Welcome to The Pulitzer Prize Thumbnails Project, where you can read my short (and in some cases longer) descriptions and reviews of every book that has won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The indexes above and on the right will take you to the squibs, decade by decade.
You’ll find numerous images of book dust jacket covers throughout these pages. Some of these covers are first editions, and some are the jackets of reprint editions. I’ve also included links to information about the authors, although a few of the winners have very little presence on the web.
Every year in mid-April or early May, the Pulitzer organization announces its prize winners. Pulitzer juries in each of 21 category make up to three recommendations (with no stated preference) to the Pulitzer board, which then chooses the winners. The board can pick one of the three recommendations in each category or go its own way. All Pulitzer winners receive a $7,500 prize.
The prize for Fiction – the category was called Novel before 1948 – is awarded “for distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.” The reigning winner is Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, which captured the 2020 award, just three years after he won the 2017 prize for The Underground Railroad. The 2021 award will be announced on Friday, June 11, at 1 p.m. (postponed from April 19).
The copyrights on some of the earliest Pulitzer novels have lapsed or expired, so you can now read them online. The Thumbnails Project provides links to many of them. As you scroll through the various pages, look for a notation at the end of a book’s entry to find links to the ones that you can read online.
Here are some Pulitzer facts of interest:
♦ The first Pulitzer prizes were awarded in 1917, but the committee chose not to name a winner in the Novel (now Fiction) category. The next year, Ernest Poole won the first Novel prize for his book His Family. Except for this distinction, both author and book are now largely forgotten by literary history. The committee did not name a winner in the category 10 other times after 1917. The last time was in 2012, and the time before that was 35 years earlier, in 1977.
♦ Although there was no Fiction prize in 1957, the Pulitzer judges that year gave an honorary award to Kenneth Roberts for his historical novels written between 1930 and 1956. Only one other conventional novelist has won such a “special award or citation,” as the organization calls them: Ray Bradbury (The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451) was honored in 2007 “for his distinguished, prolific and deeply influential career as an unmatched author of science fiction and fantasy.” (That year, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a vaguely sci-fi novel, won the Fiction prize.) The artist/writer Art Spiegelman received a special citation in 1992 for his graphic novel Maus, and Theodor Seuss Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, received one in 1984 “for his special contribution over nearly half a century to the education and enjoyment of America’s children and their parents.”
♦ Four authors have won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction twice: Booth Tarkington (1919 and 1922), William Faulkner (1955 and 1963), John Updike (1982 and 1991)and Colson Whitehead (2017 and 2020).
♦ Other multiple Pulitzer Prize winners among the Fiction winners are: Thornton Wilder, once for a novel (The Bridge of San Luis Rey in 1928) and twice for plays (Our Town in 1938 and The Skin of Our Teeth in 1943); Robert Penn Warren, once for a novel (All the King’s Men in 1947) and twice for poetry (Promises in 1958 and Now and Then in 1979); and Norman Mailer, once for a novel (The Executioner’s Song in 1980) and once for nonfiction (Armies of the Night in 1969).
♦ Three authors have won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction posthumously: James Agee (1958), William Faulkner (1963) and John Kennedy Toole (1981). The first two won within a year or two of their deaths, but Toole won his 12 years after his death.
♦ Seven authors won the prize for a first book: Josephine Johnson, John Kennedy Toole, Jhumpa Lahiri, Harper Lee, Margaret Mitchell, Paul Harding and Allen Drury. You could say that Lee was the only author to win the prize for her only book: She published To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960, then never wrote another book. But more than half a century later, an earlier version of Mockingbird, titled Go Set a Watchman, was published in 2015, seven months before her death. So she is, more or less, the only author to have won the prize for her only book.
♦ Only two novels dealing primarily with native American characters and cultures have won the prize for Fiction: Oliver La Farge’s Laughing Boy (1930) and N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn (1969). LaFarge was not native American, but he lived among the culture for a time. Momaday is a member of the Kiowa tribe.
