This is a transcription of 1917 Pulitzer Prize and Two New Books — 02 June 2023’
Melissa: Coming up, a lovely slice of velvet-draped Victorian mystery with a plucky heroine.
David: Is Western Civilization prattle and poppycock?
Melissa: Plus, our distraction of the week. I’m Mel.
David: I’m Dave. This is the library of lost time.
Melissa: This week, I’m excited to read The Tumbling Girl by Bridget Walsh. It’s a murder mystery set in the world of Victorian theater. Specifically, a fictional music hall called the Variety Palace in London, where our heroine Minnie writes sketches and songs for the shows. When her best friend — an actress — is murdered, Minnie is determined to find her killer. So, she teams up with a retired boxer-turned-private-investigator to investigate. His name is Albert, and he’s been dubbed the Champion of the Labouring Classes. A gentleman detective whose mission is to ‘help those who cannot help themselves.’
Melissa: Along the way to the truth, there’s another murder and our intrepid heroes run afoul of the police AND a villain known as the Hairpin Killer. I was lucky to get my hands on an advance copy of this book from Gallic Books. I read the first chapter to see what’s what, and I was immediately transported to 19th century London. The action starts in the theater — lit by gaslight and chandeliers filled with candles. It’s decorated with paintings of exotic landscapes and world capitals like Paris, Rome, and Geneva. Gilt-framed mirrors line the walls. But the inside of the theater is also painted a tacky pink and gold because the owner heard somewhere that pink encouraged people drink more.
Melissa: The book is filled with nice, evocative details like that. In another scene, a questionable character is picking up a lady of the night, and I could smell the dank odor of the Thames and hear the rats scrabbling on the cobblestones. What does it say about me that when we visit London, I want it to be sunny and bright, but when I read about London, I want it to be foggy and bleak?
Melissa: This story visits all the iconic London neighborhoods: Covent Garden, Piccadilly, Soho, Hyde Park, The Strand. If a trip to 19th-century London with a saucy heroine sounds like your kind of thing, get your hands on The Tumbling Girl by Bridget Walsh.
David: There’s a new history book on my TBR. It’s called ‘The West: A New History in Fourteen Lives’ By Naoíse Mac Sweeney. Mac Sweeney is a classical archaeologist and ancient historian. She’s a professor at the University of Vienna.
David: She has two main points in the book. The first is that the standard ‘Western Civilization’ story that most of us were taught – that our culture is descended, somehow, from the Greeks and the Romans and through the Renaissance and Enlightenment – from Plato to NATO – that whole thread is malarky. Everything you know about ‘western civilization’ might need to be corrected. Western and quote non-western cultures have talked to each other throughout history.
David: And second, she presents the idea that the way we tell this story is a political act. Maybe not an overt ‘top hat and handlebar mustache’ political act – But still. Maybe we should reconsider how we think about who we are.
David: Mac Sweeney presents her ideas through the lives of fourteen people. She starts with an ancient Greek historian and runs through the lives of many people I did not know – royalty, philosophers, a poet, an ex-slave.
David: The Guardian called it ‘clever and thought-provoking’ and said it ‘leaves us … with a richer, fuller understanding of epochs, worldviews, and fascinating individuals from the past.’ It’s ‘The West: A New History in Fourteen Lives’ By Naoíse Mac Sweeney.
David: And now, our Distraction of the Week. [magical sound effect]
Melissa: Today, I want to take us back to the spring of 1917. It was a significant time for the United States because that’s when the US declared war against the German Empire and entered WWI. But there was also important cultural stuff going on. The first commercial jazz recording was released — a song calle The Livery Stable Blues by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. The Seattle Metropolitans hockey team become the first US team to win the Stanley Cup. And, relevant to our interests, the first Pulitzer Prizes were awarded.
Melissa: The Pulitzer Prize was established by the legendary newspaper man Joseph Pulitzer. He owned The New York World and went head-to-head against William Randolph Hearst and his New York Journal. The two were rivals, poaching staff, dropping their prices, and trying to out-news each other. Eventually, Pulitzer regretted his yellow journalism days. He established the first graduate program in journalism and set up the prize that bears his name. Each year, the Pulitzer Prize honors the best works in journalism, literature, and music in the US.
Melissa: Back in 1917, four prizes were given: two for books and two for journalism. The winning books were a history of the relations between the United States and France up to that point — it’s available on the internet archive if you want to tackle that for some reason — and a biography of Julia Ward Howe. She is the American author and poet best known for The Battle Hymn of the Republic. She was also a suffragist and magazine editor. In a big moment of ‘aw,’ her children collaborated on her biography that won the Pulitzer. I do encourage you to visit her Wikipedia page to see her photo. She is the personification of the word formidable in a white lace bonnet.
Melissa: On the journalism side, the first winners were an editorial published in the New York Tribune on the first anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania. The listing on the Pulitzer website says, ‘No author named.’ Which I find so poignant. This person won a Pulitzer Prize and their name is lost to time. The other winner was Herbert Bayard Swope of New York World for a series of articles he wrote called ‘Inside the German Empire.’ Those articles became the basis for a book of the same name.
Melissa: And now, I have to take you down the rabbit hole of the things I learned about Mr. Herbert Bayard Swope. He seems to have been one of those larger-than-life, early 20th-century characters. I’m just going to throw out some fun facts.
Melissa: He’s credited with coining the phrase Cold War. He wrote a speech for a political advisor in 1947 that included the line, ‘Let us not be deceived: we are today in the midst of a cold war.’
Melissa: He was a skilled poker player. He played a legendary game in Palm Beach in 1923 with an oil baron, a steel magnate, and Florenz Ziegfield from the Ziegfield Follies. He won $470,000 — which is about 8 million today. He also loved croquet and was inducted into the Croquet Hall of Fame.
Melissa: And finally, his mansion in Long Island, New York, sounds like something straight out of The Great Gatsby. You approached the house by a circular driveway lined with trees, and the back of the house faced a broad lawn that sloped down to a private beach. When he bought the mansion in 1928, it got a write-up in time magazine. Guests at Swope’s glamorous parties included the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, Albert Einstein, Dorothy Parker, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Melissa: Swope died in 1958, when he was 76. Near the end of his life, he said about his career and gambling hobbies, ‘I think I’ve just about broken even. But I’ve had a hell of a lot of fun doing it.’
Melissa: Visit strongsenseofplace.com/library for more about the books we discussed and lots of links about the Pulitzer Prize and its winners. Pulitzer.org is a treasure trove of information, and I’ll include links to all of the Pulitzer-Prize winning books we’ve covered on Strong Sense of Place. And if you haven’t listened to our podcast episode about the newsroom, now would be a great time to do that!
David: Thanks for joining us in the Libary of Lost Time. Remember to visit your local library and your independent book store to lose some time yourself.
Melissa: Stay curious! We’ll talk to you soon.
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