How Four Letters Kept an Author from Winning the Pulitzer: the 1920 Novel Decision

Unlike the drama that played out amongst telegraphs and hastily submitted letters the year before, which succeeded in granting the prize for Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons, the drama in the 1920 committee played out behind the scenes and behind the documents. The letter sent by the jury to the Pulitzer Advisory Board is quite succinct and seems to leave little room for doubt: “On behalf of the Jury designated by the American Academy of Arts and Letters to recommend for a Pulitzer Prize the best novel of 1919, I have the honor to report that we are of the opinion that no award should be made.”

The 1920 Jury had a new member, one that supposedly was the center of a brief confusion about the nature of the prizes. John Hohenberg, secretary-administer of the Pulitzer Prizes from 1953 to 1976, wrote in his history of the Pulitzer Prizes in 1974 that the new juror had at first considered Joseph Hergesheimer’s Java Head for the Pulitzer, but that a confusion of four little letters caused him to change his mind. Apparently, this new juror, Stuart P. Sherman, was working off Joseph Pulitzer’s original wording, asking that the prize be given to the novel that “shall best present the whole atmosphere of American life, and the highest standards of American manners and manhood,” not realizing, at first, that the wording had been changed to read “wholesome” instead of “whole.” Once presented with the official wording by the Pulitzer Prize committee, Sherman agreed that Java Head “doesn’t at all obviously conform” to the award criteria.

Which of course begs the question: what is it about Joseph Hergesheimer’s novel that presents the “whole atmosphere of American life” but not the “wholesome atmosphere of American life?” And so, out of curiosity, and my tendency to add more books to this project, I am currently reading Java Head with the hopes of being able to answer that very question.

Currently reading: Java Head by Joseph Hergesheimer

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