The Origins of the Pulitzer Prize

The Pulitzer Prize has a fascinating and storied history. Personally, I am excited to read through each winner beginning with the Novel category (later renamed the “Fiction” category post-1948). The Pulitzer Prize was initially established through a provision in media mogul Joseph Pulitzer’s estate. In his will, he left a bequest of $250,000 to Columbia University establishing a series of literary and journalistic awards (Mr. Pulitzer gave a total bequest of $2,000,000 to create a journalism school at Columbia, 25% of which was designated for the Pulitzer Prize). The $250,000 gift was to be “applied to prizes or scholarships for the encouragement of public service, public morals, American literature, and the advancement of education.”


Who Is Joseph Pulitzer?
To quote W.J. Stuckey, “The life story of Joseph Pulitzer, founder of the Pulitzer prizes in journalism, letters, and music, fits beautifully into the familiar pattern of American success.” Mr. Pulitzer was born “Pulitzer Josef” to a Hungarian-Jewish family. His father was a wealthy man. When Joseph was 17 (in 1864) he moved to Boston and became a soldier in the American Civil War. He was briefly drafted into the Union forces but he quickly fled from his recruiter by jumping into Boston Harbor so he could enlist without the recruiter’s bounty. After the war, he briefly worked in the whaling industry and a number of other odd jobs spanning from New York to St. Louis. In one case, Pulitzer was swindled into paying a transportation fee with the promise of a well-paying job on a Louisiana sugar plantation. Upset about the situation, he wrote an article and published it in a local paper. He also was a railroad worker before deciding to study law. In 1867, he renounced his Austro-Hungarian citizenship and became an American citizen. Eventually, he landed a job as a reporter where he excelled. Mr. Pulitzer gradually rose in the newspaper business. He was also successfully nominated for political office by the Republican Party, however, he quickly became disillusioned with the corruption of the Republican Party and he switched to the Democratic Party.

In 1878, he bought two newspaper companies, eventually merging them into the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. By 1883, he was now a wealthy man and he purchased the New York World, a failing newspaper, for $346,000. In order to turn a profit and generate readership he emphasized sensationalism and scandals in its pages, a strategy that improved the paper’s sales but likely didn’t earn it any prestige among more refined circles. Under Pulitzer’s ownership, the New York World became the largest newspaper in the country, even rivaling Hearst’s newspaper, the New York Journal. In 1884, Pulitzer served as a Congressman in the U.S House of Representatives, but he soon quit his term before completion in order to focus on the demands of his newspaper business. Eventually, the World and its readership declined. It closed in 1931, long after after Pulitzer’s death.

In his later years, Mr. Pulitzer struggled with depression, blindness, and acute noise sensitivity –yet he refused to relinquish ownership of his newspapers. In 1890, he approached Harvard University with an idea for a gift of $1M to found a new school of journalism but it was rejected. The same offer was rejected by Columbia University until Mr. Pulitzer managed to convince Columbia’s new university president, Nicholas Murray Butler. Mr. Pulitzer arranged for an Advisory Board to be appointed by himself to help launch the new school and manage the awards.

At the heart of the awards were a number of questions regarding literary excellence that persist to this day –should there be a moral component to the awards? Should they take into account popular bestsellers? By what criteria should the Pulitzer Prizes be awarded? Mr. Pulitzer’s initial intent was for there to be a simplistic moral component to the awards, however this naïveté would be corrected in time to account for revolutionary new forms in literature from the American greats like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, and Lewis (indeed, Pulitzer’s moralism would have surely precluded great works from the likes of Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, and Crane if the awards had existed in the preceding century).

In his will, which he drafted in 1904, Mr. Pulitzer specified several different awards at Columbia University, though the one that is most pertinent to my endeavors is the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel (1917-1947), later retitled Fiction (1948-Present). Each year, an awardee receives $10,000 (this amount was increased in 2017 to $15,000). Joseph Pulitzer’s initial will stipulated that the prize shall 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 changed to “wholesome” at the behest of Nicholas Murray Butler, President of Columbia University. Mr. Butler’s intent was to reinforce a moral criteria to the award. This change from “whole” to “wholesome” led to a panoply of dilemmas during those coming years. In fact, the fluctuation of the term “whole vs. wholesome” occurred throughout the 1910s-1930s, until in 1936 when the award criteria was changed again to honor “a distinguished novel of the year,” and the language of the award was again revised in 1947 when the term “novel” was changed to “fiction in book form” in order to better accommodate short story collections.

Mr. Pulitzer’s will was deliberately created to be flexible with the changing times, allowing future generations to revise the administration of the Pulitzer Prizes as needed. In his will, Mr. Pulitzer also specified the creation of an advisory board to wield ultimate authority, with the “power in its discretion to suspend or to change any subject or subjects, substituting, however, others in their places, if in the judgment of the board such suspension, changes, or substitutions shall be conducive to the public good or rendered advisable by public necessities, or by reason of change of time.”

Thus, the ‘Plan of the Award’ has been revised frequently and the number of awards has grown to 21 (as of 2020). Since 1975, the Board of the Pulitzer Prize has made all official 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, typically made each year in April, states that awards are officially 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 cohort to a maximum term of three years.

In his waning years, amidst ailing health while on a boat trip to one of his homes in Georgia, Pulitzer made a stop in Charleston, South Carolina. While his German secretary read aloud to him stories about King Louis XI of France, he muttered “Softly, quite softly” and he gently passed into the night. He died in 1911 at the age of 64, and he left behind some nineteen million dollars, two newspapers, and an extraordinary legacy in the Pulitzer Prizes –a testament to the enduring power of philanthropy.

Click here to return to my survey of the Pulitzer Prize Winners.

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