The Pulitzer Project: A Turning Point (1926)

the pulitzer projectthe pulitzer project


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.


Additional Resources:

The Pulitzer Project: So Big, Edna Ferber (1925)

the pulitzer project

Hi Friends, in case you’re just joining us, I’m reading my way through the Pulitzer Prize winners and finalists! 

Edna Ferber won the Pulitzer in 1925 for her novel, So Big. The 1925 Pulitzer Jury was split between three books: the other two were Balisand by Joseph Hergesheimer (his name may sound familiar to you if you’ve been following along with me – he was also considered in 1920 when no prize was awarded) and Plumes by Lawrence Stalling. Two of the jury members voted for the prize to be split between Balisand and So Big. The third jury member was an avid Ferber fan; in fact, he’s the one who pressured her publisher into submitting her novel for the prize in the first place. Doesn’t that seem like a conflict of interest to you? The Trustees ignored the pleas of two of the jury members and decided to award the 1925 Pulitzer Prize to Edna Ferber. so big

A Brief Summary: So Big follows the life of Selina Peake DeJong, the daughter of a gambler who sets off to be a teacher in a Dutch vegetable farming community. Selina marries a farmer, Pervus DeJong, and subsequently has a son, Dirk, whose nickname “Sobig” is the title of the novel. Selina is a lover of beauty, and she sees beauty in everything even while she toils in the fields of her vegetable farm. She wants to give Dirk all of the opportunities she never had and is delighted when he decides to study architecture. The second half of the book follows Dirk and the tensions that arise between Dirk and his mother when he chooses to pursue money over artistic and aesthetic values.

“Dirk, you can’t desert her like that!”

“Desert who?” He was startled.

“Beauty! Self-expression. Whatever you want to call it. You wait! She’ll turn on you some day. Some day you’ll want her, and she won’t be there.”

Fun Fact:
The character of Selina DeJong was inspired by a woman named Antje Paarlberg, a headstrong and determined widow who settled in Illinois. Ferber pays tribute to her in So Big by including a character known as the “Widow Parlenberg”. The Dutch community did not like the flirtatious personality that Ferber attributed to the fictional Selina DeJong.


Antje Paarlberg, circa 1870


Setting: Chicago, Illinois

Time Period: 1880s – 1920s

Review:  Edna Ferber’s style was the right balance between witty and pretty, for lack of better words. Ferber makes the most ordinary things interesting, from farming techniques to the architectural tastes of different communities in Chicago, and I felt refreshed reading her words after slogging through most of the 1920s. I’m happy I read this book on my Kindle, because I found myself looking up words in every chapter.

But always, to her, red and green cabbages were to be jade and Burgundy, crysoprase and porphyry. Life has no weapons against a woman like that.

Selina’s story is a bit of the usual rags-to-riches, American-dream story that may be the ideal “wholesome American atmosphere” that the Pulitzer Committee looks for, but Dirk’s story is the more interesting half. I think the two halves worked well together; I loved the contrast between the idealistic Selina DeJong and her more pragmatic son Dirk. While Selina may have been a bit too perfect of a character (I really would have liked to see her flaws!), I think Dirk was a fully realized figure. He is both ashamed and proud of his mother for being a successful vegetable farmer, he wants nice things but doesn’t want to acknowledge the work his mother must do to provide for him, and yet, he still finds his mother’s leathery hands to be beautiful. One of my favorite parts of the book is when Dirk enlists in the army during World War I and, unlike Claude Wheeler, becomes disillusioned by society after the war. Ferber also does a great job of creating mostly -compelling minor characters, from Dallas, the artist that Dirk falls in love with, to Ralph Poole, the dreamer-farm-boy that Selina befriends. The only minor character that I found lacking was Pervus DeJong, Selina’s husband. It seemed like his personality turned 180 degrees between their courtship and marriage. I wanted more for Selina! Overall, of the first nine years of Pulitzer winners, So Big is probably my second favorite so far (after The Age of Innocence). I haven’t been able to look at vegetables the same – Selina has convinced me that cabbages can also be beautiful.


I would recommend this book to people interested in turn-of-the-century architecture, people who miss the good old days when people had country estates and housemaids, and people who like love triangles and books about living the American dream.

