'Ever Grateful for the Prize'
IN 1867, at the International Exhibition in the Champ de Mars, Paris, appreciative judges awarded a prize to the biggest and deadliest gun manufactured by the ‘Cannon King,’ Alfred Krupp. Three years later, France had practical, if painful, proof that her award was well merited. Half a century later, this gun’s successors — notably the mysterious ‘Big Bertha,’ which had a radius of seventy-five miles, which killed seventy-five noncombatants on Good Friday in the church of St. Gervais, and w hich disappeared as easily as a toy pistol after the signing of the Armistice— showed conclusively that prizes, like chickens and curses, come home to roost.
The reaction after the World War has temporarily dimmed mankind’s interest in guns, and concentrated it upon plans for peace. True, a brigadier general of the United States army has recently carried away from English competitors a British War Office prize of three thousand pounds for a selfloading rifle, which can fire twice as fast as a hand-loaded rifle, and can therefore be trusted to kill twice as many people. But this is an unusual, though widely heralded, event. For the most part, prize givers and prize winners are substituting the abstract for the concrete, the desired for the ascertained. It is the natural and touching belief of reformers (every American, says André Siegfried, is at heart an evangelist) that by putting up enough money they can ensure reform. The mediæval barons had a somewhat similar set of convictions, though the goal they sought was different. It took the wisdom of an unlettered peasant to enunciate the great truth: ‘Le bon Dieu ne vend pas ses biens.’
The connection between Colonel Charles Lindbergh’s Latin American flights and permanent — or even temporary — peace is hard to trace; but we can all sympathize with the relief of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation when Heaven sent its way this splendid young adventurer to whom it could give the award. Awards, especially recurrent awards, are a weighty obligation. Something has to be done with them, and the supply of prize money is occasionally in excess of legitimate demands. Colonel Lindbergh is one of the outstanding figures of the world to-day. He has made history as history has always been made, by men who go about their life’s work with no great regard for spectators. That he should receive the Woodrow Wilson award pleased the public, and made possible some charming phrases, such as ‘healing wings,’ and ‘the young ambassador of good will.’ If international relat ions rested upon sentiment or phraseology, the Western continent would be a love nest.
It may be remembered that thirtyseven years ago Oscar Wilde — a keen pacifist — was convinced that, although emotional sympathy would never be strong enough to unite civilized nations, intellectual sympathy might accomplish this great end. ‘It would give us the peace which springs from understanding.’ He felt sure, for example, that no Englishman who was capable of appreciating the excellence of French prose would ever want to make war on France, which may or may not be true. Germany, having an avowed preference for stodgy prose, was naturally immune from such an influence. Goethe, whom Mr. Wilde quoted with triumph, did indeed confess that, in his eyes, the culture of France outweighed her belligerence; but no general argument can rest on such a foundation. A world of Goethes would be a world at peace.
The ineradicable buoyancy of the human heart, and the ineradicable materialism of a prosperous civilization, are indicated by the prizes which earnest Americans offer for the t heoretical abolishment of evil, and the theoretical upbuilding of good. A sound, waterproof plan of peace is in their eyes a highroad to harmony; and so it would be if men lived by rule. When two years ago the Society for the Prevention of Crime offered a prize of $2500 for a programme which would make New York less sinful, it expressed a generous desire that other cities should profit by the light let in upon Manhattan. A Boston reformer, ‘shocked by the increasing number of suicides among college students,’ conceived the idea that a cure might be effected through the popular medium of the drama. That dramatic art, like every other art, can influence by indirect methods only (‘Cela prêche la population,’ said Diderot, looking appraisingly at Greuze’s ‘La Bonne Mère’) is a circumstance which straightforward propagandists fail to apprehend. The anonymous Bostonian was perfectly straightforward. He offered a prize of $1000 for a play which would ‘ hold up faith in life to the youth of America.’ It was a large order. Boston, like New York, stood ready to extend its benefactions to the country at large. It wanted a whole reforming play for $1000, while New York was willing to give $2500 for a reforming paper of two thousand words — more than a dollar a word. In both cases it was hoped that something would happen which has never happened since the beginning of the world. Men and women were to change their methods of thought and modes of life because somebody had been stimulated by motives, other than the desire for good, to present arguments in favor of the change. It is true — and a happy truth — that amendments on a scale large enough to be noteworthy have been brought about from time to time. A study of the means employed by Saint Francis of Assisi and John Wesley might make salutary reading.
