Several years ago, a friend recommended to me Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner. Having a pile of books already waiting in line to be read at the time (and most times), I placed it in the back of my mind, and the back of my bookshelf, until recently. As I began reading Angle of Repose, I was floored by the prose, the characters, and the very environment that Stegner weaves through American and personal history, and was not surprised to find that the book had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1972. It also made me wonder what other pieces of American history and literature sat in the list of Pulitzer Prize winners, so I did a little digging.
Established by the will of Joseph Pulitzer, a newspaper publisher, administered by Colombia University, and first awarded in 1917, the Pulitzer Prizes are awarded for a variety of topics in journalism and the arts, and gives out one of the longest-running awards for fiction (The Nobel Prize for Literature began in 1901, but is awarded for the entirety of an author’s work, and not a specific book). A look down the list of Pulitzer Prize winning books shows a lot of well-known American authors, and a number of books often found on high school and college curriculums. But looking through the winners, I found a surprising number of authors unfamiliar to me, and a surprising number of absences from the list of winners.
I also found a lot of controversy. From the creation of the award, the original wording stated that the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel should be given “for the American novel published during the year which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood,” a phrase often debated by the juries nominating books for the award, famously criticized by Sinclair Lewis when he rejected the award in 1926, and revised and changed throughout the years for various reasons. Most recently, the decision to not give an award in 2012 made waves for the apparent slight given to David Foster Wallace’s posthumous The Pale King. And even more intrigue, arguments, and controversies fill the years between.
So I decided to make my way through the Pulitzer Prize winning books of the last 96 years, for the literature and the controversy, to find those pieces of prose that blow you away, and to read those books that make you wonder what the juries and committees were thinking. To see which books have held up over the years and proven the worth of the Pulitzer Prize, and which books were a product of their era, with lesser lasting power.
86 books have won the Pulitzer Prize for Novel (through 1947) or the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (since 1948, another one of those controversies). Of those, I have read almost 7 (as I am still finishing Angle of Repose at this moment). There are several books I somehow avoided in high school and college, and a number of Pulitzer Prize winning authors whose work I’ve read extensively, but have thus far avoided the book that won them the award. I’ll be proceeding in a roughly chronological fashion (hopefully), and plan to chronicle my progress through the books, as well as some of the history behind certain years and controversies. I hope to have made my way through the winners (and perhaps some of the notable losers), by 2017, in time for the hundredth anniversary of the Pulitzer Prize, because that feels like a fairly achievable and not entirely arbitrary date. With the exception of the 2010 winner Tinkers by Paul Harding, which I reread a month ago, and will be posting about shortly, I plan on rereading all the other Pulitzer Prize winning novels that I have already read, because it’s been years since I read most of them.
Currently reading: Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner