Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The People's Choice - Winner, Non-Fiction, 1934

The People's Choice
By: Herbert Agar
Houghton Mifflin Company, 1933

Herbert Agar's The People's Choice really took me by surprise. I haven't had the best experiences with the politically oriented non-fiction Pulitzer winners, but Agar's book really drew me in.

His point in the book is that the first twenty-nine presidents of the United States, from George Washington to Warren Harding, can be divided into three eras. He claims that the first six presidents, from Washington to J.Q. Adams, were not democratic at all - they created an oligarchy, or rule by the wealthy. Not only were each of these men of the upper class, but Agar thinks that each also felt that only the upper classes were fit to rule.

The election of Andrew Jackson issued in the next era of actual democratic rule. For the most part the presidents from Jackson to Lincoln (Agar also included Jefferson Davis) came from the lower or middle classes and worked their way up to the presidency from nothing. This represents a time of expansion and growth in actual rule of the people.

The third era that Agar identifies began during the years of discouragement after the Civil War and continued until the election of William McKinley. He characterizes it as a plutocracy, where the wealthy tended to have more political power and social mobility was limited.

While Agar's view of American history might be a little dated, it did cause me to consider the presidencies of these men different way. He also provides a really useful summary of the administrations and issues of each of our presidents until after the first World War. Agar lived until 1980 and I would be interested to see if, in his later works, he continued his evaluation of the trends in the American presidency.

Monday, July 06, 2009

The Store - Winner, Novel, 1933

The Store
By: T.S. Stribling
Doubleday, 1932

I couldn't do it. I tried and tried to finish The Store and I just couldn't. I realized about halfway through that I just didn't care at all what happened to Colonel Miltiades Vaiden and his fellow citizens of Florence, Alabama. I know I should have persevered, but I just felt like I was wasting valuable time. Please don't judge me - this is the first Pulitzer Prize winner in the Fiction category that I have not finished. I promise I will try not to make it too much of a habit.

I discovered, after reading a good chunk of the book, that The Store is actually the second book in a trilogy by Stribling about the Vaiden family in the post-Reconstruction South. That in itself explained some of the problem I was having connecting with the characters - they had been developed in a previous volume and, therefore, Stribling felt we could skip the preliminaries that might have given me some sort of attachment. I was just so disappointed because when I started the book I had such high hopes for something different in the Pulitzer winners for fiction. This book was clearly no love story. It addresses issues that were prevalent in the South in the decades after the Civil War. What place did the former slave have in society? Where were ruined plantation owners to turn for employment when they could not function without slaves? How would the South rise up above the ruins after the War and Reconstruction? Who would be their voice in government? These issues are vaguely touched on, but mostly the story focus on things that I found to be insignificant and petty. I also did not enjoy the story enough to be willing to put up with the excessive (though culturally common at the time) use of the "N" word and derogatory comments about freed slaves. I won't rail any longer. I simply did not enjoy this book.