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.)

“To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.”

So begins John Steinbeck‘s The Grapes of Wrath, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1940.  With Grapes, I take on what is probably the most well-regarded novel in Pulitzer’s pantheon—the book that, more than any other recipient of the honor (with apologies to Edith Wharton and Harper Lee), has the status of “classic American novel” across almost every demographic.  Well-regarded by critics and lay readers, praised by grad students and by 11th graders (at least on occasion), its title is instantly recognizable to most of the reading public, and if Americans were asked to list novels they know are supposed to be “great” or “important”, I have no trouble believing that Grapes would make the top ten.  Its popularity is not universal, of course, but no book can make that claim.  Still, its public esteem towers above most of its Pulitzer brothers and sisters—forgotten novels that survive now only on dusty library shelves and in the hands of well-intentioned if mediocre bloggers—as a name that does the prize credit.  Like Babe Ruth or Nadia Comenici, we can argue about whether it remains the very best of its peers, but we are sure that no list of the “greatest” would be accurate if it is excluded.  This is pretty lofty praise, I know, but I think it’s worth acknowledging that I’m approaching a book with a daunting reputation—one of the few books on the list where I feel as though, if I review it negatively, my comments will reflect more badly on me than they will on the book, whose fame will more than defend it.  This is not to say I won’t be honest about it!  But it does give pause.

English: (1885-1978) US journalist Source: htt...

Seriously, Anna Louise Strong is fascinating—agree with her or not (and I often don’t), reading her work made me think, which is one of my highest compliments. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My history with Steinbeck is limited to having taught Of Mice and Men once (and loving it), and having done a little reading of excerpts here and there—otherwise I know him more by his reputation than by anything else.  I’ve never even tried to read The Grapes of Wrath, nor have I seen the film (though I’ve seen still photographs of a young Henry Fonda often enough that, like it or not, he’s Tom Joad for me).  The closest I’ve ever come to reading it was during a project I worked on at the University of Washington—when combing through the letters of Anna Louise Strong, a famous socialist/communist writer, I found, read, and scanned her letters to Eleanor Roosevelt (who, it must be said, seemed to enjoy sparring with Strong, but wasn’t terribly receptive to her more radical leanings).  In a letter written in April of 1939, she talks about her travels with John Steinbeck in California, and implores Eleanor to read his “tremendous novel,” The Grapes of Wrath, which has just come out.  Roosevelt read the book, called it “an unforgettable experience”, and became one of Steinbeck’s staunchest defenders against public criticism about the political implications of his work.  I was intrigued by this exchange—and by Strong, a fascinating woman whose memoirs are well worth the read…not many people were close with both Trotsky and Mao, and her stories about traveling in the Soviet Union right after the Revolution are really spell-binding—but never got as far as picking up a copy.  I don’t know what slowed me down…maybe I just got distracted?

Anyway, I’ve read the first two chapters, and so far I’m loving it.  Steinbeck has an incredible eye for detail—most of the time, when I read, the opening chapters irritate me as authors stumble again and again over little errors.  Trains disappear behind hills that couldn’t possibly be there if the landscape was accurately described; trees in the wind suddenly behave like cartoon caricatures rather than looking like trees actually do in a storm; etc.  But Steinbeck has really beautiful command of almost every detail, capturing the little gestures and tics that make humans real, and describing them with economy and skill.  Joad’s character is really well-formed from almost the moment he speaks: the interactions with the truck driver ring almost perfectly true, and the language captures the feel and sound of Oklahoma farmers and truck drivers without resorting to the sloppy, slangy dialect that most other American novelists of the period seemed to think was de rigeur.  Obviously at this early stage I can’t anticipate much of where the story’s going, but I like how fully he immerses me in the world from the beginning.  As much as I loved Now in November, and I truly did love that book, the maturity of Steinbeck’s prose is signalling to me already that this book will depict the grim reality of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression in a way that Josephine Johnson’s novel couldn’t do as well.  If I’m right, this is going to be a really wonderful reading experience, and I’m looking forward to a book for the first time in a little while, which is nice.

This isn’t to say that it’ll be all roses for Steinbeck.  I’m a little concerned about the pacing of the story, and whether or not he’ll try too hard to take in the big epic generalities that he does in the first chapter (which is often great reading, but feels a little remote—I’d rather stick with the Joads, I think, if it’s all the same to him).  And I know that I’ll have to talk about gender—a criticism I’ve levied against Mice and Men (a book I otherwise really dig) and which I can already tell will be at least partly applicable to Grapes.  I’ve started well and then faded fast before, too, so I’ll keep an eye out for that…for now, it’s onward into Oklahoma in the 1930s, and one of the book’s most celebrated moments, involving a reptile of the order Testudines.

