“Human beings suffer agonies, and their sad fates become legends; poets write verses about them and playwrights compose dramas, and the remembrance of past grief becomes a source of present pleasure – such is the strange alchemy of the spirit.”
Between 1940 and 1952, American patriotism ran high, and the Pulitzer committee was very much a part of the fervor as it awarded the country’s highest literary prize to a novel that was chiefly about American victories in World War II, on average, every other year. In that twelve year span, six WWII novels won the Prize. I can’t speak for all of these books (as there are two I’ve yet to read), but I can safely say that the majority of them are nationalistic, propagandist, and a little xenophobic; it’s a wonder the ink printed on each page is black instead of red, white, and blue.
While that’s, of course, a personal opinion and possibly not an accurate one, I can guarantee you that none of the other WWII novels to win the Prize are quite like Upton Sinclair’s 1943 winner, Dragon’s Teeth.
Let me start off by saying that I really, really liked this book. There are several books that have won Pulitzers that are part of a larger series, but I can honestly say that Dragon’s Teeth is the only one that has made me interested in checking out the rest of the accompanying series (which is a feat, considering the Lanny Budd series spans over eleven novels).
It was a strange, weird, fantastical, gritty, noir-ish detective novel set in the underbelly of Nazi Germany pre-World War II; the Stock Market has just crashed, the world economy is tanking, Adolf Hitler has just been elected chancellor, Jews are being rounded up and arrested by the thousands and carted off to prisons and concentration camps, and our protagonist, Lanny Budd, is the the American millionaire playboy turned private detective turned government spy that will save the day.
My favorite description of Lanny Buddy was written by Goodreads user, Wilson:
Lanny Budd is such an interesting character because he is both
a) someone we all try to be: open-minded, a lover of artistic beauty over thuggish utilitarianism, and a man who is sociable to everyone–not allowing political opinions to ruin friendships.
b) a bon-ton mugwump
And what other kind of WWII novel would you expect from a muckraker like Upton Sinclair, the author of an exposé on Chicago’s meatpacking industry entitled The Jungle?
There was no other book like this one that had won the Pulitzer up to this point in its somewhat short history and, really, only one or possibly two in the 70+ years since it won (in terms of style and theme, I think that Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer and Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son are both similar to Dragon’s Teeth—they’re all pretty dark and have that Raymond Chandler sort of vibe).
The historical significance of this book is also immense, as it gives Americans, 70 years later, a unique perspective of the German mindset leading up to and during the second World War. If you’re interested in what was happening in Germany, and in Western Europe, and, indeed, in Western civilization during the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, this book is an excellent depiction of it.
My only complaint of the book is that the first half (the first nearly 250 or so pages, really) are a bit of a chore to get through. I had to keep reminding myself that the book isn’t really a novel, though—it’s just one small section of a much larger story; so there are some stories that Sinclair is telling parallel to one another—the whole thing with Lanny Budd infiltrating the Nazis and rescuing his Jewish family member from the concentration camp? That’s just a very small snapshot. A very small, very bizarre, very exciting snapshot.
But, like I said before—this book interested me enough to check out the rest of that larger story post-Pulitzer Project. If I decide to read those, perhaps I will come to this blog to write reviews of the other books.