Those friends of culture at The Franklin Library pulled out all the stops when it came time to assemble their most recent mailing, an offering on behalf of something called The Franklin Library of Pulitzer Prize Classics. In the annals of book-biz hype, a place of honor must surely be reserved for the luminous prose with which this glossy brochure is festooned.
"Now," proclaims the letter that accompanies the brochure, "you can own a sumptuous, leather-bound private library of modern American classics for less than $30 a volume--not much more than you now pay for an ordinary clothbound book!" The library, once complete, will consist of a selection from the "fewer than 350 individual works of American literature" to have won Pulitzer Prizes, of "the fifty greatest Pulitzer Prize-winning books of all time." You can have these glories for a mere $29.50 a volume, plus state sales tax ($1.48 in a 5 percent state), plus $2.50 for shipping and handling--which adds up to a grand total of $33.48 per volume, $1,674 for the entire set.
By whose authority have these books been chosen? Next to a color photograph that shows a hand reverently fondling a copy ("fully bound in genuine leather and elegantly embellished with 22 karat gold") of (!) "Eleanor and Franklin," by Joseph P. Lash, the brochure announces: "Now, a distinguished panel of prominent Americans has been specially convened to select the greatest, the most important, the most enduring works ever awarded the Pulitzer Prize." And who are those "eminent Americans who participated in choosing the literary masterworks in this collection"? They are Carlos Baker, Clive Barnes, Jose Ferrer, Jean Kerr, Kenneth D. McCormick, Harrison E. Salisbury and Howard K. Smith, and no further comment seems necessary.
What have they chosen for the lucky recipients of this treasure? They have chosen "a private library as important and impressive as the great American literature it contains." They have chosen "the most important library of modern American literature ever published." The books in it are "all acknowledged modern classics--works of universal power, spanning every major category of American literature," not to mention "books that have impacted sic significantly upon our culture." To put it in a nutshell, this is "a collection that will truly bridge the decades, bringing together, for the first time ever, the very finest works that have won America's highest literary award . . . a most extraordinary collection--a superb, fully leather-bound private library encompassing the greatest works of 20th-Century American literature." Whew! But there's more:
"Imagine, then, the pleasure of seeing your own private library grow, month by month, and the satisfaction of watching your family immerse themselves sic in these extraordinary works. For here is a collection of American literature to be enjoyed and displayed with deep pride. A collection eminently worthy of being passed on down the generations."
To get it you must fill out the "subscription application." Though it is true that "applications for The Franklin Library of Pulitzer Prize Classics are being accepted now," it is also true that, as the fine print darkly warns, "all applications are subject to acceptance." Imagine that! Can you stand it? Blackballed by The Franklin Library! You couldn't show your face for a week!
Not to worry: So long as you demonstrate a willingness and ability to pony up $29.50 a month, plus state sales tax, plus shipping and handling, The Franklin Library is not likely to spurn your supplications. The Franklin Library of Pulitzer Prize Classics probably will not be as exclusive as the Junior Chamber of Commerce or Phi Beta Kappa. Haul out the ballpoints, folks; the application deadline is only three weeks away.
But don't expect, the claims of The Franklin Library notwithstanding, to find much greatness in this collection of "the fifty greatest Pulitzer Prize-winning books of all time." Quite inadvertently, the mailing by the Franklin people provides a reminder that the record of the Pulitzer Prizes for literature has been exceedingly spotty. Over the years, the literature prizes have acquired a reputation for conservatism and conventionality by comparison with which the selections of the Book-of-the-Month Club seem avant-garde, if not downright radical.
In fact, the attitude of the literary crowd toward these literary Pulitzers is highly ambiguous. On the one hand, authors and publishers acknowledge the considerable public regard in which the Pulitzers are held; they know that the words "Pulitzer Prize-Winning" on a dustjacket can do more for sales than any comparable label, and thus they all thirst for the prize. On the other hand, they attack the Pulitzers for a tendency to shirk controversial books and/or subjects and for being extremely tardy in recognizing important writers, if indeed such writers get Pulitzer recognition at all.
The selections in The Franklin Library of Pulitzer Prize Classics reflect this. You can buy books by Hemingway and Faulkner, but in neither case are they books for which the author will be remembered and read. Hemingway's best novel, "The Sun Also Rises," was passed over for a Pulitzer in favor of "Early Autumn," by the unreadable Louis Bromfield; not until almost two decades later did he get one, for the fatuous "The Old Man and the Sea." Faulkner's most complex and ambitious novel, "Absalom! Absalom!," lost out to that more conventional blockbuster about Ol' Dixie, "Gone With the Wind"; the first of his two Pulitzers was bestowed on him five years after the Nobel Prize had rendered him respectable, and went to his worst novel, "A Fable."
Fitzgerald never won a Pulitzer. The year that "The Great Gatsby" was eligible, the prize went to Sinclair Lewis, for "Arrowsmith"; he rejected it, out of pique over the failure of "Main Street" to win five years earlier and, for public consumption, in protest against the requirement that the prize be given "for the American novel published during the year which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood." That bit of Comstockery has been largely honored in the breach for some years, but in its day it automatically eliminated many important and serious books from consideration; even now it colors the judgment of those in the literary community who view the Pulitzers as reflections of what the late Dwight Macdonald called "Midcult."
Thus we have The Franklin Library of Pulitzer Prize Classics. There is greatness here only if one's definition is sufficiently expansive so as to embrace the likes of "Profiles in Courage," "Tales of the South Pacific," "The Spirit of St. Louis" and "The Good Earth." But that probably is not the point. The Franklin Library of Pulitzer Prize Classics seems to have been designed not for readers, but for interior decorators.