Three years ago a chemist in New York offered a prize of $100,000 for a formula of synthetic opium which should be an exact reproduction of nature’s product. The prize was not intended to stimulate trade, but to destroy it. All rights to the formula were to be sold to a virtuous international syndicate which would drive poppy opium from the market by underselling, and then refuse to sell. Thus would the world be rescued from a curse which, since the days of Hippocrates, it has valued more highly than its blessings. Two obstacles to this
plan (apart from the great original obstacle of the formula) seem to have been overlooked. Synthetic opium would be worth many millions to the inventor who is expected to sell his secret for $100,000; and when the time came to remove it from the market, the industrious husbandmen of China would probably replant their poppy beds.
The multiplicity of prizes in our day is a distinctive feature of modern civilization. There is no lack of them in Europe. France especially, in spite of Figaro’s plaintive suggestion that what the world needs is a ‘Society for the Discouragement of Letters,’ offers superb incentives in the Flaubert, Renaissance, and Goncourt awards; to say nothing of lesser laurels, such as the Prix de la Femme de France, sometimes so curiously bestowed. But it is in the United States that prizes take on numbers, magnitude, and infinite variety. They are given for every imaginable form of excellence, from high scholarship and civil service to ‘hotdog’ stands and the ‘ideal ankle.’ Nothing comes amiss to benefactors who are searching for somebody to benefit.
The Pulitzer prizes alone would daunt any institution of less grasp and magnitude than Columbia University, under whose auspices they are awarded. Every year — and a year runs swiftly by—the judges are required to give prizes of $1000 each for an American novel, an American play, an American biography or autobiography, an American history, and a collection of American verse. There are others, but these five are enough to consider. They would be hard to dispose of under any circumstances; but Mr. Pulitzer took pains to make the disposal harder by imposing impossible conditions. The novel must ‘present the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.’ (One wonders if the New York journalist had in his mind the manners and manhood of eighteenth-century Lima.) The biography must teach ‘ patriotic and unselfish services to the people.’ The history and the verse are less heavily handicapped; but the play must ‘represent the educational value and power of the stage in raising the standard of good morals, good taste, and good manners.’
These conditions deny criticism. It is true that the Nobel literary prize is awarded for work which is great ‘dans le sens d’idéalisme.’ This is the discriminating clause which gave to Mr. William Butler Yeats the lead over Mr. Thomas Hardy’s more serious claims. It is restricting, but it does not, like the Pulitzer stipulations, impose tests which have nothing to do with literary or dramatic qualifications — tests which may be eluded to some extent, but which may not be deliberately disregarded. That the prize for the best novel should have been twice given to Mr. Booth Tarkington shows the gratification of the judges at finding a popular and thoroughly ’all right’ novelist upon whom they can unload. The selection of Alice Adams in 1922 suggests the line of least resistance. This analysis of the sufferings of a girl who does not have a good time at parties is subtly and uncannily acute. How did Mr. Tarkington chance to observe so closely the pitiful devices by which a wallflower seeks to cover up defeat? But by no stretch of imagination can such a picture of wounded vanity be accepted as illustrating ‘the highest standard of American manners and manhood.’ As well might we accept the argumentative vapidities of Why Marry ? or the Cinderella-like smugness of Miss Lulu Bett (a good book gone wrong in playland) as representing ‘the educational value and power of the stage.’ Yet both these dramas received — in seasons that must have been exceptionally barren — the Pulitzer award.
