An Unlikely Bestseller
As the story of a poor woman living in the antebellum South, Lamb in His Bosom
at first seems an unlikely candidate for national best selling novel and Pulitzer Prize winner. And yet in her first novel, published by Harper & Brothers on September 1, 1933, novice writer Caroline Miller managed to capture the admiration of literary critics, as well as the interest of national and international reading publics. The novel, which recounts a succession of births, deaths, tragedies, and triumphs in rural Georgia, aroused little initial attention, attracting admirers primarily in the Southern states. Early reports from booksellers, according to Publishers' Weekly
, note that Lamb
sold well in local, regional bookstores in the South, but was slow to find an audience on the coasts or in major cities such New York, Chicago, and Washington D.C. (see "Other Bookstore Favorites," PW
10/7/33, p. 1235). Because the novel strives for a certain historical realism, it was embraced as an important artifact of Southern living. The Christian Science Monitor
noted, for instance, the novel's "many keen-sighted descriptions of pre-Civil War life in the pineylands" (10). As invested as the novel was in detailing the simple lives of its characters, it was most prized for its realist account of what it meant to be an American living in the antebellum South.
And yet, precisely because of its identity as regionalist fiction, many critics predicted that Lamb in His Bosom
would be (at best) an unlikely bestseller. The novel's attraction to Southern readers, they reasoned, would alienate a national audience. Furthermore, instead of a fast-paced novel, Lamb
was an eloquent, yet slow-trotting book. In a contemporary review New Republic
writer T.S. Matthews lamented it,
is too quiet and slow, too backwoodsy to be a best-seller, unless it were very expensively ballyhooed. [ . . . ] The disheartening thing about this kind of novel [ . . . ] is that when you discover them it is almost always by accident, and it almost seems as if they must have been published by accident; for they do not lend themselves easily to blurbs. (76)
In fact Lamb
was not initially "ballyhooed" at all. If it appeared in any advertising by Harper it did so alongside the publisher's current bestseller, The Farm
, by Louis Bromfield. As a result of its modest promotion, its little-known writer, and its regionalist subject matter, Lamb in His Bosom
would not appear on any national bestseller lists for nearly eight months after its publication. Its ascendancy to the top of the sales chart?when it finally did arrive?would be catalyzed by a very public event.
"Who Says Prizes Don't Sell Books?"
If Harper began to worry after initial sales that Miller's novel had failed commercially (although there is no evidence to suggest they were banking on the novel as a blockbuster), they were in for a surprise, and indeed a lucrative one at that. On May 7, 1934, Lamb in His Bosom
was announced as the winner of the Pulitzer Prize. This event set off a domino effect of publicity and sales. Almost instantly the novel began disappearing off bookstore shelves, and appearing on national bestseller lists. Publishers' Weekly
reports it as the third national bestselling piece of fiction on May 26, commenting that "The Pulitzer Prize award jumped it into the best seller class immediately. N.Y., Atlanta, and St. Louis stores report it their best seller for the past week in the Times
5/26/34, p. 1937). It was declared the number one bestselling novel of June, July, and August 1934, and sat at or near the top of the weekly lists, competing for top spot with Hervey Allen's Anthony Adverse
. PW also noted in a blurb in July of 1934 that "After twelve months, one year, the reign of Anthony Adverse
is interrupted by the Pulitzer Prize novel. Who says prizes don't sell books?" (PW
7/14/34, p. 145). Lamb's
success would eventually lead to a new ad campaign by Harper, but not until November of that year. A bestseller throughout the Christmas season of 1934, Lamb's sales soared. As word of Lamb's critical success spread to the public domain, more and more people began buying the novel. As excitement about the prize began to wane, however, so too, did sales. By February of 1935, only eight months after it won the Pulitzer, Lamb
dropped off the national bestseller lists.
We can therefore categorize Lamb in His Bosom
as the type of bestseller that became so?in part?because of its critical prestige. As a novel that won several awards (including France's Prix Femina Americaine in 1934), it joined the select group of fiction that people felt they should have on their bookshelves (and that was probably often given as a gift). This aura surrounding the book grew especially after it graced the shelves of the White House. In October of 1934, the American Booksellers Association presented the novel as one of 200 supplementary texts given to President and Mrs. Roosevelt (see PW
, 10/27/34, p. 1559). By having Lamb
on their bookshelves at home, like the President and his wife, many Americans participated in a national tradition. They could cement their identity as a part of a particular culture, as well as own a significant piece of American art. In collecting this novel, then, they quite literally collected cultural capital.
Aside from constituting a record of Southern American life and tradition, and in addition to being an important piece of American fiction, Lamb in His Bosom
became a bestseller for another reason. By participating in American culture in the midst of the Great Depression, Miller's novel became an important piece in nation building. That is, by employing a certain national nostalgia, the novel allows a country to build a collective identity to help cope with the devastating emotional and economical turmoil of the Depression.
