A Pulitzer Prize Primer (and a look at past winners)

Pulitzer Prize

The Pulitzer Prize is one of the most prestigious and coveted awards in literature and journalism, and with the 2018 award winners less than a month from being announced, I realized I knew little about the origin of the awards and how winners are chosen. Here’s what I learned.

As with any high-profile national award, the Pulitzer Prize has its share of detractors. Still, it remains one of the most prestigious and coveted awards in literature and journalism, and with the 2018 award winners about to be announced and the recent news of Les Payne’s death — he was part of a team of journalists who won a Pulitzer in 1974 for a 33-part series called “The Heroin Trail” — I realized I knew very little about the origin of the awards and the process by which books and writers are selected and awarded a prize. So here’s a Pulitzer Prize primer, plus a look at the winners in the writing categories over the past five decades.

The prize is named after Joseph Pulitzer

Born in Hungary in 1847, Joseph Pulitzer made his way to the United States to fight in the US Civil War, of all things. He had tried to enlist in the Austrian Army, The French Foreign Legion, and the British Army, but poor eyesight and health derailed those efforts. He was able to join the US Union Army as a substitute enrollee — healthy men in the US who were conscripted to fight in the Civil War were allowed to pay a substitute to take their place for a sum of $300 — and ended up in St. Louis after serving in the Lincoln Cavalry.

Pulitzer, who spoke little English, was fluent in German and began working for the Westliche Post, a German-language paper, in 1868. Ten years later, as he entered his thirties, Pulitzer had worked his way to being the owner of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and a powerful player in American journalism.

Pulitzer continued to gain influence and build a media empire even as his eyesight and health worsened, aggravated by a relentless work schedule. He acquired The New York World and built it into the “largest circulating newspaper in the country.” But his success brought competition: Charles Anderson Dana (publisher of The Sun in New York) and William Randolph Hearst engaged in public assaults on Pulitzer and his papers, and he ran afoul of President Theodore Roosevelt as the federal government took Pulitzer to court for his paper’s reporting on a $40 million fraudulent payment by the government (the case was ultimately dismissed).

In 1912, a year after Pulitzer’s death, the Columbia School of Journalism was founded, and the first Pulitzer Prizes were awarded in 1917 “under the supervision of the advisory board to which he had entrusted his mandate.”

From the biography posted on “The Pulitzer Prizes” website:

Appealing to the public to accept that his paper was their champion, Pulitzer splashed investigative articles and editorials assailing government corruption, wealthy tax-dodgers, and gamblers. This populist appeal was effective, circulation mounted, and the [Post-Dispatch] prospered. Pulitzer would have been pleased to know that in the conduct of the Pulitzer Prize system which he later established, more awards in journalism would go to exposure of corruption than to any other subject.

And the categories are…

There are Pulitzers awarded for Public Service, Breaking News Reporting, Investigative Reporting, Explanatory Reporting, Local Reporting, National Reporting, International Reporting, Feature Writing, Commentary, Criticism, Editorial Writing,
Editorial Cartooning, Breaking News Photography, Feature Photography, and Music, along with six categories for letters and drama (sourced from Wikipedia):

  • Fiction, for distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.
  • Drama, for a distinguished play by an American playwright, preferably original in its source and dealing with American life.
  • History, for a distinguished and appropriately documented book on the history of the United States.
  • Biography or Autobiography, for a distinguished biography, autobiography or memoir by an American author.
  • Poetry, for a distinguished volume of original verse by an American poet.
  • General Non-Fiction, for a distinguished and appropriately documented book of non-fiction by an American author that is not eligible for consideration in any other category.
  • Prizes are awarded in 21 categories, with 20 receiving a $15,000 cash award. The “Public Service” in journalism award winner receives a gold medal (no cash award).

    Who is eligible and how are the winners selected?

    In the books categories, books must be originally published in the US (self-published books are accepted), and in most categories, the author must be a US citizen (the History category accepts non-US citizens, but the subject matter must pertain to US history). Anyone can submit an entry, including the author, and there is a $50 entry fee. Entries are generally accepted December-January of the previous and award years (e.g. 2018 award entries were accepted December 2017 through January 2018), though some categories are due by December 31. Awards are announced in the Spring — this year’s award winners and finalists will be announced on April 16th.

    The finalists and award winners are selected by 102 jurors who sit on 20 separate juries. The jurors are selected by the Pulitzer Prize Board. Wikipedia has a concise description of the Pulitzer board:

    The 19-member Pulitzer Prize Board convenes semiannually in the Joseph Pulitzer World Room at Columbia University’s Pulitzer Hall. It comprises major editors, columnists and media executives in addition to six members drawn from academia and the arts, including the president of Columbia University, the dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the administrator of the Prizes, who serves as the Board’s secretary. The administrator and the dean (who has served on the Board since 1976) participate in the deliberations as ex officio members but cannot vote. Aside from the president and dean (who serve as permanent members for the duration of their respective appointments) and the administrator (who is reelected annually), the Board elects its own members for a three-year term; members may serve a maximum of three terms. Members of the Board and the juries are selected with close attention “given to professional excellence and affiliation, as well as diversity in terms of gender, ethnic background, geographical distribution and size of news organization.

    Criticisms of the awards include accusations of liberal bias, while others have pointed to the impossible task of critically assessing hundreds of books and other entries in the short time allotted to review — one source lists 2,400 annual entries. Critics have also pointed to a lower-than-representative percentage of winners being women, and there are the occasional years where no award is given in a particular category for various (and often disputed) reasons.

    Winners in Fiction, Drama, History, Biography, Poetry, and General Non-Fiction

    Here’s a look at the winners in the letters and drama categories every ten years over the past five decades.

    Winners in 2017
    Fiction: The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead
    Drama: Sweat, by Lynn Nottage
    Poetry: Olio, by Tyehimba Jess
    General Non-Fiction: Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond
    Biography: The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between, by Hisham Matar
    History: Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy, by Heather Ann Thompson

    Winners in 2007
    Fiction: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
    Drama: Rabbit Hole, by David Lindsay-Abaire
    Poetry: Native Guard, by Natasha Trethewey
    General Non-Fiction: The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, by Lawrence Wright
    Biography: The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher, by Debby Applegate
    History: The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation, by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff

    Winners in 1997
    Fiction: Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, by Steven Millhauser
    Drama: No award given
    Poetry: Alive Together: New and Selected Poems, by Lisel Mueller
    General Non-Fiction: Ashes To Ashes: America’s Hundred-Year Cigarette War, The Public Health, And The Unabashed Triumph Of Philip Morris, by Richard Kluger
    Biography: Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir, by Frank McCourt
    History: Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution, by Jack N. Rakove

    Winners in 1987
    Fiction: A Summons to Memphis, by Peter Taylor
    Drama: Fences, by August Wilson
    Poetry: Thomas and Beulah, by Rita Dove
    General Non-Fiction: Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land, by David K. Shipler
    Biography: Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, by David J. Garrow
    History: Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the Revolution, by Bernard Bailyn

    Winners in 1977
    Fiction: No award given
    Drama: The Shadow Box, by Michael Cristofer
    Poetry: Divine Comedies, by James Merrill
    General Non-Fiction: Beautiful Swimmers, by William W. Warner
    Biography: A Prince of Our Disorder: The Life of T. E. Lawrence, by John E. Mack
    History: The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861, by David M. Potter




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