A very common theme that runs through these Pulitzer Prize-winning novels is the rags-to-riches story. Almost just as common is the rags-to-riches-to-rags story. The protagonist doesn’t necessarily have to lose all of his/her wealth and/or worldly possessions for it to be considered the latter, of course; maybe the person loses their life in a display of futility, maybe the person gets to the top and realizes it was all for naught, or maybe the person attains all of their prestige only to find that worldly success results in emptiness. Sure, at the end of the novel they’re surrounded by stacks of coins, faberge eggs, and fine linens, but the mood is somber, dark, and hollow.
I can’t tell you how many times we’ve seen it crop up during the course of this project. But, with Martin Flavin’s 1944 Pulitzer-winning novel Journey in the Dark, we see it yet again.
Journey in the Dark chronicles the life of Sam Braden, from his humble origins in Wyattville, Iowa to life as a successful businessman in 1920-30s Chicago. Sam sees the wealth of the Wyatts and all of the happiness that their wealth brings them, all of the material possessions he could own (he could even have a town named after him!), and he wants that life so badly. So the book details how he did it—lots of hard work, lots of lucky breaks, and lots of taking advantage of people.
But money can’t buy happiness, as Braden comes to find. And, in the end, his life comes full circle as he retires and moves back to Wyattville to live with his spinster sister.
Braden is a man who is so singularly-focused on becoming the man he envisions himself becoming that he loses track of everything else that’s actually important. He is so madly in love with Eileen Wyatt and he spends most of his early years pursuing her; then she marries him! But then he divorces her pretty quickly thereafter. Then he marries again and takes marriage for granted; until his second wife dies. Then his son decides to marry a nice Jewish girl, much to Braden’s chagrin; so he kicks his son out of the family. Then his mansion burns down.
And this is the point when Braden starts to realize that maybe this being rich stuff isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. That’s why he retires to Wyattville and takes up a job working in an airplane factory as a part time mechanic; he does real work with his hands and he derives enormous satisfaction with this job in his old age.
In the last chapter, though, Braden’s son comes back to reconcile and the reader is led to believe that Journey in the Dark might have a happy ending after all; Braden is reunited with his son, he’s living a quiet life, he’s genuinely happy with his work… Then his son, who we learn is a fighter pilot in World War II, dies when his plane is shot down.
No no, Dear Reader—the hint is in the title: this is a journey into the dark; not a journey into the dark but with a light at the end of the tunnel.
In most ways, this is the prototypical rags to riches story. It’s pretty predictable and it doesn’t throw any curveballs. You know that Sam Braden is either going to end up broke or depressed. It’s either going to be the plot of The Jerk or Richard Cory.
However, I have to say that, despite its predictability, I still really, really liked this book. This was only Martin Flavin’s fifth (and, ultimately, final) novel and he writes with absolute precision. Very fluid prose and incredible evocation of early 20th century America.
This is a really good book. Good enough to win a Pulitzer Prize, anyway. It’s not going to dazzle you or change your life, but it will provide you with an engaging story.