The 1925 Novel Decision

In 1925, the novel jury kept the chairman from the previous two years, but brought in two new members to complete the triumvirate. The three jurors could not come to any consensus on which novel should win the prize. William A. White, one of the new members, argued strongly for Edna Ferber’s So Big to be recommended for the prize, while the other newcomer, Oscar Firkins, wanted Joseph Hergesheimer’s Baslisand to be recommended (Hergesheimer had been denied the prize in 1920 for Java Head because his novel was not thought to fit the prize’s wording stipulating a novel that represented the “wholesome atmosphere of American life”). Both members were willing to call Laurence Stalling’s Plumes a second best, but the chairman, Jefferson Fletcher, objected to Plumes as the recommendation. In the jury report, Fletcher suggested that the prize be split equally between Balisand and So Big, to represent the split decision the jury came to, but added that he preferred Balisand for the prize himself.

In a supplemental letter included by Fletcher to the Pulitzer Prize Fund, William White explains in detail his thoughts on the novels. He says that Balisand, though artfully constructed, had an unimportant thesis and “besides, Balisand’s hero is a cad.” He states that his choice of So Big for the prize is possibly due to his “devilish lust for propaganda” and that he appreciated that the novel argued, “America needs creative spirit in something other than finance; that we should express ourselves in beautiful things, beautiful architecture, beautiful lines and that beauty is the sad and vital lack of America.”

The Prize Committee ignored Fletcher’s suggestion to split the prize, and his suggestion for Balisand, and instead awarded the prize in its entirety to Edna Ferber for So Big, which prompted Oscar Firkins, who had been strongly opposed to So Big, to write the president of the Prize Committee in protest. Firkins writes, “I acquiesced, unreluctantly, though not unregretfully, in Mr. Fletcher’s recommendation that the prize be divided between So Big and Balisand. I do not like divisions, but I love honesty even more than I hate division, and the divided award seemed to me an honest representation of the committee’s honestly divided mind.” He goes on to call the choice of So Big over Balisand for the Pulitzer a gross unfairness and says, “I will not soil my fingers with pay for any share that I may have had even in the innocent preliminaries that have issued in this iniquitous decision.” Firkins includes the hundred dollar check that was to be his compensation for working on the novel jury, and ends by saying he “shall feel entirely free {…] to communicate my views of this transaction to my personal friends or to the American public.”

If Firkins did share his disappointing experience with the Pulitzer Prize Committee, it does not seem to have made the waves that the 1921 decision made, when Sinclair Lewis was denied the prize for Main Street, but that may be because Hergesheimer fell out of favor just a few years later and has been all but forgotten. It may also be because any outrage that may have been expressed over the 1925 decision has since been overshadowed by what happened the next year when the 1926 Pulitzer Prize for Novel was announced.

Currently reading: Balisand by Joseph Hergesheimer

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