The 1940 Novel Decision

The jury of Fletcher, Krutch, and Lovett returned for the third and final year in 1940, and by their opinion, had no trouble selecting their recommendation for the prize, writing in their report, “We are unanimously agreed to recommend as our first choice ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ by John Steinbeck,” calling it “the most powerful and significant of all the works submitted for our consideration.” As a second choice, they listed Escape by Ethel Vance, and in the case neither of those satisfied the committee, also provided To the End of the World by Helen White, Seasoned Timber by Dorothy Canfield, and Night Riders by Robert Penn Warren as tertiary recommendations.

While the jury had no problem recommending The Grapes of Wrath, some members of the Pulitzer Prize Advisory Board had problems with Steinbeck’s work being awarded the prize. In advance of their meeting, member Walter M. Harrison of the Oklahoma City paper Daily Oklahoman, wrote to the board trying to persuade them not to choose The Grapes of Wrath, stating that “such a decision would encourage more efforts in erotica by a host of authors writing for the market and promote a false sense of value with the immature reader which surely is neither enlightening nor constructive.” He went on to complain that while some of the migrants from his state may resemble the characters in the book, “there is another unit, clean in their habits and minds, decent in their living and speaking.” He further criticizes “the quarrel about the cause of the problem” faced by the migrants and “the lack of a solution.”

Robert Lincoln O’Brien of the Boston Herald also sent a letter to the board, questioning “if the jury has given any consideration to the question whether the main thesis of that book, which is that employers have allured the multitude into California into such numbers as to keep the wages depressed–is true?” He cites an article from the New York Times and Randolph Hearst’s own criticism of the book in his defense, although considering the thinly veiled criticism of Hearst in the book, his criticism is certainly biased. O’Brien goes on to question whether they, as a committee, have a responsibility to the truth, or lack thereof, presented in a novel to which they award the Pulitzer Prize, and concludes by stating, “If somebody wrote a corresponding book based upon the thesis of the innocence of Sacco and Vanzetti I would have opposed the award because I do not think they were innocent. Why is not the same issue involved here?”

John Hohenburg writes, “There is no record of the discussion of the fiction award, but it must have been lively. In the end, however, Messrs. Harrison and O’Brien were unable to stop Steinbeck.” The Pulitzer Prize committee agreed with the jury and awarded the prize to Steinbeck, which Hohenburg writes, “was received with universal approval.”

Currently reading: The Trees by Conrad Richter

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