Art and literature editor of Hollywood Sentinel, Moira Cue is reviewing, in no particular order, every Pulitzer Prize Winning Novel ever written. An award winning artist, Moira was an undergraduate and graduate student at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
The Executioner’s Song, by Norman Mailer, is one of the Pulitzer Prize winning novels (or works of fiction) that later became a movie, although, in this case, it was a television movie (with Tommy Lee Jones, who won an Emmy).
At a whopping 879 pages, it will take on average 23 hours to read (at 250 words per minute)—just slightly shorter than the 28.5 hours it would take the same reader to complete the 960 page Gone With The Wind. As super long novels usually go, it’s epic, and contains several periods of time that in and of themselves have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
What makes this story unusual is that the book is not just fiction. It’s docu-fiction, a hybrid of documentary and fiction. The style is like that of many novels, but it is based on a true story, and took months of research.
Fun Fact: The slogan “Just Do It,” which you may associate with Nike running shoes, was inspired by a vicious double murderer, named Gary Gilmore, executed by the State of Utah in 1977. Gary not only inspired an executive to create an ad slogan that was later trademarked by Nike, but he inspired Norman Mailer to write this book that won the Pulitzer, despite its macabre topic and criticism of glorifying violence and criminality. The character created by Mailer is sympathetic, while the victims of his murders, both LDS (Mormon) are treated contemptuously. Despite its moral flaws, the book is an addictive read, and, if you’re like me, you’ll ignore other obligations just to squeeze in a few more pages.
Gilmore was a politically relevant person because he was the first person executed for murder by the United States (in 1977) after the reinstatement of the death penalty (in 1966, after a period of approximately ten years). As such he became an unwitting celebrity. (On December 11, 1976, Saturday Night Live host Candice Bergen and the cast sang a Christmas-themed medley, entitled “Let’s Kill Gary Gilmore for Christmas.” After his death, he would also inspire punk banks and rock stars, playwrights, and avant-garde artists.
But Norman Mailer’s work is probably the most extensively based on interviews with friends and family before, during, and immediately after the circus leading up to the execution. The book sometimes reads like a newspaper expose. The language conveys a sense of motion, of an unstoppable something that led to Gilmore’s violent outbursts and became a surreal circus. It is a period piece, full of late seventies, early post-everything cynicism. The anti-hero becomes the hero.
Gilmore’s history included a childhood of delinquency and an early burglary. He spent so much of his life in institutions and jails that when he was released after serving 13 years for armed burglary, at the age of 35, he essentially needed to be cared for by sponsors (a cousin in Utah). He was emotionally younger than his age and had very little real-life experience with women. It was his relationship with Nicole Baker, a troubled 19 year old, that eventually pushed him over the edge. He killed a gas station clerk and motel clerk after their relationship fell apart. Back in prison, he was obsessive, poetic, and still wrapped up with Nicole. Almost as if the murders were to get her attention.
As a reader, you are manipulated by Mailer into caring about Gary the Celebrity, even as you see how the machinery of cultural distrust, anti-establishment ethos, and media hyperbole turned a sick, dysfunctional psychopath into a hero. You’re behind the curtain, which is less surreal and more ugly—but you find yourself caught up in the hype even though you know better, much like Mailer himself must’ve felt writing the story of a killer-turned unwitting Romantic nihilist icon.
Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Age of Innocence, details life among the upper class of New York Society during the late 19th century. Like many Pulitzer Prize winning novels, this story, too, became a Hollywood movie, most recently in 1993, seventy-two years after the original story won the Pulitzer in 1921.
The first film adaptation was a silent film released by Warner Brothers in 1924. The second version was released in 1934 by RKO Studios.
The third adaptation was directed by Martin Scorsese and starred Daniel Day-Lewis as the novel’s protagonist, Newland Archer, and Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder as his competing love interests, the Countess Olenska and May Welland, respectively.
The novel succeeds in capturing perennial attention because Wharton (born in 1862) wrote so precisely about what she knew, the high society New York she witnessed as a child. Even among Pulitzer Prize winners, Wharton’s gift is remarkable.
Her ability to render the psychic arcana of a small clique of wealthy families is almost overshadowed by the encyclopedic density of allusions and references to artistic, cultural, and historical minutiae specific to Old New York Society circa 1875 which literally require footnotes. If you read Wharton’s footnotes thoroughly, you will learn about down to its buttonholes (which Newland Archer adorned with a single flower, preferably a gardenia). You will also learn about Europe at the time, to a lesser extent.
