The Origins of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (And Why There Was No Winner the First Year): A Pulitzer Prize Deep Dive

When the Pulitzer Prizes were first awarded in 1917 a fiction prize (then named the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel) was on the slate but not featured among the inaugural winners. The Pulitzer jury and Board for that year decided to withhold the prize until the following year, when it was given for the first time to Ernest Poole for His Family.

This is a particularly interesting year to look at in my Pulitzer Project because I find the years in which no prize was given to be just as interesting as the years in which it was awarded, and because this limbo year when the fiction prize was intended but not actualized offers an opportunity to give some background on just what the Pulitzer Prize is and what it intends to do.

So. How did it happen that no prize was given? What is the background of the Pulitzer Prizes? Is there a book that could have won for this inaugural year? And just why are the Pulitzer Prizes administered by Columbia University? Let’s get into it.

Who Is the Pulitzer Prize Named For? And Why Is Columbia University Involved?

The Pulitzer Prizes are named for Joseph Pulitzer, a Hungarian-American politician and journalist known for his fierce competition with William Randolph Hearst, which led both men to pioneer the notion of luring in readers with sensationalism, sex, and crime–also known at the time as yellow journalism (now known as standard operating procedure).

In Joseph Pulitzer’s later years, declining health forced him to withdraw from his public roles and from the daily operation of his newspaper, The New York World. That is where Columbia University comes into the picture and how we will eventually get to the creation of the Pulitzer Prizes. In 1892, Pulitzer approached Seth Low, who was then the President of Columbia University, in order to offer money to set up the world’s first school for journalism. Seth Low turned down this proposal, but a decade later (in 1902) Columbia University had a new President: Nicholas Butler.

As an aside, Butler would eventually be on the first Board for the Pulitzer Prize and later shared a Nobel Peace Prize with Jane Addams in 1931 “for their assiduous effort to revive the ideal of peace and to rekindle the spirit of peace in their own nation and in the whole of mankind.” But it also bears noting that Butler had a reputation as an Anti-Semite for restricting the number of Jewish students who could attend Columbia University. Butler also used his position as President of Columbia to become the de facto leader of the Pulitzer Board, a position he sometimes exploited to get his way–as was the case in 1941, when Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls was selected as the winner but Butler found the novel to be offensive. He persuaded the Board to rescind its selection and no prize was given that year.

Anyway, as you can guess: Butler was much more receptive to the idea of accepting Joseph Pulitzer’s money to start a journalism school. In fact, Columbia University’s School of Journalism remains one of the most prestigious in the world. Joseph Pulitzer died in 1911 and left Columbia $2 million in his will. The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism was opened the following year–and because it took so long, it was not the world’s first school of journalism. That honor went to the Missouri School of Journalism, which opened in 1908 at the urging of–you guessed it: Joseph Pulitzer.

Joseph Pulitzer
Joseph Pulitzer

How Did the Pulitzer Prizes Start?

Joseph Pulitzer’s will, written in 1904, allocated $250,000 to establish the Pulitzer Prizes “as an incentive to excellence” as well as to create scholarships. So the idea for the Pulitzer Prizes was baked into Joseph Pulitzer’s endowment to Columbia University. While the journalism school opened the year after Joseph Pulitzer’s death, it took another five years for the first Pulitzer Prizes to be awarded in 1917.

Joseph Pulitzer also stipulated that the arts (literature and music) should be included alongside journalism, which is why the Pulitzer Prize is not simply an award for reporting. Pulitzer also established that a Board should oversee the Prize and that this Board would have the power to make changes over time, which has allowed the Pulitzer Prize the flexibility to add and remove categories as well as to evolve with changing times–such as when the Pulitzer Prize was amended to include online journalism in 1997. They were very ahead of the curve in recognizing the move to online reporting. They also recently added a category for audio reporting, which essentially recognizes podcasts.

Joseph Pulitzer also gave the Pulitzer Board the power to overrule recommendations from the prize juries–perhaps inadvertently establishing the very quality that led to controversies like the aforementioned situation with Nicholas Butler and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Indeed, particularly in the early years of the Prize, there seems to have been a combative relationship between the fiction juries and the Pulitzer Board. The only recent example where the Board went rogue publicly was the controversy surrounding the decision not to award a prize in 2012.

The Pulitzer Prize can only be awarded to individuals and works that are properly submitted for the award. If a work is not submitted, it cannot be considered–and spoiler alert: that is why no Pulitzer Prize was awarded for Fiction in its first year. In fact, according to the Pulitzer website only four prizes were given in 1917: Reporting and Editorial Writing on the journalism side, History and Biography on the arts and letters side. The following year, nine prizes were given (including the first-ever fiction prize).

