The Origins of the Pulitzer Prize

The Pulitzer Prize has a fascinating and storied history. I am excited to read through each winner of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel. The Prize was initially established through a provision in Mr. Joseph Pulitzer’s estate. In his will, he left $250,000 to Columbia University for the award, along with a total of $2,000,000 to establish a journalism school. Mr. Pulitzer died in 1911.


Who was Joseph Pulitzer?

He was born Pulitzer Josef (as was common for a name in Hungary) to a Hungarian-Jewish family. His father was a wealthy man. When Joseph was 17 he moved to Boston and a became a soldier in the American Civil War. After the war, he briefly worked in the whaling industry. He worked a number of odd jobs from New York to St. Louis. He was swindled into paying a transportation fare for good paying jobs on a Louisiana sugar plantation, and upset about the situation, he wrote an article and published it in a local paper. Then, he worked on the railroad before studying law. In 1867 he renounced his Austro-Hungarian citizenship and became an American citizen. Eventually, he landed a job as a reporter and he excelled. He rose in the newspaper business and was also nominated to run (successfully) for office by the Republican party. However, eventually he became disillusioned with the corruption of the Republican party and switched to the Democrats.

In 1878 he bought two newspaper companies and merged them into one as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. By 1883, he was a wealthy man and purchased the New York World, a failing paper, for $346,000. He emphasized sensationalism and scandal in its pages, a strategy which turned around the paper’s sales. Under his ownership it became the largest paper in the country, and was the chief rival of Hearst’s paper, the New York Journal. In 1884, he served in the U.S House of Representatives, but quit his term midway to focus on the demands of his newspaper business.

Eventually the World declined and closed in 1931, long after after Pulitzer’s death. In his later years, Pulitzer struggled with depression, blindness, and acute noise sensitivity. On a boat trip to one of his homes in Georgia, Pulitzer stopped in Charleston. While his German secretary read aloud to him about King Louis XI of France, he muttered “Softly, quite softly” and passed away. He died in 1911 at the age of 64.

In his will, which he drafted in 1904, he specified several different awards, though perhaps the one that has become most famous is that of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel (1917-1947), now called Fiction (1948-Present). Each year, an awardee receives $10,000; but this was changed to $15,000 in 2017. Joseph Pulitzer’s initial will stipulated that the prize be given, “Annually, for the American novel published during the year which shall best represent the whole atmosphere of American life, and the highest standards of American manners and manhood.” Before the first year of the awards however, the word “whole” was eventually changed to “wholesome” at the behest of Nicholas Murray Butler, implying a moral element to the award. Mr. Butler was the then President of Columbia University. This change would lead to a whole slew of problems over the next few years.

Mr. Pulitzer’s will was deliberately created to be flexible, leaving open the possibility of revising the administration of the Pulitzer awards as needed. Thus, the ‘Plan of the Award’ has been revised frequently and the number of awards has grown to 21. Since 1975, the Board of the Pulitzer Prize has made all Prize decisions; prior to this point, the Pulitzer Board’s recommendations were ratified by a majority vote of the trustees of Columbia University. The formal announcement of the prizes, made each April, says that awards are made by the president of Columbia University on the recommendation of the Pulitzer Prize board. Today, the Pulitzer Board is composed of a variety of university professors, newspaper editors, and journalists, as well as others. The Board elects its own group to a maximum term of three years.


In 1917, the first Pulitzer prizes were deliberated upon. The Board consisted of ten men, primarily editors of various newspapers, such as the Associated Press, Boston Globe, and New York World. The Board only received 6 submissions, and only one novel from 1916 was seriously considered, however the Board ultimately decided against awarding it to anyone, and suggested better advertisement was needed. Otherwise, the Board has attempted to keep its deliberations entirely secret.

One thought on “The Origins of the Pulitzer Prize

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s