The 1929 Novel Decision

With the new terms for the prize, the same three member jury from the year before convened, and unanimously recommended John R. Oliver’s Victim and Victor for the award, stating that it “is of fine quality as a piece of literary work, deals with important elements in the native life, and has most unusual spiritual elevation and significance.” They went on to call it a “sound piece of literature and a noble interpretation of the human character.” The report went on to add that Julia Peterkin’s Scarlet Sister Mary “came close in our estimation to the winning book.”

Before the Committee met and made a final decision, Richard Burton, the chairman of the novel jury, gave a lecture in which he called Oliver’s Victim and Victor “a book not just for a year, but for many years,” and despite the supposed secrecy of the members of the novel jury, it became known that Burton was a member, and the public suspected Oliver would win the Pulitzer that year. Burton, at the request of Frank Fackenthal (the current secretary of Columbia University, and the recipient of all the jury reports), submitted a clarification of the jury report, in which he stated that he would have selected Scarlet Sister Mary for the prize, “had not Victim and Victor appeared.” Burton went on the request his removal from the novel jury in the future “in view of the undesirable publicity concerning the award” and “the fact that I always am open to misinterpretation in connection with my lecture work.”

When the Advisory Board did meet, they could not decide between Victim and Victor and Scarlet Sister Mary based on the jury report, and so the members read both books and submitted their selections for the prize by mail. Scarlet Sister Mary won out in this selection and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Novel in 1929.

John R. Oliver, after the Prize was announced, wrote complaining about the premature publicity and embarrassment he received as a result of Burton’s remarks, and asked that the university endeavor to keep the proceedings secret until the prize was announced to prevent a similar situation from occurring again. Oliver received an apology from the university, and efforts were made (with limited success) to keep the proceedings secret until the Advisory Board had made a final decision.

Currently reading: Victim and Victor by John R. Oliver



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