I’m on a little run of past Pulitzer Prize for Fiction/the Novel winners right now, and just finished John Marquand’s extremely subtle satire The Late George Apley, which won the prize in 1938 when it was still only awarded to novels. The book is clearly a satire of the isolated, self-important life of the patrician class of the early 20th century, especially the so-called Boston Brahmins, but Marquand plays it so straight that I found myself vacillating through half the novel on just what parts he might have wanted readers to take seriously.
The book is a sort of fake biography/epistolary novel, where a longtime friend and former classmate of the title character has been asked by Apley’s family to write a private story of the man’s life, leaning heavily on his correspondence. The author (the fictional one, that is) traces Apley’s story back several generations, explaining the grand history of his family line within the United States, the first of many times when he tries to impress upon the reader the importance of the name. He gives us Apley’s birth and upbringing in a life of privilege and strict expectations, his attendance at the prestigious Groton School in Massachusetts (then all boys, now coed, which would have made for an amusing postscript to the book) and at some liberal arts college in Cambridge, and so forth, with every step already laid out for him by his imperious father and the constraints of polite society of the time. He falls in love with an Irish Catholic girl, is forced to end it when he’s shipped off for a Grand Tour, comes home, marries a woman of proper breeding, bangs out a couple of kids, and so on.
It’s a dull story in its own right, which is part of the point, and how dull becomes apparent in the latter half of the book when Apley’s son and daughter take advantage of the lax attitudes of the 1920s to live a little. Apley’s letters to and about his children seem increasingly ridiculous as the world changes around him – he’s still worried about the shrubbery around the family estate when the stock market is crashing – and only when he realizes he has a terminal heart condition does it dawn on him that life has passed him by. His final letters are reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day was, full of regret without hope. Unlike the butler of Ishiguro’s novel, however, Apley’s heartbreak is darkly comic: He admits, not quite explicitly, that he should have sowed his wild oats when he was younger, gotten wasted more, gotten laid more, and told his parents to stuff it and married the girl he loved (she makes a brief cameo again at the end of the book).
I can understand why this would have won the Pulitzer in 1938, when I presume the board considering the candidates was all white males and this sort of American aristocracy was more prevalent in the culture. It didn’t resonate so much with me today, however; even though I went to that liberal arts school, the population was quite diverse ethnically and by gender, and they’ve since done quite a bit to improve the diversity of economic backgrounds too, making Apley’s experiences there seem as anachronistic as the semi-arranged marriage and emphasis on decorum and appearances. It’s an entertaining read, but it feels very dated today.
Next up: Michael Shaara’s 1974 Pulitzer winner The Killer Angels ($6 in paperback!), a novel of the Battle of Gettysburg that was adapted into the four-hour movie Gettysburg in 199.