The Origins of the Pulitzer Prize and the 1917 Novel Decision

The Pulitzer Prize was set up through stipulations in the will of Joseph Pulitzer, a newspaper publisher, to be overseen by Columbia University. Primarily a prize for journalism, Pulitzer wanted to encourage writers outside of journalism, and stipulated that awards be given for the best novel, play, biography, and history book of the year, as well. In the years since, prize categories have been added, subtracted, changed, and rewritten to become what it is today. The Novel category has undergone as many changes and revisions as any of the other categories, sometimes causing controversy, and sometimes by reason of controversy.

Joseph Pulitzer’s initial will stipulated that the prize be given, “Annually, for the American novel published during the year which shall best represent the whole atmosphere of American life, and the highest standards of American manners and manhood.” Before the first year of the awards however, the word “whole” was eventually changed to “wholesome” at the behest of Nicholas Murray Butler, then the president of Columbia University. This would lead to a whole slew of problems over the next few years.

But in 1917, the first year of the Pulitzer Prize, the Novel Prize jury had another problem, which stems from the application and selection process. To be considered for a Pulitzer Prize, the novel must be submitted with an application fee. And so, merely being published in America in the year 1916 was not enough to land any novel on the list for consideration for the prize. Furthermore, the decision process has two parts: first of all, a jury convenes on behalf of the Novel category and creates a report with their suggestions for how the prize should be awarded. This report is then taken into consideration by the Advisory Board and the Trustees of Columbia University, who decide the winner by majority vote, and have the power to (and on a few occasions have) reject the jury’s suggestions. Beginning in 1980, the juries would send three finalists, in order of preference, to the Advisory Board, and starting in 1985, the juries were tasked with sending the finalists without their preferences indicated (although a few years, they snuck in their opinions on who they believed deserved the prize). And of course, there have been problems with each of these systems. It was the application process, however, that caused trouble for the first Novel jury.

According to the jury report from 1917, “There were only six applicants for the prize, one of whom sent, not a printed book, but a manuscript, which fails to meet the requirement of publication during the year. Of the five books submitted in competition, all but one seem to us unworthy of consideration for the prize. We are unanimously of the opinion, however, that the merits of this book, though considerable, are no greater than that of several other novels, which though not included in the formal applications, have been taken into consideration by us in arriving at a verdict. We recommend that the award be withheld this year for the reason that no American novel of 1916 stands out so conspicuously from the rest as to deserve this special mark of recognition. An award by us would only mean a choice among equals and would be liable to misinterpretation.”

The Advisory Board took the jury’s suggestions and did not award a prize in the Novel category for the first year of the Pulitzer Prize. The jury further suggested that the prize be better advertised, “or at least called to the attention of the established writers in the country” so that subsequent years would not be faced with the same problems of limited applicants. Whether or not this was done is not entirely certain, but the applications were apparently of better merit, because in the following year the first Pulitzer Prize was awarded in the Novel category.

Much of the references to jury reports and information on the Pulitzer Prizes was found in Heinz-Dietrich Fisher’s The Pulitzer Prize Archive, specifically volumes 10, 17, and 21.

Currently Reading: His Family by Ernest Poole

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