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!


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.


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!

The Pulitzer Project: The Magnificent Ambersons, Booth Tarkington (1919)

Pulitzer Project

I’m reading my way through the Pulitzer Prize winners and finalists! I’ve just recently finished reading The Magnificent Ambersons, by Booth Tarkington, the recipient of the second Pulitzer Prize for the Novel.


A Brief Summary*: The book follows the rise and fall of the Amberson family, one of the most prosperous and well-known families of Woodruff Place, Indiana at the turn of the 20th century. Young George Amberson Minafer, the patriarch’s grandson, is spoiled terribly by his mother Isabel. Growing up arrogant, sure of his own worth and position, and totally oblivious to the lives of others, George falls in love with Lucy Morgan, a young though sensible debutante. As the town grows into a city, industry thrives, the Ambersons’ prestige and wealth wanes, and the Morgans, thanks to Lucy’s prescient father, grow prosperous. The decline of the Ambersons is contrasted with the rising fortunes of industrial tycoons and other new-money families, who derived power not from family names but by “doing things”.

Fun Fact: Woodruff Place is known as the first suburb of Indianapolis.

Setting: Indiana

Time Period: 1873 – 1910s

Review: I found it interesting to compare this to His Family, which won the Pulitzer the year before. Both books follow the rise of automobiles and its impacts on society. Where Poole writes odes to speed and modern machinery, Tarkington abhors the soot and smog of industrialization. I found the setting and writing quite compelling, but I thought the actual plot was cliched and trite. This is a book that uses words like “parvenu” earnestly and devotes pages to explaining George’s routine of changing into dinner clothes every evening. The last few chapters of the book seemed so bizarre to me; without giving any spoilers, I thought the events came out of left field and seemed like an overly dramatic way to end the novel. If you can be patient, I would suggest reading the book more for the writing than the story. I think you would find the book more enjoyable if you simply view the characters and storyline as a backdrop for Tarkington’s wit and observations.

I’d recommend this book to people who appreciate reading about details of clothing and fashion, who like to read about the turn of the 20th century, or are trying to read all of the Pulitzers.


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Whatever Happened to Booth Tarkington?

booth tarkingtonHave you ever heard of Booth Tarkington? Born in Indianapolis in 1869, Newton Booth Tarkington was a playwright, politician, and novelist. He may be most famous for being one of three people to have ever won the Pulitzer more than once. (The other two writers who hold this honor are William Faulkner and John Updike.) In 1922, Literary Digest proclaimed Booth Tarkington as “America’s greatest living writer” – he sold over five million copies of his books before paperback books were available.

Tarkington loved his home state of Indiana – he set most of his works there, served on the Indiana House of Representatives, and was a generous supporter of Purdue University. There is even a dorm named after him – Tarkington Hall. His “Penrod” novels (three in all) have been compared to Huckleberry Finn, both in terms of style/plot and popularity. So why have I never heard of Booth Tarkington until I decided to read all of the Pulitzer Prize winners?

Tarkington seems to have fallen out of popularity with the literary world shortly after his death in 1946. His writing has since been deemed to be uneven, inconsistent, and overly nostalgic.

To be caught with Tarkington in one’s hands is to be suspected of nostalgia, a willingness to endure the second-rate for the sake of some moonlight on the Wabash, which must still be flowing somewhere through the heartland.

alice adamsMany of Tarkington’s books are about very young people, coming of age in a time of rapid industrialization and change. He was obsessed with the “soul-killing effects of smoke and asphalt and speed” and writes about how cars are ruining society and quality of life. I noted in His Family that Ernest Poole had a similar (but positive) obsession with cars. I suppose this was akin to the environmental crisis of the early 20th Century. The Atlantic suggests that this obsession made his peers think he was a cranky old man, instead of a sensitive soul greatly affected by the changes surrounding him and his characters.

