Classic Views of American Life: Pulitzer-Prize-Winning Fiction

E stablished in 1917, the Pulitzer Prize for fiction is awarded annually for the most distinguished book-length work by an American author, preferably dealing with American life. During its eight decades, the award selections have sometimes elicited controversy, as the changing concerns of the Advisory Board have led it to honor works of widely different types and, some would say, quality. The best Pulitzer fiction has nevertheless reached beyond the whims of popular taste to provide revealing and meaningful perspectives on ourselves and our culture.

The six Pulitzer novels in this series represent different historical periods, geographic regions, and ethnocultural contexts. As conceptions of America in particular times and places, they also offer American perspectives on several essential and recurring human questions: How are perceptions of self related to a sense of place and community? How have these perceptions changed as times have changed? What happens when people lose their sense of place or identity? What characteristics, individually and communally, enable us to weather change and grow?

John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (Pulitzer Prize, 1940), sometimes referred to as the twentieth-century Uncle Tom's Cabin, crystallized public opinion against the intolerable conditions of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl in the early 1930s. Its depiction of the Joad family sums up for many the despair of the Great Depression. Beyond its significance as a social document, however, the novel also affirms the sanctity of life and the possibility of survival and dignity in even the lowest circumstances.

A. B. Guthrie's realistic novel The Way West (Pulitzer Prize, 1950) describes a quintessentially American experience, the passage of a wagon train from Missouri to Oregon in 1846. Guthrie dramatizes both the individual trials involved in completing the westward trek and the cooperative effort that was so central to the success of the venture. His use of landscape, sky, and space evokes the spiritual qualities of the Western movement as well, thus encapsulating a version of the Western myth.

In House Made of Dawn (Pulitzer Prize, 1969), N. Scott Momaday explores the themes of community and displacement in America from a Native American perspective. Momaday employs a fragmented, stream-of-consciousness style and multiple narrative voices to mirror the confusion of Abel, a young Jemez Pueblo. Returning to his reservation after service in World War II, Abel discovers that he no longer "belongs" to any culture, white or tribal. The difficulties he experiences as he tries to reclaim his heritage and return to the ancient Pueblo ways underscore the sometimes alienating effects of assimilation.

In Eudora Welty's The Optimist's Daughter (Pulitzer Prize, 1973), Laurel, a young professional woman, returns to Mississippi to be with her father during surgery and, a few weeks later, to preside over his funeral. The return to her childhood home evokes powerful memories of the family's past. These memories, combined with her need to cope with her immediate grief, lead Laurel to confront and reinterpret her parents' marriage, her father's unwise second marriage, and her own grief for a husband lost many years before. In the process of reexamining the key relationships and places in her past, Laurel arrives at a new understanding of the value of the past.

In Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres (Pulitzer Prize, 1992), the stark tale of a family's disintegration emerges through a painstakingly detailed portrait of Midwestern farm life. The story is a deliberate recasting of Shakespeare's King Lear, though with a different view of patriarchal control and responsibility. Smiley's immediate and vivid picture of life in rural Iowa makes the book as much about farming in America as about family relationships, and ties with the land exert an a similar--and equally problematic--pull on the characters' lives.

Alice Walker's epistolary novel The Color Purple (Pulitzer Prize, 1983) traces thirty years in the life of Celie, a poor southern black woman victimized physically and psychologically by her stepfather and her husband. Celie survives her hostile environment and eventually achieves self-esteem through the redemptive friendship and love of her husband's mistress, blues singer Shug Avery. As in most of Walker's fiction, the themes of racism and sexism predominate, though the impact of the black woman's experience reaches across racial and sexual lines to universality.

Suggested Further Readings

For further exploration of Pulitzer-Prize-winning fiction, look for these titles at your local library or bookseller. WCH cannot provide these titles for addition or substitution in the above series.

James Agee. A Death in the Family
Robert Olen Butler, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain
Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
Shirley Ann Grau, The Keepers of the House
William Kennedy, Ironweed
Oliver LaFarge, Laughing Boy
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
Alison Lurie, Foreign Affairs
Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove
James Alan McPherson, Elbow Room
Toni Morrison, Beloved
E. Annie Proulx, The Shipping News
Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose
Anne Tyler, Breathing Lessons
Robert Penn Warren, All the King's Men
Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence

Background information on the Pulitzer Prizes:

Stuckey, William Joseph. The Pulitzer Prize Novels: A Critical Backward Look. (1966) Provides an interesting look at the checkered history of the award process and Pulitzer fiction.

Retired Discussion Series

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