The winner of the inaugural Pulitzer Prize for the novel is a clunker. His Family takes place in New York City between 1913 and 1916. It is about a widower, Roger Gale, and his relationship with his three daughters. His Family is a soap opera cluttered with cardboard characters. It is a surprising blend of sentimentality and diluted socialism. One daughter, Edith, is “old-fashioned” and a homebody; she can see nothing outside the welfare of her own children. Laura is the loose woman. She revels in luxury, marries rich, has an affair and is divorced by her husband. Even worse, her lover/second husband is an Italian who sells munitions to fuel the war in Europe. Laura is nudged to remove herself to the continent lest her questionable values infect the rest of the family. Deborah is Roger’s favorite daughter. She runs a school for tenement children—closer to a settlement house. Her work is lauded in the press. She conceives of the tenement children as a global family and pushes aside having a family of her own.
Roger and Poole clearly embrace the global family concept. Poole was a member of the socialist party and among other things he helped Upton Sinclair research The Jungle, the expose of horrific conditions in the meat-packing industry. Roger essentially adopts a tenement child and makes him a partner in his business. But when problems arise, Roger pursues traditional solutions. Edith’s husband dies; Roger shuffles Edith and her kids to his New Hampshire farm, the farm assuming its historic role as a sanctuary outside the city. When he learns he is dying, Roger convinces Deborah to marry the nice doctor who has been patiently orbiting. The global family concept is betrayed by Poole’s constant use of ethnic identifiers. Non-Wasps are Gallicians, Italians, Jews, or Irish. These identifiers automatically confer lesser status on certain global family members.
Roger also broods about his own mortality. He is soothed by his dead wife’s reminder that he will live on in his children’s lives. Roger finds superficial similarities between himself and his daughters. He is family–centric like Edith but believes in a broader vision of family like Deborah. As for Laura, well she also enjoyed Roger’s somewhat macabre passion for collecting rings purchased from pawnshops.
His Family does not deserve a second chance, although I must admit that from time to time I’ve used Roger’s mortality perspective in the opposite direction. I have found it comforting to find resemblances between my own children and my parents who have passed on.
His Family may no longer have literary merit but Roger’s press clipping business is intriguing from a historical vantage point. Joseph Pulitzer was not the only person seeing the value in mass media in the 1880’s and afterward. At about the same time that Pulitzer was buying the World, the first press clipping business opened in America. Information is grist for the economic mill. Press clipping was last century’s data mining. Readers would scan scores of newspapers for hundreds of search terms. They marked search results in crayon. A cutter would clip the articles, which were then tagged with a slip identifying the publication and date. The clipped articles would be sent on to customers: companies monitoring public relations, morticians or retailers prospecting for sales leads in obituaries and birth announcements, and socialites and actors following reviews and gossip columns. In Roger’s case, stock brokers requested that press clippings about leading companies be dispatched to them hourly. Roger marketed his services to persons who had family members fighting in the trenches in Europe; readers scanned for news of each regiment. One note about readers. The reader work force was predominantly female. From the female perspective, a job as a reader was a step up from piece work and sweat shops. From a male perspective, females were less inquisitive so better-suited to the mechanical job of keyword searching. Francie, the heroine of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, was employed as a reader for a press clipping service.
For more about press clipping: Richard K. Popp, “Information, Industrialization, and the Business of Press Clipping, 1880-1925,” Journal of American History (2014) 101 (2): 427-453.