American History or What I Learned from Reading the Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction

Ninety-plus books and 6 years later, I accomplished a feat so outrageous I can hardly believe it. I read, in reverse chronological order, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction list. Encouraged by a friend and avid reader, I worked my way through the list from 1918 to 2017. It was not easy, some of the books were not available through my public library, some had to be bought through Amazon or loaned from a friend, a few were found at used book stores. When you read these stories in this order you get a tremendous sense of the expanse and growth of the USA and it’s rootedness in property protection and gun ownership. That is the American psyche.

The earliest stories center on the intersection of family life and the natural environment before Federal infrastructure development. People traveled the country on horseback, wagon, and foot. There were no roads. From 1918 through to the 1930s. Most of the books take place in rural country, a few are set in NYC. Most delve into the transition between family legacies, out with the old in with the new. If not a cliche, a true sense of progressive living/livelihood. Cars begin showing up, motor carriages, dangerous for sure! Racism is pervasive throughout these decades. Women writers are well represented and so is the woman’s voice. The years leading up to war and the dawning of the Industrial Age are predominate genres. A surprising amount of these works were made into movies and have even won Oscars! Think Gone with the Wind.

The 1940s and 1950s set of classics, is a trying time in the United States. They almost all represent some struggle with authority, trying to find a place in the new world. Not being a slave to the past and at the same time making the future all their own. Just as in life this period can be considered the beginning of the great American Dream. The Grapes of Wrath, Dragon’s Teeth, All the King’s Men, The Way West, The Town are just some of the more poignant works.

The 1960s to 1980s works are much more focused on the moral makeup of events past. Atoning for gluttony, racism, and searching for the meaning of life. Many of these revolve around middle aged men seemingly going through midlife transitions. Definitely had enough of Updike’s Rabbit and Stegner’s Angel of Repose. A few explore the Black experience with the The Confessions of Nat Turner and The Color Purple dominating the landscape.

The 90s and 2000s bring much more diversity of experiences and peoples. Many of these focus on the immigrant population showing a different perspective on the American Dream or the ending of it. The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao provide Latin American  and Vietnamese voices. American Pastoral and The Road explore the destruction of what we believed the American Dream to be.

The 2010s so far are reflective of years gone and years to come with a variety of redemption and sympathy. We’ll see what the rest of the 10s have to offer.

One interesting book and series on the whole, that caught my attention the most was the 1940s Dragon’s Teeth, which is the third novel in the eleventh novel Lanny Budd series by Upton Sinclair. Watch for a future post. I recently finished all eleven novels! Each 600 page novel was filled with European and American history. It was an amazing representation of the early 1900s to the later 1940s as the world swelled with wealth and at the same time full of repression.

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2 Responses to American History or What I Learned from Reading the Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction

  1. Michael Melinchok says:

    Nice essay Danielle! I agree with your observations on literature as a lense to view the changing American historical and cultural landscape.

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