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

The early Pulitzer Prizes did not have a strictly formal selection process, and indeed many of its processes had yet to be formalized. For example, consider the unique cases of 1919 and 1920. In 1919, when the Pulitzer Novel Jury discussed which novel would win the prize, they hastily exchanged telegrams and letters. 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 was better to grant at least one award in 1919 rather than none at all. Thus The Magnificent Ambersons proved victorious.

Flash forward to the following year. In 1920, one new juror was added to the Novel Jury: Stuart P. Sherman, a noted literary critic best known for a lengthy and public debate on the cusp of World War I with H.L. Mencken about the legacy of Nietzsche (Mencken was the leading American apologist for Nietzsche). According to W.J. Stuckey in his book The Pulitzer Prize Novels, one of the other jurors in 1920 was Robert Grant, a novelist of “limited” fictional talent who had abandoned a literary career by this time and was serving as a judge in Massachusetts. At any rate, 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 a novel that represents the “whole atmosphere of American life…” but the Advisory Board changed this terminology to reflect the “wholesome atmosphere of American life…” –the latter was revised to make the Pulitzer Prize more of an ethical award rather than a more comprehensive award celebrating artistic excellence. In 1920, the Jury initially sought to grant the award to Joseph Hergesheimer for Java Head but ultimately decided that it was not sufficiently “wholesome.” Thus, the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel was not awarded in 1920.

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

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