Pondering the Pulitzer Prize

The Pulitzer Prize was born in 1904 as part of a $2 million bequest by publisher Joseph Pulitzer to Columbia University.  Two hundred fifty thousand dollars was to go for annual prizes in journalism and arts and letters.  The remainder was earmarked for the establishment of a school of journalism.  Pulitzer wanted journalism to be perceived as a noble profession alongside medicine and law.  He chose an elite university and added prizes in arts and letters to ones for journalism, the snob appeal intended to confer respectability and elevate journalism in the eyes of the public.  Ironically, Pulitzer, a poster boy for tabloid journalism, founded one of the most prestigious journalism schools in the United States and created a coveted journalism award.  (The prize and the school were not the only things he bequeathed.  The fountain opposite the Plaza Hotel at the entrance to Central Park was also a Pulitzer bequest and is known as the Pulitzer Fountain.)

The first Pulitzer Prizes were awarded in 1917, six years after Pulitzer’s death.  The first Pulitzer Prize for a novel was given in 1918 to His Family by Earnest Poole.  Poole received $1000, the committee finding that his novel “best present[ed] the wholesome atmosphere of American life and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.”

The Pulitzer Prize for a novel (later renamed the prize for fiction) has a mixed record.  The committee honored Edith Wharton and John Steinbeck.  It recognized William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway but not until the twilight of their careers. Faulkner managed to win the award twice, the second posthumously. The list of overlooked writers is lengthy:  F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Sherwood Anderson, Kurt Vonnegut, James T. Farrell, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison.  No African-American author won the fiction prize until 1978, sixty years after His Family.  Bypassing The Great Gatsby for Arrowsmith (Sinclair Lewis). Maybe. The Old Man and the Sea (Hemingway) topping James Balwin’s Invisible Man.  Perhaps. But both A Farewell to Arms (Hemingway) and The Sound And The Fury (Faulkner) pushed aside in favor of Laughing Boy by Oliver La Farge?   Laughing Boy is now on my reading list since it must be a heck of a book.  Laughing Boy’s other claim to fame is that it along with ten other books were the subject of a United States Supreme Court decision that limited the power of school boards to remove books from school libraries.

Perhaps because of the Pulitzer’s spotty record in judging fiction, rival groups have established competing prizes.  In 1950, the National Book Foundation launched the National Book Award. The Pen/Faulkner Foundation began awarding a prize for fiction in 1981.   Regional, specialized, and genre prizes abound:  Hugo Prize (science fiction); Nebula Awards (science fiction and fantasy); Edgar Awards (mystery—bet you can’t guess whom they’re named after); the Dos Passos Awards (original exploration of American themes); the Siba Book Award (for books southern in nature or by a southern author) and Rita Awards (romance).  That’s just to name a few. And that’s all before getting to international literary awards.

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8 thoughts on “Pondering the Pulitzer Prize

  1. You bring up the historical issue of judging excellence in books in their time. With the internet and every TD&H weighing in with their own reviews of books…..and the “official” reviews becoming quite suspect as to kowtowing or having misplaced loyalty to publishing and sales rather than truth…it is exceptionally difficult to believe prizes and awards and reviews and recommendations. Do you think the Pulitzer had its own prejudices in its day?

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  2. I think every group has unconscious biases, which is why prizes have proliferated. But since there needs to be a floor, I start with prizewinners and books reviewed in the NY Times or occasionally Entertainment Magazine or the New Yorker when I’m reading recent literature. Otherwise you end up reading everything. For me one of the goals of this blog is to train myself not to read only the top sellers or the elitist books of today, but to see if I can learn something from neglected books from long ago. Although His Family was disappointing, I did get something out of it. I have same attitude toward movies. I’m using Rotten Tomatoes as a current tool. If I let myself I would constantly be on Netflix, Amazon Prime, or in the theater.

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  3. Besides the books that ended up becoming classics–Grapes of Wrath, Old Man In The Sea, and even Gone with the Wind–I’ve liked All The King’s Men, Andersonville, The Killer Angels, and most recently The Goldfinch.

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