We seem to be reveling in another nostalgic moment what with the big to-do over Michael Jordan’s 50th birthday and the accompanying look backs at his remarkable career. In that sort of spirit, I decided to look back 50 years ago to see what was happening in the literary world. I was just finishing up in college at the time and don’t believe that anything literary had much of an impact on my life. My, how times do change us.
For one thing in 1963, William Faulkner was still alive, so that meant that what would become his final novel, “The Reivers,” was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. It wasn’t the biggest bestseller of the year in fiction, however; that honor was shared by a pair of books, “The Shoes of the Fisherman” by Morris West and “The Group” by Mary McCarthy. McCarthy’s name and work survive in some fashion to this day, not sure that many remember Morris West. (If you’re curious, he was an Australian author who died in 1999. And “Fisherman” does have an odd connection to today’s events — it’s about the election of a new Pope.)
The other Pulitzer Prize-winning books of the year were Leon Edel’s multi-volume biography of Henry James — a set that remains the most comprehensive account of the author’s life 50 years after it’s appearance — and Barbara Tuchman’s book about World War I, “The Guns of August,” another title that still shows up on current reader’s lists.
The Pulitzer for Poetry went to William Carlos Williams for his collection “Pictures from Brueghel.” But it was a sad year for poetry, because not only was 1963 the year of the death of Williams and Sylvia Plath but also the year that Robert Frost, arguably America’s greatest poet, died. Frost’s death was universally mourned, and half a century after his passing his work remains as vital and read as it was during his lifetime. I can think of no poet whose work has touched me more personally over the years than Frost.
And finally, 1963 marked the debut of a remarkable young novelist about whom almost nothing is known to this day, and no I’m not referring to J.D. Salinger. The young author is Thomas Pynchon, whose “V” was published that year, heralding a career of great promise — and mystery.
1963 was indeed a most interesting literary year. Sorry if you happened to miss it.