Resolution and Independence: To Be an American
Perhaps its greatest asset as a piece of fiction is the novel's realistic portrayal of rustic, pioneer life. From the first birth until the last death, Lamb in His Bosom
strives for a meticulous account of "the simple life" that remains in harmony with nature. Miller's detailed descriptions of mundane events conjure up romantic and idyllic?though at times harsh and unforgiving?moments before modern times. Indeed it was this realism that many critics lauded. As Louis Kronenberger of the New York Times
It is not as a novel that Lamb in His Bosom is notable, but as a picture. As a novel the book has many defects which cannot escape notice. [ . . . ] But serious though these blemishes are . . . it remains in the mind a wonderfully large and vital picture. Fields and farms and woods and brooks, wild flowers and animals, rich food and potent liquor?one hesitates to decide whether these things shall be called background or the real life and core of the story. (7)
Similar to other realist writers of the time such as Elizabeth Madox Roberts, T.S. Stribling, and Caroline Gordon, Miller uses "the simple life" to portray basic, traditional American values that have perhaps become obscured by the fast-paced, modern life of the 1930s. Miller shows that this lifestyle?invested in basic survival and simple pleasures?provides fertile soil for pure and traditional values of American life such as self-sufficiency, perseverance, courage, dignity, and resolve. During a time when people were out of work and starving to death, those who could afford to read Lamb in His Bosom
were transported back to a time when such necessities as food and clothing were not easily accessible, and where survival was not based on money, but on resourcefulness. The novel attempts to articulate a certain, as a Forum
review notes, "sense of the dignity inherent in simple lives" (90). It accomplishes this, in large part, through its heroine Cean Carver.
As Cean repeatedly bears the emotional and physical pains of giving birth (often alone) as well as death, Miller portrays the pioneers of time (and especially the women) as particularly strong- willed and resourceful. Not only must they bear the pain of childbirth, but they must also bear the pain of death that occurs often, and often gruesomely, throughout the novel. It was this strength Miller identified in her ancestors (who were settlers in antebellum South) that inspired her novel. According to literary scholar Emily Wright,
At the time when she began working on the novel, Miller had married her former high school English teacher and borne three children in only two years. As she later explained to a reporter, at this time she "thought she would break under the strain of trying to take care of [the children] and do the hundreds of other little things any normal wife and mother is called upon to do." According to Miller, it occurred to her that frontier foremothers had managed much larger households under more difficult circumstances, and so, for inspiration, she "turned to the examples set by the pioneer women of Georgia" (qtd. in Bishop 48). (Wright 93)
Miller's characters certainly face their share of hardships throughout the novel. During a devastating drought Cean mourns, "Pa had no more corn than any other body; everybody in this land and country was in the same boat!" (146-47). Elsewhere in the story, Cean learns to appreciate what she has, as little or as simple as it might be:
She ought to thank Godalmighty that things were so easy for her. She was eating her white bread now; both were sent on this earth?fine white bread to enjoy, and bitter black bread to be eaten with hard silence or soft tears. But you had to eat whatever was sent. If you flung it back in Godalmighty's face, you'd live to see the day when you would wish that you hadn't. (75)
As readers during the Great Depression of the 1930s would read the plight of Cean and her family, they would come to appreciate, like Cean, the bread that they had?be it "fine white bread to enjoy" or "bitter black." At least, they would reason, it was bread to be eaten at all.
Furthermore, the success of Lamb in His Bosom
, can be tied to the historical circumstances of the Depression because of the temporary national embrace of Southern culture during the 1930s. Before this decade of economic hardship, the gap in poverty between the northern and southern regions of the country was wide: the South being the poorer of the two geographies. But during the Depression, all corners of the country were hit hard. The resulting level disparity, as Emily Wright explains, had a direct impact on the acceptance (and even interest) in Southern culture:
But in the 1930s the longstanding economic difference between the region [the South] and the nation receded as economic calamity caused the contemporary national experience to fall in line with the southern historical experience. At this point in time, the "othering" of the South was suspended as the nation looked to the South's past for models of endurance and recovery. [ . . . ] All of these novels [The Store, Lamb in His Bosom, Gone With the Wind, The Yearling] describe southerner's struggles to overcome poverty and defeat, and their favorable reception indicates that during the Depression, the southern historical experience offered inspiration to the nation. (104)
Thus, "regional tales of an earlier America were especially popular," Wright continues, "providing readers an imaginative escape from the trials of the times through a return to a more bucolic and hopeful past, while also reminding them that their foreparents had weathered hard times and emerged triumphant" (104).
As a piece of realist, historical fiction, Lamb in His Bosom
accomplishes the daunting task of unifying a nation. It is important to note that this "unification" is ideological?not material?based on a reading public that maintains a certain economic status and educational background. Thus, this "unification" can never be complete. However, as limited as this unity is, the novel and its nostalgia remain significant strategies in nation building ? or at least in nation "maintenance." By reminding them that the nation's "foreparents" faced equally (if not more) difficult times and lived through them, Miller's novel allows the generation that weathered the Depression to hope for better days. And to have hope?as well as the belief
?that more fortunate times are ahead is a truly American sentiment. Lamb in His Bosom
thus both participates in and demonstrates this uniquely American attitude, and in so doing becomes a historical artifact that allows a nation to cope with its (financial, emotional, cultural) wounds.
Forum, Nov. 1933, p. 90.
Kronenberger, Louis. "A First Novel of Distinguished Quality." New York Times Book Review 17 Sept. 1933: 7.
Matthews, T.S. The New Republic, 20 Sept. 1933, p. 76.
Miller, Caroline. Lamb in His Bosom. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1933.
W.K.R., The Christian Science Monitor, 23 Sept. 1933, p. 10.
Wright, Emily Powers. "The ?Other South' of Caroline Miller: A Case Study in Regional Stereotypes and Canon Formation." Southern Quarterly 40.1 (Fall 2001): 93-108.
Several blurbs from Publishers' Weekly (see above parenthetical citations for issue dates and page numbers)