Tuesday, April 17, 2012

TCR Forgotten Pulitzer Series: Lamb in His Bosom (1934)

Early edition
The Committee Room begins its look at now mostly forgotten Pulitzer Prize winning fiction with 1934 winner Lamb in His Bosom by Caroline Miller.  The story of a pioneer family, the Carvers, scratching out lives in the "pineywoods" of southwest Georgia in the decades before the Civil War, Lamb in His Bosom is a richly detailed, often poetically written account of ordinary people struggling for survival.  Georgia-born Miller, a young wife and mother at the time she wrote Lamb, based the story in part on her own forebears and she makes it clear that the cliched trappings of the Antebellum south -- hoop skirts, cotillions, plantations, and especially slaves -- played no role in lives of the Carvers and other plain folks like them.

In its opening chapters Lamb seems to be offering up a plot, particularly when the Carvers' restless son Lias returns from a trip to "The Coast" -- a distant, exotic place that the menfolk occasionally visit in order to trade -- with a city-bred wife, Margot, who seems unsuited for the hardships of backwoods life.  Margot, however, quickly settles in and the novel plays out as a cycle of births and deaths in the Carver family as the decades pass with the focus on the Carver family's daughter, Cean.

"Lamb in His Bosom is written in the tradition of historical realism, which readers of today may find rather slow and overly detailed," literary scholar Emily Wright told TCR.  "On the other hand, Miller's lyrical descriptions of a woman's life lived close to nature, both internal and external, do stand the test of time, I think, and have the potential to be profoundly moving and meaningful even to contemporary readers.  Also, the novel retains its value as a historical document, being one of the few works available that describes, with remarkable accuracy, a group of southerners whom most readers know nothing about: nonslaveholding white pioneers."

Published in late 1933 and mostly well-received by critics, Lamb in His Bosom initially sold well only in the South.  Its popularity went nationwide after it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in May 1934.  Lamb was second on the Publisher's Weekly bestseller list of 1934, surpassed only by another now mostly forgotten novel, Hervey Allen's Napoleonic-era adventure Anthony Adverse

Wright points out that Joseph Pulitzer's will required that the award be given to novels that "best represent the whole atmosphere of American life" and that in the 1930s "the award tended to go to works that displayed typical American life and also to works that achieved significant popularity with the American reading public."  She notes that three other Southern novels won the Pulitzer during the Depression years -- T.S. Stribling's The Store (1933); Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind (1937); and Marjorie Kinnan RawlingsThe Yearling (1939). "In my analysis," Wright says, "this signifies that whereas throughout most of American history, the South has been looked down upon for being ignorant, poor, and bigoted, during a time of economic hardship the nation looked to the South for models of endurance and recovery."    

Caroline Miller
(courtesy of University of Georgia)
Caroline Miller, who died in 1992, published just one other novel, Lebanon (1944). The story of a backwoods girl much like Cean Carver in Lamb, Lebanon flopped with both critics and book buyers.  Miller blamed its failure on cuts made by editors because of the paper shortage during World War II but Wright says it is unlikely that Lebanon would have done well even if it had not been cut -- "The Depression era was receptive to a homespun tale of struggle and survival in the form of Lamb in His Bosom.  By the 1940s that appeal had faded.  [Also] the novel is rather melodramatic in some respects.  And finally, the popularity of historical realism was waning by the time this book came out."

Miller's final published work, the short story "Cricket," appeared in Ladies Home Journal in 1945.

"In the mid-forties," Wright says, "Miller underwent the first of several lengthy hospitalizations for what appears to have been some combination of mental and physical collapse. While the nature of her health problems remains unclear, she apparently was unwell to some extent throughout the remainder of her life.  Miller did continue to write, as her papers in the Emory University archives are full of drafts of stories, novels, and screenplays...from what I have read, they seem to be very vague and formless and incomplete."

Originally published by Harper and Brothers, Lamb in His Bosom has been available since 1993 by from Peachtree Publishers.

Peachtree edition
"Lamb in His Bosom came to my attention through Celestine Sibley, writer, reporter and beloved columnist at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution," explained Margaret Quinlin, Peachtree Publishers president, to TCR. "Celestine had been invited to speak at an event honoring the publication of Lamb in His Bosom in Baxley, Georgia, Caroline Miller’s hometown, in 1991. She wrote a column about her visit and how much she loved the book. She was distraught to discover that it was unavailable from the publisher, especially because it was the first work of fiction by a writer from Georgia to receive the Pulitzer Prize...Celestine encouraged me to read the book and I did. I loved it too. It reminded me of Growth of the Soil, a novel that I had loved by the Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun."

Quinlin was put in contact with Caroline Miller's son, Bill Miller, who was eager to see his mother's bestseller back in print.  Bill Miller cleared the way for a reversion of rights from Harper, which had long neglected Lamb, to Peachtree. The contract was signed in the summer of 1992, just before Caroline Miller's death.  "I believe she had been told that a new edition was forthcoming," Quinlin says.

Quinlin notes that the Pulitzer Prize "made a great difference" in Peachtree's decision to publish Lamb. "The market for literary fiction is challenging on many levels including reaching the audience with the right message about a book," explains Quinlin. "This challenge is magnified on the re-release of a work published decades ago. The Pulitzer label signals quality and increases the likelihood that the book will be mentioned in lists and reviews as well as included in library book purchases."

Here's more information --
Following Pulitzer (interesting and thorough blog examining all Pulitzer fiction winners)
20th-Century American Bestsellers (superbly detailed University of Illinois database)
Georgia Women of Achievement
Georgia Writers Hall of Fame
New Georgia Encyclopedia

6 comments:

  1. Thanks for the link, especially since my review was far less kind (and more than a little bit snarkier) to Miller's work than you were. I definitely appreciated seeing the take you took on the novel, and the added information about Miller's life is definitely interesting. I wish I felt she'd been as successful in her writing as you do, but I can't deny there were moments when she really had me under her spell. I'm intrigued by this "forgotten Pulitzer" series, and will definitely be back to see where it takes you. :-)

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  2. Wonderful review of a wonderful book. However, I did notice an error: Ms. Miller was from Waycross, not Baxley. She did move to Baxley in her late 20s and spent much of her life there, though.

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