For one who is more accustomed to reading contemporary fiction, the humanity of Wharton’s characters really doesn’t compel or shine through until the reader’s mind has adjusted to the ramifications of (literary) time travel, as well as the culture shock of glimpsing behind the veil of an elite social strata where money and position is something you inherit rather than something you earn.
But rest assured, if you are patient, you will not only adjust to but enjoy the stylization, and before you realize, the story will sink its hook in. This is a Symbolist story, which, to oversimplify, represents the relationship of New York to Europe as America approaches the turn of the 19th century. The story begins as Countess Olenska, born in New York, having been seduced by a European rake and the tolerance of his set for infidelity, has returned to her own kind, where she longs for a certain purity. Ultimately, having been “contaminated” by European aristocratic decay, it is only in renouncing a future in New York that she becomes an unlikely guardian of its ideal—an ideal which progress disintegrates within a generation.
Newland Archer is engaged to May Welland but falls desperately infatuated with the Countess. He is smitten by her inappropriate behavior and disregard for social norms because she is natural in her emotions, and surrounded by “interesting” artists and literary types. He wants to break off the engagement and even after he is married, his tortured longing continues.
The addictive elements of the plot structure are delayed gratification and suspense, which can almost feel formulaic. Ironically, the realism of Newland Archer is most evident and moving at the end of the novel. The book’s final scene takes place in Europe when Newland is older and wiser, closer to the “contemporary time” of publication of the novel. In this scene, Newland’s hollowness is revealed, movingly, as his most contemporary psychic characteristic, made poignant by the reverberation of all the “stuff” around him: the serving platters, the customs, the parties, the mannerisms. Newland Archer’s emptiness, born of a life constructed by exterior social forces, is transformed by noble restraint into a shrine of the memory of dualistic love: the love that never was to be, and the love his world made room for.
10 More Things about Wharton
The battle between The Academy of Music and The Metropolitan Opera House
The Metropolitan Opera House was organized by Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt in 1883 as a competitor to the established Academy of Music in New York when despite her husband’s tremendous wealth, she was unable to procure a box at the Academy of Music. The Vanderbilts were considered at that time “interlopers” by Old New York, much like the characters the Beauforts, who are extremely wealthy, but considered “vulgar” by the old monied families accustomed to running elite society. The latter venue is where the opening scene of The Age of Innocence takes place, with the explanation: “Though there was already talk of the erection, in remote metropolitan distances “above the Forties,” of a new Opera House which should compete in costliness and in splendor with those of the great European capitals, the world of fashion was still content to reassemble every winter in the shabby red and gold boxes of the sociable old Academy.”
“Pardon my Latin”
Archer Newland, whose family stood as a pillar of Old New York, was so well-bred that when astounded or exasperated, he the uttered Latin phrase “Santa Simplicitas!” (or, “Holy Simplicity”) rather than cuss. Sounds a little more elegant than “freakin.”
Edith Wharton, like a few other beloved Pulitzer winners such as Ernest Hemmingway or Margaret Mitchell, is a cult phenomenon, even today. Ms. Wharton’s estate (The Mount) made headlines in The New York Times in September of 2015 when the Edith Wharton House Museum, her former home in Lennox, Massachusetts, cleared its debt of $8.5 million. There is also an international membership organization dedicated to Wharton scholarship, the Edith Wharton Society, by Professor Annette Zilversmit in 1983. Her former home can be toured after its winter closure beginning again in May of 2016.
Wharton’s impact goes far beyond literary circles. She is considered one of the mothers of the field of interior design, who understood proportion and balance far better than many of the fashionable designers of The Gilded Age. Her first book, the non-fiction The Decoration of Houses, co-authored with Ogden Codman, Jr., is considered influential and relevant today.
Wharton was the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize, first to receive an honorary doctorate from Yale University, and first woman to obtain full membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters. To be fair to the Pulitzers, Wharton’s was only the third award given, and in the Pulitzer’s first ten years, 40% of the novel awards went to female authors. During the last ten awards given, the Pulitzers for fiction have achieved gender parity at 50%.
