1941: How Hemingway’s “offensive and lascivious” novel fell short

After 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 two decades, and nothing about that year’s crop of eligible titles gave anyone any reason to suspect that the streak would be broken.  By summer, however, the Board of Trustees of Columbia University (the administrators of the Pulitzer Prizes) announced that the prize board had recommended that no award be given for any of the year’s novels.  How did this unexpected turn of events come to pass?

Going into the prize season, a poll of the nation’s book reviewers revealed that two titles were considered heavy favorites—the first, Ernest Hemingway‘s For Whom The Bell Tolls, a novel about the Spanish Civil War by a renowned (if somewhat brash) author who had finally found mainstream success, both critically and financially.  The second, Kenneth RobertsOliver Wiswell, a now-forgotten novel set during the American Revolution—Wiswell was, it was generally agreed, a good novel, but unlikely to dethrone Hemingway’s triumph.  “Papa Bear” and his novel, though, had to clear three hurdles to get to the prize: the Pulitzer fiction jury, whose recommendations would carry much weight; the Pulitzer Board, the group of journalists who made final selections in every prize category; and the Board of Trustees at Columbia, whose approval had always been more or less a rubber stamp endorsing whatever decision had been made by the Pulitzer Board.

The fiction jury that year is the first (that I know of) to include a woman—Dorothy Canfield Fisher, a novelist, would join Professors Joseph Krutch and Jefferson Fletcher, who had both served as jurors for a number of years.  Whether this worked against Hemingway, whose hypermasculine attitudes were widely known by this time, is unclear—what is known is that neither his novel nor Roberts’ story of Revolutionary frontiersmen received the imprimatur of the fiction jury.  Instead, the jurors listed their two top choices, which they recommended as co-equal candidates who ought to share that year’s award—Conrad Richter‘s The Trees, and Walter Van Tilburg Clark‘s The Ox-Bow Incident.  As was the custom in those years, below the recommended titles, the jurors listed several alternatives that hadn’t quite won them over, along with commentary.  Both Hemingway’s and Roberts’ novels appear in this portion of the list: Hemingway’s in particular is described as a book “whose faults partly outweigh its merits”.  The jury acknowledges its power, but finds elements in the story so bizarre as to seem “absurd”.  The language suggests (to me, at least) that even listing the title on the shortlist was a point of contention.

As the Pulitzer Board—then, as now, composed entirely of journalists—met to discuss the jury recommendations for the prizes, the President of Columbia University, Nicholas Murray Butler, would likely have felt no tension as the prize for the novel came up for discussion.  Richter’s novel about pioneer life would have seemed much at home among the calmer titles that had received the award in the 1920s and 1930s, and even Clark’s account of frontier vigilante justice gone wrong, political as it was, was mild by comparison with the previous year’s winner, Steinbeck’s incendiary Grapes of Wrath.  Either book (or both, if the Board backed the jury’s recommendation of a shared award) would make small ripples, at most, if selected.  To Butler’s evident shock, the journalists had arrived with ideas of their own: the group immediately and whole-heartedly pushed For Whom The Bell Tolls to the top of the list, and reached agreement with relative speed that it should be the sole recipient of the Pulitzer for the Novel.  Butler stood and denounced the novel as, according to one account, “offensive and lascivious” and urged the Board to reconsider.  The journalists felt that there was really nothing “offensive” or “lascivious” about the work, and held their ground.  While some of Hemingway’s earlier works had more aggressively crossed the boundaries of “acceptable” content, For Whom The Bell Tolls was a very mainstream book—a “Book-of-the-Month Club” selection, in fact, sent by mail to thousands of middle-class American homes—and the Board members apparently felt that Butler was responding to Hemingway’s personal reputation more than to the content of the novel being considered.

English: Hemingway posing for a dust jacket ph...

Hemingway posing for the dust jacket of For Whom The Bell Tolls—he’d have to wait another decade-plus to pose with the Pulitzer Prize in his hands. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At this point, Butler plays his last trump card—he moves around the room to stand at the doorway leading from this meeting into the conference room where the Board of Trustees met.  Summoning up all his dignity and authority, Butler demanded to know which man present really had the impudence to ask the Board of Trustees of Columbia University to associate itself with a work of this quality and character.  Over two decades later, one journalist who had served on the 1941 Board commented that no one then present is likely ever to forget Butler’s “Olympian mien”.  The journalists wavered, no one daring to challenge the venerable university president, and elected to forego issuing the award, rather than being forced to bestow it on (in their opinion) a less deserving book.

Remarkably, despite the high emotions involved in the meeting, none of this backroom argument found its way into the press until the early 1960s—at the time, only two publications even hinted that Hemingway’s book had been close to receiving the award.  Otherwise the journalists in that room kept mum, and their papers published the simple news that no book had been found deserving.  The Fiction jury, having suggested (to their mind) two excellent and deserving nominees, sent word via Frank Fackenthal, the man in charge of organizing the Pulitzer Prizes, to President Butler that they felt ill-treated, and that it would be hard to recruit jurors in the future if their opinions were to be so lightly cast aside by a board of journalists, most of whom had not read the books in question.  (One particular anecdote irked them—a board member is alleged to have said that the jury’s suggestions were really very short, and didn’t seem as deserving as a big volume like Hemingway’s novel.  The jury understandably thought this a ridiculous standard to work from.)  Butler replied to Fackenthal in a letter expressing astonishment that the jury should feel at all dismayed—they had made recommendations, the board had engaged in “desultory conversation” over a few of the titles atop the list, and then someone had spontaneously moved to give no award that year, and the motion carried.  If anything other than this very ordinary sequence of events is alleged to have happened, he very much wanted to know about it, as he had heard no other account.  The following year, Krutch and Fletcher were back again, but Dorothy Fisher was not invited to return: I have no idea if this had anything to do with the events surrounding Hemingway or the complaint filed with Fackenthal, but it’s intriguing.

They say you never want to see how two things are made—laws and sausages.  The events associated with the 1941 award suggest to me that we might add literary prizes to that list.  In any case, it’s fascinating to me how the prize worked at the time: I regret that Butler’s moral indignation didn’t assert itself at one or two earlier recipients, and I regret that it interposed itself between Hemingway and the prize in a year where his work would have been more than deserving.  It would have been fun to read the book and blog it here, but I’m observing my “rules” for now.  Maybe someday when I finish this quest, I’ll come around again and pick up titles like For Whom The Bell Tolls.  For now, it’s on to 1942 and Ellen Glasgow.

(I’ll note that in the above account of the 1941 squabble over the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel, I am thoroughly reliant on two sources that have been indispensable to me throughout this blog’s life: W. J. Stuckey’s The Pulitzer Prize Novels: A Critical Backward Look, and John Hohenberg’s The Pulitzer Prizes: A History of the Awards in Books, Drama, Music, and Journalism, Based on the Private Files over Six Decades.)

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