In 1942, Orson Welles adapted The Magnificent Ambersons into a feature film, which seems to have stood the test of time a little better than its novel counterpart. However, the book was recently added to Modern Library’s list of top 100 novels (it was #100 on the list), so maybe we will see Booth Tarkington make a comeback in the next few decades, what do you think?

The Magnificent Ambersons – Vocabulary

the magnificent ambersons

I’m finally reading The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington, the 1919 recipient of the Pulitzer Prize. I’m about four chapters in so far and am finding it hilarious, sharp, and a pretty easy read. The best part of reading on a Kindle is the built-in dictionary. I thought I’d share the vocabulary words I’ve learned so far:

porte cochere

  • Porte-cochère: porte co·chère (noun) – a covered entrance large enough for vehicles to pass through, typically opening into a courtyard

It was a house of arches and turrets and girdling stone porches: it had the first porte-cochère seen in that town.

  • Argot: ar·got (noun) – the jargon or slang of a particular group or class.
  • Badinage: bad·i·nage (noun) – humorous or witty conversation

This was stock and stencil: the accustomed argot of street badinage of the period; and in such matters Georgie was an expert.

Books I Read in August

Here are the books I’ve read in August, in chronological order. I was pretty happy to have read such a diverse mix of genres this month, and I’ll try to keep it up going forward!

station elevenEmily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven:
 This has been on my to-read list for such a long time, and once I picked it up, I couldn’t put it back down. I read for an entire day on the couch until I finished the book. I’ve seen a lot of people describe this as a “slow burner” but I didn’t find the book slow at all. I found this to be a thoughtful exploration into the necessity of art, technology, and human connections. However, I didn’t connect with or even like any of the characters, but I think Mandel did such an excellent job creating this post-apocalyptic world that it doesn’t even matter.


not that kind of girl
Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl: I will admit that for the longest time I didn’t “get” Lena Dunham’s appeal. This has been my summer of Dunham – I binge watched all the seasons of her show “Girls” and then read her book as soon as I could get my hands on it. I “get” it now. She’s funny, thoughtful, and self-deprecating. She is insightful and self-aware to the brink of an egomaniacal obsession. I related to her book much more than I did to her show, and I feel like I have a new found appreciation and respect for her.

Continue reading

The Pulitzer Project: His Family, Ernest Poole (1918)

Pulitzer Project

I’m reading my way through the Pulitzer Prize winners and finalists! First up, His Family by Ernest Poole, winner of the very first Pulitzer Prize for the Novel.

His Family

A Brief Summary*: His Family tells the story of a middle-class family in New York City in the 1910s. The family’s patriarch, widower Roger Gale, struggles to deal with the way his three daughters and grandchildren respond to the changing society. Each of his daughters responds in a distinctively different way to the circumstances of their lives, forcing Roger into attempting to calm the increasingly challenging family disputes that erupt.

Fun Fact*: When Poole’s first novel, The Harbor came out in 1915 it was a critical and popular success but the Pulitzer Prize did not yet exist. When his second novel His Family came out in 1918, the “consensus is that it’s the lesser of the two works, that the Pulitzer committee was really honoring Poole for The Harbor

Setting: New York

Time Period: Roughly 1913 – 1915

Review: This is a book about New York City, modernization, and all the different ways you can be part of a family. The book explores the relationships within a nuclear family, responsibilities to a larger community, and your duties as global citizen. I can understand why this book would win the very first Pulitzer, because it does embody a lot of the themes of a Great American Novel and I can see similar themes in the 1919 winner, The Magnificent Ambersons. However, the book was a little too didactic for my tastes. Poole is no Steinbeck, and I don’t think his mode of macro and micro story-telling really worked as well as it could.

I would recommend this book to people who are trying to read all of the Pulitzers, who enjoyed going to the Tenement Museum, or are interested in books that tackle some of the larger social issues going on in the 1910s – World War I, women’s rights, and the rise of the automobile.


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