Winning the Nobel Prize

Why did Tolstoy never win a Nobel Prize? Why were Ibsen, Strindberg, and Hardy turned down? This year, which marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Nobel Prizes, a memorial volume will be published in Stockholm telling for the first time of the jurors' deliberations over the awards and of how and why they were finally made. The book will be published in English, and the portions of it dealing with Alfred Nobel's life and the awards in the field of Medicine and Literature have been translated by Naboth Hedin, a son of Sweden and a Harvard graduate who became an American citizen in 1910.

By Naboth Hedin

This year it is highly probably that two authors will receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Prize for 1949 was held over because the members of the Swedish Academy could not agree on any candidate. But ever since last February a subcommittee of five members of the Academy has been scrutinizing the nominations, reading and sifting the books of various authors, and soliciting the opinion of ranking critics in and out of Sweden.

In his handwritten will, Alfred Nobel stipulated that “no consideration whatever be paid to the nationality of the candidate, so that only the most worthy receives the Prize whether he is a Scandinavian or not.” But he made no reference to the nominations. As now interpreted, the right to nominate candidates for the Prize is held by members of the Swedish Academy and similar bodies, such as the French and the Spanish Academy; by professors of literature or languages in the ranking universities; by previous Prize winners; and by presidents of authors’ organizations such as P.E.N. All nominations must be personal and confidential; joint resolutions are of no avail; neither is diplomatic pressure. Self-nominations are automatically ruled out—though not without a note of pity for those authors’ wives who each year impulsively nominate their husbands.

Early in his famous will, the donor stipulated that those who were to be rewarded, whether in science or in literature, “must have rendered the greatest service to mankind during the preceding year.” In that provision, as in others, Alfred Nobel revealed himself as the idealist and the paradox which he was.

The son of a Swedish armament maker, he had lived from his eighth to his eighteenth year in Russia, where his father had supplied submarine mines to the Czarist government for the Crimean War. He had seen his father ruined by the cancellation of orders at the war’s end, and when the elder lost his grip, Alfred at the age of twenty-seven took over on borrowed capital. He had followed his father’s experiments with a new kind of gunpowder; but these he discarded and instead went to work to harness nitroglycerine, then the most dangerous combustible known. One of his first inventions was the Nobel lighter, a method of discharging nitroglycerine with a percussion spark; from the lighter, from dynamite, from a past made from nitroglycerine, and still later from his invention of smokeless powder, came the royalties which were to build his huge fortune. He organized companies all over Europe and the United States; Paris became his favorite residence, and by his mid-thirties he was one of the wealthiest self-made men in the world.

He was also a linguist and, by aspiration, a writer. He knew five languages. His early poems were in English, and so were his plays, which bore a certain dim resemblance to those of George Bernard Shaw; the satirical novels which he started but never finished were in Swedish. French was the tongue which he spoke most nimbly; Russian he had learned as a boy during his many years in St. Petersburg. German—especially after Bismark—was a language needed for his business. Again and again in his magnetic career he came back to his writing.

His years in France had made him anticlerical, just as his youth in Russia had made him contemptuous of Czarist tyranny. He loathed war; wars, he said, were started by the monarchs, the tyrants, in their greed and stupidity. Only one of his books, Nemesis, a Renaissance Drama in Verse, ever appeared in print and that at his own expense; all but three copies of it were burned by his relatives after his death; they didn’t think that it was in keeping with the Nobel Foundation. But in his many beginnings, as in his disappointments, he worked hard enough to realize how hard it is to write well.

To this enormously wealthy bachelor, late in life, came the idea of awarding young men of genius the money to carry on their lifework unhampered by poverty. What better way to distribute his fortune, which now grossed thirty-three million Swedish crowns? Nobel stipulated that all of his holdings were to be liquidated at his death (had the Prizes been drawn from the income of his investments in the form of a  trust, they might be more than double what they are today). It was second nature for him to think of awarding Prizes in the fields of Physics, Chemistry, and Literature; the fact that he had suffered from poor health all his life and was always on the outlook for a better cure no doubt prompted the Award in Medicine. And it was the Viennese novelist and pacifist Bertha von Suttner, his friend for many years, who probably inspired him to give the Prize for Peace.