It is as hard to extract from a novel or a play a meaning which it has n’t got as it is hard to write a novel, or a play, or an essay, or a book of any kind along lines laid down for competitors. A convincing proof of this difficulty was the failure last year of ten thousand essayists to compose a paper on President Wilson which the Woodrow Wilson Foundation could possibly accept as worthy of the $25,000 prize they offered. Such a failure could only have meant that men and women who know how to write know also that no good creative and critical work can be done without a broad margin of freedom. A biography of a man must reveal a man, and a man, especially if he win renown, is a complex creature. No catalogue of virtues and accomplishments can disclose the principles of humanity, cemented, as Montaigne reminds us, with sickly qualities. The glory of our fallen nature is that no mistake or miscarriage can permanently cloud the vision or obstruct the way; and the consideration of this truth is more heartening than the echo of all the panegyrics which have ever resounded through the world.
As for the ‘all-American’ history of the United States, which was designed to win a $10,000 prize, and gratify the Mayor of Chicago, it should be, if it ever secs the light, an interesting volume. Facts are said to be stubborn things, but they have been relegated before now to subordinate positions; and if ten thousand dollars cannot soften them into acquiescence, or banish them entirely, of what use is American money? The real difficulty of such a task is that not even the most accommodating of historians can wax confident over mendacities that have been bought and sold. When Macaulay and Froude threw overboard the obtrusive facts for which they had no use, they did so in obedience to their own prejudices and enthusiasms. They grew more and more eloquent as they wandered farther and farther from bare unsympathetic truths; but eloquence, while perfectly at home with error, is not susceptible to bribery. Some years ago the producers of a book called Profits, which dealt with American industries, offered $5000 for the best adverse criticism of their work. They probably knew that while there might be plenty to say — and say truly — against it, the offer of a preposterous award could be trusted to dull the edge of assault. Censure, like praise, must be born of conviction; but conviction may be born of passion or prejudice, and be all the stronger for its lineage.
The history of prize giving is full of interesting and unedifying incidents. Far back in the year 1830, the Central Unitarian Association of England decided to offer three prizes, one of ten guineas, one of fifteen guineas, and one of twenty guineas, for three essays designed to convert Roman Catholics, Jews, and Mohammedans to the truths of Unitarianism. The value of the awards was held to be nicely balanced by the difficult ies of the task. It ought to be ten guineas easier to convert a Catholic than to convert a Mohammedan who has so much farther to travel. All three prizes were won by Harriet Martineau, then a young woman of twenty-eight. She must have discovered a modifiable formula which could be applied to all three classes of recusants (‘One part helps another,’ observed the experienced Vincent Crummles), and she was fortyfive guineas the richer for her find.
The curious and painful part of this story, however, is that the reasoning used with such financial success by Miss Martineau overturned her own convictions. Two years after writing her prize essays she recoiled, expressed regret for ‘the weakness and falseness of the views’ she had been conveying with so much pains, and became, in her own words, ‘a free rover on the broad, bright, breezy common of the universe.’ Her rovings led her straight to the then popular cult of Mesmerism, which inspired her with such thoroughgoing zeal that she filled her house with patients (‘seven asleep at one time in my sitting room’), and filled the columns of the Athenœum with stories that would have sounded unusually incredible in the Arabian Nights. ‘There are minds,’ observed Sir Thomas Browne, ‘that can credit the relations of Mariners, yet question the Testimonies of Saint Paul.’ But mariners’ tales, albeit in bad repute, are stark realism compared with some of Miss Martineau’s mesmeric revelations.
Every now and then we read about the winning of a prize so unusual or so well bestowed that it seems to right a little the prevailing wrongness of circumstance. Such a one was the $1000 Pulitzer award for reportorial work in 1924 given to two newspaper men who unearthed the evidence which compelled Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb of Chicago to confess the foulest crime in the city’s bloodstained annals. Another and more cheerful instance was the prize given some years earlier by the British Agricultural Society to a Mr. Gibbs, — otherwise unknown to fame, — because he wrote a practical treatise on harvesting wheat in wet weather. If he had anything helpful to say on that score, the rain-soaked harvesters of Britain must have arisen and called him blessed. Last year it occurred to the Washington Daily News to offer a prize to the Federal employee who was ‘most on the job.’ The judges passed lightly by a number of more or less distinguished names which would have done credit to the journal, and ferreted out a woman who, during five administrations, has been in charge of the United States Civil Service Commission’s Bureau of Information. She draws a salary of $2300; and every year an average of thirty thousand people seek her advice and assistance. What that woman does not know about the rank and file of government workers is not worth the knowing; and if anything in the nature of a prize can sweeten her labors, let us thank a just Heaven that she got it.
