The Dodo suddenly called out, “The race is over!” and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, “But who has won?”
This question the Dodo could not answer without a great deal of thought, and it stood for a long time with one finger pressed upon its forehead… . At last the Dodo said “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.”
—Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Writing about the Pulitzer Prize some years ago, Joseph Epstein observed that it was an award that was usually conferred upon two classes of writers and artists: those who didn’t need it, and those who didn’t deserve it. This year’s roster of Pulitzer winners amply confirmed that analysis with some noteworthy awards in both categories. Indeed, with the Pulitzer for the best biography of the year going to Katharine Graham for Personal History, the Prize committee managed to satisfy both of Mr. Epstein’s criteria with a single award. In the future, however, the Pulitzer committee ought to consider creating a new category for an award to a bestselling book of celebrity memoirs, for it is to that genre of sub-literature rather than to the art of biography that Personal History really belongs.
As to Pulitzers that went to artists and writers who don’t need them, the foremost example this year was the special citation given posthumously to George Gershwin on the centennial of his birth. Now the practice of creating posthumous Pulitzers for achievements that earlier Prize committees were too stupid to honor during the lifetimes of figures worthy of their recognition is an interesting one. Yet on the list of names that come to mind for these posthumous Pulitzers, Gershwin’s is by no means among the weightiest contenders. Future committees pondering this posthumous prize will have to consider Henry Adams for autobiography and Lionel Trilling for criticism, among the many other candidates worthy of attention.
As for Pulitzer “citations” specially reserved for centennial occasions, we note with interest that the committee allowed the recent centennial of Edmund Wilson’s birth to pass without notice. We could not help but think of this particular oversight when we read the citation for the Pulitzer that went this year to Michiko Kakutani, the book critic for The New York Times. The prize was given for “something close to a pure critical intelligence.” Exactly how “close” Ms. Kakutani was thought to have come to that state of critical perfection, the citation mercifully omitted to say.
On the other hand, when we come to recognize what may be called the Dodo quotient in the entire Pulitzer phenomenon and thus understand the character of the entire process, we grant that it does make a certain absurdist sense.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 16 Number 9, on page 1
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