The inference is plain that Nobel intended his Prizes to go to men in young or middle life, men whose major work lay ahead of them; it is equally clear that he thought of Literature as a moral force. The will reads: “. . . one share [one fifth of the income] to the person who shall have produced in the field of Literature the most distinguished work of an idealistic tendency.” That phrase—“idealistic tendency”—proved to be a big hurdle from the very start. When the time came for the announcement of the first Prize in 1901, it was commonly thought that Count Leo Tolstoy would be chosen. Actually he had not been even nominated. The first name on the first list of nominees was that of Emile Zola, whose works were then regarded as the last word in realism. Another Frenchman, the poet Sully Prudhomme, had the backing of the French Academy; and in any tossup between Zola and Prudhomme, the poet was much the safer bet. The Prize went to him.

Throughout the world there were cries of remonstrance from those who admired Tolstoy. To soothe Tolstoy’s feelings, a tribute to his genius was signed and sent to him by forty-two Swedish artists and writers, and in 1902 his name was officially put forward. But now the human element in the jury made itself felt. The Permanent Secretary of the Committee, Carl David af Wirsén, bitterly opposed Tolstoy because of his political views. In his report to the Academy as chairman of its Nobel Committee, he said that while he admired “immortal creations” like War and Peace and Anna Karenina, he could not condone Tolstoy’s social and political theories, nor his presumption in rewriting the New Testament “in a half mystical, half rationalistic spirit,” nor, finally, his denial to both nations and individuals of the right of self-defense. “Confronted by such hostility to all forms of civilization,” he wrote, “one feels dubious.” Through his personal pressure, he succeeded in keeping the Prize from the great Russian both then and in the years to come. Wirsén was also successful in opposing an award to Ibsen and to Strindberg, and he almost kept it from going to Selma Lagerlöf.

That qualifying phrase—“work of an idealistic tendency”—shut out Thomas Hardy, who was nominated for almost twenty years in succession; it may have figured in the decision of 1930 when the choice lay between Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser. It might be leveled against a novelist like William Faulkner today.

The first English writer to receive the award was Rudyard Kipling; the Prize went to him in 1907 when he was fort-two years old, so far the youngest writer ever to have been honored. The average age of Nobel Prize Winners in Literature is sixty-two. In only one case—that of William Butler Yeats, the Irish poet—did the Prize money release the author from the handicap of poverty.

Thomas Hardy was eighty-three in the year when he was most seriously considered. Some of the younger members of the Academy felt that Hardy’s lyrics alone justified the award even if his novels could not square with the definition. But this brought up the claims of a younger competing poet, William Butler Yeats, and to him the Prize was awarded. In 1921 the subcommittee of five was strongly in favor of John Galsworthy, only to be reversed by the Academy as a whole, who after a long argument awarded the palm to Anatole France. Galsworthy had to wait for eleven years more before he received his prize.

In their citations, the jury generally takes the long view instead of pinning the award on a single work. Thus, when they gave it to George Bernard Shaw, it was “for his literary work, which is marked by both idealism and humanity, and whose sharp satire is often infused with a singular poetic beauty.” Shaw has been the only winner to refuse the money while accepting the honor, and in so doing he endeared himself to the Swedes by stipulating that his share be applied to translating into English both classical and modern Swedish works, including some of Strindberg’s dramas.

Galsworthy’s award was made specifically in recognition of The Forsyte Saga, as Knut Hamsun’s was for his novel The Growth of the Soil. When Thomas Mann received the honor in 1929, his citation mentioned Buddenbrooks, a work of his youth which appeared in 1901, but said nothing about The Magic Mountain, which has appeared in 1924 and which certainly has proved itself to be his masterpiece. Mann is one of the few who have continued to do outstanding work after receiving the Prize.

In retrospect, one wonders if the Prize Awards in Literature have actually carried out what Nobel had in mind when he wrote his will. Yeats still had sixteen years of writing ahead of him when he won the Prize, but he is the rare exception. In most cases, the Prize has come to a man firmly established in Letters, an author whose earnings have already made him independent, and it has come as an accolade to a career which has already reached its peak or passed it.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1950/10/winning-the-nobel-prize/305480/