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The Pulitzer Project: The Able McLaughlins, Margaret Wilson (1924)

the pulitzer project

Hi Friends, in case you’re just joining us, I’m reading my way through the Pulitzer Prize winners and finalists! Let me tell you, the first eight years of the Pulitzer Prize have been pretty rough. Only two books were actually unanimously awarded (His Family, Alice Adams), and the rest of the years there were caveats, disagreements, and reluctantly awarded novels. 1924 was no different – the committee only suggested The Able McLaughlins as a last resort. The Committee Report said:

The committee on the Pulitzer Prize has arrived at the following decision: first, that in its opinion there is no book outstanding enough to merit a Prize this year, but that, secondly, if it is deemed that a prize should be awarded anyhow, the committee would name Margaret Wilson’s The Able McLaughlins.

This makes Willa Cather look like a real winner in comparison! To be honest, I put off reading this book because it wasn’t easy to track down. I checked three libraries, Google-d endlessly, and went to four bookstores before I finally caved and bought the book on Amazon. I was convinced that there was no way a book this so hard to find could have stood the test of time – after all, there must be a reason why a book that is on the Public Domain hasn’t been widely distributed already. The Able McLaughlins was disappointing to me in just about every sense of the word. I wholeheartedly agree that the Pulitzer Committee shouldn’t have awarded any book in 1924 if this was the best choice!

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The Pulitzer Project: One of Ours, Willa Cather (1923)

the pulitzer project

I’m reading my way through the Pulitzer Prize winners and finalists! The 1923 Pulitzer was awarded to Willa Cather’s One of Ours, which was chosen over Sinclair Lewis’ 1922 work, Babbitt. Poor Lewis, losing out to two books that the Pulitzer Jury were less than enthusiastic about! (You may remember that Lewis’ 1920 Main Street lost to Wharton’s Age of Innocence in 1921 as well. And the Jury didn’t even recommend Wharton’s book as the winner that year!) In 1923, Cather’s One of Ours was only begrudgingly awarded, as the Jury felt the Trustees would prefer a flawed winner over no winner at all. The Committee Report said:

I might perhaps add that this recommendation is made without enthusiasm. The Committee, as I understand its feeling, assumes that the Trustees of the Fund desire that award should be made each year. In that case, we are of the opinion that Miss Cather’s novel, imperfect as we think it in many respects, is yet the most worth while of any in the field.

one of oursA Brief Summary*: One of Ours is tells the story of the life of Claude Wheeler, a Nebraska native around the turn of the 20th century. The son of a successful farmer and an intensely pious mother, he is guaranteed a comfortable livelihood. Nevertheless, Wheeler views himself as a victim of his father’s success and his own inexplicable malaise. Claude is unlucky at school, unlucky in love, and finally tries his luck overseas by joining the Army during World War I.

Fun Fact: The character of Claude is partially based on Cather’s cousin, Grosvenor Cather – what a name!

Setting: Nebraska and France

Time Period: Approximately 1900 – 1915

Review: This book is basically divided into two halves, Claude’s “disappointing” life in Nebraska and his life as a soldier in France during WWI. The first half was beautiful and you could just tell that Cather was writing something that she really knew and loved. It wasn’t a surprise to find that out that she drew from personal experiences, living on a farm in Nebraska when World War I broke out. Claude is a dis-satisfied dreamer, who thinks that there must be more to life out there than what he knows and what is expected of him. His head is in the clouds, and he has such sweet, big hopes for his life. The second half of the book was another creature altogether. I had a hard time reconciling the Claude in the first half with the Claude in the second, although there were some brief moments when he shone through.

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The Pulitzer Project: Alice Adams, Booth Tarkington (1922)

the pulitzer project

I’m reading my way through the Pulitzer Prize winners and finalists! The 1922 Pulitzer was awarded to Booth Tarkington’s Alice Adams, making Tarkington the first author to receive multiple Pulitzers. The 1922 award was unanimous and uncontroversial, and no one seemed to care or discuss the fact that Tarkington had won the award just three years prior.

alice adams

A Brief Summary: Alice Adams is a lower middle class girl with big dreams of living in high society. Alice has her eyes set on a newcomer in town, a wealthy eligible-bachelor, Arthur Russell. Alice spends the summer scheming with her mother, begging her brother to chaperone her to dances, and tending to her convalescing father.

Fun Fact: The 1935 movie adaptation was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Setting: An unnamed town in the Midwest: I would guess in Indiana, where most of Booth Tarkington’s stories take place.

Time Period: Post WWI: I would guess that the book was supposed to be contemporaneous to its publication, so around 1921.

Review: This is a book about social circles and Tarkington seems to look down on those who want to be what we would call “social-climbers.” Tarkington portrays Alice’s mother as a shrill, nagging, and completely clueless woman who pushes her husband to try to make more money. Alice herself is less scheming than, say, Scarlett O’Hara, but she definitely has big dreams for herself. To me, the character of Alice Adams was much more bearable than George Amberson of The Magnificent Ambersons, but that’s not saying much. Tarkington doesn’t seem to like his own characters very much, and he creates such caricatures of these people that you feel like Tarkington is lashing out at the entire  lower-middle class. How dare they aspire to have more than they do? Don’t they know their place?

I liked the book much more overall than The Magnificent Ambersons, and I think this was because it tackled a relatively smaller story – a girl’s summer love affair within the constraints of society instead of the rise and fall of the magnificent Amberson family as a metaphor for industrialization and change. The climax of the story is a dinner that Alice and her mother throw for Arthur Russell, Alice’s potential suitor. The dinner happens to fall on the hottest day of the summer, and everyone is sweating through their clothes while eating a decadent multi-course meal that the Adams can’t afford. It’s a complete disaster, and I was grimacing throughout the entire parade of courses. I was on the verge of laughing, until  Tarkington refers to the disastrous dinner as a tragicomedy. Maybe I’m being unreasonable, but this absolutely outraged me! Shouldn’t this be a faux-pas, much like a comedian laughing at his own jokes? I don’t think Tarkington has the writing skill to create a successful tragicomedy, which to me should be subtle or tongue-in-cheek. Or maybe Tarkington doesn’t think his readers are smart enough to “get the joke.” Either way, I wasn’t impressed.

Ultimately, if you want to read a book about the constraints of society in the 1920s, please pick up The Age of Innocence, instead of this condescending “tragicomedy.” Or maybe just watch the Katharine Hepburn movie.

Honestly, I haven’t been impressed with the first six years of Pulitzer history, so I hope Willa Cather’s One of Ours (the 1923 winner) helps restore my faith in this prize.


Additional Resources:

  • Explore the Pulitzer Project
  • Don’t take my word for this book, you can get this free eBook through Project Gutenberg.
  • Watch the trailer for the 1935 movie adaptation, starring Katharine Hepburn here
  • Next up is Willa Cather’s One of Ours, get a copy here and read along with me!


Books I Read in December

Hi Friends, it’s been quiet here the past few weeks, because I was travelling in China for the holidays! I’ll be sharing some photos soon, but all of the time on planes, trains, and boats made for some quality reading time! I read 13 books in December, bringing the final 2015 number of books read to: 74. I’ll be posting soon with some reflections on 2015, but for now, in no particular order, the books I read in December were:

the-age-of-innocenceEdith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence – I read this as part of my quest to read all of the Pulitzer winners. This was my second attempt at reading Edith Wharton, and I found it much more enjoyable than Ethan Frome. Did you know this book was adapted into a film directed by Martin Scorsese, who said that this was the most violent film he’s ever made? Of course, he’s referring to an emotional-violence instead of physical brutality. I’m currently sick with a cold, so I will be watching this movie under a layer of blankets this weekend. Have you seen it?


straightjamesJames Franco’s Straight James / Gay James – While I’ve already reviewed this book, I just want to add that it’s stuck with me a little more than I expected it to. I have never taken James Franco very seriously as a writer, but I think there is something very brave about putting your poetry out there, especially for people who wouldn’t necessarily consider themselves a poet. While I’d still rather see him in a movie than on paper, I will have to think twice before rolling my eyes at his next publication.



