The 1921 Novel Decision

The novel jury in 1921 was the first jury since the Pulitzer Prize began to not contain any of the original 3 jurors. Stuart P. Sherman, the new jury member from the year before, who had been the one to suggest Java Head before he understood the wording change from “whole” to “wholesome” had similar issues with the 1921 nominees, as well. Joined by two new jury members, they were faced with Sinclair Lewis’ controversial Main Street. Lewis’ novel attacked middle America, and painted a less than ideal picture of small town people in the heart of the country, and became one of the best selling and most talked about books that year. One of the new jurors, Hamlin Garland, called Main Street “vicious and vengeful,” but was convinced by the other two jury members to back their recommendation of Main Street to the Pulitzer Prize Board, while also mentioning favorably Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence in the jury report.

The Board had some trouble, and a fair bit of discussion over the recommendation of Main Street, and several of the Board members felt similarly to Hamlin Garland. Enough members, in fact, that the Board eventually decided to overturn the jury recommendation and by a split vote, awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Novel in 1921 to Edith Wharton. This was the first time, but by no means would it be the last, that the Prize Board would overturn or ignore the recommendation of the jury.

The jurors, wanting their side of the decision to be made clear, revealed their original recommendation in The New Republic, a newspaper at which one of the jury members worked, causing some amount of public debate and protest. Edith Wharton would go on to criticize the Pulitzer Prize, after the Novel Jury details became public, and, because of her public criticism, Sinclair Lewis would dedicate his next novel, Babbitt, to her. But the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for Novel, and the controversy made public by the jury members, would set in motion events that would come to a head in 1926, when Sinclair Lewis would once again become a part of the Pulitzer controversies and lead to the first of many changes in the official wording and judging of the Pulitzer Prize for Novel.

Currently reading: Main Street by Sinclair Lewis


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