The Biggest Snubs in 100 Years of the Pulitzer

Who is the Leonardo DiCaprio of American literature?

By The Editors
April 18, 2016 9:00 am

The Pulitzer Prize is one of the most coveted awards in the literary world. And they just announced this year’s winners.

The previous list of Pulitzer winners includes most of the quote unquote great American writers: Hemingway, Faulkner, etc.

But there have also been plenty of novels that were woefully overlooked: The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, The Sound and the Fury, The Catcher in the Rye, Invisible Man, Catch-22, Slaughterhouse-Five, Jesus’ Son, Deliverance, Ragtime, Infinite Jest, Underworld — for starters.

For every esteemed American writer with a Pulitzer on the mantle, there are others who did not deserve the award based on the competition — and some others who won and went on to little literary success later.

Let’s correct that. The following is a list of some of the biggest controversies: of losers who should have won, winners who never went on to achieve the greatness their wins promised, and deserving winners in years when no award was given.

1917: His Family
The first winner of the Pulitzer prize was a novel about a middle-class widower and three daughters in New York adapting to a changing society. It has largely been forgotten and overshadowed by other books of the time period. It was out of print from the mid-1920s (only around ten years after its release) until 1970, and then again from the end of that decade until the early 21st century.

1926: Arrowsmith over The Great Gatsby
Hindsight is 20/20, but the selection of Sinclair Lewis’s novel about a small-town scientist who goes on to help find an antidote to a plague over The Great Gatsby has not aged well. Lewis declined the Pulitzer and would go on to be the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1930. At the time, The Great Gatsby received mixed reviews and sold only 20,000 copies in its first year. It was largely forgotten until World War II, when it was selected and distributed to 155,000 soldiers overseas, which boosted its popularity after the war. By 1960, it was selling 50,000 copies a year and was rebranded as a modern American classic.

1960: Advise and Consent
Allen Drury won the Pulitzer for his first novel and followed it up with five sequels. He would never again find the success — in a literary or popular sense — of Advise and Consent. The Saturday Review said of A&C: “It may be a long time before a better (novel) comes along.” To Kill a Mockingbird won the Pulitzer the following year.

1974: No Winner Selected
Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, a book many consider to be the best American novel published after the Second World War, was selected as finalist … but due to a single passage in the book involving coprophilia, was rejected by the Pulitzer board.

1986: Lonesome Dove beats out Blood Meridian, City of Glass and White Noise
This time, you can’t fault the selection of the winner on the jury — Auster, McCarthy and DeLillo’s classics were all left off the ballot by the selection committee.

1991: Rabbit at Rest beats The Things They Carried
The final book in the four-part John Updike’s Rabbit series won the award in 1991. The third book, Rabbit is Rich, had already won in 1982. Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, probably the seminal American work on the Vietnam War, could only make the list of finalists.

1998: American Pastoral beats Underworld
Philip Roth is one of the best American writers, true, but his 1998 novel American Pastoral beat out Don DeLillo’s masterwork Underworld. The selection of Roth hints at the Pulitzer jury awarding the author for his canon, not unlike Leonardo DiCaprio’s win for The Revenant (Roth has twice been nominated before for the prize, once in 1980 and the next in 1994). Underworld was a coronation of American fiction and has kept its high level of importance. In 2006, a survey of top authors and critics found Underworld as the runner-up for best work of American fiction over the previous 25 years, second only to Toni Morrison’s Beloved (the Pulitzer winner in 1988).  

2012: No Winner Selected
This wasn’t the first time the jury decided not to select a winner from the nominated finalists. The Pale King, the only posthumous novel by David Foster Wallace, Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, and Karen Russell’s debut, Swamplandia!, were selected as finalists. The jury decided against selecting anyone for the prize. A huge slight to the talent on display, but the biggest to Wallace. You can read this letter from fiction jury member Michael Cunningham on the selection process and his disappointment in the lack of a winner.

—Garrett McGrath

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