Jon Krakauer’s Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town – this book was a well-written and provocative look into such a grim and violent subject – acquaintance rape, date rape, whatever you want to call it. Jon Krakauer follows the personal stories of a few rape cases that occurred within a few weeks of each other in Missoula, Montana. I think the most terrifying thing is that Missoula is not an anomaly, and these stories are happening much more frequently than we’d like to think. This should be required reading on every college campus.


fox 8.jpgGeorge Saunders’ Fox 8 – This novella is exclusively available as an eBook (it’s only 99 cents! Go buy it!) and I borrowed it from the New York Public Library. In true Saunders’ form, this story is hilarious, violent, and depressing all at once. The story is told by a Fox who learns how to Yuman – “So came bak nite upon nite, seeted upon that window, trying to lern. And in time, so many werds came threw my ears and into my brane, that, if I thought upon them, cud understand Yuman pretty gud, if I heer it!”


gap of timeJeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time – I don’t think my admittedly rushed-before-going-to-China review did this book justice, so I might revisit and rework my post later this year. This is Winterson’s “cover” of William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, of which Winterson says, “All of us have talismanic texts that we have carried around and that carry us around. I have worked with The Winter’s Tale in many disguises for many years.”  For some reason, this book reminded me of Station Eleven, maybe because of the post-crisis emphasis on Shakespeare?


alice adamsBooth Tarkington’s Alice Adams – This was the 1922 Recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, notably Tarkington’s second Pulitzer (and in a span of four years!) I found it much more enjoyable than his previous winner, The Magnificent Ambersons. I’m not sure if I would have awarded this book any sort of award, but then again, maybe there were slimmer pickings in the 1920s, what do you think? This was made into a movie starring Katharine Hepburn in the 1930s, so we know the book was popular for quite a while! I’ll have to add this to the list of movie adaptations to watch (and write about!)


one of oursWilla Cather’s One of Ours – This was the 1923 Recipient of the Pulitzer Prize. I was really on a Pulitzer roll this month! It is a sprawling epic story that follows Claude Wheeler from a child in Nebraska to a soldier in France during World War II. Claude is a shy dreamer with big ideas about what he wants from life and love. I found him sweetly relatable. I’ve read online that this was one of Willa Cather’s weaker works, but as I’ve never read anything else of hers, I can’t make that call (yet). I’ll be writing more about this later, and would definitely consider reading more by Willa.



Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s Rashomon – I picked this book up at the Strand’s Central Park location on  a whim, because I’ve seen Akira Kurasawa’s 1950 film Rashomon. This book is a collection of 6 short stories, between 8 – 15 pages long each. I really loved the writing style (but can never tell how much is attributable to the translator versus the writer) and the stories were all incredibly human, magical, and touching. Fun fact: the film was actually based on a combination of two of the short stories in this collection: In a Grove and Rashomon.


the winter's taleWilliam Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale

My favorite passage:

Is whispering nothing?
Is leaning cheek to cheek? is meeting noses?
Kissing with inside lip? stopping the career
Of laughing with a sigh?–a note infallible
Of breaking honesty–horsing foot on foot?
Skulking in corners? wishing clocks more swift?
Hours, minutes? noon, midnight? and all eyes
Blind with the pin and web but theirs, theirs only,
That would unseen be wicked? is this nothing?


the reason i jumpNaoki Higashida’s The Reason I Jump – This book is incredible – it was written by a thirteen year old Japanese autistic boy who often has trouble with verbal communication. I first heard about the book when I saw Jon Stewart interview Naoki on The Daily Show a few years ago. When I was in high school, I volunteered as an art teacher to autistic students, but I must admit that I still had no idea about their capacity for emotional depth and understanding. Reading this book really challenged a lot of my biases and made me feel ashamed (in the best possible positive way.)


we should all be feministsChimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All be Feminists – This book is based on a Ted talk that Chimamanda gave (online here), which you will most likely recognize from Beyonce’s Flawless. While I didn’t need convincing from Chimamanda to be a feminist, it is always refreshing to hear the arguments from such an articulate and compassionate person. While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend buying the book, you should definitely watch the video if you haven’t yet.


teen spiritFrancesca Lia Block’s Teen Spirit – I do not think I’ll ever be too old to read Francesca Lia Block. This book is perfect to read around Halloween! Spoiler Alert – this is the story of a girl who is trying to communicate with her dead grandmother and a boy who is possibly possessed by his angry dead twin. Although the ending is a little cliched, I don’t think anyone reads Block for the plot, but more for her rich language and imagery, the smell of the flowers leap off the page.


the chronology of water.jpgLidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water – I read this book because Cheryl Strayed said it was her favorite book. This memoir is not for the faint-hearted. Lidia Yuknavitch has lived so many lives and tackles everything head-on, from losing a child to being molested by her father, struggling to write to S&M parties and her fascination with being whipped. Her writing style is self-described as “weird” and it’s no wonder that Chuck Palahniuk introduced her to his writing group. This book pushed me out of my comfort zone and was an emotional and gripping read from start to finish.


