History of the Pulitzer Prize

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An Olympic Gold Medal. The Academy Awards. The Grammys. These awards represent reaching the pinnacle of a career in a chosen arena; ultimate success. Being awarded these trophies warrant the recipients national recognition and seals their triumphs in history forever. Nearly every profession offers such awards as a motivation, something to work towards and way of recognizing excellence. In the world of writing, this award is the Pulitzer Prize.

The Pulitzer Prize originated in 1917 by Joseph Pulitzer. In his will, he left two million dollars to Columbia University to create a school of journalism. Pulitzer was a proud, self-made man, but wanted to make it easier for future journalists to be successful in the industry he loved. One fourth of this money was to be "applied to prizes or scholarships for the encouragement of public service, public morals, American literature, and the advancement of education." Pulitzer documented in his will that the Prize be awarded in four categories: journalism, letters and dramas, education and traveling scholarships (1).

In the letters category, only a select group of works were to be considered for nomination. These included original American plays performed in New York, books on American history, American biographies, American novels, and histories of service by the press. However, after realizing how narrow these categories were, Pulitzer appointed an advisory board who would be more sensitive to American culture and literary progressions (1).

In an effort to keep the Prize up to speed, the board was given "power in its discretion to suspend or to change any subject or subjects, substituting, however, others in their places, if in the judgment of the board such suspensions, changes, or substitutions shall be conducive to the public good or rendered advisable by public necessities, or by reason of change of time." Also, the board could withhold any awards if the nominees did not stand up to the level of excellence that the Prize represents (4).

In an effort to keep up with the progressions, the board increased the number of Prizes to twenty-one including fourteen categories, including new additions, poetry, music and photography were added. In the interest of keeping up with the advancement of technology, in 1999, submission of online presentations in the Public Service category was sanctioned. Seven years later in 2006, online content in all fourteen categories was permitted (1).

Also in an effort to keep up with technology, in 1995 a change was made in the photography category. Due to the popularity of digital photography, the jury made the following rule: "No entry whose content is manipulated or altered, apart from standard newspaper cropping and editing, will be deemed acceptable (1)."

The category of music was added in 1943. Historically, the award was distributed to classical composers. For this reason the 1997 Prize was an important one in that it was given to Wynton Marsalis. Marsalis composed Blood on the Fields which was heavily influences by jazz elements and was the first of its kind to receive the award (1).

Recognizing the limited view the board had for so many years, they distributed several Special Citations to honor deserving musicians who were passed over. These recipients included George Gershwin in 1998, Duke Ellington in 1999, and Thelonius Monk in 2006. In an effort to keep the music award open to all types of compositions and broaden entries, a music jury was appointed (4).

The letters and dramas category has shed its reputation of being a conservative category over the years. The 1963 drama jury nominated Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf for the Prize. However, the board found it "insufficiently uplifting." This description related to sexual situations and language. Also regarding a question of taste, the 1941 fiction prize was denied to Ernest Hemmingway for his For Whom the Bell Tolls. However, twelve...
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