First Pulitzer Prizes Are Awarded Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Authorized by a bequest of Joseph Pulitzer, the Pulitzer Prizes established standards of excellence in journalism, fiction, drama, history, and biography for American journalists and authors.

Summary of Event

On May 24, 1915, Nicholas Murray Butler, the president of New York’s Columbia University, met with the advisory board of Columbia’s school of journalism. The purposes of the meeting were to verify that the terms set down in the will of newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer had been faithfully followed and to approve plans for awarding prizes in journalism and letters that were to be awarded in Pulitzer’s name and through his financial bequest. Butler’s relations with Pulitzer, who had died in 1911, had often been difficult, and the Columbia president had been required to follow Pulitzer’s expressed intentions carefully. Pulitzer Prizes Journalism;Pulitzer Prizes Literature;Pulitzer Prizes [kw]First Pulitzer Prizes Are Awarded (June, 1917) [kw]Pulitzer Prizes Are Awarded, First (June, 1917) [kw]Prizes Are Awarded, First Pulitzer (June, 1917) Pulitzer Prizes Journalism;Pulitzer Prizes Literature;Pulitzer Prizes [g]United States;June, 1917: First Pulitzer Prizes Are Awarded[04290] [c]Publishing and journalism;June, 1917: First Pulitzer Prizes Are Awarded[04290] [c]Literature;June, 1917: First Pulitzer Prizes Are Awarded[04290] Pulitzer, Joseph Butler, Nicholas Murray Fackenthal, Frank Diehl

Prior to the May 24 meeting, Butler asked Frank Diehl Fackenthal, Columbia University’s secretary, to draft a plan of award for the prizes. Fackenthal envisioned that in each of the prize areas, eminent experts in the field would make the initial determination and give their recommendations to the advisory board, which would in turn send its selections to the trustees of Columbia University; the prizes would then be awarded under the auspices of the trustees. There were seeds of future controversy in this plan, but the structure that Fackenthal proposed has remained the basic one used in allocating the Pulitzer Prizes.

Difficulties concerning the prospective prizes existed long before 1915, in large part because of the personality and accomplishments of Joseph Pulitzer, one of the most powerful persons in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Born in Hungary in 1847, Pulitzer migrated to the United States and fought for the Union during the Civil War. After the war, he became a newspaper reporter in St. Louis, Missouri, as well as a political reformer, first supporting the Republicans and later the Democrats. He acquired two St. Louis newspapers and formed the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; in 1883, he bought the New York World from the controversial financier Jay Gould.

Pulitzer’s newspapers became extremely profitable. Through a brilliant combination of reform advocacy and sensationalism, Pulitzer, along with his rival William Randolph Hearst, Hearst, William Randolph created a new and controversial type of journalism. Pulitzer was committed to reaching the democratic majority, not simply the governing elite, and in creating his mass-circulation newspapers he added entertainment—sports, comics, illustrations—to information. Seeing himself as a crusader on the side of the people, Pulitzer supported labor, attacked trusts and monopolies, and pilloried political bosses. The more papers he sold in the process, of course, the higher his profits were.

If Pulitzer’s accomplishments were a paradoxical combination of high-minded reform and journalistic sensationalism, his personality was equally a study in contradictions. The poor immigrant became a millionaire. The spokesman for democracy had extravagant aristocratic tastes and ran his newspapers like a dictator. He was generous with his employees, but he was a tyrant toward his managers. In 1889, declining health forced him to give up day-to-day operation of his newspapers, but he ruled them autocratically from a distance. Finally, the purveyor of sensationalism was committed to raising the standards of journalism to those of a true profession, and one of his chief desires was to establish a school of journalism.

In the early 1890’s, Pulitzer offered Harvard University and then Columbia University one million dollars to establish such a school, but neither institution showed interest—a fact not surprising in the years when Pulitzer and Hearst were supposedly lowering newspaper standards through their “yellow journalism” techniques. In 1902, Pulitzer returned to his “grand scheme,” as he called it. He wrote a memorandum about using his wealth to establish a school to raise the prestige and professionalism of journalism to the level of law and medicine. Alfred Nobel had endowed the famous prizes under his name that were first awarded in 1901; the Nobel Prizes may have been an inspiration to Pulitzer, for in that 1902 memorandum and as a part of his proposed bequest, he suggested awarding annual prizes in journalism.

