The Pulitzer Prizes

Over the years, the Pulitzer Prizes have come to be regarded as valued awards in American letters, especially when they signalize new talent. But from time to time there are mutterings; there were mutterings in 1926 when Sinclair Lewis refused to accept the prize for his novel Arrowsmith, and again this year when there was evidently a hung jury in Fiction. Critic and Professor of English at Cornell, ARTHUR MIZENER looks back at the record. Mr. Mizener is the author of The Far Side of Paradise.



WHEN Robert Penn Warren received the Pulitzer Prize for All the King’s Men in 1947, he learned about it from an enterprising reporter. “How do you feel, Mr. Warren?" the reporter asked, and Warren said, “I feel guilty about all the writers better than I am who have never received the Pulitzer Prize.”

It is true that many of us are naïve enough to think the Pulitzer Prize is awarded for the best novel by an American during a given year; and even the present terms of the award —“for distinguished fiction” —suggest that judges are concerned solely with literary merit. Quite rightly, therefore, within our limits, we question a good many of the awards. Resides, it is fun to secondguess the judges, especially as it is easy to be wise after enough time has passed to free us from the temporary distortion of values which exists at any given moment of history and is certain to influence powerfully any judgment that has to be made in that moment. Some of us are old enough to remember what things were like in 1921 and thus to understand how the judges came to think not only that The Age of Innocence was a better book than Main Street (which it probably is) but that it was superior in another, nonliterary way—it was a safer book to give the prize to. The buzz of gossip is pretty loud even in the remote fastnesses far above Cayuga’s waters where I live. It must be appalling in New York, where, as I understand it, literary people feel that day has been lost on which they do not attend a couple of literary cocktail parties where they are edified by the latest in-group wisdom. Perhaps, after all, we should admire the Pulitzer judges for having chosen so many good books under these conditions — especially good books of poetry — rather than criticize them for having chosen so many inferior novels.

There are, nonetheless, some pretty odd choices even among the books of poetry. In 1935, the year of Marianne Moore’s Selected Poems and of Robert Penn Warren’s Thirty-six Poems, the prize went to Robert P. Tristram Coffin’s Strange Holiness; in 1938 our judges preferred Mary a Zaturenska’s Cold Morning Sky to Stevens’ Man with the Blue Guitar and Allen Tate’s Selected Poems. One could easily multiply examples of this kind. But these are perhaps enough to suggest the pattern which seems to run through the poetry awards. In spite of the brilliance of Southern Agrarian poets like Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, John Peale Bishop, and Robert Penn Warren, none of them has ever won a Pulitzer Prize for poetry. This heroic refusal by the judges to recognize persistent merit however great is almost enough to make even a Yankee share the slightly paranoid Southern literary dogma that New York’s control of the business side of literature is used systematically to discriminate against Southern writers.

The judges seem also to have sustained an irrational prejudice against neo-metaphysical poets, especially if they were expatriates, as were the greatest of these poets, Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. It is certainly hard today to understand their refusal to honor at least one of the volumes — for instance, The Waste Land — which Mr. Eliot published before he became a British subject in 1927. Perhaps it is too much to expect the judges to show the kind of courage an award to Ezra Pound calls for nowadays, especially after what happened to the Fellows of the Library of Congress for saying what was almost certainly true: that Pound’s Pisan Cantos were the best poems by an American published in 1948. But there were a half-dozen Pound volumes published before the last war which could have been noticed without arousing political passions.

The truth is that the judges have — with rare exceptions — limited themselves to regional poets who celebrate the area north of Jersey City and east of Albany. This narrow provincialism has forced them into giving the prize to Robert Frost four times and to a handful of other poets two or three times, and into ignoring all the other good poets. Nonetheless, it is true — again, with some exceptions — that the poets the judges have honored have been good poets, so that there is a valid if narrow-minded defense to be made of them.


