The Pulitzer Project: A Turning Point (1926)

the pulitzer projectthe pulitzer project

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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.

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The Pulitzer Project: who almost won in 1920?

the pulitzer project

the pulitzer project

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!

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java head

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.

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The Pulitzer Project: A Brief History, or Why There was No Award in 1917

Pulitzer Project

joseph pulitzerThe 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.

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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!