Pulitzer again contacted Columbia, this time with an offer of $2 million for a journalism school, with $500,000 of that amount to be set aside for journalistic and literary prizes. The university authorities were cautious. Journalism was not a respectable profession, and too close an identification with it, and with Pulitzer, might damage Columbia’s reputation. Pulitzer persisted, however, and this time was successful. In 1901, Columbia’s president Seth Low, who had rejected Pulitzer’s first offer, was elected mayor of New York and resigned his university post. The new president of Columbia was Nicholas Murray Butler, a Columbia graduate who was not yet forty years old.

Butler had been involved in the university’s recent building project, and as president he was committed to making Columbia one of America’s great universities. “Nicholas Miraculous,” as Theodore Roosevelt referred to him, became almost as much of a household name as Pulitzer himself. A professional academic as well as a prominent Republican, Butler was in many ways a contrast to Pulitzer, a self-made businessman and Democratic publisher who had doubts about the value of higher education. The two men differed even in appearance: Pulitzer was lean and bearded, Butler heavy, bald, and clean shaven. Both men, however, combined ambition, autocratic tendencies, and a desire for excellence, and after long negotiations they struck an agreement in the summer of 1903.

Old difficulties had not been fully resolved, however. Pulitzer refused to give the university an entirely free hand. His 1902 memo envisioned an advisory board drawn from the executives of New York’s newspapers, and the authority of that board had been a contentious matter throughout the discussions. Pulitzer held fast, and Butler accepted the advisory board, but then Pulitzer’s conception of the makeup of the board changed. Newspapermen were not enough: In order to give the proposed school and awards greater standing, he demanded that the presidents of Harvard University and Cornell University be included. That was too much for Butler; he refused to allow other universities to become involved in Columbia affairs. As a result, in 1904 Pulitzer announced that the establishment of both the journalism school and the prizes would not be implemented until after his death.

In his will, Pulitzer established the primacy of the advisory board in the awarding of the prizes, specifying that if any attempt was made to reduce the powers of the board, the funds would be shifted to Harvard University. The will also described the prizes to be awarded: Four were to be in journalism, and others were to be awarded in the categories of fiction, drama, history, and biography. The monetary awards connected to the prizes ranged from five hundred dollars to two thousand dollars. For the literary prizes, the qualifications mirrored the times, with the prizes to be given to authors demonstrating morality, good taste, and patriotic values. These requirements were to lead to difficulties in the future.

Pulitzer died in 1911. According to his will, the prizes could not be awarded until the journalism school, which was established in 1912, had been in operation for three years. By the spring of 1915, that requirement had been met, and in May of that year, Butler and Fackenthal presented their plan for the prizes to the advisory board. The plan was accepted, and it was decided that the first Pulitzer Prizes, for work published in 1916, would be announced at the university’s commencement in June, 1917, six years after Pulitzer’s death.


The first Pulitzer Prizes could not have been awarded at a more inauspicious time. In April, 1917, the United States entered World War I against Germany, and in that climate the prizes received only limited attention (and that primarily from the Pulitzer newspapers). Nevertheless, choices were made. The journalistic prizes were recommended by juries made up of staff from the Columbia University School of Journalism. Talcott Williams, the first director of the journalism school and a strong supporter of the awards, took an active role, sitting on all the recommending juries.

Given the patriotic atmosphere surrounding the first year’s prizes, it is understandable that the initial awards in journalism went to the New York Tribune for an editorial condemning Germany on the anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania and to Herbert Bayard Swope Swope, Herbert Bayard of Pulitzer’s own New York World for his reports titled “Inside the German Empire.” In time, critics began to complain that the Pulitzer juries showed a bias toward eastern newspapers; it was not until 1924 that a West Coast newspaper was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.

Fackenthal’s 1915 plan for the awards in letters envisioned that the American Academy of Arts and Letters would select juries to make the recommendations. No prizes were awarded for a novel or drama in the first year, perhaps because of some confusion in getting the jury system under way, possibly because no works in 1916 were judged to be of sufficient quality. The first history and biography awards, like the prizes in journalism, reflected the spirit of the times. The French ambassador to the United States, Jean-Jules Jusserand, Jusserand, Jean-Jules received the history prize for a study of Americans, and a book about Julia Ward Howe, the writer of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” won the prize in biography for coauthors Laura E. Richards Richards, Laura E. and Maude Howe Elliott. Elliott, Maude Howe

It was not until the 1920’s that the Pulitzer Prizes made a significant impact on the public. The 1920’s differed radically from the war years and before, creating difficulties for those charged with choosing whom to honor with Pulitzer awards. Pulitzer himself was a product of the nineteenth century, and Butler, a conservative Republican, also generally supported the standards, artistic and moral, of an earlier day.