I can’t believe that concludes 2015! Of these books, I would most highly recommend Fox 8 and Missoula. What did you read in December? What’s on your list for 2016? How many books did you read in 2015, and does that number even matter or mean anything to you? I’m a believer in quality over quantity, but it’s definitely satisfying to tackle a long to-read list.

The Pulitzer Project: The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton (1921)

the pulitzer project

I’m reading my way through the Pulitzer Prize winners and finalists! I’ve just recently finished reading The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton, the recipient of the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for the Novel.

This award was quite controversial, because the Pulitzer Jury did not actually recommend this book as the winner. The Jury discussed Sinclair Lewis’ book Main Street, but the chairman deemed it to be too vicious and vengeful. Instead, he proposed giving “no award” because he said “All the novels I have read recently are lacking in style, workmanship. I cannot vote a prize to any of them.” However, the Board disagreed and decided by a split vote to award The Age of Innocence, which was had been very intentionally passed over by the Jury. Although the public was outraged at the time, I think The Age of Innocence has stood the test of time, and I found it a worthy recipient of the Prize.


A Brief Summary*: This book follows Newland Archer, a young man in New York’s high society. Newland is to be engaged to May Welland when May’s cousin, Ellen Ollenska, arrives in New York followed by scandal and gossip. Newland becomes intrigued by Ellen, “who flouts New York society’s fastidious rules. As Newland’s admiration for the countess grows, so does his doubt about marrying May, a perfect product of Old New York society; his match with May no longer seems the ideal fate he had imagined.”

Fun Fact: It is thought that the title of the book was inspired by Sir Joshua Reynold’s 1785 painting, The Age of Innocence.

The Age of Innocence ?1788 by Sir Joshua Reynolds 1723-1792

Setting: New York City

Time Period: 1870s – 1900s

Review: I found this book much more enjoyable than my first attempt at reading Edith Wharton earlier this year (I read Ethan Frome). The characters were much more human and fully developed than in Ethan Frome. Also, unlike the previous two winners of the Pulitzer, I didn’t think this book was too didactic or over-the-top pushing any type of agenda. Instead, I found The Age of Innocence a smart social commentary that examines the constraints of society in the 1870s. It’s a lovely time period, and I enjoyed the descriptions of the outings, opera, and houses.

I especially liked Ellen, who is a tragic but powerful figure; she rebukes the rules of society and has to live with the consequences.(It seems like Ta-Nehisi Coates really liked her too!) I think she is one of the original bad-ass feminists. I have even been thinking a little about whether she helped lay the foundation for the stream of “manic-pixie-dream” girls that have flooded literature and movies today. I don’t know a lot about this trope, but I think Ellen is more human and fully realized than a stereotype. I have a hunch that I’ll be thinking about this for quite some time.

NYTimes Book Review: Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine?

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Maybe Ellen Olenska from “The Age of Innocence,” who so understands the tragic limitations of the world, who understands that there is gravity in human relations. “Oh, my dear,” she tells Newland Archer after he proposes flight to another life. “Where is that country?”

I wrestled with whether or not I liked the epilogue for the past week, but I think it works, even if it is not ideal. Without giving away any spoilers, the epilogue flashes forward about twenty-five years and shifts from a very narrow third-person POV to a much wider one. While it threw me off, I think it tied everything together and gave me a lot to think about after I closed the book. However, I don’t think I would call myself an Edith Wharton fan, and I am looking forward to getting through this decade of the Pulitzer winners (is that a terribly harsh thing to say?)

I’d recommend this book to people who liked Anna Karenina but wished there was just a slightly less tragic ending, who like reading books that take place in New York City, and who are always looking for books that realistically portray relationships and the constraints of society.


Additional Resources: