The first seven years of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel: What they didn’t choose, and what they tried not to choose

Given the ongoing discussion of the decision by the Pulitzer Board not to award a prize in fiction in 2012, and given the curiosity it’s piqued for me about the history of such snubs, I’ve done some reading up on the subject and thought I’d share some of what I’ve learned here.  This is made all the more interesting for me since it’s caused me to look back at the earliest years of the prize, and books that I remember (with fondness and with horror) from 2-3 years ago when I began this somewhat quixotic journey.  I should acknowledge that, throughout the post, I am deeply indebted to two books for the information they provide: John Hohenberg’s The Pulitzer Prizes, a history of the prizes in all subjects (not just fiction) published in 1974, and Heinz and Erika Fischer’s Chronicle of the Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction, which was brought out (in English) by a German publisher in 2007 as part of a multi-volume series on the Pulitzers.  Thanks to them, I can report, not only on the first two snubs made by the Pulitzer Board for the novel prize, but on the three snubs-that-might-have-been—two of which I wish-had-been—all of which take place from 1917 to 1924.

In my previous reading on the subject, there had been confusion about whether there really was a “snub” in 1917, the first year the prize was to have been awarded: there was some suggestion in the sources I’d originally read that the committee couldn’t get organized that year, and never even considered issuing an award.  In fact, the truth is somewhere close to that: the jury received 6 submissions, one of which was ineligible, and 4 of which they immediately deemed obviously unacceptable.  Left with only one half-way acceptable title (whose name, alas, I do not know), they informed the Board that, under the circumstances, they really felt they couldn’t make a recommendation, as they were sure many worthy candidates simply hadn’t made it to their desk.

American novelist Ernest Poole (1880-1950), fi...

Ernest Poole, the only novelist in the prize's first five years to win the Pulitzer hands-down (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1918, the decision to award the prize to His Family was apparently very smooth (although allegedly it was largely out of a desire to honor Ernest Poole for his previous work, published before the inception of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel).  In 1919, however, the jury considered all the submissions and told the Board it could not in good faith award a prize.  One source indicates they in fact told the Board this on two separate occasions.  Whether the jury felt pressured not to dodge the award twice in its first three years, or whether they simply had a late change of heart, apparently at the last possible moment a note reached Frank Fackenthal, Columbia University’s secretary and the man initially tasked with overseeing the awards, saying essentially “Is it too late for us to consider giving the award to The Magnificent Ambersons?”  Fackenthal must have been desperate to avoid another snub year, since he rapidly contacted all the board members and got them to agree to issue the award to Tarkington’s novel.  Those of you familiar with my review of the novel will perhaps understand my wish that Fackenthal had been just a little less efficient: certainly if Ambersons was 1919′s best work, I think the jury would have been well-advised to stick with their first instinct.

Fackenthal wouldn’t be lucky again, though, since 1920′s selections proved impossible: the jury apparently got almost nowhere, unlike other, later snub years, in which juries reached conclusions only to have them over-ruled by the Board.  One jury member, a professor at the University of Illinois named Stuart Sherman, advocated openly for Joseph Hergesheimer‘s Java Head before it was pointed out to him that the award (at that time) had to recognize a work that, among other things, reflected the “wholesome atmosphere” of American life.  Sherman agreed that Hergesheimer’s work wasn’t remotely “wholesome”, and famously remarked that “we ought not to crown a licentious work, but I don’t believe we should hold off till a novel appears fit for a Sunday School library.”  Sherman was unable to move any other members of the jury, and their recommendation not to issue an award was approved by the Board.

In 1921, the jury was deadlocked again, although this time over the question of whether or not Sinclair Lewis‘s Main Street was worthy of the prize, given how sharp (some would say mean-spirited) his satire was.  My sources vary on the question of how many jurors supported Lewis’s book—and on the important question of whether the jury’s foreman, Hamlin Garland, supported it—but in the end we know only that the jury did recommend that the Board select Main Street, and that the Board ultimately chose instead to recognize a book commended (but not recommended) by the jury: Edith Wharton‘s The Age of Innocence.  Sinclair Lewis was outraged at the decision, and always suspected that one or more jurors had privately shared misgivings with the Board that had steered the award away from him.  Suspicion is also cast on the role Columbia’s president, Nicholas Butler, may have played in the decision, based on a letter Fackenthal later wrote suggesting that the Board wasn’t particularly inclined to quarrel with the jury’s selection.  Personally, having read Wharton’s novel (which is truly excellent) and another novel by Lewis (his Arrowsmith, which was awarded the Pulitzer in 1926, although he refused the check), I share Hohenberg’s feeling that the Board got it right.  As he remarks, “The Age of Innocence has outlasted the vogue of Main Street.  Mrs. Wharton’s book is still recognized as a classic, while Lewis’s is sadly dated.”  Still, the decision is indicative of how difficult it is for the jury and Board to settle on a winner—at the end of the prize’s first 5 years, we have only one definitive winner, 1918′s His Family.

The juries weren’t done casting aspersion on American literature.  After agreeing unanimously on recognizing Tarkington’s Alice Adams (a mediocrity: how the man won two of the first four Pulitzers awarded is a mystery to me), in 1923 and 1924, the jury on both occasions submitted a report to the Board that stated fairly openly that none of the novels merited receiving the Pulitzer, but given that the Board was likely to issue the award in any case, the jury recommended a title as the best of that year’s submissions.  Talk about damning with faint praise—it also suggests to me the uneasy truce between the Board and the novel jury, given what the Board had lived through during the first few years of the award (the chaos of the 1919 “oops” Tarkington decision and the relatively public PR fiasco of the 1921 decision to reject the jury’s recommendation can’t have been pleasant).  The jury’s willingness to “go along” was a good one in 1923, I think: although Willa Cather’s One of Ours is widely considered one of her lesser works, it was an enjoyable read for me, and I’m glad that one of the country’s better novelists of the early 20th Century got some deserved recognition (if for the wrong book).  In 1924, they should absolutely have stuck to their guns, since they proffered as the year’s best novel Margaret Wilson’s The Able McLaughlins, a book so profoundly offensive on every moral and artistic level that the review I wrote is still a little embarrassing to me (but to revise away any of its bile would be too kind to that book).

So, that’s the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel’s first seven years: no award, award, last-minute reluctant award, no award, scandal where the Board rejects the jury recommendation, award, very reluctant award, very reluctant award.  Not exactly a track record that gives confidence—it certainly would seem like a prize about to fizzle out as a well-meaning but hopeless endeavor.  I think the Board was lucky in the string of awards that followed in the late 1920s—recognition for popular authors like Edna Ferber and Sinclair Lewis, along with the “discovery” of a young unknown named Thornton Wilder who really took off after winning the Pulitzer, cemented the award’s place in the nation’s literary conversations, even if it was (and remains) criticized and condescended to (often justly) by many of the nation’s best novelists and critics.  I’m fascinated by what I’ve learned, and expect I’ll share more reflections of this kind periodically, now that I’ve gotten a hold of some decent source material to work from.  And soon, I promise, there will be an update about Honey in the Horn, through which I am moving at a slow but steady pace—I’d been waiting for something of interest to report, and am gradually realizing that I’ll just have to report on why I think the novel is uninteresting.  More on that soon, in any event.

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3 comments on “The first seven years of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel: What they didn’t choose, and what they tried not to choose

  1. Fascinating. You are quickly becoming my guide to all that is Pulitzer fiction. Meanwhile, having read a bunch of the recent ones, I can tell you that the winners are much better of late. Don’t get too bogged down in the early ones, you deserve the pleasure the later ones will give you, Stay safe and healthy so you can get to them!!

  2. [...] stumbling out the gate, and failing to award the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel twice in the award’s first four years, by 1941 the Pulitzer Board had issued an unbroken string of prizes to American novelists for over [...]

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