“A column of smoke rose thin and straight from the cabin chimney.”

Thus begins The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1939.  This is the story of young Jody Baxter, an only child living in the wilds of rural Florida sometime in the late 1800s.  I know eventually he’ll meet the title character—a young deer—but for now it’s just Jody at home.  What do I make of it so far?

There are a few warning signs that resemble bad trips I’ve been on before—weird inconsistencies (we are told that A) the dogs pay rapt attention to Jody and B) the dogs pay no attention to Jody, literally five sentences apart), occasional inaccurate observations about natural phenomena (although to Rawlings’s credit, most of her observations about natural creatures and events are spot on), and a heavy reliance on dialect.  As dialects go, Jody and his parents speak something slightly more incomprehensible than Cean and her family in Lamb in His Bosom, but less comprehensible than the worst excesses of Scarlet Sister Mary.  So far, the dialect hasn’t posed any major problems in getting character depth (unlike both of the aforementioned works), but that’s mostly because none of the conversations so far are all that deep—dialect or no dialect, it’s hard to screw up conversations about why a boy felt like running off to the ‘crick’, or how tasty his mother’s sweet potato pone is.  My concern is that, when we have to get into more difficult and complicated conversations, the dialect seems heavy enough to be an encumbrance, both on Rawlings and on me.  I’m not sure she can be deft enough with it to get across serious dialogue: certainly her predecessors in this arena did not acquit themselves with valor.

N.C. Wyeth

N.C. Wyeth, looking much more bad-ass than any illustration he ever drew. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But this leads me to my real underlying fear: what if the book never tries for anything sufficiently serious?  This is the only Pulitzer I’ve run into so far that is shelved with the children’s literature in the library—my edition has big, Sunday School style illustrations of a cherubic blond boy playing with wild animals.  (Okay, the illustrator is N. C. Wyeth, who probably deserves a kinder summary than that, but I’m sorry, they look exactly like the feltboard images I remember from Sunday School classes when I was 8.)  What I’ve read so far reminds me very much of other children’s literature I read when I was eight or nine—Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series, maybe, or The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew.  And I’ll admit that I’m not terribly enthusiastic about that fact.  Jody is sweet, and his parents seem charming, and I can’t pinpoint anything about the novel that seems off-putting right now, but honestly a lot of that feels like the novel’s determination to maintain a peaceful little glow surrounding the characters.  I’m sure there will be conflict—I suspect around the whole “you can’t cage a wild animal, Jody” notion, though admittedly I know nothing about the deer or how it enters Jody’s life—but the stakes seem so low right now, it’s hard to work out how to get invested in it.

This, it seems to me, will be a nice chance for us to have a brief conversation about whether children’s literature deserves equal footing with literature for adults, in discussions of quality.  Is it plausible that a novel written for nine or ten year olds (if The Yearling really is such a thing—time alone will tell) could be the best novel of the year in the United States, worthy of acclaim above any “adult” competitors?  This year, Rawlings’ novel beats out, among other titles, John dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy, and William Faulkner’s The Unvanquished.  I’m interested in that decision, and the larger children’s lit question I posed.  I think we can all agree that, below a certain level, children’s books can’t be talked about in the same light as adult books—I don’t care how much your kids love Goodnight Moon, it doesn’t deserve a Pulitzer.  (Well done, James—here comes the hate mail!)  But there’s a hard case left in the middle here—hard, in part, because many books not written for children are now associated with them and largely read by them, like the work of Lewis Carroll, or, to name a Pulitzer winner, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird.  I don’t know who Rawlings wrote The Yearling for.  For all I know, she didn’t know either.  I guess we can get into author intention too, if we like, if we think that’s important.  But I’ll leave my fundamental question to you (which I hope you’ll respond to in the comments) as I basically set it out above: If we’re trying to assess the “greatness” of a book, can we compare books written for adults and books written for children on a more or less even playing field?

I’ll stipulate at the outset that I read and loved children’s literature as a child, that I still (on occasion) read from that category, both old and new titles, and that I think there’s no question it has immense value for children, and for adults.  I’m just wondering whether it has a place on a “this is the best novel written this year” list.  My wife tells me this is snobbery, and she may be right: full disclosure—she reads children’s and YA titles pretty extensively these days, and I do only rarely.  I don’t know if my failure to get excited about the genre is a personal flaw or not, but I’m willing, at least, to be convicted on those charges if the evidence is sufficiently sound.  And I recognize that, in part, the challenge here comes from the fact that any attempt to select a “best” work of art is deeply difficult, absolutely soaked with hubris, and probably unwise to begin with.  But if we are going to bother with a “best” novel, I wonder how we go about comparing Little House in the Big Woods (published in 1932) with The Store (the Pulitzer winner in 1933, and so Wilder’s competition).  Your reflections are, as always, avidly solicited.

Benjamin Hale and the ongoing hand-wringing over the failure to award the Pulitzer for Fiction in 2012

I’d set this particular topic down weeks ago, but a blog I read steered me to this essay about the Pulitzer Prize by Benjamin Hale, a novelist (who was eligible this year, but he swears that isn’t influencing him at all—Ann Patchett swore the same thing in her diatribe written several weeks ago….no offense to either writer, but I think in both cases the writer doth protest too much).  I would have let him go by uncommented, but A) he takes a shot at Laughing Boy, the winner in 1930, B) he takes a broad shot at all the early winners, and C) he takes a shot at the very notion that anyone would dare consider themselves fit to award a prize for true art.  I think Hale makes a few very reasonable observations, but I think he misses the boat in a few other ways, and hey, this is the Internet, and we both get to have our say.  He talks to an audience of tens of thousands, and I talk to you, my friends, fellow lit-bloggers, and spammers (how’s that American Airways scam coming, by the way? you guys really seem to be pushing it hard this week).  But I’ll take you all over his New York literati friends, who seem to be a relatively nice lot, I guess, but they seem awfully self-congratulatory as well (or that’s how his piece came off when I read it).

Anyway, here’s my responses, in order.  Laughing Boy, I will grant you, is not a work of lasting cultural impact like Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, although I kind of doubt Mr. Hale has read it.  If he had, he’d know that, unlike Hemingway, Oliver La Farge was doing something really extraordinary in 1930—he was a white American man writing a thoughtful and serious portrayal of minority characters, in which white Americans figure as bit players (and mostly cast in the role of villains—or at the very least are negatively portrayed).  In fact, I am hard-pressed to name any other young white male author doing anything so culturally smart and open-minded in that era—if there are others, I’d like to know about them.  No, La Farge is not Hemingway or Faulkner.  But to single his one book out as the Pulitzer’s most scorn-worthy decision is really cheap, and frankly I think shows that Hale is unfamiliar with the work, which doesn’t really inspire confidence.  I could certainly give him Pulitzers to rant about, if he wants them.

Regarding his shot at the early Pulitzer winners, I think that he seems awfully smug about the “forgotten” early novels, given that he then spends much of the rest of his piece noting that artists are not always appreciated in their own time—in particular, he wishes that he could encourage the unappreciated-in-his-time Herman Melville.  I agree with him on Melville, but here’s my question for Hale: how do you know that these novels have been justly forgotten?  Isn’t it possible that many of them have been as wrongly neglected today as Melville was wrongly neglected in his lifetime?  Why should we assume that our tastes now are better than their tastes were then?  I know from experience the worth of tackling another age’s literature and trying to understand it.  Sure, it’s sometimes deeply disappointing—I think we are better at seeing and appreciating some things now (like the validity of minority viewpoints and experiences)—but at other times I have been truly and wonderfully surprised.  I somehow suspect I’ve read far more of the Pulitzer’s first 20 years than Mr. Hale has—I can’t match his credentials as a writer, but I’d thank him not to talk too loudly about novels whose worth he’s been content to judge purely by their current popularity among the  academics with whom he discusses books.  Perhaps in another decade, or century, Josephine W. Johnson will be received into the canon as an important American voice, and T. S. Stribling will be acknowledged as having been as perceptive about the South he tried to chronicle as the vaunted William Faulkner was about his South.  I’ll admit it seems far-fetched.  But then, many authors have languished for centuries in obscurity before being returned to the light by the right critic champion.  Anyway, the basic problem I have is that his own argument undercuts his dismissive attitude about the early Pulitzer winners.