BUT there is not, I think, any valid literary defense that can be made for the awards in the novel. If a defense is to be made, it will have to be made on other grounds. A few examples will show why. (These examples are all later than 1931, the year in which the Advisory Board announced that the award would be given “for the best novel published during the year by an American writer.” Pulitzer’s original terms were: “For the original 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.” Actually, the judges appear to have started ignoring these terms as early as 1929, when the award went to Scarlet Sister Mary, whose seven illegitimate children can hardly have been the kind of thing Pulitzer had in mind when he urged “the highest standard of American . . . manhood” on the judges’ attention.) Of the novels published in 1934, the year in which Scott Fitzgerald and John O’Hara published their finest novels and two brilliant tours do force appeared (Caroline Gordon’s Aleck Maury and Cozzens’ Castaway) — for that annus mirabilis the judges chose Josephine Johnson’s Now in November. For 1936 they succeeded in ignoring Absalom, Absalom!, In Dubious Battle, and The Big Money in order to honor Gone with the Wind. For 1940 they found no novel worthy of the award: that was the year of For Whom the Bell Tolls, You Can’t Go Home Again, The Hamlet, Ask Me Tomorrow, and The Pilgrim Hawk. For 1951 they passed over Requiem for a Nun, Melville Goodwin, USA, and Catcher in the Rye for The Caine Mutiny.

Some obviously extraliterary criteria which are scarcely evident in the judging of poetry appear to be at work here; they show up, I think, because we care about novels in a way we do not, alas, care about poetry. What novels say is, we think, something understandable about the life we are actually living; novels are not muttering incoherently about April’s being the cruelest month, which we can ignore as nonsense, or waving their arms about hysterically over—God help us — usury. What is worse (for no doubt we ourselves are wise enough to resist the bad effect of seductively wicked novels), the other fellow can read them and understand what they are saying, and heaven only knows what damage to the soundness of the country that may do. What I am trying to say is that our moral and political interests are deeply involved in our judgment of novels. Of course they should be involved in all our literary judgments, but because they are not often involved in our judgment of poetry, we find it easier to be fair to the literary merit of poetry. Yeats once remarked bitterly that he could say anything he wanted to about Ireland in his poems because no one in Dublin read them. But if Yeats could scorn Ireland as a country which spent all its time “fumbling in a greasy till” and still become an Irish senator, no novelist — not even so obscure a one as Joyce — could. Even the mild denigration which is an effect of complete objectivity such as you have in Dubliners can lead to the kind of suppression Dubliners suffered.

Much the same thing is true of literary judgment in America. The Pulitzer Prize judges have honored poets who have said some pretty severe things about our moral and political beliefs; even their favorite, Robert Frost, can be devastating in poems like “Design,” “Provide, Provide,” and “Directive.” This is no man to turn loose among conventional readers if there is any risk of their fully understanding him. The risk is apparently not great; at least no disappointed poet has yet appeared in the Saturday Review to condemn the Pulitzer Prize judges for honoring Robert Frost. But with novelists the judges have to be careful. They know it, because the market tells them so. The novel is a commodity, but the distribution of poetry is a charity practiced by publishers.

At its crudest and most obvious, then, the extraliterary importance of the novel is shown by what I am told economists like to call the market mechanism — a metaphor which any decent poet could tell them they are someday going to regret. Now no self-respecting publisher, even less any selfrespecting writer, takes the judgment of the market mechanism lying down. But I doubt if any publisher would deny, either, that it has a cumulative effect. Moreover, it has an effect on writers themselves: there is an amateur Virginia Kirkus in every writer, and she has a quite astonishing effect on some of them, as Edmund Wilson was noticing with his usual acerbity when he remarked of the Pulitzer Prize winner for 1927: “By unremitting industry and a kind of stubborn integrity that seems to make it impossible for him to turn out his rubbish without thoroughly believing in it, [Louis Bromfield] has gradually made his way into the fourth rank, where his place is now secure.”

Sadly enough, this is the history of many promising writers in America, and of some w ho not only promised to achieve something but did so — for a little while. In nearly every decade you can find a really good American writer who later petered out, as Sinclair Lewis did after the twenties. Why, asked Scott Fitzgerald, are there no second acts in American lives? What discrepancy in values is there in America that makes so many of our writers go to pieces and, to return to the other side of our equation, makes able judges award novel prizes to mediocre books?—for I think there can be no doubt that the committees which award prizes are just as intelligent as anybody else, and just as honest.

Yet what they do can be as astonishing as what happens to gifted writers. Their practice seems to imply certain criteria of judgment which are, at best, only incidentally literary. For one thing, the books they will choose must — without being crude about it — look at experience in a properly American way. This way may occasionally include a criticism of America, but the grounds of such criticism must be American moral or political ideals: naughty fellows like the young Faulkner or socialists, however American, like the young Dos Passos need not apply. In short, to win the Pulitzer Prize a novel must not be, in either form or content, very novel. For another thing, the book must be popular — not just a best seller, but a book that is accepted as serious by a large number of American readers.

This second criterion is most clearly shown by the judges’ consistent refusal to pick an early book by an important writer. If the writer persists stubbornly and becomes popular, there is a possibility that they may recognize his fourth or fifth good book, but the chances are better that, if they recognize him at all, they will wait until very near the end of the first act of his life or even until well into that dismal second act Fitzgerald was asking about. Thus they passed over not only Main Street in 1920 but Babbitt in 1922. But they did choose Arrowsmith in 1926. The previous year The Sun Also Rises did not get chosen for reasons Hemingway foresaw quite clearly in the book itself. When Bill Gorton, fresh over from New York, joins Jake in Europe, he is full of talk about irony and pity, and Jake says to him, “Who did you get this stuff from?” Bill says, “Everybody. Don’t you read? Don’t you ever see anybody? You know what you are? You’re an expatriate. Why don’t you live in New York? Then you’d know these things. What do you want me to do? Come over here and tell you every year? . . . Nobody that ever left their own country ever wrote anything worth printing. . . . You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed by sex. . . . You’re an expatriate, see? You hang around cafés.” And Jake says, “It sounds like a swell life. When do I work?” Like Jake, Hemingway did work, and twenty-five years later the Pulitzer judges joined the Luce Enterprises in honoring The Old Man and the Sea. If you measure from Faulkner’s first indubitably great novel, The Sound and the Fury, it was twenty-six years before they discovered him.


I THINK there is enough evidence here to convince us that the Pulitzer Prize often does not go to one of the very best novels of the year, even when it is pretty clear at the time what the best novels are, because certain extraliterary criteria are at least as important to the judges as are the literary ones. But I hope I have not sounded as if I think these judges are galled by prejudice while our withers are unwrung. Which one of us, when it is a question we really care about, knows how to hold the balance between our sense of literary excellence and our regard for the moral and political conxictions by which we live? Well, there is, perhaps, an answer to that rhetorical question. People who take an all-for-art-or-the-world-welllost attitude do not attempt to hold any balance, but I think they are worse off than our judges. Irresponsibility never solves any problems, especially when it makes as many purely literary misjudgments as responsibility does — at least, I think the race between the little magazines and the best-seller lists to see who can pick the most phony geniuses is a very close thing.

Responsible judges like those for the Pulitzer Prize are in very much the same dilemma as Robert Penn Warren was in: torn between his writer’s conviction that better writers than he had, for non literary reasons, been deprived of the Pulitzer Prize and the fact, perfectly clear to Warren himself, that he shared most of the values which lead judges to ignore good writers. Any intelligent literary man will frequently be shocked by what Pulitzer Prize judges and Hollywood do. But I think it can be said in a completely uncynical way that he will nonetheless probably accept their money and even the kind of work their recognition will bring him. The conflict of values manifest here works very subtly, and it works on the businessmen of literature just as surely as it works on the writers who succeed. Indeed, it works on us all.

When a writer has produced the best book he can, he will tell himself that he need not turn down any money it brings him, for he has not compromised his principles or his taste in writing it. He is likely to feel only innocent delight if his publisher thinks his book may be a best seller, a candidate for the Pulitzer Prize, even a movie buy. It seems to him a trifling, temporary interruption of his work when his publisher suggests a visit to New York to help build up the book. Possibly he is faintly disturbed when he finds himself at literary cocktail parties being almost flattering to influential reviewers he has always — probably with some justice — thought stupid. But the next thing he knows, he is appearing on radio and television shows, where the regal bearing of radio personalities awes him into expressing opinions he neither believes nor respects. (What a man won’t say when Mary Margaret McBride goes to work on him!) If our writer is not lucky enough to fade quickly into obscurity, he will end up writing scripts in Hollywood, where he will probably not even have the consolation of being a success.