Less controversy was attached to the journalism awards. Issues of war and peace and other international concerns reaped recognition during that decade as they had during World War I. Pulitzer had been a reformer, and his newspapers were noted for their attacks on the perceived evils of the times. New ground was broken, however, when Pulitzer Prizes were awarded for journalism that exposed the nefarious practices of the Ku Klux Klan, which had become a powerful force during the 1920’s. Reports of dehumanizing prison conditions and the problems faced by labor during a national coal strike also received Pulitzer Prizes. Coverage of the infamous Teapot Dome scandal, which saw a former secretary of the interior going to prison, received an award, as did an editorial criticizing the lack of justice accorded Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two anarchists sentenced to death after a travesty of a trial. Discussions of social problems and defenses of the rights of the underdog became staples of the Pulitzer Prizes.

Literary awards during the first decade of the Pulitzer Prizes were dogged by controversy, primarily because of Pulitzer’s instructions. The wording of the standard for the history prize was to cause the least trouble; Pulitzer wanted the award to go to “the best book of the year upon the history of the United States.” Later, “the best” was changed to “a distinguished,” and the general wording helped to subdue controversy. The biography standard was more restrictive, requiring that the award be given to a work “teaching patriotic and unselfish service” but excluding biographies of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln as too obvious.

The drama and the novel were even more problematic. For the drama award, the play honored had to have been performed in New York and also had to assist in “raising the standard of good morals, good taste, and good manners.” The novel prize was to be given only to a work that “shall best present the whole atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.” Prewar attitudes on such matters came under attack in the 1920’s and after. Butler created an additional difficulty when he presented the 1915 plan of award to the advisory board, changing Pulitzer’s wording for the novel prize from “whole atmosphere” to “wholesome atmosphere,” an even more restrictive defense of earlier values.

Playwright Eugene O’Neill O’Neill, Eugene;Pulitzer Prizes was awarded three Pulitzer Prizes during the 1920’s, for Beyond the Horizon in 1920, Anna Christie in 1922, and Strange Interlude in 1928. He was something of an unknown in 1920, and the prize jury was divided. One juror argued that O’Neill’s play was not sufficiently “ennobling”; however, the majority felt otherwise. The advisory board accepted their recommendation, and O’Neill, one of America’s greatest playwrights, received his first Pulitzer. In 1921, there was opposition to Sinclair Lewis’s novel Main Street, which was alleged to be too satiric regarding small-town values. Although the jury decided to recommend the work, the advisory board, perhaps under Butler’s guidance, unanimously turned down Main Street, selecting instead Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence.

In time, Pulitzer Prizes were awarded in additional areas. The first editorial cartoon prize was awarded in 1922, and the initial prize for photography was given in 1942. Edwin Arlington Robinson was honored in 1922, the first in a long line of distinguished poets. In history and biography, later awards were given more often to academics than in the earliest years, but those honored were generally deserving of their recognition. The novel award, which was changed to an award in fiction in 1948, proved to be the most controversial. Neither Ernest Hemingway nor William Faulkner, both of whom published significant works in the 1920’s, was honored until the 1950’s.

In time, the Pulitzer Prizes were not the only literary or journalistic prizes to be awarded to American writers and journalists, and some of the other prizes carried a much higher financial award. Nevertheless, the Pulitzer Prizes continued to hold a high place not only in the public’s perception but also among writers themselves. Pulitzer’s “grand scheme” endured. Pulitzer Prizes Journalism;Pulitzer Prizes Literature;Pulitzer Prizes

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brian, Denis. Pulitzer: A Life. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2001. Biography of Pulitzer describes his rise from poor immigrant to powerful newspaper magnate and examines his impact on journalism. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hohenberg, John. The Pulitzer Diaries: Inside America’s Greatest Prize. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1997. Autobiographical account of the author’s activities during the time he served as administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes from 1954 to 1976. Recounts many of the controversies surrounding the prizes awarded.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______, ed. The Pulitzer Prize Story. New York: Columbia University Press, 1959. Presents a number of significant news stories, editorials, cartoons, and photographs that received Pulitzer Prizes from the earliest years until the 1950’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Pulitzer Prize Story II. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980. A selection of Pulitzer Prize-winning stories, columns, editorials, cartoons, and photographs from 1959 to 1980. Together, this and the volume cited above provide an excellent summary and cross section of the first sixty years of the Pulitzer Prizes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stuckey, W. J. The Pulitzer Prize Novels. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966. An insightful account of the issues and controversies involved in the selection of novels to receive Pulitzer Prizes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Swanberg, W. A. Pulitzer. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1967. A classic biography of Pulitzer. Swanberg also wrote a major biography of Pulitzer’s chief journalistic rival, William Randolph Hearst.

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