Lastly….man, am I reluctant to come out swinging in defense of literary awards.  I didn’t choose the Pulitzers for this blog’s mission because I’ve always been such a big fan.  I don’t hang breathlessly on the National Book Award nominations, and I’ll confess that I probably couldn’t name five Man Booker winners if you held a gun to my head.  But Hale’s lengthy ramble hits all sorts of odd points—attacking the idea of twenty journalists handing out the Pulitzer Prize, attacking groupthink on awards committees in general, side-swiping the Grammys for never giving awards to punk bands, etc., etc.—and really got under my skin after a while.  Firstly, Mr. Hale, on behalf of book lovers and librarians everywhere, I would ask you to cut out the professionalization of literary opinion that has been disastrous for a couple of American generations of readers.  An MFA getting in high dudgeon because twenty journalists—I mean, can you believe it, journalists???—are issuing a prize for a novel (how dare they have an opinion?) is all of the things I hate most about literary snobbery.  Do you really think only MFAs and novelists should be allowed to hand out awards for novels?  That journalists should be denounced as “a roomful of people who don’t necessarily know anything about literature” suggests to me that Hale doesn’t think ordinary readers get to have their opinion, or else that their opinions are of no worth.  And I personally think that stinks.  The Pulitzers have never pretended to be anything but what they are—the journalists are all identified and the prize has always been awarded by them.  Hale doesn’t even know the prize’s terms—he’s angry that they’re choosing “the best”, when the Pulitzer is almost alone among literary prizes in that its criterion doesn’t include the word “best”.  It’s simply recognizing “distinguished fiction”.  It’s journalists selecting (with the advice of a group of literary-minded jurors) a novel that they think merits attention, and prize money.  Sure, there’s a “best” implied in the act, I suppose, in that they choose only one, but I admire the award’s humility in not claiming the word “best”.  If Hale thinks awards shouldn’t be given by “a roomful of people who don’t necessarily know anything about literature”, he’s welcome not to pay attention to their efforts, or to organize a group of top novelists who would issue their own award.  But to shout negatively about it is just going to continue the lousy atmosphere that’s crept up around “serious fiction” in the United States—the notion that it’s difficult, that it’s only for people with postgraduate degrees who donate money to NPR, that the common person can’t be supposed to understand it or have a well-informed opinion about it, etc.  The fact that he dwells on who’s giving the award, and their lack of qualifications (as compared with him and his literary friends) really sours me on his commentary.

Photo of Herman Melville

“Perhaps the hypos are getting the best of Mr. Hale. I suggest he sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And why is it journalists giving this award, Mr. Hale?  Because Joseph Pulitzer, that covetous old sinner, left money for prizes of all sorts, and in addition to encouraging other endeavors in the art of writing, he wanted there to be a prize for the novel.  Who does it hurt, Mr. Hale, that someone wins the prize?  No one that I can think of, off-hand.  But I know who it helps.  You see, while Hale is dancing around lamenting the fate of the poor, forgotten, neglected, penniless Herman Melville (who was all of those things, and whose fate was lamentable—I’m not disagreeing with him on the merits of that case), he’s forgetting that the Pulitzer is in part a way out for people just like Melville.  Thornton Wilder was an unknown boarding school teacher in 1928, with one failed novel to his name, when his second novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, won the Pulitzer Prize.  It drew attention to what turned out to be a remarkable little novel, and changed Wilder’s life—he left the prep school to teach at the University of Chicago, and went on to write many notable plays and novels, including the unforgettable Our Town.  Had it not been for the Pulitzer, it’s hard to know what Wilder’s life would have looked like…maybe a lot more like Herman Melville’s?  The point is that if Old Joe Pulitzer felt like leaving a little money and fame, to be handed out once a year to a reasonably accomplished American novelist, I can’t work out why Hale thinks it’s a bad idea.  Does he think the literary world overhypes the Pulitzer?  Okay, then encourage them to pay attention to other awards—or suggest that people read more broadly, or whatever you like.  But don’t pretend that what you’re doing in this essay is more noble than what Joseph Pulitzer’s endowment is doing.  Every year (well, er, except for 2012, and the other occasional years when the award isn’t given), a novelist’s career is impacted for the better by this prize.  Sometimes it’s a famous name, but when it’s not, it’s the sort of thing that changes their life.  If Hale doesn’t want artists dying in obscurity like Melville, I think he should want more prizes and awards, more outpourings of love for writers, not less.