You see the obverse of this course among publishers. Publishers arc all more or less bad businessmen because they all care to some extent for good books and are forever trying to publish them. It’s a mug’s game and as businessmen they know it. What would a really hard-boiled businessman think of Alfred Knopf’s attempt, a few years ago, to revive Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End? Parade’s End is a tetralogy, a book of over 800 fairly difficult pages, and the most salable of Ford’s books is, as a commodity, so dead that Ford hasn’t much of a reputation even among the avant-garde. But Alfred Knopf knows that Ford is a fine novelist. The poor fellow therefore not only published Parade’s End; he even spent good money to collect and print the favorable opinions of Ford held by a group of odd characters with no influence whatsoever on the buying public. I know about this because I was one of the odd characters. Well, Parade’s Pnd was published all right; it was remaindered, too, almost before the ink was dry on the paper.

Mary McCarthy once remarked that we Americans are a nation of twenty million bathtubs, with a humanist in every tub. We are also a nation of twenty thousand intellectuals, each of whom has a couple of children he wants to send to Princeton and Vassar and a wife with a well-publicized scheme for doing over every room in the house. The intellectuals need the community of their fellows far too deeply ever to make the radical rejection of the middle-class way of life which their intellectual commitments in strict logic require, just as their fellows need to participate in the life of the mind, even at the expense of their business sense, in order to convince themselves that they are not hucksters. I think it would be hard to say whether the most representative hero of American society is Charlie Anderson, of Dos Passos’ The Big Money, who killed himself trying to recover the pleasures of the mind and spirit he had sacrificed to achieve the Big Money, or whether that hero is Huck Finn, the patron saint of all intellectuals, who ended by having to light out for the terrible loneliness of the territory because he couldn’t stand what he called being sivilized” — that is, conforming to the standards of his fellow Americans in St. Petersburg.

Each of these heroes accepted one of the two nearly exclusive goods we Americans need, and each was destroyed by his inability to find the other. The hero who is caught, as they were, between the need for success and community and the need for integrity and loneliness is omnipresent in American fiction because, in a less heroic form, he is omnipresent in American life. Let me give you an illustration, a story by James Thurber in which Thurber finds himself stuck at a cocktail party with a businessman named Matthews. This Thurber suffers from a rather foolish but understandable desire for a kind of society in which his talent for intellectual wit will be admired. Mr. Matthews is a shrewd and friendly man who tries all through the Story to understand Thurber’s trouble but can’t because he is aware of only the practical values. The two are in difficulties from the start.

“Where now, Matthews,”I demanded, “are Belong draperies, the bright chandeliers, the shining floors, the high ceilings, the snuffboxes, the handkerchief stuck in the sleeve with careless care, the perfect bow from the waist, the formal but agile idiom?”

“Setup is different today,”Matthews said.

After trying to make Matthews see how vulgarized our civilization is by showing him how Thurber witticisms have been cheapened for popular consumption, Thurber finally tries to get through to him by describing how a publisher once asked him to do a new set of illustrations for Alice in Wonderland and Thurber said, “Let’s keep the Tenniel drawings and I’ll rewrite the story.” Trying his damnedest to get the point of this, Matthews succeeds only in displaying his complete ignorance of who James Thurber is. He says, “Fellow thought you were an artist instead of a writer, eh?” The cocktail party ends with Thurber shouting at a woman because she tells him how much she admires him for having refused to rewrite Alice in Wonderland in spite of all the money they offered him.

This seems to me a brilliant exploitation of the dilemma I have been trying to describe. It shows us the innocent egotism of the intellectual who wants to have his talent recognized by his fellows without sacrificing the intellectual subtlety on which he prides himself. It shows us the shrewd ignorance of the businessman who wants to feel he can understand this intellectual but lands hopelessly beside the point every time. Thurber has put a Columbus-Ohio Huck Finn and a CornwallConnecticut Charlie Anderson in the same story.

For all his lightness of tone, Thurber is showing us our nightmare of defeat. Most of the time, in actuality, we do not live in this nightmare, though I suppose we all frequently imagine it. Instead, we achieve some shaky and slightly conscience-stricken balance between the demands of our two sets of values, teetering ludicrously, like the clown in the circus’s balancing act. Clowns are only absurd because they are pathetic. And so are the Pulitzer Prize judges. And so are all of us.