Better still was the story that came from Paris of the giving of the Henri Fortin prize to a twelve-year-old girl, a laborer’s daughter who, since the death of her mother two years before, had taken charge of her father’s home and four younger children, without ceasing to attend school. Only in France could such a miracle be credited. It is said that the audience in the Trocadéro was moved to tears at sight of this child who had shouldered the burdens of maturity. The award of five hundred francs, once worth the winning, had shrunk with the fallen franc to a pitifully small sum. It is to be hoped that sympathy took some stouter form than tears when this drama of the poor was unfolded before the eyes of the well-to-do.
It is a far cry from a poverty-stricken child receiving thankfully a few dollars (‘I shall buy eggs,’ she is reported to have said) to the great Nobel prizes accepted with indifference and hauteur by men who have climbed the heights. When Anatole France was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1921, he said very plainly and very truly that he had no need of it. He had money and fame in plenty. Bernard Shaw was even more explicit. He said that he had more money than he could spend, and more fame than was good for him. Rudyard Kipling, though less outspoken, showed the same unconcern. To such embodiments of success awards are superfluous, a well-meant but purposeless attempt to gild refined gold. Money can of course be disposed of, but honors must be retained, crowding in upon other honors in a fashion which Mr. Shaw considered unsanitary. Of the three men, he alone has had the habit of looking into his own soul.
That the city of Toronto should have presented a Sheffield tea service to Miss Mazo de la Roche, whose novel, Jalna, won the Atlantic Monthly $10,000 prize, is a circumstance worthy of an older and more tranquil generation. To get a prize for winning a prize is sufficiently unusual; but to have one’s own town so pleasantly alive to one’s prowess is unprecedented. Cities do occasionally put up notices, which nobody reads, to inform the public that a distinguished citizen, long since dead, lived in this or that house, which nobody looks at; but they do not give silver services to show their pride and pleasure at the success of their living children. That Miss Eva Le Gallienne should have received a prize of $5000 for her efforts to provide good plays at prices which people who love good plays can afford to pay, heralds the approach of the millennium. It carries the light of hope to hearts that starve for pleasure. Even the fact that Miss Le Gallienne, when she brings her New York Civic Repertory Company to other cities, asks the same price that nonreforming managers demand, cannot extinguish our confidence. That Princeton University should offer two foreign scholarships (which are prizes) with the expressed desire that the recipients shall feel no obligation to do any special work, but shall merely meet all the foreigners they can, is a splendid departure from tradition. With an ocean lying between America and Europe, and with keen observers like M. Siegfried lamenting that never before did Americans and Europeans have a less intelligent understanding of one another, the essential need is intercourse. It may or may not lead to sympathy. It cannot fail to afford enlightenment.
A pure pleasantry in the way of awards was the recent offer of really handsome prizes for really handsome designs for hot-dog stands. It seems tolerably certain that nothing will win the American proletariat from this favorite article of diet, the speculative nature of which does but enhance its charm; and that nothing will induce the proletariat to call it by any other name than the one which has been so affectionately devised. The booths from which this delicacy is dispensed are many in number, and visibly lacking in elegance. At the Philadelphia Sesquicentennial the hot-dog stands were so numerous that they distracted attention from more legitimate and more pleasing structures. To combine tastefulness and simplicity in such a fashion as to content the æsthetic without alienating the unrefined can never be easy. A newspaper poet, one of the anonymous versifiers who fling their wit and wisdom to an unheeding public, has expressed in the following lines the sentiment with which the hot dog itself regards its approaching gentility: —
In my dull abode
By the dusty road,
By the beaten track,
Modestly and long
Have I fed the throng.
Humbly I have done
What the hot dog can
For the hungry man.
