The Nobel Prize in Literature

The invention of dynamite brought Alfred Nobel, a Swedish chemist and engineer, substantial wealth.  It also left him feeling guilty for having created such a deadly and destructive material.To help ease his conscience, he arranged, shortly before his death in 1896, to leave his fortune to “those persons who shall have contributed most materially to the benefit of mankind during the year immediately preceding.”



Nobel, Alfred

Alfred Nobel


The Nobel Foundation was soon established and began awarding prizes in 1901.  Since then, various Nobel committees have granted monetary prizes annually on December 10, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death, to those who have most benefited humanity in the areas of literature, physics, chemistry, world peace, and medicine or physiology.  An additional award was established in 1968 for economics.



Nobel Prize

Nobel medal


Alfred Nobel stipulated in his will that candidates should be chosen regardless of nationality.  He also specified that the literature prize should go to the author who had produced “the most outstanding [body of] work in an ideal direction.”  But as with many human endeavors, politics, prejudice, and simple stupidity have entered into subsequent decision-making.  The general feeling is that the Swedish Academy has, over the years, been largely anti-American in literature, anti-Russian in science and literature, pro-German in science (until World War II), and pro-Scandinavian in every category.


A fascinating aspect of the Nobel Prize in Literature has to do with the people who did not win it.  Leo Tolstoy never did.  He was considered for the initial prize in 1901, but the judges determined that he should be passed over due to his anarchism and eccentric religious views.  The award went instead to the French poet René F. A. Sully-Prudhomme, a name still unfamiliar to most.


The Russian writer was again nominated in 1902 and was again rejected.  Tolstoy said that he didn’t mind “because it saved me from the painful necessity of dealing in some way with money—generally regarded as very necessary and useful, but which I regard as the source of every kind of evil.”


Mark Twain, though he would seem an obvious choice, never got the prize.  Henrik Ibsen, likewise, was constantly rejected because his writings were too realistic and did not point in an “ideal direction” as originally stipulated by Nobel.  Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, and Theodore Dreiser also never received the award.


In 1906, the Nobel Prize in Literature went to the Italian Giosuè Carducci, another unfamiliar name, the judges electing him unanimously over the other nominees for that year—Mark Twain, Rainer Maria Rilke, George Meredith, and Henry James.


Rudyard Kipling is the youngest writer to receive the prize, elected in 1907 at age 42.  The oldest recipient is Doris Lessing, awarded the prize in 2007 at age 88.




Rudyard Kipling


Sinclair Lewis won the prize in 1930 for Main Street, Babbitt, and Arrowsmith.  In his acceptance speech, Lewis attacked American literary pundits, saying, “American professors like their literature clear, cold, pure, and very dead.”



Lewis, Sinclair

Sinclair Lewis


After William Faulkner won the prize in 1949 for The Sound and the Fury and Sanctuary, he accompanied friends on his annual hunting trip.  He started drinking and continued in a drunken stupor until shortly before leaving for the award ceremony in Stockholm.  Despite his worried friends, Faulkner straightened up and remained sober long enough to give what many think to be one of the finest Nobel Prize acceptance speeches ever delivered.




William Faulkner


Ernest Hemingway referred to the award as the IGnobel Prize.  Although generally recognized at the time as one of the world’s great authors, he had been repeatedly passed over.  One of the judges said later, “He had been put to a vote several times before, and once he was very, very close to winning.  Our conservatism had kept the award from him.”


But Hemingway finally won in 1954.  He would have been passed over again but for the retirement of the senior judge, Per Hallstrom, who loved Hemingway’s work, especially The Old Man and the Sea.  The committee voted for Hemingway, said one of the members privately, as “a gesture of courtesy toward the dean of the Academy, who at the time was nearly 90 years old.”


Hemingway graciously accepted the award but later claimed that he got no pleasure or fun out of it.  “It is nice money to pay taxes with,” he wrote in a letter, “but otherwise it only furnishes people with some sort of a license to intrude on your privacy.”




Ernest Hemingway


One afternoon at his home outside Havana, Cuba, while Hemingway was cutting up fish and green turtles taken from the Gulf Stream that morning, the consuls general of Portugal and China, and an official from Spain, called on him to offer their congratulations.  “I took what pleasure there was,” he said, “in shaking them by the hand with turtle smeared hand and wishing them God Speed.”


Boris Pasternak, an anti-communist Russian, won the prize in 1958 for his novel Dr. Zhivago.  After Pasternak said he would “joyfully” accept the prize, the newspaper Pravda mounted a campaign claiming that this “reactionary bourgeois award” had been given, not to a novelist, but to a “lampooner who had blackened the socialist revolution.”  The Soviet government did not allow Pasternak to leave Russia to accept the award.




Boris Pasternak


Jean-Paul Sartre, elected in 1964, is the only Nobel Laureate to voluntarily decline the Nobel Prize in Literature.  In turning down the $53,000 award, he said, “It is not the same thing if I sign Jean-Paul Sartre or if I sign Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Prize winner.  A writer must refuse to allow himself to be transformed into an institution, even if it takes place in the most honorable form.”




Jean-Paul Sartre


In 1968, wanting to appear completely fair, the Academy decided secretly to award the prize to a Japanese.  The committee actually sent scouts to Japan to ferret out a worthy recipient.  That year Günter Grass, Robert Graves, and Lawrence Durrell were passed over in favor of Yasunari Kawabata for his Snow Country and Thousand Cranes.


In a further effort of keep up appearances of fairness, the Academy awarded the 1973 prize of $121,000 to the Australian Patrick White for The Tree Man and Voss, passing over Graham Greene, André Malraux, and Vladimir Nabokov.


The following year, 1974, Greene, Nabokov, and Saul Bellow were passed over for a joint award to Eyvind Johnson and Harry E. Martinson, both Swedes and both Nobel judges themselves.  “The choice reflects a lack of judgment by the Academy,” wrote a professor at Uppsala University in the Stockholm Expressen.  The thing, he said, looked too much like corruption.  “Mutual admiration is one thing, but this smells almost like embezzlement.”


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