The Origins of the Pulitzer Prize

The Pulitzer Prize has a fascinating and storied history. I am excited to read through each winner for the Novel category (called the award for “Fiction” since 1948). 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 awards, as part of a total of $2,000,000 to establish a journalism school. The $250,000 gift (or 1/4 of his estate gift to Columbia) was to be “applied to prizes or scholarships for the encouragement of public service, public morals, American literature, and the advancement of education.” Mr. Pulitzer died in 1911.

Who Is Joseph Pulitzer?
JosephPulitzerPinceNeznpsgov.jpgMr. Pulitzer 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 and was employed in a number of odd jobs from New York to St. Louis in his early life. In one case, Pulitzer was swindled into paying a transportation fare with the promise of well-paying jobs on a Louisiana sugar plantation. Upset about the situation, he wrote an article and published it in a local paper. He also worked on the railroad 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 and he excelled. Mr. Pulitzer gradually rose in the newspaper business. He was also successfully nominated for political office by the Republican Party. However, eventually he became disillusioned with the corruption of the Republican Party and he switched to the Democratic Party.

In 1878, he bought two newspaper companies and merged them into one as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. By 1883, he was now 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, even becoming the chief rival of Hearst’s newspaper, 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, Mr. Pulitzer specified several different awards, though perhaps the one that has become most famous is the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel (1917-1947), now called Fiction (1948-Present). Each year, an awardee receives $10,000; but this amount was changed in 2017 to $15,000. 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 President of Columbia University. This change would lead to a whole slew of problems over the next few years. The fluctuation of the term “whole vs. wholesome” occurred throughout the 1910s-1930s, until 1936 when the award was to reflect “a distinguished novel of the year,” and this terminology was revised in 1947 when the term “novel” was changed to “fiction in book form.”

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, states 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.

The First Award In 1917
In 1917, the first Pulitzer Prizes were deliberated upon. The Pulitzer Board consisted of ten men, primarily editors of various newspapers, such as the Associated Press, Boston Globe, and the New York World. The Board only received 6 submissions for the novel, and only one 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 (not always successfully).

How Are the Pulitzer Prizes Awarded?
Today, the awards are the culmination of a year-long process that begins early in the year with the appointment of 102 distinguished judges who serve on 20 separate juries (such as the Novel Jury, today called the “Fiction” Jury) and are asked to make three nominations in each of the 21 categories.

In the early days, publishers and writers were welcome to nominate any American novel simply by sending in a letter and a copy of the book to the Pulitzer Board. The three-person jury would whittle down the top three candidates and send them to Columbia University, where first the Pulitzer Advisory Board would approve, or decline -or else award the prize to an entirely different novel.

Around 1934, Juries were asked to submit three titles to the Pulitzer Advisory Board, yet they still offered a preference for the award winner. Juries were generally made up of academics with at least some professional interest in fiction, but the jurors were rarely experts in contemporary fiction. From 1917 to 1974, only 5 of the 155 jurors who served over that time had any experience as a professional novelist.

As of 2012, the process for selection involves a submission of three “finalists” by the three person fiction jury to the Pulitzer Board, whose eighteen members are largely “journalists and academics” according to Michael Cunningham, the famous novelist of The Hours, who shared some of the secrets of the Pulitzer Awards to The New Yorker in 2012 when no awardees were announced. The three person fiction jury changes each year.

The three novels on the list of finalists are not ranked, and the jury makes no recommendation to the Board regarding which title is preferred (if any is). The Board is free to select any of the three finalists, or to ask the jury for a fourth finalist, or to select any of the other eligible titles (though the Board has not taken this last step—when none of the finalists are chosen by the Board for the award, as occurred in 2012, the Board chose not to issue a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction).

The formal announcement of the prizes, made each April, states that the awards are made by the President of Columbia University on the recommendation of the Pulitzer Prize board.

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