The “Second Tier” Pulitzers

June 17, 2009 at 3:44 pm | Posted in Book Blather, Challenges | 3 Comments

In reading the Pulitzer Prize-winning novels, it’s impossible not to notice the vast difference between the earliest and most recent winners.  One would expect the occasional compromise choice, and that not all the books selected would be of equal quality.  What I’m talking about is more subjective.  I started to wonder exactly what criteria were used to award the prize.

It turns out that Joseph Pulitzer’s original criteria were as such

Annually, for the American novel published during the year which shall best present the whole atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood, One thousand dollars ($1,000).

This was changed to “wholesome” and it determined how the prize was awarded (or not) until 1931.

Now, the criteria are:

For distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.

This explains so much; it explains how The Road and The Able McLaughlins are able to sit together on the same shelf without one of them spontaneously combusting.  The original committee had to look for a sort of “family values” book.  I wondered what was going on when I read One of Ours, because I love Willa Cather but I wouldn’t have guessed she had written it.

What it comes down to is that the fact that a book won the Pulitzer Prize is not a guarantee of quality.  Some of the earlier titles especially will continue to be read for historical interest more than an abiding literary merit.


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  1. Great post! And incredibly interesting… I had no idea the criterion was changed over the years!

  2. It’s very interesting that the criteria has changed but interesting still that we perceive the early choices to be less-than impressive. I’d think books that accurately display life in the U.S. at the time would be fascinating, both for historical and for cultural context. I can see how some bad books may have been picked (what with the strange second line) but it seems to me no different than today’s occasionally controversial picks.

    Now, the criteria doesn’t require the book to even be about American life, completely ignoring Pulitzer’s original wish. I can understanding getting rid of the “the highest standard of American manners and manhood” because it’s a very unclear description, but to allow slack in terms of the subject seems to be going too far. There are plenty of excellent, worthy books deserving of praise that deal with precisely what Pulitzer originally wanted: a display of American life.

  3. I’ve always been a little puzzled at how The Good Earth won. Happy, but puzzled.

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