Sinclair Lewis was not a man to shy away from controversy. His 1920 novel Main Street, was controversial, and the subsequent rejection of it by the Pulitzer Prize advisory board began a controversy between the Pulitzer Prize board and Sinclair Lewis that came to a head in 1926.
After the past year’s controversy over the selection of Edna Ferber’s So Big, none of the novel jurors returned the next year. However, Robert M. Lovett, who had previously served on the 1921 jury recommending Main Street for the Pulitzer came back to serve on the 1926 jury, along with two new jurors, Richard Burton and Edwin Lefèvre. The jury unanimously recommended Sinclair Lewis’ Arrowsmith for the award, citing as other notable books from the year The Smiths by Janet Fairbanks and Porgy by Du Bose Heyward.
Sinclair Lewis was informed by his publisher before the prize announcement that he would be awarded the prize, which he stated, in a letter back, he meant to refuse on account of what he called the “Main Street burglary” in 1921. Thus, when he was officially notified of his being awarded the prize, he had already had time to craft and perfect a response to the Pulitzer Prize Committee.
His letter, which was made public after the prize announcement, is full of harsh and bitter accusations against the Pulitzer Prize for Novel. He calls the Prize “particularly objectionable” because it causes writers to “write this, or timorously to avoid writing that, in order to tickle the prejudices of a haphazard committee.” He complains especially about the prize criteria being for the “wholesome” novels dealing with the “highest standard of American manners and manhood,” stating that this causes the prize to be awarded “not according to their actual literary merit but in obedience to whatever code of Good Form may chance to be popular at the moment.”
Lewis complains that in the past decade since the Pulitzer Prizes were begun, the public has come to believe that the award is given each year to “the best novel” and that the Pulitzer Prize committee has come to be seen as “a pontifical body with the discernment and the power to grant the prize as the ultimate proof of merit.” He warns that in another generation, the power will become so rooted that “to challenge them will be to commit blasphemy.”
Lewis complains that the literary prize systems in America compel writers “to become safe, polite, obedient, and sterile” and exhorts writers to regularly reject the Pulitzer to prevent its power from becoming to great. He concludes by stating that acceptance of the prize publicly confirms them as the “final judges of literary excellence,” and asks “whether any prize is worth that subservience.”
The full letter can be read here on Letters of Note, whose archive is full of other wonderful letters.
As can be expected, the letter created an uproar when it was released to the public, with much of the literary scene standing behind Lewis, though much of the press “criticized Lewis for his thirst for publicity and questioned the sincerity of his motives,” according to John Hohenberg.
Sinclair Lewis’ letter did not only make an impact on the public, but on the administration of the Pulitzer Prize, because quietly, and before the administration of the next Pulitzer Prizes, the wording of the Novel criteria was changed, and the word “wholesome” was changed back to the original wording set out by Joseph Pulitzer, so the criteria now read, “for the American novel published during the year which shall best present the whole atmosphere of American life, and the highest standards of American manners and manhood.” Although Lewis did not manage to remove the final clause of the prize criteria, he did, at least, introduce the possibility of unwholesome literature winning a Pulitzer Prize.
But perhaps the last laugh in the whole ordeal went to the Pulitzer Prize. Lewis returned the $1000 prize money, which was placed back in the Pulitzer Prize Fund, and President Butler of Columbia University, when asked whether they should remove Arrowsmith from the Pulitzer Prize records, stated, “Let it stand.” Thus, Sinclair Lewis, despite his best efforts, is still listed as the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Novel for 1926, and the Pulitzer Prize for Novel got all the publicity–not only from Lewis’ letter, but also from having his name on their winners list–and they still had the $1000.
Currently reading: Early Autumn by Louis Bromfield