I know I got a bit worked up over this, but Hale’s commentary was a train wreck [upon consideration, I think I was a bit over the line with “train wreck”, since I did think Hale made some useful comments—I’d replace the phrase with something more like “Hale’s commentary was weighed down too much by the things that bother me…”] of the things that bother me most, especially that portion of his rant that seemed to exclude anybody who didn’t have his credentials from having a worthwhile opinion about literature.  I think novelists, and the professionals in the field of writing and reading more generally, should be praising the idea that you don’t have to be a writer to like good writing, and the idea that there can be all sorts of legitimate and worthwhile responses to a novel.  Don’t box people into having to think “the right thing” about the “right writers”—if they hate Faulkner, or Melville, we should be encouraging them to say why they feel that way.  And we should let that conversation (intense though it may be) spur all of the people involved into being more thoughtful, more purposeful, more excited readers.  Hale loses track of that in his piece, and it’s a shame.  All right, enough of my playing Don Quixote on behalf of the Pulitzers—back to reading, and hopefully blogging in the near future.

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.

The 83rd Academy Awards: Follow-up

I said in my last post that I’d comment after the awards were over.  I’ll make a few comments just as a movie fan and then tie it back to a larger question about reading.  First of all, this may have been the most fun ceremony I’ve seen in a while.  It felt peppy the whole way through (thanks in large part to the effortlessly charming Anne Hathaway—best hosting performance in a long time, in my opinion), and I felt like most of the jokes landed (major props to Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law, who I thought were very funny and had great comic timing/chemistry — if they’re sold on these host duets, which I think usually fall flat, I’d pick the two of them to host the awards in a future year).  Secondly, the fact that no one movie blew away the competition suited the year, I think—lots of strong competitors, and no clear champion (though The King’s Speech claims the biggest prize, deservingly, and will get the most press tomorrow morning).  Thirdly, I was right in guessing that certain films I loved would go unrecognized—I think it’s most disappointing that True Grit received no awards, since the film was excellent in really all the ways a film can be, and it’s a shame to see it edged out by different films in so many categories.  But I’m assured by wise friends that in their opinion these are all deserving wins, and maybe they’re right.  I will say that, in every case where I saw the winning performance, I think a good call (if not the best call) was made, and I was really pleasantly surprised that my favorite animated short, “The Lost Thing” (by Shaun Tan, whose graphic novel The Arrival is beautiful and a must-read, in my opinion), won its award, which I had not remotely guessed (I thought either Pixar or the all-star cast of “The Gruffalo” would win).

My larger question about reading: the Academy does something the Pulitzer board doesn’t do.  It breaks down movies into elements, and recognizes that some are good in some areas and not in others.  Some of us care a lot about visual effects and not a lot about scores, some can be won over by a single great acting performance and others will care more about the wit of the writing.  Sure, there’s the “Best Picture” award at the end of the night—the “real winner”, if you will.  But I wonder if there’s something to be said for having sub-Pulitzers?  Best setting?  Best character?  What would you think of that idea?  And if you think we should have some, what awards should there be?  I’ve suggested two, but you might want more, or different, options.  If we come up with some ideas, I may try to hold an award like that here on the blog—solicit nominees for “best character of the 1920s and 1930s” or something like it, and see what we get.  I would be amused, anyway, and opening it up to all the novels of a decade or two would let a lot of you chime in on books that Pulitzer neglected (perhaps wrongly).  I’m curious to see what you put forward, and welcome all ideas.

The 83rd Academy Awards

As an award-following blog (though admittedly I’m “following” awards that are almost a century out of date, at present), it would be hard to let the Academy Awards go by without comment.  As it happens, though, I’m a huge fan of the Academy Awards.  This is not, it should be pointed out, a popular stance in the Oscar-watching blogs this time of year.  This is when Oscar-obsessed film bloggers, their eyes bugging out of their heads, screech about the “middlebrow taste” of the Academy, denounce the “bourgeois” tripe that is likely to get this year’s awards, and lament that the awards aren’t handed out by discerning critics who appreciate film history….people a lot like them.  The fact that these critics can’t agree between themselves on which films are “important” never seems to bother them.

The truth is, it’s really hard to agree on matters of taste—a fact even the ancient world was familiar with, given that “de gustibus non est disputandum” is handed down to us from those good old days.  The fact that film critics think they’re better qualified to pick award-winners than the people who actually make great films is not surprising…but it’s also a bit irksome, from my perspective.  I’m not saying the actors and directors and cinematographers are automatically more qualified to have an opinion—I just think their opinions shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.  People are always too willing to enshrine their personal opinions as “facts about the world”, rather than points of view.  I don’t begrudge anyone the right to express themselves clearly, but bashing other opinions (or, just as bad, explaining why people are “duped” or “following their hearts and not their heads” or whatever other excuses you make for why “your” movie won’t win) feels cheap to me.