Palaces for me
Wonderful to see,
Shall my warmth be chilled?
Shall I be stuck up?
Am I such a pup?
Meek, without disdain,
Man’s devoted friend,
Faithful to the end.
I make no apology for this simple and timely verse. ‘What can we relish if we recoil at vulgarity?’ asks Santayana from the heights of his ineffable distinction.
Yet it is just possible that even Santayana’s tolerance would be strained by the kind of vulgarity which is displayed in the beauty contests that have run riot in this country, and have apparently penetrated into Europe and South America. The protests voiced against the disgraceful and demoralizing spectacles at Atlantic City have been so vigorous that there is a chance of their being suppressed; yet newspapers vie with one another in printing pictures of these half-naked young women (whose beauty must be taken on faith), and in writing sentimental imbecilities about them. It was calculated that last year’s prize winner would probably earn — apart from the prize money — at least a hundred thousand dollars by showing herself in vaudeville. The money, we were told, was to be used in the study of art; and it was the valuable opinion of the judges who had given her their votes that, ‘having beauty herself, she should not find it hard to create beautiful work.’
This flawless bit of reasoning establishes a new basis for achievement. Christopher North said that no ugly woman ever wrote a beautiful poem t he length of her little finger; but he had founded his views upon the undeniable comeliness of Mrs. Hemans, whose verse — many times the length of her little finger—he sincerely admired. He probably did not think she wrote Songs of the Affections because she was good-looking; but only that she would not have written them had she been ugly.
A young woman to whom was awarded a beauty prize in a contest at Galveston, Texas, and who was dubbed ‘Miss Universe,’ which was going one degree better than Atlantic City’s ‘Miss America,’ received a public ovation when she returned to her home in Jersey City. A committee from the Chamber of Commerce met her at the station with flowers and flags, and the Mayor ‘ formally welcomed her from the stage of the Central Theatre.’ It does not sound grown up; but neither does the fuss made in New York over ‘the ideal American ankle,’ the measurements of which were given in the papers, together with the measurements of the calf, the knee, and the thigh which necessarily accompanied it. Five hundred dollars, a silver cup, and a bronze cast of the ankle were awarded to the young woman so distinguished.
A great deal of American money is spent in this fashion, but other countries are correspondingly profuse. We have heard much of Britain’s financial straits. Her distress at seeing works of art and cherished manuscripts looted by American plutocrats can be readily understood. No generous heart likes to see a country despoiled by purchase; and the abduction of little Alice from her English home savors — for all the money paid — of child-stealing. But a group of London newspapers could afford to put up a prize of a thousand pounds for a beauty contest; and a picture of ‘England’s girl’ came over the seas to take its place in our Sunday press with pictures of the most beautiful young woman in Spain, the most beautiful young woman in Belgium, the most beautiful young woman in Chili, and the many most beautiful young women at home.
Prize giving, if it does not degenerate into indecency, is a legitimate form of advertising. Nevertheless, it is startling to see a jeweler’s window filled with silver trophies of the type usually awarded to tennis players, and to be told that they are prizes designed for an ‘interstate spelling competition,’ adroitly staged by a business school. Spelling is admittedly a more desirable accomplishment for most of us than tennis playing; but never before did it take on such a sporty character, and never before did it win such immediate and valuable recognition. Last year seventeen newspapers offered prizes for a national spelling contest in our national capital. A little boy of thirteen from a country town in Ohio won the championship and $1000. A little boy from Iowa won $500, and a little girl from Pennsylvania, appropriately christened Minerva, won $250. Accustomed as we are to the lavish scale on which everything is conducted in our lavish land, these figures are staggering. Memories of a whole childhood of unrecorded and unrewarded industry sear my sold with a sense of injustice in that I was born too soon. Nor does the fact that I never could spell reconcile me to fate, for well I know that the race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong. Stout nerves and the lawlessness of chance determine many a contest, which is what makes the thrill of competition and the supreme joy of victory. ‘Stolen fruit is sweet,’ observes George Meredith; ‘but undeserved rewards are exquisite.’