In the early years of the Pulitzer Prize, one must take the fact that a work must be submitted to be considered into account when questioning why what now seems like an obvious selection did not win. The truth is, we don’t even know what was submitted. When it first started, the Pulitzer Prize did not have the reputation it enjoys today. In fact, The Chicago Tribune refused to compete for the award until 1961 because until that point, its editor-in-chief considered the Pulitzer Prize to be nothing more than a ‘mutual admiration society.’

The First Incarnation of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was originally known as the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel. It went by that name until 1948 when the prize was expanded to include short stories and novellas in addition to novels. I tend to refer to it as the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction regardless of the year under discussion just to keep it consistent, but I do think it is important to note this distinction.

The original mandate for the Novel prize is as follows, and it was not without controversy: “Annually, for the American novel published during the year which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.” The controversy at the time centered on the use of the word “wholesome,” which replaced the word “whole” from Joseph Pulitzer’s will. It’s a change that alters the intention of the prize, shifting it into the murky waters of morality and not just how well a work reflects American life. And it definitely had an impact on how the Board considered novels because it was the application of the word “wholesome” that caused them to reject the jury’s recommendation of the book Java Head in 1920, resulting in a year in which no Pulitzer Prize for the Novel was awarded.

In 1927, the Board quietly replaced the word “wholesome” with “whole” to better reflect Pulitzer’s intention. In 1929, the Board subtracted the part about manners and manhood so the new mandate read “preferably one which shall best present the whole atmosphere of American life.”

In 1936 we got close to the current mandate of the Pulitzer Prize when it was changed to “a distinguished novel published during the year by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.” The shift away from the title Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1948 brought us to the Fiction Prize’s mandate as it stands today: “For distinguished fiction published in book form during the year by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.”

If you are wondering what led to the shift to include short stories in 1948, it’s because the jury for that year wanted to award the prize to a collection of short stories for the first time and the Board agreed, allowing James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction under the award’s new name.

Why Was There No Fiction Winner in 1917?

The key here is that the Pulitzer Prize can only be awarded to a person or work that is properly submitted for consideration. The other contributing factor is that since this was a new prize that had not established a reputation, there weren’t a lot of submissions in the early days–and the fiction prize was particularly hamstrung by this.

In fact, according to the book Chronicle of the Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction, only six novels were submitted for consideration in 1917 (the eligible publishing year was 1916):

“There were only six applicants for the prize,” as the report of the jurors indicates verbatim, “one of whom sent not a printed book but a manuscript, which fails to meet the requirement of publication during the year. Of the five books submitted in competition, all but one seem to us unworthy of consideration for the prize. We are unanimously of the opinion, however, that the merits of this book, though considerable, are no greater than that of several other novels, which though not included in the formal applications, have been taken into consideration by us in arriving at a verdict. We recommend,” the jurors wrote furthermore, “that the award be withheld this year.” The Advisory Board and the trustees of Columbia University accepted the verdict of the jury and decided on “no award” in the novel category.

Chronicle of the Pulitzer Prizes for Ficton, page 3

So although we do not know the titles of the six books that were submitted, we do know that one of them was ineligible and of the other five, only one was deemed to be a serious contender–and it was ultimately deemed to be inferior to other books published that year that were not submitted for consideration.

I’ve discussed this before but the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction seems uniquely focused on creating a canon of American literature. Historically, it is a prize that takes its reputation for identifying classics in real-time very seriously–and this was even true in the first year the Pultizer Prizes were given. So much so that the jury and the Board decided they would rather delay launching the Prize for the Novel than see it go to a work they did not feel lived up to that standard. Perhaps that’s why the Pulitzer Prize has been so successful for so long and why despite dips in quality here and there, it still holds a reputation among publishers, authors, critics, and readers as one of the most significant awards an American author can win. This is also why I feel the Pulitzer Prize is so inextricably linked to the quest for The Great American Novel.

It would have been easy to just give the prize to the only book the jury deemed worthy of consideration but the Pulitzer Prize was (and still is to a large degree) concerned with legitimacy: which was certainly a huge concern for the United States in general at the time the prize was created. As a relatively new nation, the U.S. was struggling to be taken seriously by the rest of the developed world. Our art, including novels, was not taken seriously compared to the works of Europeans. In a sense, the Pulitzer Prize was also a way of fighting for the legitimacy of American artistry. It is not difficult, therefore, to see why the jury and the Board would be so hung up on the idea of only putting the absolute best work possible on a pedestal for the world to consider.

Snapshot: 1916

1916 was the eligibility year for the first Pulitzer Prizes, so let’s look at what was going on in the world that year.

In bookstores: According to Publisher’s Weekly, the bestselling book of 1916 was Seventeen by Booth Tarkington (who would win the second Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1919). The Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to a Swedish poet and prose writer named Verner von Heidenstam “in recognition of his significance as the leading representative of a new era in our literature.”

In movies: There isn’t much to report here since the movie industry was still new, but the highest-grossing movie of 1916 was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Mary Pickford became the first star to sign a million-dollar contract.

In the news: World War I raged in Europe, dominated in 1916 by trench warfare and battles along the western front in France. The United States would not begin conscription until 1917. In the Mexican Revolution, Pancho Villa led 500 Mexican raiders in an attack on Columbus, New Mexico that resulted in the deaths of 12 American soldiers. The Jersey Shore fell victim to a series of vicious shark attacks that inspired Peter Benchley to write Jaws, which was published in 1974. And the Chicago Cubs played their first game in what is now known as Wrigley Field but was then known as Weeghman Park.

What Were the Possible Contenders for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1917?

Here’s the thing: 1916 (the year in which books had to be published in order to be considered for the first Pulitzer) was… not a great year for American fiction. It’s actually not difficult to see why the jury struggled to find a worthy winner, even if they had gotten more submissions.

Looking back at the state of American publishing over a century later has both the benefit and the curse of hindsight. The benefit is that we’ve had enough time to adequately measure the long-term success of a book and author. We can pick and choose the books that have stood the test of time. The curse of hindsight is that we don’t have access to the context of the time. There are writers who were enormously popular in the early days of the Pulitzer who have faded into obscurity in the decades since. Consider Louis Bromfield, who won the 1927 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his book Early Autumn. In the 1920s, Bromfield was a bestselling author. By the end of the 1930s, he had reinvented himself as a farmer and early advocate of the environmental movement, and his reputation as a writer steadily faded away. Today, unless you ask a Pulitzer enthusiast, you are unlikely to find a reader who has heard of Bromfield–but in 1927 his reputation (and his win) would have made sense to the general public. Ironically (given the Pulitzer Board’s focus on identifying classic literature in real-time), the same is true of Ernest Poole and the book that won the first Pulitzer Prize for the Novel: His Family.

1916 in literature is a year where I feel like the context of the time is necessary in order to parse through the competition. There are no identifiable classics to a modern reader (all the classic literature from this year, such as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, came from other parts of the world). I would love to tell you that I think I know which book the Pulitzer jury considered the most likely for this year, but I honestly can’t even hazard a guess. It’s that bleak.

Here’s what we have:

  • Zane Grey published The Border Legion, described as “the story of a cold hearted man named Jack Kells who falls in love with Miss Joan Randle, a girl his legion has taken captive near the Idaho border.” I’ve never heard of this book but I have heard of Zane Grey, and while he is one of the most popular western writers of the 20th century I don’t hear much about the quality of his writing, so I can’t imagine it was him.
  • Booth Tarkington, who went on to win two Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction, published two books: Penrod and Sam and Seventeen. Penrod and Sam is a sequel to an earlier work by Tarkington about the friendship between the title characters. It doesn’t sound like a likely contender. Seventeen (full title: Seventeen: A Tale of Youth and Summer Time and the Baxter Family, Especially William) is a humorous satire of first love and was the bestselling novel of the year. I mean… maybe?
  • Sherwood Anderson’s Windy McPherson’s Son seems like the likeliest of contenders, but this semiautobiographical novel is forgotten in favor of Anderson’s later short story collection Winesburg, Ohio, which makes it difficult to say.
  • The Grizzly King by James Oliver Curwood sounds like a potential candidate but even the Wikipedia page for this book only mentions that it was the inspiration for the 1988 French film The Bear. I don’t know anything else about it although it looks like Curwood was a bestselling author of the time who had become a conservationist and was the highest-paid author in the world (per word) at the time of his death in 1927 at age 49. So maybe?
  • There was also a posthumous Mark Twain novel, but would they have seriously considered a largely unfinished work of his published years after his death?

The pickings, they are slim.

Should Anything Have Won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1917?

This might sound like a cop-out but I’m going to say that the Pulitzer jury and Board were right to delay the launch of the fiction prize by a year. Any one of the contenders I mentioned would have been forgotten anyway and it’s exceedingly difficult to even pretend to parse through the options as a modern reader who has not read the books and is largely unfamiliar with the authors in question.

Other Pulitzer Prize Deep Dives

Gone With the Wind (1937)  Lonesome Dove (1986)  Beloved (1988)  Less (2018)

Deep Dives On Pulitzer Years With No Winner

2012

The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

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