The 1941 Novel Decision

In 1941, Robert M. Lovett was replaced on the jury for the Pulitzer Prize for Novel by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, known for introducing the Montessori method of teaching to the United States, and also listed as a tertiary recommendation for the Pulitzer Prize the year before for her novel Seasoned Timber. According to a poll of book reviewers that year, the overwhelming choice by critics for 1941 was Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, although the jury had a different opinion altogether. The jury report lists two novels as being deserving of the award: The Trees by Joseph Conrad and The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, and called the decision that year particularly difficult because “we find little to choose between the two.” However, they report states that one member of the jury preferred Richter’s The Trees and so they presented it as their primary recommendation.

They went on to list three more novels, stating they were “carefully considered” but found none of them were “as worthy of the prize” as their two primary recommendations. Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls was on this list, alongside Native Son by Richard Wright and Oliver Wiswell by Kenneth Roberts. The report calls Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls “unquestionably vivid, picturesque, and interesting” but faults it for its “romantic sensationalism and a style so mannered and eccentric as to be frequently absurd.”

The difficulties faced by the jury were only the beginning in 1941, although the full dispute would not come to light until 1962 when one of the board members, Arthur Krock, wrote a column in the New York Times about the incident. According to Krock, many members of the board refused the jury recommendations and instead voted for Hemingway, only to have Nicholas Butler, president of Columbia University, call the book offensive and lascivious, urging the members of the board to reconsider. Krock wrote in his column that the other members of the board believed that the “literary quality and the power of the story it told overshadowed every other entry” and that they had found nothing offensive about the book.

Krock describes president Butler standing at the door and refusing to submit the Board’s recommendation for the prize to the Trustees of Columbia University, who had final say over the Prizes. Butler supposedly told the Board, “I hope you will reconsider before you ask the university to be associated with an award for a work of this nature.” John Hohenburg writes, “no member of the Board at that time dared to stand against him.” But the Board also refused to endorse the jury recommendations, and the final decision in 1941 was to award no prize in the Novel category.

After the decision was made public, Frank Fackenthal, who had moved from Secretary to Provost of Columbia University, told President Butler that the members of the Novel jury felt poorly treated by the decision. Butler responded by saying, “I have no recollection of anything having been done by the Advisory Board that was not perfectly conventional. They always discuss the Novel more than any other, and this year, after desultory discussion of the two or three books which the jury put at the head of the list, someone suddenly moved that this year there be no award, and this motion was carried.” Fackenthal responded by saying the jury “would find it difficult to have their recommendations disregarded by a group, many of whom have not read any of the books under discussion. One member of the Advisory Board went so far as to say to me that the book recommended seemed so inconsequential in size compared to the thousand-page novels, that he felt the award would not be appropriate. That, I take it, has nothing to do with the merit of a volume of fiction.”

Currently Reading: The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark and For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

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