The 1974 Pulitzer Decision

The 1970s was a decade of scandal and tumult for the Pulitzer Prizes. There were three years during the decade in which no Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was awarded at all despite the presence of several quality frontrunners (1971, 1974, and 1977). In 1974, all three members of the Pulitzer Fiction Jury publicly expressed “distress and bewilderment” when their unanimous recommendation for Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon was rejected by the Pulitzer Advisory Board. The Jurors were further dismayed when no explanation was given for the rejection. While the Jurors discussed a few runners up, such as John Cheever’s A World of Apples, Gore Vidal’s Burr, or Isaac Bashevis Singer’s A Crown of Feathers, the clear favorite was the young experimental postmodernist recluse, Thomas Pynchon.

The three Jurors in 1974 were Benjamin DeMott, cultural critic with a preference for sociology and a professor of English at Amherst College (Chairman); Elizabeth Hardwick, a fiction writer and former wife of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Robert Lowell; and Alfred Kazin, writer and literary critic with a particular focus on the immigrant experience in America. All were distinguished authors and critics in their own right.

Regarding the 1974 snub, the members of the Advisory Board declined to discuss the decision, including John Hohenberg, Board Secretary, and Joseph Pulitzer Jr., Chairman of the Advisory Board and grandson of Joseph Pulitzer. However, other members of the 14‐member board described Gravity’s Rainbow in private as “unreadable,” “turgid,” “overwritten” and in parts “obscene.” One member said he tried hard but had only gotten a third of the way through the 760‐page book. Another member of the Board, Vermont C. Royster, contributing editor of The Wall Street Journal, later told The New York Times: “I don’t know whether it reflects on the quality of the fiction or the quality of the judges.”

Note: Joseph Pulitzer Jr. was the grandson of Joseph Pulitzer, founder of the Pulitzer Prizes. Technically, he was Joseph Pulitzer III but he took on the title of “Jr” instead when his grandfather died and his father simply adopted the name “Joseph Pulitzer.” Pulitzer Jr. served on the Pulitzer Advisory Board at Columbia University for 31 years -the last Pulitzer family member to be involved in the prizes. He oversaw a dramatic change the following year in 1975 when the Pulitzer Advisory Board was moved out from under the purview of the Trustees of Columbia to become the principal award granting body.

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