♦ The first African-American to win the Fiction prize was James Alan McPherson. He won in 1978 – 60 years after the first Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
♦ The Fiction prize has shown somewhat less gender bias: 30 of the 88 winners have been women, the first being Edith Wharton for The Age of Innocence (1921).
♦ The shortest novel to win the prize was Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea in 1953 (140 pages in its first edition), and the longest was Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song in 1980 (1,056 pages). In fact, Mailer’s book is the only winner with more than 1,000 pages in its first hardcover edition.
♦ Nearly 50 Pulitzer Prize novels have been filmed, most often for the big screen but occasionally for television, and a few of them have been filmed more than once. The record-holders are The Bridge of San Luis Rey, filmed in 1929, 1944 and 2004; and So Big, filmed in 1925, 1932 and 1953. Most became movies under their own names, although not in four cases: The Killer Angels became Gettysburg, A Death in the Family became All the Way Home, The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters became Guns of Diablo, and The Town became The Awakening Land. The most recent ones are Olive Kitteridge, filmed as a four-part miniseries for HBO in 2014, and The Goldfinch, a 2019 Netflix film released to theaters as well.
♦ War has occasionally been the subject of Pulitzer Prize novels, although the first two “war” novels to win the prize were written by women: Willa Cather’s One of Ours (1923) begins in the U.S. but takes its central character to France during World War I; and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1937) takes place in part during the Civil War. In the decade after World War II, several war novels won the prize: A Bell for Adano (1945), Tales of the South Pacific (1948), Guard of Honor (1949) and The Caine Mutiny (1952). In 2015, the World War II novel All the Light We Cannot See won the award, and in 2016, the award went to Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, partially set in Vietnam during the war there, making it the first novel about that war to win the prize. Faulkner’s A Fable is set during World War I in France, and three other novels – Andersonville (1956), The Killer Angels (1975) and March (2006) – take place during the Civil War.
♦ Seven Pulitzer Prize winners in Fiction have also won the Nobel Prize for Literature: Sinclair Lewis, Pearl S. Buck, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Saul Bellow and Toni Morrison. All won the Pulitzer first, with two exceptions: Faulkner won his Nobel (1949) before he won the first of his two Pulitzers (1954), and Bellow won both prizes in the same year (1976).
♦ Eight Fiction winners have also won the National Book Award, given since 1950, for their books that won the Pulitzer: Katherine Anne Porter, Bernard Malamud, John Cheever, Alice Walker, E. Annie Proulx, William Faulkner (for A Fable), John Updike (for Rabbit Is Rich) and Colson Whitehead. The winner receives $10,000. Only two writers – Richard Ford and Michael Cunningham – have won both the Pulitzer Prize and PEN/Faulkner award (given since 1981) for the same novel, although numerous other losing PEN/Faulkner nominees went on to win the Pulitzer. This award earns the winner $15,000, twice the Pulitzer booty.
♦ Two novels that won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama when they were adapted into plays. James Agee’s 1958 prize-winning novel A Death in the Family became Tad Mosel’s 1961 prize-winning play All the Way Home. And James Michener’s 1948 Tales of the South Pacific became the musical play South Pacific, which won a Pulitzer in 1951 for Joshua Logan, who wrote the script, and Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, who wrote the music and lyrics. South Pacific also won the Tony Award as Best Musical of 1950. Numerous other Pulitzer novels – for example, The Grapes of Wrath, The Yearling, A Bell for Adano, The Caine Mutiny, The Color Purple – were adapted into plays or musicals without winning the Pulitzer in their stage versions.
♦ Three Pulitzer Prize fiction winners also won the now-defunct Harper Prize, given biennially from 1924 to 1964 by Harper & Brothers (later Harper & Row) publishers – and selected by a panel of three leading novelists – to the best novel among unpublished manuscripts submitted to the contest. Winning this prize meant that Harper would publish your book. The Harper/Pulitzer winners were Margaret Wilson (1924), H.L. Davis (1936) and Martin Flavin (1944). The contest’s judges over the years often included earlier Pulitzer Prize winner – for example, Thornton Wilder, Sinclair Lewis, Josephine Johnson, Ellen Glasgow and Louis Bromfield.