100 Years of Change
The dawn of the 20th century was an exciting time where technological advances changed forever the way society functioned, much as the dawn of the 21st century has brought new advances in genetic sciences, the Internet, and mobile communication. It is only, for example, looking back from a vantage point where no matter where you are, your family can call and check in on you, that being “out” and using a pay phone or answering machine and then waiting rather than sending a text message seems “innocent.” In fact we have no excuse to ignore each other anymore other than “my cell phone battery died,” and even those of us who grew up without cell phones marvel with some envy the luxury of being gone and not being able to be digitally tracked.
The British ship Mauretania, which won the blue ribbon for speed in 1906, was the first to cross the Atlantic in less than five days; the first tunnel under the Hudson was opened 1904-5; the first powered airplane flight took place in 1903; electric lightning was established in New York when the Edison Illuminating Company opened its Pearl Street power station in 1882; Marconi patented the first system of radio telegraphy (without wires) in 1896. The book’s protagonist is only dimly aware of people who believed such advances were on their way, but has very little interest in such things.
The “age of innocence” also refers to this period of time after the Civil War and before the Great War (WWI).
Edith Wharton, like the heroine in The Age of Innocence, left the Old New York of her youth and spent her last twenty five years as an expatriate in Paris.
Edith Wharton only began to write fiction seriously after a nervous breakdown in 1898, which marked the end, in the author’s words, “of trying to adjust herself to her marriage.”
What Others Have Said
“The note of distinction is as natural to Edith Wharton as it is rare in our present day literature … She belongs to an earlier age, before a strident generation had come to deny the excellence of standards.” -Vernon L. Parrington, Jr., Pulitzer Prize winning historian, 1871-1929
Legion of Honor
Ms. Wharton was awarded the French Legion of Honor, the highest civil award the French government gives to foreigners, for her volunteer work during World War I.
In 1945, John Hersey’s A Bell for Adano was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the first year after being renamed from the novel category. The story takes place toward the end of WWII, when Major Victor Joppolo is named temporary major of a fictional town named Adano, modelled on the town Licata. Hersey was a Time Magazine correspondent who later wrote Hiroshima, a book about the nuclear aftermath that should be required reading in every US History class—Hersey’s ability to prick the conscience is so great that after reading the book a Manhattan Project scientist wrote that he wept as he remembered how he celebrated the dropping of the atomic bomb.
Yet, it was A Bell for Adano that won the Pulitzer, a story that takes a more gentle and tragi-comic approach to the subtle message that the American military must operate out of the most enlightened of ideals: compassion, democracy, and freedom.
I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, because suspense is central to the writer’s intent. Major Joppolo is convinced that the United States has “something to offer” other countries, that our proudest virtues are something we can, in fact, export. The Fascist mentality, with its cruel and arbitrary excess, is his enemy in a war not so much between the Allies and the Fascists, but between use of power to serve and uplift the masses and use of power to crush them under one’s heel.
Reading this book, you are alternately torn between a pins-and-needles feeling of wondering if Joppolo’s insubordinate actions will come back to haunt him or he’ll ride the wave of the town’s adoration indefinitely and laughter at Hersey’s humorous portrayal of the expressive Italian heart. You also wonder if he will give in to his attraction to a local beauty while away from his wife. This book is engaging and easy to read; the pace is fast, and the characters complicated enough to keep you interested. I would highly recommend A Bell for Adano as the questions it raises are just as important today as they were more than a half century ago. A Bell for Adano was also made into a 1945 film with Gene Tierney as the heartbroken Tina and John Hodiak as Major Joppolo.
Gone With the Wind
Gone With the Wind, the dramatic Civil War tale by Margaret Mitchell, is perhaps the most famous Pulitzer Prize winning novel (1936) to be made into a feature film. The 1939 film, starring Vivienne Leigh as Scarlett O’ Hara and Clark Gable as Rhett Butler, won an Academy Award for Best Picture, and became an instant classic. If you love the film, it’s hard to imagine that the book could be any better. Yet it is. The book hits a sweet spot between literary and commercial fiction, with characters that are as hopelessly tormented as they are flawed; yet with passionate natures that garner respect. This book is more than one thousand pages long, and is more full of Southern nostalgia than is politically correct today, but the saddest part about Gone With The Wind is that the author was tragically struck down by an automobile in 1949 before she could publish a sequel.