The 1957 Pulitzer Decision

In 1957, The Pulitzer Fiction Jury unanimously recommended the award be given to Elizabeth Spencer’s third novel, The Voice at the Back Door, the story of a local sheriff’s campaign to examine corruption and racial violence in the American South, in particular a small town’s execution of its black citizens. The novel was apparently part of her “Mississippi Cycle.”

However despite the Fiction Jury’s unanimity, The Pulitzer Advisory Board decided to overrule their recommendation and issue no award in 1957. Per The Paris Review and The New York Times, “Some critics have said that Ms. Spencer’s candor about virulent segregationist racism was the reason.”

Elizabeth Spencer (1921-2019) lived nearly 100 years. She was a celebrated Southern writer in the mid-twentieth century. She won a variety of awards including the O. Henry Award and a Guggenheim among many others. She was friends with many prominent Southern writers, such as Robert Penn Warren, William Faulkner, Walker Percy, Shelby Foote and others. Interestingly enough, she was a distant relative of the late Arizona Senator, John McCain.

To the best of my knowledge the 1957 Fiction Jurors were: Carlos Baker, a Princeton Professor and noted Hemingway biographer who served as a future Juror, as well; and Francis Brown, a writer and well-regarded Editor of The New York Times Book Review from 1949 to 1971.

Additionally in 1957, the Pulitzer Advisory Board issued a rare Special Citation to Kenneth Roberts (1885-1957), a journalist-turned-celebrated historical novelist whose books primarily focused on his native state of Maine. The Special Citation was intended to acknowledge Mr. Roberts’s life work, rather than awarding him the Pulitzer Prize for his most recently published novel. The Pulitzer Advisory Board said it was: “For his historical novels which have long contributed to the creation of greater interest in our early American history.” Tragically, Mr. Roberts died a mere few months later.

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

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