♦ Six authors have won the Fiction prize for short story collections rather than for novels: John Cheever, Jean Stafford, Katherine Anne Porter, James Alan McPherson, Robert Olen Butler and Jhumpa Lahiri. In fact, the Pulitzer category that’s now called Fiction was called Novel before 1948. No short story collection won the category until Porter’s prize in 1966, although the 1948 winner, James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, is virtually a collection of stories, held together by the thread of a common narrator.
♦ Only one book whose first edition was a trade paperback, and not a hardcover, has won the prize: Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies. The short story collection only got published in hardback after it won the prize. The 2010 winner, Tinkers, by Paul Harding, was a paperback original published by a small press, but the publisher also issued a very limited hardcover edition at the request of Powell’s Books of Portland, Ore.
♦ In recent years, it apparently helps you to win a Pulitzer if you take a long, long time to write your book. This is true of Marilynne Robinson’s second novel, Gilead (2005 winner), published 24 years after her first novel, Housekeeping; Junot Diaz’s first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2008 winner), published 11 years after his inaugural story collection, Drown; Adam Johnson’s third novel, The Orphan Master’s Son (2013 winner), published nine years after his second one, Parasites Like Us; Donna Tartt’s third novel, The Goldfinch (2014 winner), published 11 years after her second one, The Little Friend; and Anthony Doerr’s second novel, All the Light We Cannot See (2015 winner), published a decade after his first novel, About Grace.
♦ Several “sequels” have won the Pulitzer: Conrad Richter’s The Town continued the lives of characters he wrote about in The Trees and The Fields; Upton Sinclair’s Dragon’s Teeth was the third of 11 popular novels he wrote about the intrepid Lanny Budd; and John Updike won his second Pulitzer for Rabbit at Rest, a followup to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Rabbit Is Rich, which itself followed up on Rabbit, Run and Rabbit Redux. Similarly, William Kennedy’s character Francis Phelan appeared in numerous novels both before and after Kennedy won the 1984 Pulitzer for Ironweed, in which Phelan was the central figure; and Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, though not actually about Nathan Zuckerman, features one of numerous appearances by Zuckerman in Roth’s fiction.
♦ Although the Pulitzer board prefers to give the prize to a novel “dealing with American life,” five winners tell stories that take place entirely in another country and have no American characters: The Bridge of San Luis Rey (Peru), The Good Earth (China), The Fixer (Russia), The Old Man and the Sea (Cuba), and All the Light We Cannot See (France and Germany). A Bell for Adano, Tales of the South Pacific and A Fable take place in foreign lands but involve American servicemen. A few others – for example, Interpreter of Maladies and Good Scent from a Strange Mountain – take place in both America and the ancestral countries of their characters (India and Vietnam, respectively). The Orphan Master’s Son is set in North Korea, but for one passage in the story, some of the characters travel to Texas.
♦ Only nine Pulitzer Prize novels made Time magazine’s 2005 list of the 100 greatest novels ever written, although eight other winners made the list for books other than their Pulitzer Prize novels. Either the Pulitzer committees have made many forgettable choices over the years, or the editors of Time don’t know great literature when they read it.
The board of The Modern Library likes Pulitzer fiction even less: Only seven winners made its top 100 novels list in 1998 (with six Pulitzer authors making it for other books), and The Modern Library’s readers’ poll has only five Pulitzer novels on it (with a mere two making it for other books). Not too surprisingly, The Observer, a British newspaper, only places three Pulitzer novels on its top 100 list, with five winners making the list for other books. And a survey of BBC listeners landed two books on the list.
♦ Finally, I have met, chatted and/or lunched with five Pulitzer Prize-winning novelists: John Updike, in 1992, two years after he won his second prize; Michael Cunningham, in 1997, just before the publication of The Hours, his prize-winning novel; Richard Ford, in 2001, several years after he won his prize for Independence Day; Michael Chabon, in 2007, six years after he won for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay; and Richard Russo, in 2016, 14 years after his prize-winning Empire Falls. These meetings were not, I realize, significant moments in the history of the Pulitzer Prize. I just thought I’d mention them.
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University of Pittsburgh