Presenting Pulitzer Prizes

By Ethan Li

I am a fiend for award shows. Every year, before awards seasons start, you can catch me relentlessly studying the Wikipedia page of nominees and making highly opinionated predictions based on little-to-no expertise. I consult the Emmy nominations before starting a new TV show, watch the Tony Awards despite living thousands of miles from Broadway, and get irrationally mad when my favorite actor doesn’t get an Oscar nomination. Given this, well, obsession, it is only natural I turn to one of the equivalent awards in the literature world when deciding to read new books: the Pulitzer Prize. For over 100 years, Pulitzer Prizes, awarded by Columbia University, have honored accomplishments in American journalism, literature, and music. However, many often criticize these prestigious awards, questioning the legitimacy of the awards given. To test the validity of said selections, I wanted to experience different winning works to explore their relevance to the general American population, especially high schoolers like me. Over the next year, my goal is to read, watch, or listen to different recipients and provide an analytical review of each of them on The Shield

First, a brief history. The story of the Pulitzer Prize starts with the story of one man: Joseph Pulitzer. At seventeen years old, Pulitzer, born in Mako, Hungary to a wealthy family, enlisted to fight for the Union in the American Civil War. After the war, he ended up in St. Louis, Missouri, frequenting the Mercantile Library, where he made the acquaintance of two editors of a leading German newspaper. From that initial introduction into the journalistic world, Pulitzer rose through the ranks and eventually held the title of publisher of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and, later, the New York World. He stood out as the pioneering spirit of American journalism, tirelessly working to expose corruption and fraud in political and economic spheres. As an example of his fearless work, Pulitzer once exposed an illegal payment of forty million dollars from the U.S. government to the French Panama Canal Company; this uncovering led to the federal government indicting him for libeling Theodore Roosevelt and banker J.P. Morgan. The

case was thrown out in court—a victory for independent journalism! However, it was ultimately his relentless work that had part in his eventual death from heart failure. For the duration of his life, he was a strong proponent of education and even left 2 million dollars to Columbia University in his will, helping to form the Pulitzer Prizes as a way to encourage excellence in journalism, books, drama, and education. Although the award started with just 14 prizes, today there are 23 prizes awarded, with topics ranging from poetry to audio journalism, all honoring Pulitzer’s incredible life. 

Given the prestige of a Pulitzer Prize, it is only natural the selection process be similarly exclusive and mysterious. Prize administration follows two steps. First, special juries consisting of relevant experts in their respective fields, such as a playwright and an academic that judge drama entries, nominate outstanding applicants. Afterwards, the Pulitzer Prize board meets to review all jury submissions and choose the ultimate winners. The 2022-2023 Pulitzer Prize Board consisted of eighteen professors, editors, writers, and other persons of general importance and relevance. Although simple, this issuing process has led to a fair share of controversies throughout the years. Often, the Board disagrees with the jury-nominated works and decides to go rogue, such as when the Board overruled the jury’s nomination of Gravity’s Rainbow for the 1974 Fiction Prize and instead issued no prize, or when Next To Normal won the 2010 Drama Prize despite not being on the jury-nominated list. That the Board would so often disagree with the juries of experts confuses me. Why would the Board feel the need to reject nominations provided by experts in the field, such as the playwright and academic on the drama jury? Another common criticism of the Pulitzer Prizes relates to political ideology—observers often point out that prizes are commonly given to those that support liberals and fight conservatives. A fair criticism, considering the issuing body of the awards, Columbia University, is based in New York City, a liberal state. Ultimately, no one (except the Board) knows what happens in the two days when they convene to issue judgment. And not every almighty decision by the Board has been controversial; many prizes have gone to truly timeless and impactful works of art. The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill A Mockingbird, and The Old Man and the Sea all won their respective year’s Fiction Prize and went on to be read by millions, including students at Westmont. Another example: the Board awarded The New York Times and The New Yorker the 2018 Public Service Prize for their coverage of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assault accusations that lead to the #MeToo movement. As such, despite some criticisms, the Pulitzer Prize stands out as one of the most respected prizes in American writing. 

Still, one question remains for me: are Pulitzer Prize winners even relevant for average Americans? I have always held the notion that winners of this prestigious award are written in the stereotypical “academic writing” style that I find difficulty wrapping my head around: expansive vocabulary, confusing sentence structure, and philosophical themes. Should people actually read these books, watch these plays, or listen to these songs, or are the Pulitzer Prizes just another esoteric prize awarded by academics, for academics?