Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A controversial Pulitzer Prize brings Edith Wharton and Sinclair Lewis together

In June 1921 Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence won the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel. The Columbia trustees praised Wharton’s twelfth novel for its “wholesome atmosphere of American life and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.” Wharton wondered whether they had really understood it. And the decision was not without controversy.

The three fiction judges—literary critic Stuart Pratt Sherman, literature professor Robert Morss Lovett, and novelist Hamlin Garland—voted to give the prize to Sinclair Lewis for his epic satire Main Street, but Columbia University’s advisory board, led by conservative university president Nicholas Murray Butler, overturned their decision and awarded the prize to The Age of Innocence. (Pulitzer had originally stipulated that the award be bestowed on the novel that best represented the “whole atmosphere of American life,” but Butler had changed the wording to “wholesome.”) Outraged, Sherman and Lovett protested the decision in the pages of The New Republic.

Lewis was also furious but, as a longtime admirer of Wharton, he wrote her a gracious, congratulatory letter. Wharton responded from France with great warmth and appreciation of Lewis's work:
When I discovered that I was being rewarded—by one of our leading Universities—for uplifting American morals, I confess I did despair. 
Subsequently, when I found the prize shd (sic) really have been yours, but was withdrawn because your book (I quote from memory) had “offended a number of prominent persons in the Middle West,” disgust was added to despair.
Wharton found Lewis’s kind words:
the first sign I have ever had—“literally”—that “les Jeunes” at home [at thirty-six, Lewis was twenty-three years younger than Wharton] had ever read a word of me. . . Some sort of standard is emerging from the welter of cant & sentimentality, & if two or three of us are gathered together, I believe we can still save Fiction in America.
Wharton invited Lewis and his wife to visit her home the Pavillon Colombe at St. Brice, and they did so in October. A few weeks after the visit, Lewis wrote to ask if he could dedicate his next novel, Babbitt, to Wharton. “Dear Mr. Lewis,” she responded, “I am a little dizzy! No one has ever wanted to dedicate a book to me before--& I’m so particularly glad that now it’s happened, the suggestion comes from the author of Main Street.” In 1923 the judges made Babbitt their choice for the Pulitzer, but the decision was again overturned, this time in favor of Willa Cather’s war novel One of Ours.

Lewis would finally win the Pulitzer for Arrowsmith in 1926 but he refused to accept it. His note of refusal took particular objection to the Pulitzer being given to the novel that “best presents the wholesome atmosphere of American life.” A few years later, the trustees of the prize reverted the description back to “whole atmosphere of American life.”

Over the ensuing years Wharton and Lewis continued to correspond, but, as Wharton biographer Hermione Lee notes, “each of them became less enthusiastic about the other.”

Previous Reader’s Almanac posts of interest:
Related LOA works: Edith Wharton: Novels (includes The Age of Innocence); Sinclair Lewis: Main Street and Babbitt

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