the wholesome atmosphere of american life

“By the time Joseph Pulitzer’s charge to the fiction jury reached it, Nicholas Murray Butler had inserted the word ‘some’ in a discreet though critical spot (he called the addition ‘insubstantial’), so that the jury’s charge read, ‘novel . . . which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life . . .’ instead of ‘whole atmosphere,’ the words that were there originally. The jury could not find a winner the first year, wholesomeness being in short supply even among the mediocre, and they would fail again two years later. Butler also fussed about the word ‘manhood’ because he wanted it clearly understood that women writers would be eligible for the prize, so long, of course, as their work presented ‘the highest standard of American manners and manhood.’ ‘Wholesome’ was dropped in 1929 (a poor year for it anyway) and ‘whole’ restored, but ‘wholesome’ answered the bell again the next round, only to be knocked out for good in 1931. Meanwhile, ‘manhood’ and ‘manners’ were also eliminated. In 1936, ‘best,’ which had been allowed to wander back in front of ‘American novel,’ was softened to ‘distinguished.’ Throughout all this, and from the beginning, the short story was given . . . well . . . short shrift. There can be no question that part of the problem with the Pulitzer was the early wording of the award’s conditions.”

(William Gass, “Pulitzer: The People’s Prize,” p. 8 in Finding a Form.)

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