There was no award given in 1920, so I decided to find out why. If you recall when I posted a brief history of the Pulitzers last month, I hinted that the difference between whole and wholesome would alter the list of contenders for the prize.
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.
(Yes, I just quoted myself.) When the Pulitzer Prize Jury reconvened in 1920, there were a few new members, and they could not reach a consensus on the most award-worthy book. One of the newest members, Stuart Sherman, literary critic and professor, was adamant that Java Head by Joseph Hergesheimer deserved to win the prize. Sherman, however, was reading Pulitzer’s original plan instead of the Board’s reworded plan. After reconsidering, Sherman agreed that Java Head “doesn’t at all obviously conform” to the conditions of the award. No winner was announced in 1920, but I was curious how Java Head presented the whole atmosphere of American life but not the wholesome atmosphere. Poor Hergesheimer, if he only waited another decade to write his book, he could have won the prize!
From the back of the 1919 edition, Java Head is a “novel of the American merchant marine at the beginning of the great clipper ship era. It is laid in Salem, when that city was still a port rich with the traffic of the East Indies; a story of choleric ship masters, charming girls, and an aristocratic Manchu woman in carmine and jades and crusted gold. There is a drama as secret and poisonous as opium, lovely old gardens with lilac trees and green lattices, and elm-shaded streets ending at the harbor with the brigs unloading ivory from Africa and the ships crowding on their topsails for Canton.”
Does this sound intriguing to you? You can join me and read the book for free at Project Gutenberg.
- A List of the Recipients of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel
- Read about The Magnificent Ambersons, the 1919 Pulitzer winner.
- I’m curious, whatever happened to Joseph Hergesheimer? I will be exploring this more soon, but for now, see whatever happened to Booth Tarkington?
- Pulitzer Novels is doing a much better job than I am at exploring the winners. See what they have to say about the 1920 award here.
- Read Java Head for free here.