The First Pulitzer Prize Winning Novel: His Family, By Ernest Poole


Moira Cue is reading and reviewing every Pulitzer Prize winning work ever written.

Ernest Poole’s novel, His Family, published in 1917, follows the life of a New York widower, Roger Gale, and his three daughters in the years immediately prior to World War I. His Family was the first book to receive the first Pulitzer Prize for the Novel, (later renamed the Pulitzer Prize for a work of fiction) in 1918. Roger Gale’s concern for his family, consisting of three adult daughters, creates most of the dramatic tension in the story. Edith, Deborah, and Laura are the eldest, middle, and youngest daughters, respectively. Edith is married to Bruce, a bankruptcy attorney who works long hours to care for his wife and children.


Edith, as matriarch, is nearly obsessed with her children; giving them the best of everything and protecting them from harm. Deborah is the principal of a school for tenement children, many of whom attend irregularly or not at all, and struggle with illiteracy and other consequences of poverty, such as diseases attributed to overcrowding. Laura, the youngest, is sometimes frivolous and flighty (Roger thinks of her as having a “chicken’s brain”) and marries for money as much as love, not once, but twice in rapid succession. Edith in particular, the most conservative of the daughters, is appalled by Laura’s promiscuity.

Deborah, meanwhile, appears to be headed toward becoming an “old maid.” She is obsessed with the idea of bettering the lives of her impoverished students, calling herself the “mother” of thousands of children in her school. She feels compelled to repeatedly stall her only suitor, Doctor Alan Baird, because she doesn’t want to do anything selfish, such as get married or have children of her own. Deborah’s radical political beliefs include calling herself a “feminist” (she’s for votes for women, which were not secured until 1920-two years after this novel won the Pulitzer) and convincing doctors such as Baird to find wealthy donors to pay for the medicine for children living in the slums with illnesses they could not otherwise afford to treat.

Roger himself has been told that he hasn’t much longer to live. As he grows closer to death, he tries desperately to intervene in each of his daughter’s lives so that they will make better choices when he is no longer there to advise them. Although he means well, there is a generation gap from where he came from and the new century his daughters belong to. Often the best he can do is to pay their bills when they can not do so themselves, such as when Laura leaves the country for Europe, or tragedy befalls Edith unexpectedly. For a novel written nearly a hundred years ago, the characters and their viewpoints do not seem too different from people today. As a society, their automobiles may not have driven as fast and their medicine may have consisted more of opiates to relieve suffering rather than today’s advanced options; but where we have advanced technologically, we have perhaps, compared to these more formal, more civilized times, devolved in how we as a society hold as sanctified (or not) our family ties. For Roger Gale, the main character in this story, the most important thing in his life is what he leaves behind: his family.