All this talk about the Oscars, of course, has an important parallel with the Pulitzers, awards that (unlike the Oscars) are not generally chosen by those who work in the field, but also awards that (like the Oscars) often face the charge of being “middlebrow”, “boring”, and “safe”.  I don’t know, but wonder, what the novelists, essayists, and poets of the 1920s would have done if they’d had the Pulitzers to hand out.  Sure, we dream that they’d have picked a lot of Fitzgerald and Hemingway.  But I wonder if Tarkington wouldn’t have been just as successful.

I’m rambling, though, and I want to fixate on a couple of things about this year’s Oscars.  First of all, this vitriolic atmosphere on the Internet is about the only sour thing for me about this year’s awards.  I’ve seen 9 of the 10 Best Picture nominees (couldn’t watch James Franco cut his arm off—I’m sure it was a great film, honestly, but I just couldn’t bring myself to see it), and a wide range of other films: at least one nominee in every category but makeup, foreign language film, and documentary short subject, and a total of 24 films (feature and short).  And I’ve really enjoyed all but 2 of them, which is an astounding record in my opinion—I’ll admit that I can’t find anything to praise about a live-action short called “The Crush” (I have to believe there were better options), but I could even list off some good things about the other film I didn’t enjoy (“The Kids Are All Right”—I’m sorry, people, I don’t see what everyone was talking about).  And the other films were astounding, moving, thoughtful, gripping, funny…frankly, if liking these films makes my taste “middlebrow”, then may my forehead stay where it is forever.  Sure, I preferred some to others (and would be disappointed if some nominees beat out others, since I think there are some truly deserving winners this year), but I just can’t tap into this Internet anger—anger that’s primarily directed against what I think is likely the best film I saw this year, “The King’s Speech”, because it’s expected to defeat the film the critics call my generation’s movie, “The Social Network” (which, frankly, was also really good).

It’s caused me to wonder if people are more irrational about movies than books.  I mean, I can get pretty outraged about a bad book (some of you read my review on this blog of The Able McLaughlins….a review that, in all honesty, I probably should have reined myself in on more than I did).  And so can other people I know.  But I feel like I’ve seen (and participated in) louder and more diametrically opposed arguments about movies than ever about books.  There’s something a lot more emotional about these disagreements.  But am I right?  Or am I just reacting to this Oscar catfight with a misguided (and inaccurate) view of the conversations we have about books?  And if I’m right, why is it that we get more fired up about films (denigrating those we hate and worshiping those we love)?  I’m not arguing that people love films more than books in general—I’m saying that when people disagree about the merits of a film, they’re more passionate than when they disagree about a book.  And I might be wrong.

I’ll probably say a bit more after the Oscars.  For now, let me tell you to track down and see a couple of films that probably will get little attention tomorrow, since I think they’re worthy of more praise than that.  Mike Leigh’s “Another Year” is unlike the movies you normally see, because it’s essentially about good people who do their best to enjoy regular lives—actors who inhabit people, not roles, and who make you want to hang out with them in their backyard or go out to garden with them.  It won’t blow your mind, but as an exploration of love, and luck, and friendship, it’s pretty great.  And though the Coen brothers’ “True Grit” got some deserved good press, it’s gotten lost in the buzz for other films, and frankly I think it’s right up there with the best films I saw this year—fantastic dialogue, moving music, unbelievably gorgeous cinematography (which I hope is recognized: Roger Deakins is amazing), and wonderful performances spearheaded by a little girl named Hailee Steinfeld who you’ve never seen before (but who strikes me as having the presence and maturity to remain talented through the awkward transition years of her late teens).  Lastly, this year’s Live-Action Short Films are really pretty great—whether you like romantic comedy (“God of Love”), touching coming-of-age (“Wish 143”), or a serious take on the genocide in Burundi (“Na Wewe”), each of these will do more for you in 20 minutes than a lot of films can in 5 times that length.  Comcast will show you all 5 for $5 through OnDemand, and maybe poking around the Internet will find you links to them too (or perhaps you can buy them on iTunes).  No one watches short films anymore, I know: watch these to discover what you’ve been missing.