The Pulitzer Prizes were endowed by Joseph Pulitzer (1847 – 1911), the founder of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Joseph Pulitzer was born in Hungary and arrived in Boston in 1864 at the age of 17 to fight as a soldier in the Civil War. After the war, he tried his hand at a variety of things, from whaling to waiting tables; he also became a lawyer and an American citizen. He ultimately discovered his passion for reporting and accepted a job with the Westliche Post. By the age of 36, he was a wealthy man and the owner of the St. Louis Post Dispatch and New York World.
“I cannot understand why it is, Mr. Pulitzer, that you always speak so kindly of reporters and so severely of all editors.” “Well”, Pulitzer replied, “I suppose it is because every reporter is a hope, and every editor is a disappointment.”
Upon Pulitzer’s death, his will left funds to establish the “Pulitzer Prizes” as an incentive for excellence in the field of journalism and letters. “In letters, prizes were to go to an American novel, an original American play performed in New York, a book on the history of the United States, an American biography, and a history of public service by the press.” However, Pulitzer knew that society may change, and he therefore established an advisory board to oversee the administration of the Prizes. The board was given the discretion to change the prize categories and withhold awards if there was no excellent candidate, among other powers. The structure was similar to the way things are run now – a Jury (of three) comes together and submits a nomination to the Board. If the Board approves, the prizes are announced by the President of Columbia University.
In Pulitzer’s will, he described the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel as “for the American novel published during the year which shall best present the whole atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.” However, when the Advisory Board established the prize, the Board settled on wholesome rather than whole. As you can imagine, this could drastically alter the contenders for the prize.
At the first meeting of the Pulitzer Prize Jury in 1917, there were only 6 applications for the Prize. One application didn’t meet the requirements, because it was a manuscript instead of a published book; the jury found 4 of the remaining 5 applications to be subpar. Ultimately, the jury recommended withholding the prize rather than giving it to the only one entry that seemed to qualify. The Board agreed and the rest is history. Accordingly, there was no award giving out in the first year.
I’ve really enjoyed learning more about the history and process of the Pulitzer Prizes. Stay tuned, I’ll be digging into why there was no award in 1920 next!