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

The early Pulitzer Prizes did not have a strictly formal selection process. Take the unique cases of 1919 and 1920 (in 1920 no Pulitzer Prize for the Novel was awarded).

When the Pulitzer Prize committee met in 1919, they hastily exchanged telegrams and letters, and at the last moment 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 was better to grant 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…” 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 comprehensively artistic 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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