quite a simple story- a father trying to get to know the women his daughters have become, trying to get closer to them. The novel spans a few years and features a number of life changes. Births and deaths, economic booms and downturns, the constant flux of morality and changing opinions of what it means to be a woman. You’d think a book like this, written over a hundred years ago, wouldn’t be all that useful now except as a charming portrait of lost time. But actually, His Family is surprisingly relevant. Let’s figure out why.
So, we have Roger Gale. He’s a businessman in New York City, and he’s introduced to us as a bit of a curmudgeonly older guy yearning for the New York of his youth.
“A city where American faces were still to be seen upon all its streets, a cleaner and a kindlier town, with more courtesy in its life, less of the vulgar scramble.”
Yes, this novel this book takes place amidst the tenement boom, where huge influxes of immigrants from Eastern Europe and Italy were just pouring into New York City. Everyone trying to make a life for him or herself. And the old timers don’t like it. But we get to know Roger a bit more. We find out he’s a widower, his wife having passed away several years ago. We know she was the one holding the family together, and we see him trying to connect with his three daughters: Edith, Deborah, and Laura.
To talk about the plot of this book is to talk about the daughters. For a while you actually wonder what Roger’s role in this is at all, other than representing an observer’s perspective. He comes into his own eventually, but much of this book is all about the Gale girls. Edith, a devoted old-world mother of five. Deborah, career oriented yet soft and motherly. And Laura, a bit airheaded but a force of personality, outspoken and sexually liberated. Their choices throughout the book represent the populations they represent. Edith digs in her heels when faced with change. Deborah delves further and further into things she can control, and runs from things she can’t. Laura seeks pleasure and happiness in all she does, often poo-pooing the thoughts and feelings of others. She’s the fun one.
Much of the novel focuses on Deborah, conflicted and career-driven. Her role in the book ties into Poole’s own social views, she runs a school for tenement children and frequently sacrifices her own health and happiness for the kids and their families, for the uplifting of a young new society. It’s even shown that Roger changes and embraces progressivism, after seeing the students and the work she does.
But when the family falls upon hard times, Edith argues that Deborah needs to take care of her own first. When Deborah puts off marriage longer and longer, the fearless Laura insists that Deborah is too frightened for real intimacy. And it’s true, both these things. They learn from each other, these three daughters. Each with their own idea of what it means to be a woman. Poole may prefer the progressive Deborah, but she’s not always in the right.
It’s also amazing that this book tackles the idea of a woman ‘having it all’, meaning a career and a family life. It’s a conflict that still exists today, various people hemming and hawing on one side or the other. Poole is definitive. A woman can have it all, if that’s what she wants, and if she has the support of others when needed. Family, a supportive partner, financial means. All easier said than done, of course. But maybe that’s a dilemma for another time.
While the content of this book and its morals ring surprisingly true in modern times, this can’t exactly be said for the prose and construction. When exploring family dynamics and the interiority of characters, Poole is rather plainspoken and easy to read. His dialogue flows naturally from person to person. They really do feel like people, like actual daughters bickering with their father and each other.
When it comes to describing society, Poole does descend into purple prose. You can see that he’s an activist first and writer second. It’s admirable how much he cares, but the eyes do tend to glaze over the melodrama. When most of the novel is so matter-of-fact, these passages can be a bit jarring and disrupt the flow of the narrative overall. It reads dated.
What also reads as dated is the thematic emphasis. Much of the book revolves around a single statement, spoken to Roger by his wife on her deathbed.
“You will live on in our children’s lives.”
It’s very relevant. Roger first interprets it literally, he’ll live on in his three daughters and his grandchildren. But as he becomes more involved in the changing New York City, employing the disadvantaged and spending time in Deborah’s school, he sees himself in all the children of New York, rich and poor, immigrant and native-born. He’ll live on in all of them, and progress marches on. A noble statement and an effective theme for a book like this. Problem is…Poole repeats this exact sentence 9 times, and it feels like more. We’re beaten over the head with this theme, if it isn’t written verbatim in every chapter, the theme is there. This emphasis shows that Poole’s novel reads more political statement rather than subtle exploration of family dynamics. It does both, but you do end up thinking hard about authorial intent. And perhaps why this book has faded from view over time.
As an inaugural winner, His Family was a pleasant surprise. A well-written, socially progressive work that draws upon older motifs like scandal and legacy, placing them in a more modern context. I felt invested in the characters, particularly the daughters. Their flaws and goals felt realistic and understandable. Even characters that weren’t as likeable, such as stodgy Edith, were compelling. She wants what’s best for her children. Their health, safety, and well-being. She takes control of her family, and even though she holds fast to old ways, she too learns to adapt in small ways over time. Deborah felt like a character from a much more recent novel, and her battles to have it all in life are all too relatable to the modern woman. And Laura? She likes sex. They didn’t like women liking sex in the 1910s. Cut her some slack.