The Odd Story of the 1919-1920 Pulitzer Prize for the Novel

The early awards for the Pulitzer Prizes did not have a strictly formal selection process. Take the unique cases of 1919 and also 1920 (in which no award at all was given).

When the Pulitzer Prize committee met in 1919 for the award for Best Novel, they hastily exchanged telegrams and letters, and at the last minute they nominated Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons. Initially, the group reached a “reluctant” conclusion that no novel was deserving of the award, however shortly before the announcement was released, one of the jury members wrote to the advisory board asking if it was too late to nominate Booth Tarkington’s book. The advisory board quickly agreed by telegram, deciding that it would be better to dole out at least one award in 1919 rather than none at all.

Flash forward to the following year. In 1920, one new juror was added to the jury. Having a new voice in the room led to confusion regarding Mr. Pulitzer’s revised estate which initially instructed the jury to distribute one award based on the “whole atmosphere of American life…” instead of the “wholesome” – the latter was revised by the committee to make the Pulitzer more of an ethical award rather than a comprehensive award. In 1920, the jury initially sought to give the award to Stuart P. Sherman for Java Head but decided that it did not fit the “wholesome” character of America. Thus, the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel was not awarded in 1920.

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