Let’s talk about 1926 which marked a turning point for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. So far, it’s my favorite year in Pulitzer History. Why, you ask? Well, first, Sinclair Lewis finally wins the Pulitzer! I guess the third time really is the charm his books were considered in 1921 and 1923. 1926 is his year, and Arrowsmith finally wins! Did you doubt him? Sinclair doubted himself too. He wrote to his father:
I see that just as Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence beat Main Street for the Pulitzer prize, so did Cather’s One of Ours beatBabbitt. I’m quite sure I never shall get the Pulitzer
But then, lo and behold, Sinclair Lewis declines the Prize. I’ll let him explain for himself in a letter he wrote to the Pulitzer Committee:
I wish to acknowledge your choice of my novel Arrowsmith for the Pulitzer Prize. That prize I must refuse, and my refusal would be meaningless unless I explained the reasons.
All prizes, like all titles, are dangerous. The seekers for prizes tend to labor not for inherent excellence but for alien rewards: they tend to write this, or timorously to avoid writing that, in order to tickle the prejudices of a haphazard committee. And the Pulitzer Prize for novels is peculiarly objectionable because the terms of it have been constantly and grievously misrepresented.
Those terms are that the prize shall be given “for the American novel published during the year which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.” This phrase, if it means anything whatever, would appear to mean that the appraisal of the novels shall be made not according to their actual literary merit but in obedience to whatever code of Good Form may chance to be popular at the moment.
You read it correctly, Lewis is peeved with the Advisory Board’s interpretation of Pulitzer’s will. If you recall, in 1917, they decided to substitute the whole atmosphere with the wholesome atmosphere which really changed what was eligible for the Prize. Despite Lewis’ claim that all prizes are dangerous, he accepted the Nobel Prize for literature shortly after, in 1930. This embarrassed the Pulitzer Committee enough that they quietly changed their criteria from wholesome back to whole. Lewis’ letter to the Pulitzer Committee could arguably be seen as the original Taylor Swift letter to Apple, what do you think? Keep this in mind by the time we reach 1930 – I’m interested to find out whether we see a change in subject matter, quality, or any other noticeable difference. To date, I believe Sinclair Lewis is the only author to have declined this prize. But perhaps the Pulitzer Committee gets the last word here, because they refused to remove Lewis from their list of winners.